Since they purport it to be a laugh-riot, the film-makers should realize that Marty is not the class clown. James Tolkan claimed that they were more interested in the people around Eric’s Marty. Considering that it has a `50s setting for the most part, the Eric/Chris double act would’ve been the `80s equivalent to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. There is Yin-Yang symbolism when Eric’s dark attire contrasts with Lloyd’s white garb. McFly being black-clad confirms what Bobby G said about how 1941 would’ve been a blacker movie had it been directed by Bobby Z. When Ste Spielberg returned from preparing Young Sherlock Holmes in England to redo BTTF, the jokes went from being acerbic to anemic. In Tom Shone’s Blockbuster (2004), Bobby Z fessed up that he wanted Spielberg attached to the film because his name is a brand which is a seal of approval (this means that more cinema chains would pick it up).
Bob Z and G observed how their screenplay was rejected from 1981 to 1983 because it wasn’t R-rated nor was it suitable for Disney. Red Dawn (which was released before the Stoltz version began filming) managed to gross far more than its budget with the PG-13 rating (the M.P.A.A. created the rating in July of 1984 due to Ste). The fact that C. Thomas Howell was the co-lead meant that he had dibs as the star of BTTF. The Stoltz version would’ve covered its cost. If it was completed, the overall budget would’ve been 16 million dollars. For a movie to be considered a hit, it has to gross three times its budget. As such, 48 million was the target (this is how much Mask grossed). The movie still would’ve been successful, just not wildly so (surpassing the 100 million mark). Then again, Juno managed to become a runaway hit in 2008 despite the fact that Ellen Page was the star instead of Lindsay Lohan (the first choice).
Back to BTTF, if Fox was the first choice then he wouldn’t have been cast in Teen Wolf (whose filming schedule went from August to December of 1984). Since the season two finale of Family Ties had aired on May 10, Universal could’ve snagged him before another company poached him (this is standard business acumen for any bigwig-driven film studio). BTTF was bankrolled because of Romancing the Stone being a surprising (therefore monumental) hit for Zemeckis. On April 29 (a month after its release), it more than triple-earned its cost (10 million) by earning 34 million. By May 6, the box office haul was slightly more than four times the budget. By May 28, it grossed 54 million. By this point, Eric was acting in Mask. By June 17, Romancing the Stone had grossed 62 million. BTTF should’ve been green-lighted long before Romancing the Stone finished its U.S. theatrical run on August 26.
To be fair, Universal’s NBC had M.J. star in a summer camp movie titled Poison Ivy before he was tapped to star in Teen Wolf. There has been confusion about the BTTF reshoots costing 3 million versus the already existing 14 million budget. 10 million was allocated to marketing expenses (as mentioned here) which includes the cost of producing cinema prints. Factoring in the 4 million spent on the Stoltz footage, the budget would then have been extended to 16 million due to the prom scene and the ensuing post-production. This also explains why the Fox version’s budget went from 17 million to 19 million. The fact that the Stoltz shoot cost 4 million suggests that one million of the budget was spent on shots not featuring Eric, hence the 3 million in reshooting. This proves that footage was being reused for the Fox cut. When Eric was the star, the budget was initially intended to be 21 million because of the Nevada desert finale.
However, the budget was cut before filming began (a sign of cold feet). Eerily, the very same thing had happened to Explorers. The relevance being that Bob Gale (who’s pictured on the left below) wanted to film in a Californian city which Explorers was filming in: Petaluma. As for whether the Stoltz version would’ve been profitable enough to warrant sequels (which quite frankly weren’t necessary to begin with), look no further than the Final Destination franchise. The first movie had a domestic gross of 53 million. BTTF was bound to have an animated TV series given how Highlander (a flop) managed to have one. As The Real Ghostbusters had proved, having an animated spin-off can increase value for a proposed sequel. The owner of MCA (which owned Universal) wanted BTTF to be released on the Memorial Day weekend (Saturday, May 25). Since Mask ended up being released in March, the Stoltz version would’ve gained financial momentum (it didn’t hurt that Mask starred Cher and Sam Elliott).
Eric was cast in BTTF because the producers were expecting Mask to be the 1985 equivalent to The Elephant Man (i.e. Eric was poised as the successor to John Hurt). It may seem like a fat chance but this tactic is more common than at first glance. For instance, Brie Larson was cast in The Glass Castle before her performance in Room was Oscar-nominated. Coincidentally, Brie had auditioned as the main character and said character’s best friend in Juno. Films get a steady increase in box office after a nomination and a rise if they win. Nominations add to the advertising costs, persuade foreign distributors to invest and make trailers more appealing e.g. Ellen Page was advertised as a nominee in the trailer for Freeheld. After being nominated for Juno on January 22, she was cast in Drag Me to Hell (as reported on February 9). Five days after losing, it was announced (on February 29) that she dropped out of the Sam Raimi movie because of the Writers Guild of America strike (which ended on February 12).
News of Eric’s discharge from BTTF was announced ten days prior to the 1985 Golden Globes ceremony (which was held on Sunday, January 27). The first step to getting an Oscar nomination is a Golden Globe nomination. It takes less time to get the required attention of this Golden Globe panel because there are 93 members of the H.F.P.A. – Hollywood Foreign Press Association. By way of contrast, the Academy Awards are a vastly trickier proposition because there are over a thousand thespians who vote for best acting. To be qualifiable for nominations in general, a producer or distributor must sign and submit an “Official Screen Credits” by December 2. Back to the furore, Mask needed to be at least released in December to qualify for both Golden Globe and Oscar status e.g. Juno was released on December 5, 2007. Ellen was nominated for both. Like Eric with BTTF, Ellen had spent six weeks filming Juno. The Juno producers saw the movie and realized that Juno wasn’t sympathetic, so the director filmed an extra scene where she cries in her car.
Spielberg’s The Color Purple showed how it was done by being released on December 18, 1985. Whoopi Goldberg received both nominations. The director of Mask was so embarrassed by not getting what he wanted in the final cut that he wanted his name taken off the credits. To be eligible, a film has to be screened for paid admission in Los Angeles for at least seven consecutive days before midnight on December 31. The October 8, 1984 issue of US announced that Mask was going to be released in the Christmas of that year. When the release date for Mask was delayed, Spielberg ascertained that BTTF (notwithstanding a sitcom co-star who played the Klingon villain in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock) wasn’t going to sway too many punters from the box office contestants in late May – Universal’s Brewster’s Millions (starring Richard Pryor alongside John Candy, Rambo: First Blood Part II (a tent-pole hit), A View to a Kill (a 007 outing which even Young Sherlock Holmes had referenced in book form) and Universal’s Fletch (starring Chevy Chase).
Two of those movies were enough to justify stalling the release of BTTF since Eric didn’t literally have face value. In June, it would’ve faced The Goonies, Perfect, Pale Rider and Cocoon (which Bob Zemeckis had been let go from because producers saw a rough cut of Romancing the Stone that received a poor test screening). There is a 1985 Chicago Tribune article which claims that BTTF was locked down for a June 21 release instead of the Memorial Day weekend. This makes sense in light of the budget cut that stalled filming from late October to early November. The fact that June 21 marked the release date of Cocoon should tell you everything that you need to know about the sacking of Stoltz. Imagine how embarrassing that it would be if you directed a movie that may turn out to be less profitable than a film which you were fired from.
If Zemeckis didn’t get fired from Cocoon then Fox wouldn’t have been on the radar of the BTTF location scouts. Cocoon went on to gross 76 million in the U.S. whereas the Stoltz version was more likely to be no more profitable than Risky Business (63 million in the U.S.) given how Tom Cruise was on a similar level of recognizability (or obscurity rather). Even the Fox version was released on a Wednesday so that the first weekend gross was higher than what it otherwise would’ve been (sitcom stars were still taboo). In July, it was up against Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Red Sonja, Explorers, The Man with One Red Shoe and National Lampoon’s European Vacation. In August, the opposition was mostly teen offerings – Weird Science, Real Genius, My Science Project, Better Off Dead and Teen Wolf. The latter was less successful than Mask but still got a sequel.
It’s questionable that, like Mask, Eric had third billing when the making of BTTF was advertised on November 21, 1984 (thus downplaying his involvement). When taking into consideration that the Stoltz version wouldn’t need more than two months of filming, it’s dubious that Robbie Z was restricted by the deadline in October. A deadline would only have made sense if the due date was Valentine’s Day (due to the matchmaking theme). Even then, The Breakfast Club (Ally Sheedy was Eric’s ex-girlfriend) was released the day after. As a result of Eric’s riddance, the release of BTTF was pushed to July (more time was allocated to the CGI shots and the first scene). Films can sometimes get delayed because there is too much competition to make an impact. Delayed press releases are damage control. Pertaining to this, Starlog first mentioned Eric’s exit in the log entries of the May issue.
What’s more dubious is that the March issue still credited Eric as being the star (to help sell Mask). Next to his name in brackets was The Wild Life (which guaranteed video sales for Universal in an unlikely magazine). Lea Thompson (who was also in Red Dawn) was advertised as being in Universal’s Jaws 3-D, hence the sight gag in BTTF Part II. Marc McClure was cast as Marty’s brother only because he was in the Superman movies. The selling point of Crispin Glover was that he was in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. Not even having the mother from Gremlins, Frances Lee McCain, was enough to convince the producers that the Stoltz version would sell. The fishy-looking bearded man in the above photo is the second main producer: Neil Canton. Between the five producers, he had the worst excuse when explaining why Eric was being given the heave-ho after a month and a half of filming. Neil told Starlog that sometimes the dailies can be misleading.
Since Eric narrowly avoided getting sued for almost breaking the collarbone of Tom Wilson during the school cafeteria scene*, I should take Tom’s account into account. If Eric was a true method actor, Tom would’ve been punched for real in the pre-chase scene. This was claimed by J.J. Cohen in We Don’t Need Roads**, but Tom didn’t mention it in his interview with Chris Hardwick. I should point out that J.J. has a grudge against Eric because Eric’s height meant that J.J. was no longer Biff. If Fox had been cast in 1984 instead of Eric, people would be criticizing J.J. for not being tall enough like how Eric is criticized for not being small enough to be intimidated by Tom. The latter had criticized Eric for flirting with Lea, but Eric was interacting with a friend. Eric shoved Tom in retaliation for how he roughed up Crispin during the audition stage (this explains why Tom and Crispin were called into Gale’s office to hear about Eric’s firing).
Note how Dean Cundey on the far left in the below photo is observing how negligent that Rob Z is. Speaking of Rob’s ignorance, Tom should’ve reported Eric’s intensity to the film medic after Rob ignored him. During the last week of filming, Tom noticed Z taking Eric aside in between takes so that they could have long talks because filming was slowing down. The last two anecdotes came from Tom’s memoir (The Masked Man), where I learned that his father was a lawyer. Regardless, Eric is the most underrated influence on the movie. Tom would not have been cast as Biff. This casting necessitated sight gags in the Fox print. Eric’s seriousness has been blown out of proportion. If he took things that seriously, he wouldn’t have pulled that face in the production photo of Lou’s Cafe.
Though some people think that Eric looked too old, Fox looked too wholesome (i.e. 15 going on 16 instead of 17 going on 18). With Eric, maybe BTTF should’ve been about Marty going to a fifties college so that he wouldn’t look too old in the follow-ups. That’s the future that the creators should’ve been thinking about. Due to Ralph Macchio seemingly possessing the fountain of youth, they should’ve convinced him to think twice about turning it down. Then again, his explanation of why he rejected it suggests that he was given false info so that a white guy could be cast. If he was cast then Elisabeth Shue would’ve played Jennifer in all three movies, seeing as how she was his love interest in The Karate Kid (which Stoltz had auditioned for). She was, after all, cast as Jennifer in BTTF Part II. Due to Ralph’s ethnicity, it would’ve been more realistic to have Phoebe Cates cast as his mother.
Neither version of BTTF has a beginning sequence that is the most relevant in terms of plot. In retrospect, the Fox version is agonizingly slow whereas the Stoltz version may as well have scrapped the documentary lesson in favour of a corridor scene where Marty is depicted as a bully who picks on nerds and flirts with girls; thereby undergoing a character arc when he becomes something of a chaste hero in the `50s. This would’ve made for a stronger film because Marty, in the finished version, has less character development than his father. To be fair, the Stoltz version (at least in the script) doesn’t waste any time in explaining why Marty has landed himself in detention. To be a perfect film, the Stoltz version needed more drama (on the lines of a fifties film noir if not a neo-noir like Blue Velvet) whereas the Fox version needed more comedy. Both versions teeter on the edge of being well-rounded.
Due to the creative differences about what the title should’ve been, it’s surprising that no-one thought about calling it Nick of Time. As it turns out, the soundtrack almost had a theme tune called In the Nick of Time. The song, written by Huey Lewis, ended up being used on the aforementioned Brewster’s Millions due to negotiations taking too long between his people and the BTTF team. Speaking of Brewster’s Millions, one of the producers of that movie was also the producer of Universal’s Weird Science i.e. Joel Silver. Due to the expenditure of money and the status of the project, the Stoltz version may as well have been completed. If Spielberg was daringly deft, he would’ve foreseen the commercial viability of having the Eric edit theatrically released in the following year (à la Gremlins being re-released one year later). If that was not financially feasible, Universal could’ve released the version on video before the Fox version’s video release. This would’ve been unheard of and it could’ve made BTTF the highest-selling video of all time. Pay-per-view TV was a beneficial alternative.
With almost the entire film in the can, Spielberg should complete it with CGI by taking footage from the Fox edit and superimposing the image of Eric onto Fox so that the unfinished version has an accessibility. Great minds think alike as indicated by someone who shares my opinion. The verdict is in: Spielberg is guilty of unfair dismissal (it was his idea). Zemeckis is guilty of gross negligence***. Gale is the one who is mostly guilty of character defamation. The other producers were accessories. On a lighter note, this fiasco is proof that Eric is a better actor than Johnny Depp given that Gale had forgotten that Depp failed his audition. John Cusack, Robert Downey Jr. and Charlie Sheen were also snubbed. If you wonder where Rob Lowe and Emilio Estevez were in the thick of this, they were too busy acting in St. Elmo’s Fire.
* In an e-mail to myself, Tom Willett differentiated working with Stoltz and Fox on more than one production: “I was a part of a crowd at some cafeteria scene. I also worked with him on The Wild Life and in Some Kind of Wonderful. I don’t remember ever speaking to him. We might have said “Hi” or something. I would be placed in a scene in the background, he would come on the set, do his scene and then he would leave. He was not a person who was having fun on the set. He seemed to be a serious actor. I never really knew him. Michael J. Fox was very friendly with everyone. I had worked with him several times on Family Ties and so we knew each other well enough to say “Hi.” He would often be on the set to watch when he was not working in the scene.”
** Jeffrey Weissman (who replaced Glover in Part II and spoke to Stoltz) typed a one star review on Amazon: “I’ve heard a lot of the tales before. They’ve been manipulated by the author to create a partly fictional story that comes off amateurish. It exploits the tragedies. It’s very much a dime store book, or like watching TMZ.”
*** After the decision was made to ditch Eric, Ste wanted R.Z. to keep him for another week so that overspending would stop Universal from pulling the plug. This was verified in the 2015 visual history book (Mr. Weissman told me: “Michael Klastorin’s book is worth every penny. It tells most of the inside stories accurately too”). This lends credence to a woman who responded to a Hollywood Reporter article. In the 1985 Independence Day issue of Rolling Stone, Lynn Hirschberg had alluded to how Eric was thrown to the wolves (there’s no smoke without fire): “Some say Zemeckis used him as a scapegoat in order to reshoot sloppy work.”
I hadn’t even read the post by “Amblingal” until just now, but what she says about not giving Stoltz any direction is the impression I got from the newly resurfaced “Bobbie Wygant” interview with Zemeckis on YouTube. Zemeckis is pinned down to try to explain why he was sure Stoltz absolutely couldn’t play the part the way he wanted him to, but Zemeckis does not say that he asked him to or tried to get him to. He just says that he believes it was something inherent in Stoltz that he couldn’t change. Which doesn’t really add up, seeing as these people are actors. Serious actors hired for Airplane can do comedy. Adult actors like Tom Hanks can play 12-year-olds. In reality, you would at least try to ask an actor to change their performance. So, Amblingal’s explanation sounds very plausible to me. Especially with Spielberg egging Zemeckis on. That might be a bold plot for a newer director like Zemeckis to attempt, who would be worried his picture would simply be cancelled, but Spielberg in 1985 wouldn’t be afraid to take that chance. And his support would’ve given Zemeckis the confidence to go ahead with the plan.
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It’s too bad that Amblin Gal didn’t report this to the Directors Guild of America or even the studio head.