Why A Goat?

Friday, March 30, 2007

Back to the Future

My answer to Mystery Man's throw-down is Back to the Future. It's my favorite screenplay for two reasons. One, it follows Blake Snyder's beat sheet to a T without being slavish or formulaic, and two, the density of details that support the story have given the movie its own destiny in DVD sales and ability to draw new fans over the years. Most films that have achieved cult status get a twenty-fifth anniversary DVD released. I predict this one will get a thirty-year special DVD release just because Marty and Doc traveled thirty years in either direction. What will 2015 bring for this film? One thing is certain; it will bring something. This is not a film that has faded into obscurity with the passing years.

I managed to find a copy of the fourth draft of the script from October, 1984. This revision is very close to what they finally filmed with a few notable exceptions.

The script begins inside the high school. Marty's class watches a documentary about nuclear testing during the fifties. Marty's trademark mirrored Porsche sunglasses are mentioned. They reflect the mushroom cloud of an atomic explosion.

The plan of the two Bobs (as Gale and Zemeckis refer to themselves) was to start the story here and end it in the desert during an atomic test. This seems logical, because the flux capacitor needs nuclear energy to generate the 1.21 jigowatts of electricity it takes to work. But on the commentary track, they say they discarded the scene in the classroom because it would be too expensive. Based on this, I guess they threw out the scene in the desert very early because it would be even more expensive.

By the way, the two Bobs talked to somebody about atomic and electrical energy who mis-pronounced gigawatt. It's pronounced with a hard "G," but their "expert" pronounced it with a soft "G," so they spelled it with a "J." And apparently you can't run 1.21 gigawatts through wires, like they did in the movie. It's too much energy. But that's the magic (or majic) of movies.

The first act of a film has to be very tightly structured. You've got a lot of stuff happening in a very short time. There's the main character to be introduced and his main back-story to set up, as well as the problem in his life that he'll need to solve. There's also the basic plot to set up, get the protag involved in it, and give him some reason to "set his feet upon the road" of his journey.

Blake Snyder has several components to his first acts. There's the Save-the-Cat moment, where the protag does something to bind the audience to him emotionally. For Marty this is when he gives the Clock Lady a quarter. He does it to get rid of her, but it shows that he's too nice a guy to just yell at her to leave them alone.

Next is the statement of theme. This is not in the script that I have, but sometime between this revision and shooting the movie, the two Bobs wisely came up with, "If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything." The script does explore this. Marty starts to mail his audition tape, but then throws the envelope into the trash. When he gets back, the first thing he does is to dig it out of the trash so he can send it off. He does this before he sees how his parents have changed, so it shows that he has gone through his own change.

But the thematic repetition of, "If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything," is a very powerful way to underscore Marty's journey, which starts out as trying to get home and ends up being a journey of self-discovery. Trying to get home is a primal need with which everybody can empathize. Look at how much mileage Dorothy got out of just wanting to get back to Kansas. And she also discovered something about herself along the way.

Hauge and Vogler talk about the hero's two journeys – the inner and the outer journey – and Marty certainly does take two journeys. His external journey is traveling to 1955 and trying to get back to the future (his present). His internal, or emotional, journey is learning that, "If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything."

Blake's next beat is the set-up. This is Marty's journey, so we get to know him better. We know about Doc Brown, but we don't get to meet him until after Marty is all set-up. In the script, the two Bobs try to give Doc a little of his own set-up, but by the time they got to the movie, that was gone. Replacing the opening scene in the classroom with the scene with all the clocks was to accomplish two things. It was cheaper to film, and it gave us some background on Doc without a lot of unnecessary dialogue and blocking. That gave the two Bobs more time to explore Marty.

The script does a good job on set-up, but they definitely refined it on set. In fact, in the script that I got, all of the major beats are there, but not quite as polished as in the movie. Some are better, but they had to re-write based on financial limitations.

The first act is where you have to figure out how to tell the backstory without being expository. Bob Zemeckis said that exposition can be painful, but sometimes you just have to bit the bullet and have somebody spit it all out. That's what he did in the dinner scene at the McFly house. In that one scene we learn that Dave has a dead-end job at McDonald's, Linda doesn't have any boyfriends, Uncle Joey didn't make parole, and the story of how Lorraine met George.

I love that scene. It's so full of the details I love about this movie. The side-story about Uncle Joey doesn't have to be there, but it adds a richness to the lives of these characters that turns them into real people. Nobody talks about Lorraine being an alcoholic, but we see her clutching her glass, which clearly doesn't hold water, and stumbling and slurring a little. The set is dressed so that we know these people live in a depressing, lower-middle class house filled with mis-matched, second-hand crap.

There's another detail in the script that didn't make it to the movie, probably again because it would have cost more. The scene takes place during dinner, not after, as it does in the movie. Lorraine tells the kids that Uncle Joey didn't make parole again, but in the movie it's the visual of her throwing the cake onto the table that makes that bit the classic that it is. In the script they eat meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and Kraft macaroni and cheese. Lorraine takes extra mashed potatoes and gravy. When her father hits Marty with the car and he eats dinner with the family, they eat exactly the same menu, and Lorraine refuses to eat the mashed potatoes.

It's a nice detail, but for the movie the two Bobs found other details that would be more visual in telling Lorraine's story. That's one thing I've noticed in bringing scripts to the screen. No matter how good the script, or how visual the writer has been, there is always a way to make it more visual, and it's something that is usually found in production.

Back to the beat sheet, the next one up is the Catalyst. This is what Hauge and Vogler call the Opportunity. I've been looking for it in every movie I've watched in the last year and it's always there. This is the one constant in film-making that even the worst movies incorporate. This is the thing that gives the hero, or protag, his incentive to make his journey. It is his inspiration, even if he doesn't recognize it at the time.

Marty's Catalyst is when he sees the Time Machine for the first time. He doesn't know it yet, but this is going to be the instrument of both his greatest sorrow and his greatest joy. It will take him on a journey he can't imagine.

The next section of the first act is the Debate. This is a flexible section in stories. Snyder says it's when the protag debates whether or not he should take the opportunity presented by the Catalyst and finally decides he will take the next step and "set his feet upon the road." Hauge and Vogler say that after the Opportunity the hero's problem seems to have been resolved, but then the solution presented by the Opportunity turns out to be an even bigger can of worms. In Skeleton Key this section is after Caroline gets the job taking care of Ben and before she discovers the hidden room and the black secret that Violet harbors. She thinks she's found the perfect job, but it turns out to be the beginning of her end.

In Back to the Future, this section is used neither for debate or relief. It's just when Doc demonstrates the Time Machine and the Libyans show up. It's exciting and we can tell that something HUGE is about to happen, but we don't know what. This is because Marty is more an anti-hero than a real hero. Just like Dorothy, he travels to another time, or dimension, by accident, and his whole journey from there is just to get back home.

Snyder, Trottier, Hauge, Vogler, and other screenwriting experts tell us over and over that the turning points of the story turn on the action of the hero. A passive hero is death to your story. If the hero doesn't take action, or make a decision, nothing is going to happen. The protag should happen to the story, not the other way around.

So making a story about somebody who starts his journey by accident is tricky. If he never wanted to take it in the first place, how do you show that the journey starts on his active decision?

The answer is that he makes a mistake. This is the epitome of the anti-hero. He starts off as kind of a bumbling fool, a Don Quixote if you will, stumbles around for a while, and finally finds himself in a situation (of his own making of course) from which he has to extricate himself. In doing so, he discovers that he's really not such a bumbling fool.

Marty jumps into the DeLorean to get away from the Libyans and accidentally drives into 1955. This is where we get another of those great details that really makes this movie a classic. And it is in the script. The Twin Pines mall becomes the Lone Pine mall because Marty drives over and kills one of Farmer Peabody's twin pines. We also get another of those thematic repetitions. Marty looks just like the alien on Sherman Peabody's comic (yes, that is his name), and the DeLorean looks like spaceship. Later on, Marty takes advantage of this common superstition to trick George McFly into asking Lorraine on a date.

At this point in the script, the two Bobs took a little break to continue the joke about the mutated zombies. Sherman convinces Pa that Ma has been mutated into a zombie and Pa stares at his wife in trepidation. The scene cuts and we don't know if he's going to kill her or not. They cut this in the movie to follow Marty. That's another way to keep your story going forward: follow the hero. He or she should appear in nearly every single scene. The extra bit with thinking Ma is a zombie was funny, but would have made the movie too long.

Now the second act has started. The hero has taken his action and "put his feet upon the road." On the beat sheet there's a gap of 5 pages before the next element is introduced, and that's about exactly what happens. Marty has to hide the DeLorean and come to terms with the fact that he's traveled back to 1955. The two Bobs wrote that his own house was the only one on Lyon's Estates at the time. It was the model home and Marty was able to hide the DeLorean in the garage because his keys matched. But they had to take out because it was too expensive. He also used the radio in the car to listen to 1955 music and broadcasts, but they took that out as well. There was no reason given, but I suspect they felt it made Marty's journey too easy and they wanted as many obstacles for him as possible.

Now here's something that the writer might not think of, but that the film-maker will. In the script it says, "…the courthouse clock tower is now working." In the movie it's the striking of the clock tower that drives it home once and for all that Marty is in the past. It's done at the end of an ominous musical crescendo on the soundtrack and it's chilling. This is something the writer cannot accomplish in a script, and something he shouldn't even try. You can say that Marty hears the clock strike and he whirls around in shock, but nothing can give the reader the same emotional thrill as sitting in the theater for the first time and hearing it strike as a counterpoint to the soundtrack.

Getting back to the beat sheet, the next element is the start of the B-story, which has its own protag, who acts as both a friend and an aide to the main character. This element is very mushy in most movies. Most of the time, it's not even there. I could see Blake's logic for introducing a new story that would run counterpoint to the main story and a new character, but it's very hard to actually work this into the story. The two Bobs did it and I don't think they even cared about Blake's beat sheet.

Who is the B-story protag? It's the first person Marty meets when he arrives in 1955. It's George McFly. He takes a little time to get acclimated, and then wanders into the diner looking for a phone book only to discover his own father.

During the rest of the second act, Marty helps George and, in doing so, ends up helping himself.

Now we get to the section that Snyder calls "Fun and Games." The hero still must reach his goal, but the obstacles he encounters are fairly easy to overcome. It's also fun and entertaining for the audience.

I don't know if it happened on set, or in the final polish, but the dialogue in the movie is much snappier than in the script. My guess is on the set. Once you get actors together, things can happen that one or even two writers can't predict. The jokes about Pepsi Free and clothing that looks out of place are still there, but not quite as polished. Biff plays the same joke on George, but doesn't repeat the thematic line, "Don't be so gullible, McFly."

From here to Marty fleeing from the Baines household, everything is pretty much the same. Even little Joey in his playpen is here. These are the kinds of details that make the movie such a classic and the kinds of details you want to look for when you plan your own scripts. The only thing that's missing from the script is Sam's last line. "He's an idiot. Comes from upbringing. His parents were idiots. If you ever have a kid like that, Lorraine, I'll disown you." They also described more eating, because the meal they eat is the same meal Lorraine served to her family during the exposition scene. I'm pretty sure that the meals were taken out to make it easier to shoot. When you film people eating, you have to make sure the food left on the plate matches from line to line. Plus, it gets really gross because actors don't swallow prop food. They spit it out. So the food and the eating were cut from both scenes.

Now we get to a pretty big change. In the script, Marty interrupts Doc Brown having a party with "TWO LOVELY GIRLS." The scene that follows has good dialogue, but it's not quite as good as the movie. Christopher Lloyd must have come up with the "Future-Boy" epithet for Marty during rehearsals, because it's not in the script.

In this scene, Marty has driven the DeLorean to Doc Brown's house. The DeLorean runs much better in the script than it does in the movie. Its performance probably degenerated because it's much more dramatic not to know if it's going to work or not in any particular scene.

The other change during this sequence is that Marty can't get over how his brother's head vanished in the picture and it's his concern that leads to the next discovery: that Marty has interfered in his parents' first meeting. In the movie, Marty is more naïve and it's Doc Brown who realizes what the picture signifies.

Getting this scene just right was important, because I believe it's the midpoint. According to Snyder, as well as most other experts, the midpoint is where the stakes are raised. The protag encounters a new problem that magnifies the difficulty he will have attaining his goal. It's a point at which he might think he has attained his goal only to discover that it's even farther away than ever. Trottier talks about having the protag re-commit to his goal at this point. Not only does it get harder, he wants it more than ever.

Snyder's midpoint must have the "whiff of death." Not only is attaining the goal important, it suddenly becomes a matter of life or death. Marty has certainly just realized that his life might "end" if he can't get his parents together. It should also be either a false success or a false failure. In this case it's a false success. Marty has just found Doc Brown and convinced him to help. He's conquered all the obstacles on his way to finding Doc, so it looks like clear sailing. But now he has to get his parents back together or else he'll be erased from existence.

So now we find that "Bad Guys Close In." In this section Biff provides most of the problems Marty must overcome. Every time he tries to get his parents together, Biff does something to thwart him. Marty manages to sneak into George's house and convince him he's a spaceman who's going to melt his brain unless he asks Lorraine on a date.

There's an interesting revision associated with Marty pretending to be Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan. In the script I have, he chloroforms George when he's done so that George won't see him going out the window. This is a better explanation for why George overslept and wasn't in school than what is given (or not given) in the movie. We're left to assume the meeting with Darth Vader was so traumatic for George that he passed out for hours.

Unfortunately, Marty's brilliant plan comes to naught when Biff interrupts and Marty accidentally draws Lorraine's attention when he "invents" a skateboard to get away from Biff. In the script he was supposed to lead Biff into a train, but it was changed to a load of manure on set, probably for money reasons.

The other concern for Marty during this time is that he wants to warn Doc Brown about the Libyans who will shoot him before he gets a chance to use his Time Machine. But Doc Brown refuses to let Marty tell him. This is actually the weakest part of the story, and it affects all three movies. Doc Brown is so adamant about not reading the letter that he tears it up. But when Marty gets back and finds that Doc has read the letter, Doc's only explanation is, "…what the hell." That's out of character for Doc.

And it gets worse in the sequels when the 1955 Doc realizes that his 1985 self has gone back to 1885 only to get shot in the back. Marty then says it's all his (Marty's) fault for not listening to Doc when he warned of the consequences of knowing too much about the future. That should absolutely guarantee that Doc digs out the pieces of the letter and burns them, but nothing is mentioned. And it's not like Doc has any time to contemplate the letter. He's still got the pieces in his pockets and is watching the fading fire trails when Marty comes barreling around the corner and tells Doc he's got to get him back to 1985 AGAIN.

Anyway, that's my one pet peeve about the time travel logic that the two Bobs worked out. Maybe they figured that Doc just might figure "what the hell." And you could make the case that the letter from 1885 might have actually convinced 1955 Doc to read his own letter. Who knows.

Anyway, back to the beat sheet. Blake's next beat is All Is Lost. This is when Marty looks at the picture after George has knocked Biff out and realizes that he and his siblings are still fading from existence. He remembers his mother telling him that it was only when she kissed George on the dance floor that she knew she'd spend the rest of her life with him. So he hoofs it back to the band and finds out that they've lost their guitarist.

All Is Lost goes right into Dark Night of the Soul, when the hero thinks he's going to lose everything instead of gaining his goal. Marty goes up on stage and watches himself nearly fade out of existence. He only just manages to get George's attention at the end to give George the final burst of courage he needs to kiss Lorraine.

This is the beginning of the third act and the final showdown. In this case it's the final countdown. Will Marty make it back to the town square in time? He might have more time if he didn't stop to perform at the dance, but who could resist?

In the script this section was focused on Marty, but during production the two Bobs decided to throw in a Frank Capra type scene (their words) and have Marty say good-bye to George and Lorraine. This is a very sweet scene and truly does capture the kinds of simple, yet resonant emotions that Capra played so well in his films.

Back at the clock tower, we get the obligatory race to the wire as time runs out before the lightning strike and Marty and Doc encounter one problem after another. I've seen this movie about a hundred times and I KNOW Marty will make it home, but I always start chewing my nails right here.

Remember how I said you just can't write some things into scripts? Well some things you can. Right there on page 87, scene number 197: "THE MOST SPECTACULAR BOLT OF LIGHTING IN THE HISTORY OF CINEMA STRIKES THE LIGHTNING ROD!" I think they managed to predict the future with that line.

After this it's just a matter of wrapping things up and letting us know that Marty's mistake ended up having beneficial consequences. Nothing is really different in this section, but they polished it up a lot during rehearsals and production.

All of Blake's beats were there in the script, and most of what you see in the movie is also there in this script. Some of the stuff in this script is BETTER than what ended up in the movie. There's a bit in the beginning where Marty uses a mirror and chewing gum to set off the smoke alarm that would have been very funny to watch. The thing about him being able to get into the garage of the model home because he has the keys in his pocket is great. And there's this extra scene with George, where he's practicing hitting a bag of laundry and finally uses his left hand instead of his right. I interpreted it as his left hand being like a direct line to his sub-conscious. The two Bobs cut that scene because they wanted it to be more of a surprise when George finally cold-cocks Biff. But I think it would have worked if they had left it in.

After finally having a chance to read the script, I have to say it's no wonder that Back to the Future became such a huge hit and a cult classic.

Thank for the opportunity, Mystery Man.


  • At 7:36 PM, Blogger Mystery Man said…

    Great job, Miriam! I loved it!


  • At 1:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Thank you for a very well-written,insightful,exceedingly entertaining,not to mention riveting take on an American cinematic classic.I especially appreciated the juxtaposition with references to classic screenplay progression.Very educational and precise.Thank you!

  • At 3:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Great break-down, Mim. It made me want to watch BTTF again, and like you I've seen it more times than I can count.

  • At 5:59 PM, Anonymous Blake Snyder said…

    Miriam, you wrote a very funny and insightful breakdown on Mr. Z's classic. I really enjoyed it and needless to say, yay!!! Thanks!

    --Blake Snyder

  • At 7:30 PM, Blogger Mim said…

    Wow! I feel like I've finally arrived. Thanks for the compliment, Blake.

    MM, thanks for the inspiration, as always.

    Mark, you know I love you too. You're a great writer.

    Juliane, I checked out your site. Keep writing and it'll get easier and easier. Sorry, but it's also addictive.

  • At 4:37 PM, Blogger GameArs said…

    What a piece of work. I had to break it down to three readings but I can safely say I will have a whole new appreciation for the movie next time I watch it.

    A couple things you discussed that were really insightful.

    "The first act is where you have to figure out how to tell the backstory without being expository."

    That molehill is really a mountain. I love the way you show how they did it.

    "If he never wanted to take it in the first place, how do you show that the journey starts on his active decision?

    The answer is that he makes a mistake. This is the epitome of the anti-hero."

    Yes indeed. And yet, his mistake is a decision, to use a time machine to escape the terrorists. A great moment.

    I don’t know where you find your writing stamina but this was a hack of an examination of what is a truly great script.


  • At 6:06 AM, Blogger Mim said…

    Carl, you're the best. I really appreciate you taking the time to read it, and I LOVE how you quoted me. To me, that made it personal.

    Thanks, man!

  • At 9:44 PM, Blogger GameArs said…

    Now I just need to make a post without a typo. "Hack" should be "heck".

  • At 7:24 AM, Blogger Ann Wesley Hardin said…

    Hi Mim!

    Came in here meaning to mine your email addy and couldn't find it, so decided to post a comment.

    I wanted you to know I signed up with Trigger Street so I could read where you quoted me *gg*. My vanity knows no bounds.

    It's always interesting to see who agrees and who doesn't with that sort of advice. Even after all these years it never ceases to amaze me how some folks just don't get it. All we can do is keep trying.

    Anyway, I loved this essay on BTTF. It's one of my favs too! Also, A Son of the Circus is on its way from Amazon. I can't wait to read it. So many books have slipped under my radar this past decade what with raising kids and forging a writing career.

    It's been wonderful meeting you online, and I look forward to more scintillating conversations!

    Take care, Ann

  • At 6:18 AM, Blogger GameArs said…

    Just looking for a new blog... carry on.

  • At 3:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Thanks for the great Back to the Future breakdown. Another way of looking at Marty as the hero is...

    ...when he makes the mistake that puts him back in time, it places the story firmly within the rules of Aristotle's Poetics as drama. The idea there is that, just like with Achilles's Heel, it is the hero's own flaw or miscalculation that lands him in trouble.

    So from the Greek tragedy perspective, Marty brings about his own "downfall" rather than having it imposed on him. That ensures that we feel the two required story emotions of "fear" (danger) and "pity" (undeserved misfortune, out of proportion to the mild punishment the hero deserved.)

    The fear comes from the threat to Marty's existence. The pity comes from how unfair his predicament is. Yes, Marty deserved to be grounded after he disobeyed Strickland's warnings to stop cutting class and hanging out with that disreputable scientist, Dr. Brown. But he didn't deserve this!


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