Assuming that our timeline hasn’t been altered by Marty McFly and Doc Brown, USC School of Cinematic Arts alum Robert Zemeckis’ zippy Back to the Future hit the big screen 30 years ago.
To celebrate the anniversary, the school screened the time-traveling comedy trilogy on Dec. 6, followed by a Q&A with alum/screenwriter Bob Gale, production designer Rick Carter and actor Christopher Lloyd.
Lloyd told the capacity crowd that, although his role as Doc Emmet Brown has become an iconic part of American culture, he initially didn’t have any interest in the script.
“I was doing a little film in Mexico, and my agent said he was sending a script. The script came down to where I was, and I looked it over. At the same time, I had gotten an offer to go back to New York and do a play. A good play. Hans Christian Anderson.
I’m embarrassed to say, but I threw the script in the waste paper basket.
“I had done a lot of theater work, and I was ready to go back to my roots,” he explained. “I’m embarrassed to say, but I threw the script in the waste paper basket. It was an astonishing career move. I had a girlfriend that told me not to leave any possibility without checking it out. I retrieved the script, met Bob Zemeckis, and that was that.”
A classic commitment
Gale and Zemeckis met as undergrads at USC and began trying to develop an idea for a time travel movie while making student films together. The script took on several versions and was passed over by several studios until Zemeckis directed Romancing the Stone and had enough clout to produce the ambitious script.
Gale insisted that he and Zemeckis’ commitment to classical Hollywood filmmaking is what made the film special.
“I watched the movies again in 2002. It had been a long time since I had seen them,” Gale said. “I was shocked that they were so good, and I think it was our commitment to classical filmmaking. They look like they could have been shot yesterday. There’s no tricks. The stories are classic. The performances are great. In a way, it’s kind of an anti-tentpole movie. Special effects get old. Classical filmmaking doesn’t. I think the longevity of the film is a testament to that.”
Gale and Zemeckis earned Academy Award nominations for the Back to the Future screenplay and worked together on several films, including 1941, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Used Cars and Trespass.
Lloyd is also a longtime collaborator of Zemeckis, having appeared in the Back to the Future trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Carter joined the Back to the Future team as a fan. When he was approached to be the production designer of the second film, he knew he needed to take the job.
“To me, production design isn’t a technical experience,” Carter said. “It wasn’t even a decision. Bob used to call the problems with the shoot ‘insurmountable opportunities.’ That’s what it was. I was a fan. I like big imaginations, and what Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis created ignited me.”
Carter’s production design can be seen in the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens.