But it turns out, Gains' book wasn't just full of lessons about Back to the Future -- it was full of lessons about entrepreneurship, writing, and LIFE. I wanted to share a few of them with my readers. If I missed any, please share in the comments!
Back to the Future was written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale ("the Bobs"), two creative geniuses who met in the fall of 1971 on their first day of Cinema 290 at USC. The two instantly clicked, partly because they were two of the only undergrads in a mostly grad student class, and partly because of their shared philosophy about moviemaking (see Lesson 3 - Build Something Your Audience Will Love).
The two worked on several student- and H projects before starting Back to the Future -- and, going into BTTF, the Bobs established a simple set of ground rules:
- Check your ego at the door.
- Write a film that both of us would want to see.
- If someone thinks they can improve upon an idea, that must mean there's a better one out there.
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It was a true collaboration. We were very much in sync, and when a good idea got sparked, it was pretty much just a back-and-forth, talking everything through. We said everything that came to our minds; we were never worried that something wasn't a good idea or a valid idea. Anything we thought of, we would run it up the flagpole for the other guy, because you just never know. You never know what might spark another idea. Read more >
- The DeLorean was not the Bobs' first -- or even second! -- idea for the time machine. In the first draft of the screenplay, the time machine was a large device, housed in a room. This caused some plot complications, so it was changed to a refrigerator, which Marty and 1955 Doc would drive to a nuclear test site in Nevada to power. However, Bob Z began to worry that this would inspire children to play in refrigerators and get trapped -- plus, it's hard to make a refrigerator futuristic and sexy. Finally, a decision was made that the time machine should be mobile, and the DeLorean was chosen because of its gullwing doors and unusual design -- not to mention that, according to some viewers, the DeLorean was a central joke to the whole movie. The DMC-12 was a bit of an international joke. John DeLorean, who was being investigated for trafficking cocaine (federal agents had recorded him in a sting, agreeing to bankroll a smuggling operation in return for $24M), had promised a visionary car for a low price. Instead, he delivered an infamously unreliable car, late, for a high price. So it's kind of hilarious that Doc built a time machine out of it. And it worked -- once. And then it broke down.
- In the original script for BTTF 2, Old Biff took Gray's Sports Almanac to 1967, where George McFly was a college professor (and was "away giving a lecture at the University of California at Berkeley," to explain Crispin Glover's absence from the sequel) and Lorraine was a flower child. It was good... but Zemeckis thought it could be better. What if... what if! We took advantage of this unique opportunity to revisit the movie our audience just saw? (See Lesson 4: Build Something Only You Can Build.) It took a major re-write, but ultimately, the decision made the film.
- BTTF 2 and 3 were written as one huge epic. While Bob Gale wanted to "free himself from the standard motion picture format," he still had doubts about shooting a movie that was over three hours long. Moreover, there was risk to proposing such a long movie: even for a film that would almost certainly do well in the box office (given the amazing success of the first film), Hollywood comes with no guarantees. And a movie this size would come with a price tag: specifically, it would have tied with 1978's Superman for third most expensive movie ever made.
Indeed, the Bobs shot almost the entire first film with an actor named Eric Stoltz.
Lea Thompson, who plays Lorraine, recalled in We Don't Need Roads,
I remember after the read-through, everyone was like, "That was so great," and [Stoltz] brought up the point that it's really kind of strange and sad that all the people Marty loves remember a past he didn't live. He remembers a completely different history.
(Fun fact: during filming, there was a real-life conflict between Stoltz and Thomas Wilson, who played Biff. During the scene in which Marty shoves Biff in the cafeteria, Stoltz shoved Wilson literally as hard as he could. More than fifteen times. When Thomas asked him to be more gentle -- it was bruising his ribs! -- Stoltz refused, because he was trained as a method actor. While Wilson didn't complain to Bob Z, he did retaliate when they filmed the scene where Biff punches Marty outside the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.)
Bob Z first appealed to his two producers, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. Once he got their support, he brought the footage to Spielberg and asked for his support to bring his request to re-cast to Sid Sheinberg -- the head of Universal Studios! Spielberg agreed to the change... but advised the team to line up a replacement as soon as possible and keep moving forward no matter what. If the studio sensed trouble, they could very well pull the plug on the whole project!
This is where Michael J. Fox comes into the picture. Spielberg made a "Hail Mary pass" and placed another call to Goldberg, over at Family Ties. He asked, again, if there was any way they could ask Fox to read for the role. Fortunately for the BTTF team, things had changed over at Ties. Because of Baxter's pregnancy, the show had taken a brief hiatus, and the show was now in the end, not the beginning, of its season. Even so, shooting would be taking place simultaneously, and BTTF would have to schedule around Ties.
When finally presented with the script, Fox accepted the role on the spot -- by chance, he'd heard about the "$14M Spielberg time-travel movie," and had wanted to get involved (even though that meant working 18-hour days, 7 days per week, until the shooting of both the sitcom and the movie concluded). Yet another sign that this was meant to be.
Taking their concerns/request to Sheinberg was nothing short of terrifying -- especially for such a young director. But Bob Z did it... and he got the green light!
Or, as Blake Snyder, who created Blank Check and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, wrote in his earth-shatteringly amazing book that everyone needs to buy or read or listen to or download RIGHT NOW (I don't care if you're never going to write a screenplay -- just read this book): "Give me the same thing... only different." Or, as venture capitalist Leo Polovets writes, "People like seeing a better way of doing what they're already doing."
So how do you make something people want?
First, you have niche expertise. As Snyder writes in Save the Cat,
To know how to avoid cliche, to know what tradition you are pushing forward, begins with knowing what the tradition is. A full-fledged knowledge of hundreds of movies, and especially those your movie is like, is required.
Yet surprising as it is for people who are interested in pursuing a career in movies, I am shocked -- shocked! -- to find how many up-and-comers can not even quote from the movies in their own genre, much less movies generally.
Trust me, all the big guys can.
They know and can quote from hundreds. And I don't mean quote as in "recite lines from." I mean quote as in "explain how each movie works."
Here's another example of building/knowing what people want: as anyone who's seen Back to the Future has undoubtedly noticed, there's a lot of lead-up to the time traveling action. The Bobs were quite aware of this -- they knew it was risky. But it wasn't too risky. First of all, they used the time wisely, investing in character development and background information that would be valuable later in the movie. But second, they knew about the "25-minute rule."
Basically, when you're writing for TV, you need to make sure every moment is important -- otherwise, people can change the channel. But with movies, it's pretty rare for people to get up and leave the theater after paying for a ticket. And it's almost unheard of for this to happen within the first 25 minutes of a movie. Knowing this allowed the Bobs to craft and structure their movie in a way that made the most sense.
Yes, the Bobs were a little concerned during test screenings, when they observed that their younger audience seemed restless. But no one walked out. And the moment the DeLorean showed up on the scene, they were ready to buckle up and go. Yes, the Bobs knew exactly what their audience could tolerate, and sacrificed accordingly.
And what else do audiences want? Often, it could be that you:
My answer is almost always yes! Yes, yes, yes! Because, by developing interests and passions that are unique to you, you put yourself in a position to build something no one else can. (Read more in APs Make You Look Comlpacent, Not Curious.)
After the smashing international success of the original BTTF movie, Bob Gale began writing a script for the sequel. And, as I wrote in Lesson 1: If someone thinks they can improve upon an idea, that must mean there's a better one out there... the second movie was originally supposed to take place in 1967. I'm sure this would have been a great movie.
BUT. The Bobs were missing out on an opportunity to build something only they could: a movie that revisits their own movie. One that they already knew audiences loved (see Lesson 3). And one that packed a powerful psychological punch. Audiences love feeling like they're in on an inside joke or reference. They love feeling clever. And that's exactly what revisiting 1955 allows them to do.
Back to the Future II didn't get the same acclaim as its predecessor, but it was still met with significant success. More importantly, almost everyone I know considers it to be their favorite of the trilogy.
Here's another example - and it's super meta. Caseen Gains, author of We Don't Need Roads, built something only he could have built when he wrote his book. He turned a childhood passion for movies -- especially the Back to the Future movies -- into a career. I mean, sure. Technically, someone else could have done it. But his background knowledge informed his voice, approach and perspective as he began writing this book, and that knowledge and passion is palpable. Parents, it just goes to show: you never know what interest could turn into your child's book, business or career.
"Zemeckis's early films he made with writing partner Bob Gale just have such incredible kinetic energy," film critic Leonard Maltin says. "They just seem super charged with adrenaline... I love Used Cars, and I'll never understand why it didn't become more. Even over the years it never really built the following it deserves, but I don't know why. Read more >
BUT. Their work wasn't completely in vain. Frank Price, the head of Colmbia Studios, loved the movie so much that he told the Bobs to come to him right away with their next idea. (See Lesson 6: Build Your Reputation First. THEN Ask for Help From Your Connections.)
Inspiration struck quickly -- perhaps preemptively. While Bob Gale was home visiting his parents, he'd stumbled upon his father's 1940 yearbook. Flipping through the pages and comparing his father's high school experience (student government, senior class president) to his own (movie soundtracks, comic books and movie making), he couldn't help but wonder...
If I'd met my dad in high school, would we have liked each other?
Bob G took this idea to Bob Z, who started adding his own ideas to the concept:
What if your mom, who always said she never kissed a boy as a teenager, was actually the school slut?
Instant success! Or was it?
In the end, it took four more years of hard work to get the movie produced. Price thought the first draft was too rough, and sent them home to make revisions. He liked the second draft... but not enough to approve it. Raunchy teen comedies were all the rage back then (rebellious 1980s youth ftw), and Price had been hoping to see something more, well, R-rated. Like Used Cars.
So Price set up a "turnaround deal" -- an arrangement in which one studio can purchase the rights to a script developed at another studio, to help the original studio recoup their investment. The Bobs took their script to pretty much every studio in Hollywood, and were rejected by each one, for the same reason. Not raunchy enough.
(Until they went to Disney. There, executives were horrified by the idea of Marty kissing his teenage mother, and decided the film was too raunchy.)
All it would have taken was one phone call, one meeting with Spielberg, and studios would have been lining up for a shot at BTTF.
But the Bobs asked Spielberg to stand down.
See, they'd already worked on Used Cars and another film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, both of which Spielberg had been involved with, and neither of which had done especially well. The Bobs were afraid that if they got Steven involved and BTTF wasn't successful, it would destroy their reputations in Hollywood. They didn't want to be seen as wannabes who used their connections to get deals they didn't deserve. They didn't want to blow their chance of ever making another film for a major studio. So they moved ahead on their own.
After three frustrating years pitching BTTF, Bob Z realized... he needed to pay his bills. He needed to put food on the table. So he took a job directing Romancing the Stone, which studio insiders expected to flop. However, it became a surprise hit, and 20th Century Fox's only big hit of the year.
This isn't to say that the Bobs never tapped into Spielberg's capital. As discussed in Lesson 2: Avoid the Sunk Cost Fallacy, it was Spielberg who made the "Hail Mary pass" to get Michael J. Fox on board. But when first starting out, the Bobs had the patience and foresight to realize that they should build their reputations on their own.
There are a lot more lessons to be learned about entrepreneurship, writing and life in We Don't Need Roads, which you should all read in preparation for Back the the Future Day, October 21, 2015. Prepare to amaze your friends, dominate at trivia... and win at life.