The future is now. Literally. It's 2015 -- the year that Marty McFly and Doc Brown famously visited in a time-traveling DeLorean. To celebrate one (err... three) of the best movies EVER made, I read We Don't Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy by Caseen Gains. It was fascinating -- and I've either endlessly amused or endlessly annoyed my friends by continuously sharing my behind-the-scenes knowledge (and, obviously, pausing the movies every two minutes to explain something cool).
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!
1. If someone thinks they can improve upon an idea, that must mean there's a better one out there.
Decades of business research support that this is probably the best possible way you can brainstorm. In the words of Zemeckis,
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 >
Indeed, We Don't Need Roads is full of examples of the Bobs improving upon each other's ideas. For example, did you know:
Oh, and Einstein was originally a chimpanzee.
So the takeaway here is, yes, check your ego at the door. Brainstorm effectively (to learn more, check out Tina Seelig's Insight Out: Get Ideas Out of Your Head and Into the World) -- and never assume that your first idea is the best idea.
2. Avoid the sunk cost fallacy.
Many would argue that Michael J. Fox (Marty) and Christopher Lyod (Doc) were essential to the success of the BTTF films. But did you know that Fox was not the original Marty?
Indeed, the Bobs shot almost the entire first film with an actor named Eric Stoltz.
What could have been...
Oddly enough, Fox had been the Bobs' first choice for Marty McFly -- but during casting in 1984, Fox was playing a leading character in the popular TV sitcom, Family Ties. When Steven Spielberg called Family Ties producer Gary David Goldberg to ask if Fox could audition, Goldberg said no. Family Ties had been experiencing a surge in popularity (moving from 49th in the Nielsen ratings in its first season to top five in its third season), due partly to The Crosby Show providing a strong lead-in. However, Meredith Baxter, the female star of the show, had gotten pregnant, so the show's writers had been giving more lines to Fox's character. And because Fox is so cute and adorable, this made the show even more popular. Goldberg knew that Fox would be interested in Future, but made it clear that "his" star was off-limits. Fox was never given the chance to read for Marty.
After a long, excruciating search for Marty, the Bobs eventually settled on Stoltz. And they proceeded to film with him for five weeks. However, as they began reviewing footage and edits of their movie... they saw a "hole in the screen." Stoltz was a brilliant actor -- but he just didn't have the right mannerisms. The right flair for comedy.
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.
It was then, Thompson recalled, that she began questioning Stoltz's fit for the role.
(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.)
Switching lead actors so far into filming was extremely costly. First of all, Universal Studios still had to pay Stoltz the entire agreed-upon amount from his contract. Second, so many scenes would need to be re-shot -- and the crew was already on a big time-crunch to release the film by mid-July. Third... getting the studio to approve of the switch was risky.
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!
3. Make Something People Want.
Long before Y Combinator's motto was, "Make something people want," Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis had figured out that movies should be entertaining to the general public first and foremost -- which is, perhaps, why they hit it off so well when they met in Cinema 290. While the other students in their class wanted to create "highbrow cinema," the Bobs wanted to write movies people wanted to see -- and, according to We Don't Need Roads, "The added benefit would come when a person reflected on what they had just watched, and realized there was more than they initially thought had met the eye."
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."
Because the Bobs (and Blake Snyder) focused on making movies that people would want to see... you've actually heard of them before. Or you've at least heard of their movies. And I'm guessing the same isn't true for the other students in their Cinema 290 class.
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.
Next, you need to test your ideas. One of the most heartbreaking decisions the Bobs made in shooting BTTF... was letting go of Melora Hardin, the original Jennifer Parker. She was cast when Stoltz was playing Marty. A problem arose when Fox replaced Stoltz: at 5'4, Fox was shorter than Hardin. Uncertain how that would play out on screen, the Bobs tested it. Ultimately, they found that female audience members didn't want to see Jennifer towering over Marty.
Hardin and Stoltz pose for a photo, 1984. H/t Geeks of Doom
Likewise, when designing the future, the Bobs made an "85-15" rule: our audience doesn't want to be confused and overwhelmed by a completely unrecognizable future, so 85% of what they see should be familiar, and 15% should be new. For example, Hoverboards:
85% 1985 skateboard, 15% 2015 technology
85% totally recognizable movie theater...
15% hologram shark attack!
The result of this 85-15 rule was an absolutely delightful version of 2015 that people have been anticipating ever since, rather than an overly futuristic disaster that alienated all but the geekiest.
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:
4. Make Something Only You Can Make.
When I'm not blogging, I'm running Paved With Verbs, a college counseling and life coaching business in Palo Alto, CA. Often, parents ask me if they "should" let their kids take art instead of engineering classes, spend time on music instead of test prep, or explore other interests that "won't help" them get into college.
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.
(PS: BONUS clever points if you noticed that, in 1985A, the ledge of the clocktower isn't damaged; but in subsequent timelines, you can clearly see where Doc has damaged it.)
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.
5. Don't Expect Instant Success.
Before the Bobs wrote BTTF, they worked on several projects together -- including Used Cars, which received the highest ratings from critics in Columbia Studio's history. Pretty much everyone who saw it thought it was hilarious -- studio heads included.
The thing is... hardly anyone actually saw it. Gains writes,
"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 >
(Word to the wise: watch it. It's, like, $2 on Amazon Instant Video.)
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?
According to Gains, it took Frank Price less than three minutes to decide the idea was a winner, and the Bobs got to work.
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.)
The Bobs knew their script was great, and they had faith in their ideas. They just couldn't get any studios to sign on. For four years. Which leads us to our next lesson:
6. Build Your Reputation First. THEN Ask Your Connections For Help.
It didn't have to take the Bobs so long to get their movie produced. After all, they had a great friendship with Steven Spielberg (they'd also met at USC), whose recent success with E.T., Indiana Jones and several others had made him not only a household name -- but also one of the most profitable directors in Hollywood.
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.
Because of this, Robert Zemeckis became a big name in Hollywood, and studios who had previously rejected BTTF were approaching him about the film.
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.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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