The Power of Story from Back to the Future

The Power of Story from Back to the Future

I am a die-hard Back to the Future fan. I have watched all three movies dozens of times, can quote most lines from the movies1, and I have my own Marty McFly outfit. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the first Back to the Future, as well as the future date Marty & co. travel to in Part 2.

In preparation for that date in October, I recently read We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy. Getting unparalleled access to the director, writers, cast, and crew behind the trilogy, author Caseen Gaines provides a compelling read on the long and complicated journey these movies took to get to the screen.

In the chapters describing the first movie, I was impressed by the significance everyone put on the strength of the story. Steven Spielberg, a producer of the trilogy, loved it immediately upon first read; so did many of the cast and crew. But what impressed me the most was the reaction from the movie’s first audience.

As Gaines describes, the film the audience saw was a “work-print,” meaning it had rough transitions, lacked most of the visual and sound effects, and was without the soundtrack. This viewing took place in May 1985, less than a month after shooting wrapped on the movie. The audience was told little about the movie they were about to see, only that it starred Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd.

For the first 20 minutes, the audience seemed unimpressed; some thought there was too much dialogue and buildup, and they couldn’t see a purpose or direction for the movie. But, with that famous scene in the Twin Pines Mall parking lot, when the DeLorean rolls out, the audience was sucked back in. Over the next few minutes, when the DeLorean actually goes back in time, the audience was hooked.

When the movie finally ended, the audience erupted into applause. Response cards filled out by this first audience reported that 90% of them thought the movie was “excellent” or “very good;” and that was without any special effects! As Neil Canton, a producer on the film, later said:

It was still a work in progress at the time of that screening… visual effect shots weren’t done, and the music wasn’t done, but the audience was just so into the story. (Quoted in Gaines, We Don’t Need Roads, 107).

In an age where special effects, graphic designs, and pretty typography can add a lot when done right, the core thing that matters is a good story. Too many movies2 have had massive budgets for special effects, but because they were lacking in story, they ultimately failed. And yet, partially based on the strength of its story, Back to the Future was the highest-grossing film of 1985. Moreover, the movie has endured for a long time; so much so that a person like me, who was only born in 1985, still loves it.

  1. To the annoyance of my wife. 

  2. See G.I. Joe or any of the later Transformer movies. 

Brandon Schmidt

I am Brandon Schmidt: writer, husband, father, brother, reader, and laugher.

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