BREAKING IN: Should Screenwriters Go “Back to the Future”?

Staton Rabin is a screenplay marketing consultant, script analyst, and “pitch coach” for screenwriters at all levels of experience. Her new photo-illustrated book is the long-awaited autobiography of the Yankees’ famous Double-A affiliate (Trenton Thunder) Bat Dog: DERBY! My Bodacious Life in Baseball. Staton is available for script reading/analysis and consultations and can be reached at Cutebunion@aol.com. Follow Staton on Twitter @StatonRabin.

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BREAKING IN: Should Screenwriters Go “Back to the Future”? by Staton Rabin | Script Magazine #scriptchat

I am writing these words on Wednesday, October 21, 2015, the exact date that Marty McFly and Doc Brown visited in Back to the Future Part II (1989). But in this superficial and cynical modern age of “Deflategate”, Pumpkin Spice Lattes, and way too many Kardashians, can screenwriters of the present learn anything by going back to take another look at this decades-old film series written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale?

Great Scott! Of course they can.

So, fire up the DeLorean and strap yourself in. It’s going to be a wild ride.

Now pay attention: This is heavy!

Here are 5 things that the Back to the Future movies can teach screenwriters of today:

  • FOLLOW THE RULES. Part of the reason the Back to the Future movies remain so much fun to watch is the writers’ meticulous attention to detail. They set up rules for time travel– which Doc is always explaining to Marty (but really to us!)– and then stick to them. It’s okay to make up your own rules for your own film characters’ fictional universe– especially when writing sci-fi or fantasy– but they have to make sense to a movie audience. And once you decide what the rules are, don’t bend them just to make your own job easier!
  • BE CLEAR. See above. When Doc explains to Marty the complexities of time travel and the problem they have to solve, Doc is always absolutely clear– even when he’s talking nonsense (“flux capacitor”, anyone?). No mater what the rules of your story are, or which universe they take place in, film audiences should never be confused about the rules and what’s going on in your plot.
  • KEEP IT MOVING. The Back to the Future characters are always in motion. Doc Brown is a veritable perpetual motion machine, and presumably this was a conscious choice on the part of Christopher Lloyd (who played the Doc), Bob Gale– and Zemeckis, who directed the film. Even though there’s a lot of exposition in Back to the Future, Doc never stops racing around doing things, drawing diagrams, or tinkering with the DeLorean or his various inventions, while he’s talking. Perhaps one of the many reasons that Doc’s romance in Back to the Future III is so engaging is that it actually slowed him down! Make sure your movie characters always have meaningful action to do and that they never merely sit or stand around “explaining things”– especially if your story requires a lot of exposition.  Remember that your characters’ action/behavior isn’t merely an actor’s or director’s decision–  it also should be in the script.
  • DON’T BE AFRAID TO BE DIFFERENT. If you listen to screenwriter Bob Gale’s DVD commentary for the Back to the Future films, you’ll learn how incredibly difficult it was to get the first movie in the series made. When Gale and Zemeckis were shopping the script around, most buyers considered it too tame compared to the raunchy teen comedies that were popular at the time, while Disney Studios thought it was too risqué for a family film (a young man having to fend off the sexual advances of his own mother??). And time travel movies hadn’t done well at the box office. So there wasn’t a clear niche for it. Gale and Zemeckis had to wait till Zemeckis had a major directing success with another movie– Romancing the Stone— before it became possible to get “Back to the Future” green-lighted, with a long-time fan of the script, Steven Spielberg, Executive Producing. And of course, then and now there was nothing quite like Back to the Future. Thank goodness the movie got made. If you’ve written a movie script that’s truly great– but “different”—and you’re convinced it will appeal to a wide audience, never give up on trying to sell it. But first make sure it’s truly a great script– and that means seeking reliable professional opinions other than your own.
  • DON’T WRITE THE SEQUEL TILL AFTER YOUR FIRST ONE IS A HIT. Even Gale and Zemeckis never imagined at the start that their first Back to the Future movie would be a huge hit that resulted in two sequels. If even these brilliant guys didn’t automatically assume their movie would be a hit, neither should you. When shopping your spec script around, it would seem both arrogant and naive to tell any producer that you have sequels to it planned— and probably not a good gamble to actually write them. And unless your first movie in the series was a hit, you should never write a “to be continued”-type ending to your script that leaves audiences guessing or hanging about what happens next, with the answer in a sequel. Any spec script you write should be a complete, self-contained story.

That said, if you’re writing the kind of screenplay that clearly has movie sequel potential if the film gets made and proves to be a hit, don’t write yourself into a corner so that sequels would be difficult to create. According to Bob Gale in his DVD commentary on the films, he and Robert Zemeckis didn’t plan for a sequel when they wrote the first “Back to the Future” movie. When, at the end of the first movie in the series, Doc Brown says, “Marty, you’ve gotta come back with me. Back to the future!”, and the DeLorean flies off with all of them in it (“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!”) this ending was just intended as a joke. So, when Back to the Future proved to be a blockbuster and Gale and Zemeckis were asked to write a sequel, they were in a bit of a bind. Not only didn’t they have a story already planned, but they also had left Marty McFly’s girlfriend, Jennifer, in the car with him and Doc at the end of the first movie, on a mission that Doc said concerned her too. That meant she would have to go along on Marty’s journey, and, like it or not, they’d have to write the girlfriend character into the sequel! Since having a girl along for the ride for the entire sequel would have slowed down the story and created other plot complications, the writers solved this problem by having Doc knock her unconscious (harmlessly and temporarily) using some sort of electronic gizmo near the start of BTTF Part II. (“Don’t worry,” Doc tells Marty, “She’s not essential to my plan.”) Nor to the screenwriters’, apparently!  Jennifer does, however, wake up and reappear in the plot later in the movie.

GET 1.21 GIGAWATTS OF SCREENWRITING POWER (FROM THESE 2 EXTRA BONUS POINTS):

KNOW WHERE YOUR DeLOREAN IS GOING. One of the best things about the first “Back to the Future” movie is that, from the opening scene when we first enter Doc’s deserted home/laboratory and Marty arrives, everything we see and hear is relevant to what happens later. Not one second of screen time is wasted and we learn the backstory from images, action, sound, and dialogue in the opening scenes. We even learn an incredible amount about Doc before we ever meet him in person for the first time. The more times you see the movie, the more you’ll notice and appreciate just how much vital story and character information the movie gives you in such a brief period of time. The writers are so much in control of their material that they convey backstory, advance the plot, and foreshadow the characters’ future— simultaneously– and still manage to keep everything moving along at a nice clip of 88 mph.

It’s clear that Gale and Zemeckis, who planned BTTF all out on index cards (later, storyboards), knew exactly where their story was going even before they wrote “FADE IN”. When you write your own movie script, so should you.

IT’S NOT ABOUT THE “SPECIAL EFFECTS”:

When creating Back to the Future, it’s clear that Zemeckis and Gale never forgot that a fantasy or sci-fi movie’s true success is never measured by the sophistication or number of its “special effects”– but rather by how much “heart” the story has.  That’s a lesson that anyone who writes movies today should remember, as well.

AND NOW, WE GO BACK TO THE FUTURE:

Now that it’s been thirty years (gulp!) since the first Back to the Future movie, check out all three films in the series (and the DVD commentaries by Gale and Zemeckis) to see what else you can learn from the masters who wrote these tremendously fun, emotionally moving, creative, and well-crafted movies. And while you’re at it, you can admire not only the writing, but also Zemeckis’s brilliant directing, and the acting genius of Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd.

Okay, Future Boys (and Girls), you have your assignment!

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