Back in 1985, Back To The Future received 3.5 stars from Roger Ebert. Ebert was always my preferred reviewer, and he got it almost always right. Like Ebert, it took me some time before I realised the movie’s greatness – and clout.
Time travel had been done well before. One of my favorites is Time After Time (1979), with David Warner. But it is undeniable that Zemeckis and Gale’s script set a new benchmark, and ever since, time travel pics have been measured against it.
Did you know that Zemeckis also wrote Spielberg’s flop 1941? To his greater credit, he directed the fabulous Romancing The Stone with Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas and Danny De Vito. To close the six degrees of separation, Douglas produced One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, with in the cast Christopher Lloyd (and De Vito).
The World of Back To The Future (the Original)
I love how Back To The Future sets up Hill Valley, California. Marty McFly lives in this pleasantly comforting smalltown community, with easily recognisable landmarks. Comes in handy when you start time travelling, and you get lost in time.
In essence, the world in Back To The Future is contained and knowable.
Not only is it relatively small; everybody knows each other. They mostly know what you’re up to as well. It doesn’t take long before we feel at home in this town where everything and everyone is safe. (Even when the Libyan terrorists appear, we’re kinda assuming they’re shooting toy bullets.)
Back To The Future’s Opening Sequence
The movie boasts a whole range of power moments. First, we have the DeLorean’s explosive jump back into time; later, the awkward mother-sun dalliance, the lightning return climax, and Biff’s comeuppance.
Before all that, we get an example of a simple, yet effective and exciting opening sequence. The writing is tight, with a bunch of exposition squeezed into mere minutes of screen time.
Over the titles, we see a pair of feet entering the Doc’s place, and we are introduced to a few important clues to the ensuing plot and subplots.
Even before a single word is spoken, the audience is fed a whole range of questions. By the time Marty is blown away by the monster loudspeaker, we know he is friends with the Doc, rides a skateboard and plays the guitar.
Setting Goals Early
Perhaps the most important quality of this opening sequence is how it sets up anticipation. Effortlessly, through visual questions and character goals, we are introduced into some of the plot strands.
Why is the Doc hiding plutonium in his lab? Where is he? The Doc wants to meet Marty that night, but won’t tell him why… Marty needs to get to school on time, and wants to compete in the music contest.
All these questions and goals give Back To The Future instant momentum. Ask yourself: how do you set up anticipation in your first scenes? Hint: goals may help.
I have always found it misleading when writing teachers pretend that the main character only needs a goal from Act Two. We need goals all the friggin’ time!
The opening elements in Back To The Future already prove that the writers knew exactly what they were doing. Piling goal upon goal, they propel the story engine with a power of … 1.21 GigaWatts.
Download the screenplay here.
At the end of the video, you’ll be offered the screenplay for download!
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.