Genre: Sci-fi Comedy
Premise: A plucky teenage boy is accidentally sent 30 years into the past, where he inadvertently prevents his parents from meeting, in the process threatening his very existence.
About: This is the very first draft of Back to the Future, written in 1981.
Writers: Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale
Details: 110 pages (but the formatting here is really tight – this feels more like 130 pages) 1981 draft

Struzan_026-031_BTTF_25092_v2.indd

I swear. I tried to see Thor 2 this weekend (as I said I would in my newsletter). With every fiber of my being I tried to go. At one point I actually constructed a catapult on my couch (from nearby items like couch pillows and a floor lamp) that would physically propel me towards the door so that I’d be forced to go.

But in the end, I just couldn’t (make the catapult work or see the film). I never did get into the whole Greek God thing in English anyway. Much like my distaste for Doritos and Everybody Loves Raymond, they were wisps of popular culture I never understood.

Instead, I decided to do something different today – read the first draft of Back To The Future! From what I’d heard, it wasn’t very good. The word on the street was that every studio in town passed on it. True, neither Zemeckis or Gale had done much at the time (Zemeckis’s first movie, Used Cars, had just come out and done so-so at the box office) but even if they had, nobody was drinking the McFly juice yet.

And therein lies the reason I must review it. I want to show screenwriters what can be done with a bad script. As long as there’s a good idea at the core, you can turn something bad into something good. It takes time (it took these guys 3 years). But if the script has potential and you’re willing to put in the work, there’s hope.

Back to the Future Alpha is essentially the boring version of the movie you’ve come to love. The script starts off strangely with Marty McFly perfecting his video pirating skills. He’s even trying to get Doc to streamline his bootlegging process so he can sell films out on the street before they hit theaters! I’m not kidding. And this is 1981!

Marty hangs around Doc’s place before and after school, shooting the shit. Doc’s always talking about power sources and how he needs more power for his latest project – oh, and there’s a secret locked room that he refuses to allow Marty to see.

Marty’s parents are both here, but their personalities haven’t been fleshed out yet. Likewise, Biff is operating on about 25% of his eventual personality. Marty’s still got a girlfriend (her name’s Suzy) whom he passes notes to in long classroom scenes where the teacher warms about the upcoming nuclear apocalypse.  There are no siblings here, though (and therefore no famous disappearing picture).

One day Marty’s hanging out at Doc’s and, out of curiosity, pours some Coke into one of his devices. This causes a chemical reaction that turns out to be exactly what Doc needs for his mysterious behind-the-locked-door project. Coke (due to its secret formula) actually plays a big part in this version of the story.

We finally learn that the thing behind the door is a time machine. It needs incredible amounts of energy. And the mix of Coke and plutonium generate that energy. There is no car here. No 88 miles per hour. Just a machine in a lab. CIA agents eventually show up at that lab looking for the plutonium Doc stole. There’s a shoot out, and Marty accidentally gets caught in the machine and travels back 30 years.

After realizing where he is, Marty runs to his mom’s house and she’s, of course, his age now. He asks her what’s going on. She doesn’t know what he’s talking about or who he is. Marty passes out and when he wakes up, Doc has come to pick him up (Marty had Doc’s name in his pocket from earlier, so they called him).

Doc seems to know what’s happened right away in this version (Marty doesn’t need to convince him he’s from the future), and sets about getting Marty home. He tells Marty he MUST stay in his house in the meantime so he doesn’t upset the space-time continuum. But Marty gets bored and heads to school (because, why not!) where he sees his mom again, who starts falling in love with him.

From that point on, everything happens pretty much the way it happens in the film, except for the final sequence, where instead of the clock tower, we get Doc and Marty driving to Nevada to channel energy for the time machine from the very last nuclear bomb test in America. And in a sequence that would come back to haunt moviegoers worldwide three decades later, Marty will have to hide inside a refrigerator to survive the nuclear blast.

bacjtofu_01-(5)

The biggest change you see from this draft to the final one is that of URGENCY. Everything in the final draft MOVES FAST. Characters are always late. Characters are always on the move. Characters always have somewhere to be.

In this version, Marty’s just hanging out at Doc’s place with all the time in the world. Then he’s hanging out in his classroom with his teacher droning on about nuclear bombs. The story ISN’T MOVING. It’s GETTING READY TO MOVE. And that’s one of the major things that rewrites change. You locate all the places in your story that are GETTING READY to happen, and you replace them with things that HAPPEN.

Take Doc’s time machine, for instance. In this version, Doc’s still in the process of building it. He hasn’t come up with all the answers yet. This means four or five scenes of Doc wondering how he’s going to do it. In the movie, DOC’S ALREADY FIGURED THIS OUT. He already has the time machine ready. So the story’s already on the move. He calls Marty to the mall and we’re off to the races.

Or look at the classroom scene. The final draft would NEVER have a classroom scene. Characters sitting around while a teacher slowly doles out exposition? No way! Instead, Marty’s late for class. He’s getting stopped in the hallway by the principal. He’s trying to set up his date with Jennifer. We don’t have time for class! There’s always somewhere to be!

You also see a lot of forced set-ups here, which is one of the easiest ways to spot an early draft. Take Marty’s skateboarding. Obviously, one of the key scenes in the film is when Marty outmaneuvers Biff in Town Square on a makeshift skateboard. So we need to set that up. In this version, in the first act, Marty is walking home with Suzy and some kid’s skateboard shoots off towards Marty. Marty hops on it, does all these ridiculous tricks for no reason (other than to set up he’s a master skateboarder), then hands the board back.

Contrast that with the final draft. The skateboard is an integral part of Marty’s everyday routine. It’s how he gets around. We see him hop on it and hurry to school as early as the second scene of the film. That’s one area where rewriting helps, is taking those isolated ideas and interweaving them into the fabric of your screenplay.

The same thing can be said for stuff like the Clock Tower, the lightning bolt, the car-as-time-machine, the 88 miles per hour. We saw seeds of those ideas here, but they needed time to grow in order to be realized. Doc is living in the main building in town, which looks like it eventually became the Clock Tower. And the idea of them only getting one shot at this lightning bolt originated from the one and only shot at catching energy from the nuclear bomb test.

Speaking of the ending, that was another huge problem with this draft. You don’t keep your characters in one location for 90% of the movie, then put them in a car and drive them on a six hour road trip for the climax. It feels clumsy and disjointed. I’m guessing Zemeckis and Gale eventually realized this, which necessitated a more local solution. Hence the atomic bomb turning into a lightning bolt.

Also of note is the movement of a key plot point that really helped the structure of the second act. In this version of Back To The Future, Marty doesn’t disrupt his parents from meeting right away. Instead, he runs into his mom, then goes to Doc’s, then Doc tells him to hang out while he works on sending him back to the future.

Despite Doc hammering Marty on how dangerous it is to interact with anybody, Marty leaves the house and heads to school out of boredom. It’s only then that he screws up the meeting between his mother and father. This, of course, makes zero sense. Why would Marty go to school and potentially endanger his existence if he doesn’t have to?

In the final draft, they wisely changed the position of this plot point to maximize motivation. Marty saves his father after he falls out of the tree, getting hit by the car INSTEAD of his dad, and getting taken into his mom’s house, where she falls in love with him (instead of his father). All of this happens BEFORE he meets Doc. This way, when Marty and Doc game plan sending him back, they realize that Marty has already endangered his existence by having his mom fall for him instead of his dad. Marty now HAS NO CHOICE but to go to school and correct his mistake.  This works so much better than, “Eh, I’m bored. Let’s go to High School.”  Right?

I think to some of you, all of this is obvious. “Yeah, it was an early draft. Of course it wasn’t as good as the final draft.” But this is the draft Zemeckis and Gale were originally trying to sell. And that’s the problem. I see a lot of writers going out there with drafts like this. Drafts with huge potential but where the writers haven’t come close to maximizing that potential.

Think about it. Is your ending the refrigerator-in-a-nuclear-explosion ending? Or is it the Delorean racing 88 miles per hour while Doc swings from the clock tower lightning bolt ending? Sure it takes lots more drafts and lots more time to get the lightning bolt ending, but how the hell do you think you’re going to beat the competition with a subpar product?

I don’t think this draft of Back To The Future was bad. But it reads like a lot of early drafts do. Some fun ideas. Some decent characters. Some clumsy exposition. A start-and-stop story that’s still trying to find itself. But it didn’t feel FINISHED.

The lesson here is to look at what can happen when you rewrite. I heard stories about how these two, after getting rejected, wrote draft after draft after draft of this script, debating every single detail of the story until it got to where it needed to be. That takes dedication. And that’s what every screenwriter needs in order to succeed.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Every time you get an idea, it’s just a seed. Your job is to water that seed and help it grow to as big as it possibly can. Too many writers are too impatient to do the watering. And their scripts always reflect that.

  • jridge32

    Very inspiring review, Carson. Reminds us how damn vital rewriting and rewriting till you get it where it should be is to this process.

    Now on to my seventh draft of “Moira”.

  • James Parr

    I love how in the finished product Marty isn’t waiting for the time to go back. He’s trying to undo the damage he caused. The original draft having him just venture outside to cause problems is a huge problem from a structural point of view. I feel like a lot of finished films have this problem. Maybe this is why the film is a classic: the script was iterated on until it felt right.

  • Malibo Jackk

    Have to question some of the choices made.
    Reminds me of some Amateur Friday scripts.
    I think these guys have writing chops.
    Might have something here. Could do with a rewrite

  • Murphy

    Really interesting, cheers Carson. That was quite an unexpected and enjoyable read, although as you rightly suggest, not really a great script.

    It was of course a brilliant story idea, a fantastic premise and I think even reading this draft it is clear that it would become a great script eventually. If anything this serves as a really great lesson in not giving in and trusting the re-writes.

    Cheers

  • romer6

    It was really nice to read this old draft. It really shows what a lot of work can do for a screenplay. As you said, the seed was already there but it took a lot of watering to make it the marvelous tree we got. I would like to get my hands in previous drafts of other great movies to see the differences. You should make this a periodic episode, how about that? Maybe one each month. Or as many as you can find.

    PS: You were kidding when you said Thor is a Greek God, weren´t you? Just to flame the masses!

    • Panos Tsapanidis

      Re: the PS: I seriously hope so!

    • J. Lawrence Head

      Try reading the early draft of Top Gun. It’s available from simply scripts.

      • RafaelSilvaeSouza

        Try Rush Hour. Now that’s a completely different movie. The title even made sense…

  • JakeBarnes12

    Great article. Let’s do more before and afters like this.

    I think two questions that really help to tighten scripts are:

    FIRST ACT: Is this scene a) moving the story forward or b) just introducing characters and delivering exposition?

    SECOND & THIRD ACTS: Must my protagonist a) do something urgently now or b) does he/she have time to stop and smell the roses?

    One further step, however, is necessary — Stop making excuses for b) answers. Gain extra noob points if you quote some classic film as rationalization for your crappy structure.

    • Malibo Jackk

      You may be trying to reduce everything to mathematics.

      Sometimes the choices made are simply — bad, not cool or boring.

      • JakeBarnes12

        Getting your story started immediately and building urgency isn’t mathematics, Malibo. It’s basic professional practice.

        What I’m suggesting is a heuristic for achieving that.

        But you’re absolutely right that the choices can still be hackneyed; these are just pointers in the right direction.

        Considering, however, that many amateur weekend scripts start with boring expo and suffer from second act drift, I’d say they’re useful ones.

    • Hadley’s Hope

      “Great article. Let’s do more before and afters like this.”

      I’m thinking the same thing. Would love to see more articles of hit movies, comparing their clunky early drafts with a polished to perfection final draft.

  • GoIrish

    I tried watching Back to the Future 2 this weekend. Got to the part where 1985 Elizabeth Shue met 2015 Elizabeth Shue before I had to shut it off (her on-the-nose dialogue in the delorean was just painful). A few more drafts certainly would’ve helped this one…but even that probably wouldn’t have been enough – their depiction of the future was too campy.

    • ScottStrybos

      Lots of people say BTTF2 is their favourite BTTF movie. I always ask these people the same question: when was the last time you watched it. And the answer is always the same: not for many years (when they were young).

      • Brainiac138

        Everyone wishes they had a hover board.

        • ScottStrybos

          I remember searching the toy section of department stores for actual hover boards after I saw the film. And I thought I found one once, but it was just a regular skateboard.

          (There is actually an amusing documentary on the DVDs/Blurays with behind-the-scenes footage, and they play it as if the hover boards are real.)

          • cjob3

            Ali G once tried to get a real hoverboard on the market but he couldn’t get anyone to invest:

        • Montana Gillis

          And a 1985 version of Elizabeth Shue!

        • Chiefton

          sums it up

  • lonestarr357

    Thor’s a Norse God, not a Greek one. Just saying.

    And neat article. It’s almost like a completely different movie to hear you tell it.

    • Ken Kerns

      Yeah, I was going to mock Carson for the Norse=/=Greek thing, too, but saw others beat me to it.

      • Mike.H

        Difference between Norse/Greek is a $3.79 bottle of Revlon/Just For Men.

  • ScottStrybos

    I always thought the scene in The Crystal Skull where Indy hides inside a fridge during a nuclear blast was a call back to this first draft.

    • cjob3

      definitely. I thought the same thing. It’s REALLY similar.

    • Combaticron

      So one of the most universally panned gags in a major motion picture was just George Lucas saying, “Hey, Bob!”? Sounds about right.

  • fragglewriter

    Great decision to review an early draft of Back to the Future instead of Thor 2. I can’t get into those greek god movies. How do you think the Hercules with The Rock will perform next year?

    I think this early draft is great to help us writers compare to the final product. I’m on page 18 and am bored. I think it has to do with me watching the film so many times that when nothing is happening so far, it seems so boring. It seems that intrigued (locked door in doc’s lab) was replaced my dialogue.

    Too much dialogue without anything happening is tricky depending on the genre of the film. In sci-fi, supernatural, fantasy, it can pay off for exposition, but knowing the limit is the key.

    I really made no sense for Marty to meet his mother twice cause if she fell in love with him the second time, who’s to say she wasn’t in love with him the first time that they met. I’m so happy that they corrected that.

    I think since this film incorporates sci-fi, taking three years to complete a final draft with revisions is fine (you can also add in supernatural and fantasy). But if it’s another genre like action, comedy, thriller, when is it too much time being devoted to one project that might just be better if you revisit it in a few years or simply toss it to the side?

  • fragglewriter

    I totally agree.

    Also by looking at their filmography, before Back to the Future, they had 3 produced screenplays, and maybe one or 2 produced screenplays at Back to the Future (I don’t count the sequels cause they we’re horrid)

  • cjob3

    For once, the old comedy adage doesn’t apply. I think this script is actually better WITHOUT a monkey! Sorry, Shemp.

  • Panos Tsapanidis

    I LOVED this comparison. Great article. Much better than writing about Hercules.

  • J. Lawrence Head

    Honest question, Carson. Would how you felt about this script be different if you were unaware of, or hadn’t seen the final product?

  • bluedenham

    Really interesting and useful article. I hope you do more of these!

  • gonzorama

    Thanks, Carson. I’ve always wanted to read this.
     
    Besides the plot points you mentioned, to me the biggest change from this draft to the final film was defining the characters. You mentioned Marty’s parents, who were very boring, but Marty and Doc were also one dimensional. Doc was lacking any kind of emotion or excitement, and that’s what made him such a great character in the film. And Marty was just a dick! Pirating VHS tapes and being offered to hang out and get high are two things I’m glad they lost. Sure, he’s a slacker, but that’s why we could relate to him.
     
    I don’t know if Spielberg gave them notes on this but if he did I’d like to see them. The time machine was very simple and boring; the monkey was very cliché for the time, and the lack of urgency throughout most of the script left me wanting more — more of what they ended up with.
     
    I think this is a great example of how to turn a good idea into a classic. Thanks!

    • klmn

      I agree. There’s a lot of stuff in the beginning that execs might be shy of: pirating video. pirating porn, stolen plutonium, Marty talking about getting high.

  • Poe_Serling

    Thanks for the article, Carson!

    Here’s one of my favorite stories behind the making of Back to the Future:

    “Sid Sheinberg, the head of Universal Pictures, made many small changes to the movie.
    “Professor Brown” was changed to “Doctor Brown” and his chimp Shemp to a dog named Einstein. Marty’s mother had previously been Meg, then Eileen, but Sid Sheinberg
    insisted that she be named Lorraine after his wife Lorraine Gary. According to one of the DVD commentaries, Sheinberg also did not like the title, insisting that no one would see a movie with “future” in the title. In a memo to Robert Zemeckis, he said that the title should be changed to “Spaceman From Pluto”, tying in with the Marty-as-alien jokes in the film. Steven Spielberg replied in a memo thanking him for the wonderful “joke memo” and told him everyone got a kick out of it. Sid Sheinberg, too proud to admit he was serious, let the title stand.”

    • Acarl

      Sheinberg also recently(’11) financed through his Bubble Factory co., one of the biggest box office flops of all time named – ‘Creature’ — a putrid, painful horror flick.

      • Poe_Serling

        Yeah, I never even heard of it. I just read the below article about the many reasons that it performed so poorly at the box-office.

        http://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/dec/09/creature-biggest-box-office-flop

        • klmn

          I never heard of it either. Maybe there’s still hope for the half llama man script, if Carson gets busy with the rewrite.

        • Citizen M

          If you want mutant creatures, horny teenagers, nudity, and gore, I recommend “Piranha 3DD”. It’s even got Ving Rhames and The Hoff, not to mention a Cooch Cam. I loved it.

  • Alex Palmer

    Hmmm… you’re little mistake has got me thinking of somekind of Almighty Hoe-down: Greek Gods Vs Norse Gods (Vs Egyptian Gods Vs Predator).

    Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson. Would this not be the best film ever?

    • Hadley’s Hope

      Sort of like the Olympians usurping the Titans.

      Are the Annunaki and planet Nibiru involved in this story of yours?

  • drifting in space

    Goes back to what I always say about AoW. People type THE END and toss it around everywhere, thinking it’s gold.

    REWRITES PEOPLE! REWRITES!!!

    The best do it, we are not better than the best. I’m surprised they went out with the original. I read it a few months ago and was not impressed.

    • J. Lawrence Head

      My brain is foggy today. AoW?

      • drifting in space

        Amateur offerings weekend.

        • J. Lawrence Head

          Right, yes. Thank you.

  • Citizen M

    One scene that remained virtually unchanged from first draft to final movie was when Marty gets his mother and father together at the dance and Biff gets his comeuppance.

    It was probably the most tightly plotted scene in the movie. A great example of things going horribly wrong but ending up all right in the end, always a crowd-pleaser.

  • klmn

    Maybe some of us should get together and build Carson a couch catapult that really works? We could use a compressor and air cylinder(s) or perhaps fast acting hydraulics like the Lowriders use.

    Just to help him out, of course.

    • gonzorama

      We’ll call it Carson Chunkin’

      • Hadley’s Hope

        I’m seeing a tablet game in the style of Angry Birds.

        Instead of points, when you do well you get little bits of screenwriting advice.

  • James Inez

    Writing is difficult as it is, but I feel like rewriting is even harder. I think it’s due to the fact that when you finish the first draft, even though it’s not perfect, it still feels like your “done”. Maybe the trick then is to always remind yourself that you are never done, even when you finish.

    This comparison is a great example that demonstrates just how much a difference a rewrite will make on your script. Great idea, with a mediocre execution to a nearly perfect script!

  • UrbaneGhoul

    Oh man, I wanted to talk about Thor 2. It’s really nothing like the Norse myths, it’s more Star Wars with sword fighting and space bazookas.

    Me and my friend were talking about the Amblin films of the 80s like Back to the Future and Goonies while talking about Super 8. In Super 8, the train scene is a big CGI spectacle, crashing boxes and cars and shit. If BttF was done today, the DeLorean going in two circles wouldn’t be enough, even with the Libyans giving chase. We’d have to see the time vortex and maybe he has to avoid going into other time periods and ends up being the lightning that struck Ben Franklin’s kite before landing in 1955. Or in Goonies, instead of jumping off the ship, they’re be a sword fight with Bran against the Fratellis, they’d set it up with Bran being late for his fencing lessons.

    As for this, I didn’t go all the way through. Just too much exposition. BttF had that perfect way to open a movie, it was just fun with the dog food and then Huey Lewis. The only change that I preferred from the VHS was that they cut down Marty being chased by the Libyans. He basically makes one turn and says “Let’s see if these bastards can do 90″ and we’re off.

  • ScottStrybos

    Is that movie poster at the beginning of the post legit? Is it a real poster used to promote the movie in the 80’s? I want it! I want it! I want it!

  • MayfieldLake

    This was a great exercise. I learned a lot from this article. Thank you.

    I think continuing to review earlier drafts of scripts made into movies would be great for this site. I like to read older drafts and pretend that I have just been hired to rewrite them. It’s helpful.

  • cjob3

    I saw B2TF2 in the theaters. Opening night. Packed house. When the words TO BE CONCLUDED came on the screen, it was the first time I ever heard an audience boo.

  • cjob3

    One thing the pirating angle did was give Doc and MArty a REASON to hang out- which they never had in the movie.

  • blueiis0112

    I never liked the franchise as I thought that they were overacted. But, the concept itself I always found intriguing. I always thought that naming the dog after the scientist who said that time travel was not possible was poetic though.

  • Combaticron

    Wow. That was painful–and not just because the movie was so much better. The dialog is overly expository and lacks any hint of subtext, and there is rampant exclamation mark abuse. “Marty runs off the stage! The truck pulls out!” Thank goodness they kept rewriting. The world is a better place for it.

  • klmn

    Post your email and I’m sure you’ll get 1 or more copies.

    Feel free to break up the address like CRAIGMACK AT BLANK DOT COM.

    And email Carson to get on the mailing list. Use the contact button in the top right corner of this page.

  • Citizen M

    Google “Back to the Future 1981 script”

  • filmklassik

    “What strikes me here is that they had the writing balls to rethink even the good stuff and make it great.

    Terrific point!

    “Let’s face it, the last nuke test as the power source to send Marty back is all kinds of awesome. It’s set up in the classroom and pays off in the climax. It’s cool, it’s visual, it’s exciting. I can see the temptation to keep it and make it work (maybe Marty’s hometown is closer to the Nevada Test Site).”

    So true! If I had been a producer on this movie, I could see myself lobbying hard to retain the final nuke test (because it IS a cool idea) — and I would’ve been wrong!

    Excellent observation, Johnny!

  • david_pg

    This article is a MASTER WORK.