I’ll never forget the summer of 1985. I had just completed my first year of high school, become infatuated with a girl for the first time and it was the summer I saw Back to the Future. Sure, the summer was packed with memorable movies, and not like today with sequel after sequel, no, 1985 was crammed with original hits like Goonies, The Breakfast Club and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. There were so many great movies on the horizon that a movie about a guy and a car who somehow goes back in time was at the bottom of my must see list. I was more interested in watching kids build a carnival ride into a spaceship in Explorers or mankind bond with their alien adversaries in Enemy Mine. Sure there were the inevitable sequels, but I’ll take Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome over Hot Tub Time Machine 2 any day of the week. Every January the Los Angeles Times published a Sneaks article that listed every movie coming out that year. I used to grab a red pen and circle the movies I wanted to see like a normal kid does with the Christmas Sears Wish Book Catalog.
Oddly, the Michael J. Fox movie wasn’t on my list. Maybe it was because I wasn’t a motorhead who loved cars, maybe it was that Fox was on television every week on Family Ties and it didn’t seem urgent to rush to the theater to see him. Or maybe it was that I wasn’t a Spielberg junkie yet, having put George Lucas at the top of my movie food chain. Whatever the reason, I had to be dragged to the film by my brother, who insisted that I was going to love it. I remember sitting there with my bucket of popcorn and soda, my contraband bag of M&Ms that I snuck in neatly tucked into my pocket, waiting for the movie to begin. They used to run these Los Angeles Times commercials before the movies here in Southern California and they were so boring. Eventually they would be all about movie production, but the first ones were about reporters in Japan and kids hanging out at the beach. A slew of obligatory trailers unspooled and finally, finally the movie began. Remember, this was 1985, there’s no internet to spoil the movie, only Siskel and Ebert to tell you if the flick was worth paying full price. So, if you got to the movie on opening day you could actually still be surprised.
Great Scott, was I surprised.
Back to the Future changed my life that day. I was mesmerized by the clever story of an ’80s teen who is accidentally sent back in time and interrupts his parents’ first meeting. He has only a few days to get mom and dad to fall in love and to get himself back to the future. It’s a simple story you can describe quickly, but the film is so much more than that. I felt exhilarated, blown away and electrified by the movie. Up until that point I had decided to become a special effects wizard, building models and blowing them up on the big screen like my heroes at ILM did for Star Wars and its sequels. But after witnessing what Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale were able to do with just words and story made me want to be a writer. I wanted to tell stories that great, to make someone feel the way that I did when George McFly finally stands up to Biff in the parking lot and then plants the kiss to last a lifetime on Lorraine at The Enchantment Under the Sea dance. Wow, what emotion! What a pay off! Back to the Future sent me out into the street reeling. I had found my meaning. I had found me.
That’s a lot for a teen summer comedy to accomplish, let me tell you. I spent the rest of that summer in a DeLorean-induced haze. The nearest first-run theater showing Back to the Future was about 6 miles away in Lakewood, California. After begging my mom for ticket money, I would get up early and make the ride to the mall on my bike. After catching the first or second bargain matinee showing, I’d huff it back home, pretending the whole way that my bike would somehow hit the magical 88 miles per hour needed to go back in time. I made that journey over and over so much that the theater crew got to know me by name. They even pretended not to notice the time that my bag of smuggled candy fell out of my pocket at the door. The usher winked and said, “As long as it ends up in the trash and not the floor it’s okay with me.” As a lifelong movie junkie, I always make a point to clean up my own movie trash.
Eventually, the film ran its course and ended up at the bargain cinema, which was great as it was just down the street. My 6-mile ride was reduced to less than 2 miles and the price went down to $1.50! I was able to go every day after that. Yes, everyday. In the end I saw Back to the Future about 40 times in the theater. And some of those screenings in August included a double feature with Teen Wolf, a quickie Michael J. Fox film filmed before Back to the Future but held back to capitalize on the sudden star’s new fame. It may be hard to believe in this fast food day and age but popular movies back in the day were in theaters a long time. So long in fact that when Back to the Future finally arrived on home video in March of 1986, a full 10 months after its initial release into theaters, it stayed on bargain screens for weeks afterward! How do I know this for a fact? Well, you have to know that when it was announced that the film was coming to home video I freaked out. To think that I was actually going to own the movie in my house! That I could watch it whenever I wanted! I nearly lost my mind. But my teenage years were anything but easy and we didn’t own a VHS VCR – we had a top-loading Sony Betamax! Beta! The scorn of video stores around the globe! I knew that the video store we frequented, “Multi-Video,” was going to have 20 rental copies of the movie on VHS but only 1 on Beta! This is years before Blockbuster came onto the scene with plenty of copies of every movie (All VHS, Beta having died a slow death by 1989). I begged my mom to go in late to work on that Tuesday so she could be first at the store to get the movie on the day of release. I walked to school that day in a panic – what if she couldn’t get it? What it if it was sold out? I’d be at the mercy of the people to return the movie! It might take days! It might take until the weekend! It might be never! I stared at the clock all day (fitting, don’t you think?) and then ran home to watch Back to the Future in the comfort of my own home. My mom met me at the door with a dour look on her face. “They didn’t have any Beta copies, Jeffrey,” she said solemnly. I thought I was going to die. People all over the world were watching the movie at that very moment and I all I had was a tattered Collector’s Edition Magazine that was torn to bits from photocopying pages and hanging them on the wall.
Sure, I had spent the summer recording every music video and clip off of television, so much so that I bragged at school that I had enough to assemble a Frankenstein version of the film from the bits and pieces. But I didn’t have the rental copy! I was spiraling out of control! My mom brought me firmly back to reality by saying that she figured this was going to happen and that she had purchased a Beta copy of the film for me.
Purchased. Bought. My own personal copy.
This was back when most movies came out as rental copies. There were no copies of Back to the Future for sale in March of 1986. My mom had to special order it and pay full price for it. $59.95! Minimum wage in 1986 was $3.35, so it would take about 20 hours to earn enough for a full price videocassette. I cried as I removed the cellophane from that movie. And when I put it into the Betamax on top of our gigantic wood-paneled console television, I didn’t move for the next 2 solid hours. It was only when the words “To be continued” flashed on the screen just after the DeLorean zooms into 2015 that I screamed my head off. Those words had never appeared in the theatrical cut of the film. They were going to make a sequel! I couldn’t believe it! I danced around as the Beta tape rewound…and then I watched it again. I watched it nonstop for days on end. And when I finally came up for air I discovered that it was still playing at the bargain theater. So…I went and saw it on the screen again. I couldn’t help myself. There was something magical about the movie that spoke to me. Still does. I watch it over and over and enjoy it like comfort food. I found an orange vest just like Marty’s and wore it to school over a jean jacket. I carried the novelization with me everywhere I went and I went on a journey to find all of the local filming locations.
By July of 1986 I figured I knew more about the movie than just about anyone on earth. I had studied it like the Zapruder film, read and re-read the novelization and destroyed my collector magazine. I had the mail-away California Raisins 4X4 Truck and the giant cardboard standee from the video store. I even had a bizarre counter top display that raised an empty VHS box up and down for no apparent reason. But then something amazing happened – Bruce Gordon, a Disney Imagineer, published an article in Starlog Magazine titled “The Other Marty McFly” that proposed that a second Marty appears at the beginning of the film when Doc throws his gun during the Twin Pines Mall scene. This caused me to go back to the movie and study it some more. I’ve seen every frame of the film in the 30 years since its release. It’s a movie I never get tired of. It’s pushed me to be a writer – I went from short stories to one-act plays, from 3 act-plays to screenplays, and, finally to novels. I just recently published the 4th novel in my series that features, what else, a flying train sorta like the one that ends the “Back to the Future” trilogy. I owe every ounce of my artistic drive to Back to the Future – every time I finish a draft of something I ask myself if it’s as good as Marty McFly’s adventure. If it’s not, I go back and rework it. It’s a tall order to live up to – but it keeps me striving to do and be better. The story presented in Back to the Future fits together perfectly with every scene either setting up or paying off until the finale. And fittingly, it ends with George McFly publishing his first novel. Back to the Future made my summer in 1985 and it continues to make me laugh, cry and dream.