We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy

bttfThe Short Version: One of the greatest trilogies of all time, Caseen Gaines takes a look behind the scenes of the Back to the Future films – unexpected recasting, thematic issues, splitting films in two… and one hell of a car.

The Review: Just a few weeks ago, we reached the future we were promised in Back to the Future Part II. It might not have quite looked like Bob Zemeckis & Bob Gale told us… but with Lyft-driven DeLoreans driving the streets of New York and LA, computers in our pockets, and rampant sequels (if not Jaws 19), it sure does feel like the future. And so what better time to look back, eh Marty?

It probably won’t surprise you to know that I adore the Back to the Future trilogy. I don’t remember the first time I saw it (although I think I watched all three in pretty short succession – not quite a marathon but within a few weeks at least); it sort of feels like it has always been there in my cultural vernacular. Marty McFly might be part of the reason I play guitar, why I love time travel stories, why I like Huey Lewis and the News… these movies matter to me. So, naturally, the idea of learning more about how they were made seemed like an awesome gift – a way to celebrate October 21st, 2015 and also revisit one of those childhood totems that I’ve not visited in quite a while.

Gaines’ book had been excerpted at Vulture over the summer, detailing the awkwardness that developed around the original Marty McFly (Eric Stoltz) and his relatively unceremonious departure from the project. I read that and thought “whoa, heavy” because I genuinely had no idea – I mean, how could this movie exist without Michael J. Fox? My appetite was whetted by the excerpt and I dove into the book with the hopes that it would all be so fascinating.
And for the first few sections, it is. The Bobs (Gale and Zemeckis) had a pretty tortured path to getting the first film made and the several near-misses where we nearly didn’t getBack to the Future were fascinating. So, too, was the first movie’s tortured shooting process – everything from the Marty swap to the finicky DeLoreans, it was delightful stuff.

And then Gaines (and, perhaps, his sources) just… stop diving so deep. The chapter about replacing the mercurial Crispin Glover seemed oddly couched, as though it didn’t want to offend anyone, and the individual behind-the-scenes stories seemed far less concrete for Part II and Part III. The book becomes superficial – which is not a bad thing, necessarily, but definitely a disappointment compared to what came before. The promise of a deep dive into the creation of these movies is replaced with something more light-hearted and ultimately celebratory. As such, it becomes less of a crucial text and more of an expanded Wikipedia article. Many of these stories can be found with a relatively easy Google search and I came away knowing very little more about the latter films than I did when I picked up the book.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5. The early going, describing the struggles of getting the first film made, makes for excellent reading and the possibility of an alternate timeline without Back to the Future suddenly seems very close, as though we just narrowly avoided heading down that path. But the stories seem to dry up headed into Parts II & III and there’s a noticeable lack of input from Michael J. Fox (although Gaines does have a chance to talk with nearly every other major player, both actors and creatives) throughout the whole thing that keeps this from being anything more than a trifle. If you read the excerpt about replacing Eric Stoltz, there’s not much more in the book that’ll thrill you like that did – but, also, the book may do for you what it did for me: send me racing home to turn on the movies and watch them again, remembering a time when blockbusters were original and when movies had a little more joy in them. I wish we could go back, Marty – back to that future.

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