Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Day 1 (Back to the Future)

So Scott Myers, screenwriter of K-9, has a blog of screenwriting advice. A little over a year ago, he wrote a post about how reading existing scripts can help immensely in developing your own craft. He followed the post with a list of 14 scripts which he advised people to read in a span of 14 days.

I am taking him up on the challenge over a year late.

My plan is to divide my findings into (a) interesting script format things I hadn't considered, and (b) things that changed from script to film and whether or not I approve.

Also, be prepared for spoilers script and film-wise.

Today's script is Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale's first draft of Back to the Future.

(a) Format Stuff

There were only two things I hadn't really seen before used here. The first of which was underlining to accentuate a word where I would usually italicize. I think I actually prefer the underlining because it is much clearer to the reader as italicizing can occasionally go unnoticed, resulting in the dreaded misreading of a line.

Another thing, which I am less likely to borrow, was spacing out action lines by naming an object or person in all caps with one line and then describing the object or person in a following paragraph. For example:


with purple radioactivity emblems labeled: EXTREME DANGER! RADIOACTIVE PLUTONIUM! AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY! DO NOT HANDLE WITHOUT RADIATION SUIT! And further down, “Property of San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant, San Onofre, California.” The orange is resting right up against it.


takes a deep breath, then uses his foot to roll the orange away from the crate. He cautiously backs away from the cot and tosses the orange into a trash can. Professor Brown continues sleeping soundly.

In a few instances the object or person was centered, but I suspect that was more typo than formatting.

(b) What's the Diff?

The biggest differences between the script and film are in the sending of Marty McFly back and forth through time, but I'll come back to that.

There are little almost needless adjustments. The orange vest was originally a Porsche Jacket, the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance was once the Springtime in Paris Dance, a dog named Einstein was formerly a monkey named Shemp, and luckily for us the famous line "1.21 Gigawatts" replaced the slightly less memorable...


4200 rads? Good God!

In this draft of the script, the benefits of time travel are much more pronounced. The film starts out in an almost desolate Hill Valley. All the businesses are shutting down and Marty's teachers give depressing lectures on the eminent threat of a nuclear apocalypse. But upon his return, he finds the town transformed into a thriving steampunk utopia populated exclusively with the inventions of one Doctor Emmett Brown. In this crazy new future, inflation works more like deflation (50 cents an hour is a generous living wage) and people use Coca-Cola to fuel their flying cars.

One of the things I found interesting in the original draft was Marty's penchant for crime. His first thought upon being introduced to the time machine is to send back horse racing results, and he appears to be something of a VHS pirate and potentially a pot smoker...


Hey, you wanna come over? Get high?


Maybe tomorrow. I gotta dupe some more tapes.

That feels more like Eric Stoltz than Michael J. Fox to me.

A few of the things that bothered me about the original script, which were of course eventually corrected, were the coincidences that seemed to unfold one after another. Instead of following George to where he spies on Lorraine (originally Eileen), Marty just dumbfoundedly wanders up to her house alone, faints when he meets her, and wakes up to Professor Brown, who Eileen's family called to check on the boy.

As much as I have always enjoyed the image of a gang of Libyans opening their new bomb to find a mess of pinball machine parts, I was surprised and a bit pleased to find a much more believable source for Doc's plutonium in this draft. He simply stole it from a nuclear power plant. Instead of being attacked by the Libyans in the parking lot of the Twin Pines Mall, a pair of Nuclear Regulation Commission agents burst in just as the experiment reaches the point of no return.

Which brings us back to the most compelling difference, that which sets the film leaps and bounds ahead of this draft, the severe lack of DeLorean. But it's not just the DeLorean that's gone, it's the clock tower, it's the lightning, it's all the images anyone conjures up at the mention of the film.

Traveling backward, Marty isn't even sent by vessel, but rather by beam of light. From the way it is described, I imagine the time machine closely resembling a machine Rick Moranis might have used to shrink his various children. But that's not even the most important change.

In the film, Marty has a love note from Jennifer on the back of a "Save the Clock Tower" flier. Here it's written on the back of a page Marty has torn from his science book describing the last above-ground detonation of a nuclear weapon, two days after his parents' first date.

That's right folks, but it gets better. As Marty wanders the nuclear test site, complete with fully-furnished track housing and mannequins in life-like poses, I am reminded of yet another, much more recent Steven Spielberg production. I'll let you guys be the judge, but you can probably guess where Marty hides to survive the nuclear blast.

Hint: It rhymes with "a refrigerator."

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