Sunday, August 25, 2019
Friday, August 23, 2019
As Back to the Future got closer to its release, there was a lot of stress to go around. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale had a lot riding on the picture. Zemeckis was afraid that he would not be trusted with another big project if the movie bombed. Michael J. Fox’s career was on the rise, but a failed project could undermine his career before it really started. Oddly enough, the studio that was footing the bill had the least to lose. While the project went overbudget, it wasn’t by a crazy amount. Even if Back to the Future lost every penny the studio spent on it, it still wouldn’t make a dent in the massive profits brought in by E.T. Making Back to the Future would keep Steven Spielberg happy and that’s all that mattered to Universal Pictures.
Of course, Back to the Future was a phenomenon. It made Michael J. Fox a superstar. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale could now walk into any studio they wished (without Steven Spielberg) and make any project they wanted. Universal had a massive hit, bigger than even it had expected or hoped for. The studio’s famed tour would now make a point of driving past the film’s sets. “Mockingbird Square” so named after being used in the classic film To Kill A Mockingbird, became forever known as “Courthouse Square” after it stood in for Hill Valley in Back to the Future.
Universal Pictures obviously wanted a sequel. Zemeckis and Gale wanted to complete their trilogy on their own terms. Thus they required Universal to approve both part two and part three to go into production at the same time. It was an unprecedented request that was wholeheartedly approved by Universal Pictures.
The film inspired a slew of spinoffs, including an attraction built at Universal Studios theme parks around the world. While the attractions have been replaced, the film still has a large presence at Universal Studios Hollywood, where it was filmed.
In recent years, the film’s fans have further embraced it, with its 30th Anniversary garnering much attention and interest. The film might have had a rocky beginning and an even rockier production, but it was the one in a million film that rose above all that to become a classic blockbuster. The wise words spoken by Doc Brown in the end could have been inspired by the film’s rocky production. What could have been an epic failure became an epic success.
“It means your future hasn't been written yet. No one's has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one.”
- Doc Brown
Thursday, August 22, 2019
With Eric Stoltz out and Michael J. Fox in, the stress on Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis was immense. He had staked his directing career on this film and his reputation on the change from Eric to Michael. On the outside, the film sounded like it would be a mess. Every studio rejected it; Columbia Pictures only bought the script to get Zemeckis to do something else for them. In the beginning, Universal Pictures was only doing it as a very expensive favor to Steven Spielberg, who it wanted to keep happy. With a major recast, ballooning budget and possibly catastrophic delays, there were few outside of Amblin Entertainment who expected much from the film.
Production, however, moved forward. Michael J. Fox would spend the day at Paramount, working on Family Ties then heading out to Universal for Back to the Future. He now describes that time period as a rough one, getting as much sleep as he could in between makeup and costuming changes. By day he was Alex P. Keaton. By night, Marty McFly.
Once the grueling shoot ended, a rush was put on finishing the post-production special effects. Universal Pictures had posted a billboard near its famed studio that counted down the days until Back to the Future would be unleashed in theaters. The ironic thing about the billboard was that the film was not yet finished when it was erected. Cast and crew were regularly driving past the billboard to get to work each day, so the billboard not only promoted the film to potential ticket buyers, it was a stark reminder to everyone involved in the film’s production that they were almost running outta time.
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
Having already staked a claim on the Fourth of July weekend, production on Back to the Future began in 1984 with Eric Stoltz and Christopher Lloyd in the lead roles.
When Stoltz’s tenure as Marty McFly is mentioned, it is often inferred that he might have only been in a few scenes before he was replaced. Stoltz, however, had already filmed most of Marty’s scenes.
In fact, Back to the Future had been filming for a month before Robert Zemeckis decided to make the tough call and convince Universal and Spielberg that they needed to replace Stoltz.
While Universal was onboard with the change, they were only willing to throw away a month’s worth of film if Zemeckis and Spielberg could get Michael J. Fox. Armed with a sizable check and willing to work around Fox’s Family Ties schedule, Universal was able to convince NBC and Family Ties producer Gary David Goldberg to let them use Michael J. Fox.
Aside from the obvious problems this change caused, Eric Stoltz had ingratiated himself with the rest of the cast. He socialized in the same circles as co-stars Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson and Crispin Glover. Not only was Michael J. Fox an interloper, the cast was going to have to do major reshoots in the dead of night to accommodate his schedule. The producers gracefully handled the situation, however, stating that the issue wasn’t that Eric wasn’t good in the role, but that he wasn’t right for it. This caused the cast to rally around each other, despite the catastrophic turn of events.
With the film overbudget, delayed and its star replaced, Hollywood was beginning to talk about how Universal’s big budget blockbuster for 1985 was shaping up to be a bust. Only a miracle (or a passionate director) could save this shrinking ship. Time was ticking away.
Tuesday, August 20, 2019
With their dream project backed by Steven Spielberg and setup at Universal Pictures, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale probably thought that their troubles were mostly over. They would soon realize that their troubles were just beginning.
Since Universal Pictures was going to be footing the bill, its executives were jittery about the project. Sidney Sheinberg had been assigned to shepherd the project through pre-production. He made some small suggestions- like naming Marty’s mother Lorraine and changing “Professor Brown” to Doc Brown. Other changes were larger, like making Doc Brown own a dog instead of a chimpanzee. One was a nonstarter- changing the film’s title from Back to the Future to Spaceman From Pluto, because he believed there had never been a successful film with Future in the title. After an emergency meeting with Steven Spielberg, Bob and Robert were able to keep their film’s title and their sanity.
The next big challenge was casting the role of Marty McFly. Universal, Steven and Robert & Bob were all in agreement- Marty had to be portrayed by Michael J. Fox. Despite the show’s slow start, Family Ties had become a juggernaut on NBC, catapulting Michael J. Fox to stardom. With everyone in agreement, Universal Pictures began negotiating to get him onboard. Michael wanted to play Marty McFly, but he was under contract to NBC, and they were unwilling to be flexible with his schedule or even let him star in the film. Michael was unwilling to anger NBC, so he passed on the project. Universal cast Eric Stoltz in the role of Marty McFly.
With the script finalized and the cast onboard, Universal Pictures staked out the July 4th weekend in 1985 as the release date for its big summer hit. Certainly, everyone involved could breathe a sigh of relief, since the worst was behind them, right? Despite the trials and tribulations experienced so far, the worst was yet to come.
Monday, August 19, 2019
It was a project that had been rejected by virtually every major studio. The first star approached for the leading role had to turn it down. The actor who did take the role was deemed unsuitable for it by the director and replaced, resulting in the film going overbudget and threatening its schedule release date of Summer 1985. One of these setbacks could doom a project. But all of them? Surely no project could overcome these hurdles to become one of the biggest blockbusters in movie history. Back to the Future, not only overcame these hurdles, it is still fondly remembered as one of the most beloved films of all time.
It wasn’t an easy project to sell. One quick glance at the script was all anyone needed to see that this would be a hugely expensive undertaking. Making the film would be a very expensive risk. Walt Disney Productions, which was in desperate need of a hit at the time, considered it, but they didn’t like the subplot in which lead character would get wooed by his own mother back in 1955.
Robert Zemeckis and his co-writer Bob Gale had been shopping the film around since 1980. Columbia Pictures considered making it and signed a deal with the pair to complete the script and present it to them. After reading the script and seeing the presentation, Columbia rejected it, putting the project in “turnaround”, which is a process in which a studio declares a the project as a loss on its tax returns. This means that the studio can’t ever legally produce the film under tax laws and makes it easier to sell the project elsewhere. Columbia then tried to get the guys to take the film to Disney, which they initially declined to do, shopping it around town elsewhere. With the explosion of teen sex comedies in the early 1980’s, the major studios felt that the film was not raunchy enough and that its special effects budgets would be too big. As noted above, Disney had opposite reasons for turning the project down.
In 1984, however, Robert Zemeckis’ fortunes would change. Romancing the Stone, which he would direct for Twentieth Century Fox would be a huge hit, giving Zemeckis the pull he needed to get his favored projects made. Projects like Back to the Future. Having brought Stephen Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment onto the project, Back to the Future was now on the fast track. Amblin Entertainment was based on the Universal Lot, but could take its projects anywhere. Universal was not initially interested in Back to the Future, but it did want to keep Spielberg happy. It didn’t, however, want to pay Columbia for the script. A fortuitous event would allow Universal to get the script for free.
John Cassavetes was directing a film for Columbia called Big Trouble, which studio lawyers felt had a plot too close to Universal’s Double Indemnity. If the studio wanted to release the film, it would need to make a deal with Universal to obtain a license to use Double Indemnity or else it wouldn’t clear legal. A deal was arranged to trade the rights for Double Indemnity for the Back to the Future script. If Zemeckis thought there were only blue skies ahead, he would be mistaken. The torturous path the film followed to get to this point would look tame in comparison to what was ahead.
Friday, August 16, 2019
Skidoo was unleashed upon the world in December of 1968. It was obvious that Paramount Pictures was trying to hide the geriatric cast by doing its best to not feature them in print ads. The promotional department featured either a cartoon criminal or a woman’s midriff in posters and advertisements.
Academy Award consideration? Talk about wishful thinking!
The picture landed in theaters with a thud. The young people it was supposed to attract found it to be a square, out of touch mess. The older audience who might have wanted to see Jackie Gleason and Carol Channing found it to be vulgar. The critics had a field day taking the film down.
Gouge your eyes out, kids!
In the end, the film lost a ton of money at the box office. While the picture didn’t quite ruin the careers of its stars, it did cement the idea that Otto Preminger was past it. There were even whispers that he was beginning to show signs of dementia, though those accusations were and are vehemently denied by his family. After its initial theatrical run and its television contracts had expired, Otto quietly put the picture away and forbade it from ever being exhibited, though it did see a bit of a resurgence in the late 1970’s that reportedly pleased Otto. It is the only Preminger film that was never released on videocassette and it was only kept alive through bootlegs.
Get my agent on the line. Chico doesn’t need the money this much!
So where did the film go wrong? While we can only imagine what Doran William Cannon’s original script might have been like, his suggestion that the mob characters be portrayed straight with the hippies bringing the laughs sounds like it could have made for a more intriguing picture. The biggest mistake made by Otto Preminger, however, was the casting. If the goal of the film was to attract a younger audience, Otto should have gotten bigger stars to play the hippies and lesser known stars to play the older characters. That would have allowed the Paramount PR machine to promote the younger stars. Instead, the film appeared to be more suited to a retirement home than a commune.
Even Groucho didn’t want to watch Skidoo.
For years, the only evidence that the film existed was its Harry Nilsson soundtrack, which had originally been dismissed along with the film. Other than the gimmicky credit sequence and Carol Channing’s croaky “Skidoo”, the soundtrack is actually quite good. Bad movie fans would have to wait until 2011 to finally get their own copy of the film. Brilliantly restored and offered on DVD and Blu-ray, the release meant that Preminger’s entire catalog had finally been released on Home video.
The film’s failure reportedly confused Otto Preminger. He had taken the project on as a way to connect with his son and it had failed spectacularly. Despite his inability to accurately depict the younger generation, the trials and tribulations of shooting the film did succeed in bringing them together. For that reason, the picture wasn’t a complete failure.
Thursday, August 15, 2019
His ragtag gang of young unknowns and geriatric legends assembled, Otto began the production of Skidoo. According to legend, both he and Groucho took LSD as “research” for their roles. It soon became apparent that everyone involved was probably going to need something much stronger than that to get through this shoot. Otto was in over his head, not just because he was depicting a generation who could easily be his grandchildren, but also because he could never find a way to direct his legendary cast in comedy.
Yeah Jackie, we’re surprised you did this too.
Otto wanted broad, overplayed comedy. He expected the actors to not just tell the jokes, but make it obvious that these were jokes. Gleason was beside himself that this dramatic director would tell him how to make something funny. Gleason knew comedy; Preminger did not. Carol Channing had gotten her start on Broadway where actors often have to be bigger to play to the people in the balcony, but she definitely knew that was not the way to make a film. By the end of the production, neither Gleason nor Channing were speaking to Preminger.
Skidoo! Skidoo! Even I think this movie is a piece of poo!
As the grueling production wore on, it was obvious to most that they were all trapped in one big mess of a film. Austin Pendleton, who played Fred the Professor, was as close to an ally of Otto’s that one could find on the set. And yet, even he wanted out. He could sense that the film was going to be disastrous and while trying to make the best of things on the set would call his agent off the set begging her to get him out of his contract. Of course, she could not.
For being a tense set, there was very little shouting or anger. Jackie Gleason mentally checked out and kept to himself, but he never raised his voice. Carol Channing at first tried to please Otto, but when he started to turn his frustration towards her, she started ignoring him. Otto’s long lost son, whose existence sparked Preminger’s interest in producing a ‘today’ picture, became the go-between with his father and Carol. She grew quite fond of him, even though she despised his father.
Back then we had these things called ‘exercise bikes’ where you would put your feet on what were known as ‘pedals’.
But the worst, most temperamental legend on the set was Groucho Marx. Otto had amazingly thought that Groucho was too old to be in the film but hired him anyway at the suggestion of Doran William Cannon, the screenwriter. Groucho was belligerent, crude and dismissive. Luckily for the cast, he was mostly depicted alone or with his mistress. Otto, on the other hand, had to put up with him and mostly failed. It would be Groucho’s final movie appearance.
Everything I did that you hated? It was because Chico needed the money.
Despite the insanity, Otto brought the film in on time and under budget as always. Paramount wasn’t sure what the public would think about this picture. Did they have the dud on their hands that everybody predicted or would it be a pleasant surprise? They would know soon enough.
Wednesday, August 14, 2019
If Paramount wasn’t somewhat concerned by the fact that an elderly director was promising to bring them a ‘today’ picture, they must have at least started wondering about what exactly Otto Preminger was thinking when he began signing up talent. Based on the early casting news, it seemed as though Mr. Preminger had just rounded up everyone at the Screen Actor’s Retirement Home who was ambulatory and gave them a contract.
Craft Services here is so much better than the food at Shady Pines!
While it was understandable that the role of a retired mobster couldn’t be played by a young person, when Otto signed up the aging Jackie Gleason as Tony Banks, he was all but guaranteeing that Mr. Gleason would have to be front and center on all promotional materials and in the film.
Skidoo! Skidoo! Your ears will stop bleeding in a day or two!
Carol Channing was cast as Mrs. Banks, adding another older name to the credits. The rest of the geriatric cast included Burgess Meredith, Mickey Rooney, Arnold Stang, Cesar Romero, Peter Lawford and Groucho Marx. Even if the young people at the time knew who any of these old fogeys were, they probably wouldn’t break down the doors to get to their local movie theater to watch them. The youngest of the well known actors in the picture was Frankie Avalon, who would have been seen as a square by the very audience the film was trying to attract. Frankie does have to do some heavy lifting here; he has to endure a Carol Channing striptease.
Eye bleach anyone?
Instead of casting bigger names for the hippies, Preminger went with mostly unknowns, which further exacerbated the problems of promoting a youth film. Otto decided to balance out his geriatric cast with a youthful soundtrack and managed to snag Harry Nilsson to produce it for him. Harry was reportedly so entranced by the script that he even took a small role as a prison guard. Harry claimed that he had never taken drugs and based his LSD scene on being drunk. He must have been lying about that if he liked the script to Skidoo.
Otto made me sign the contract at gunpoint. What’s your excuse?
With a cast rounded up from a nursing home and a script more reminiscent of ‘yesterday’ than ‘today’, Otto began production on the film he hoped would not only attract young people but also get him the acceptance he craved from his newly discovered son.
Groucho needed the money.
Tuesday, August 13, 2019
With Too Far to Walk officially dead, Otto Preminger began getting Skidoo ready for production. The film’s plot centered around Tony Banks, a retired mob enforcer who just wanted to live out the rest of his life in suburban splendor with his wife and daughter. His daughter, however, gave him constant headaches with her free spiritedness and hippie leaning ways. Just when Banks thinks things can’t get much worse, he is ordered by his former mob boss- the illusive ‘God’- to break into Alcatraz and murder a stool pigeon whose testimony threatened to bring down the rackets. Along the way, his daughter’s hippie world would collide with his and his wife would become liberated. It was a bizarre premise for a film, but Paramount was hopeful that it just might be the ‘today’ picture that would allow it to breakthrough to the youth of the day. In any case, their agreement with Preminger required them to fund and release whatever he brought them. They were along for the ride no matter what.
To outsiders, the film seemed like a bizarre departure for an aging director/producer whose past films had mostly been dark, social dramas. Arguably his greatest film- Anatomy of a Murder- was a dark courtroom drama filled with rape, murder and less than heroic characters. What business did its director have making a comedy about the hippie culture? It all made perfect sense to Otto, however. He had studied up on the LSD drug culture for the abandoned film Too Far to Walk and the script for Skidoo had been written by a young person. Who were these people to tell him what pictures he could or couldn’t make?
Erik and Otto
Otto’s biggest motivation for making Skidoo, however, was his newly discovered son, Erik. Otto had been kept in the dark about his son’s very existence and he saw Skidoo as a project that could help him bridge the generation gap and make up for the years the two had not been in each other’s lives. Thus the film had a lot of baggage attached it before it had even entered pre-production.
Doran William Cannon
Pre-production began in earnest as Otto, his son and screenwriter Doran William Cannon began re-working the script. Cannon’s vision for the film had been for the mob world to be played straight. He recommended casting dramatic actors for those roles. The hippie side of things, however, would be played for laughs. The seemingly unnatural juxtaposition of the two worlds would thus create even more laughs. Otto, on the other hand, wanted the entire film to be played for laughs. He wanted to cast legendary comedic actors to play the various roles. It soon became apparent that the partnership would not work out as hoped.
Doran was removed and Otto went looking for someone who could help him rewrite the script. Mel Brooks was briefly considered, but Otto predicted that he and Mel would probably not work well together as collaborators. Doran suggested that Otto hire Elliott Baker, another up and coming screenwriter. Elliott was able to provide Otto with exactly what he was looking for. The script completed, Otto began looking for his cast.