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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: Back To The Future Part III – 30th Anniversary

A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Hey, Doc! Where you goin’ now? Back to the future?”. A 30th anniversary celebration of “Back To The Future Part III”, the rousing conclusion to a trilogy that has become one of the true pinnacles of pop culture. Filmed back to back with “Back To The Future Part II” and released only six months apart. “Part III” had grossed $244 million worldwide during its initial run, making it the sixth-highest grossing film of 1990. Learn the secrets, the techniques and read comments from the cast and crew about the production of “Back To The Future Part III”. Zemeckis and Bob Gale achieved what they set out to do with the third film, to bring “Back to the Future” to a calm, peaceful, and hopeful close. Believe this fanboy, when I say that I was sad to see it end. But even though “Part III” leaves you with a righteous kick and a final scene that left this fanboy smiling and got my heart racing. 

Every now and then, there comes along one film that breaks through the mould to become a seminal and beloved part of pop culture. Take for example “Jaws”, “Jurassic Park”, “The Matrix”, “Star Wars” are all such films. One trilogy has accomplished this to a great degree, that is…Director Robert Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future” trilogy.

While Robert Zemeckis’ previous film “Romancing The Stone” saved his career as a filmmaker. “Back To The Future” catapulted Zemeckis to become one of the ground breaking filmmakers in Hollywood, helping in advancing the technology for movie making. Not only that but “BTTF” turned Michael J Fox from a household name to one of the biggest and most charming movie stars. 

Produced by Steven Spielberg, the “Back To The Future” trilogy has become a worldwide cultural phenomenon, with a car that has become a star in itself as one of the most popular cars in movie history and is instantly known for its iconic status. It has become one of the most successful and beloved franchises in movie history, including an animated television series, a theme park ride, toys, comic books, video games, apparel and various merchandise. 

With “Back To The Future” becoming the highest grossing film of 1985 and it’s sequel, “BTTF Part 2” earning the third highest grossing film of 1989. Both films have grossed more than $600 million. But Zemeckis and company have saved the biggest trip for last, as the most popular time traveling movie trilogy ever comes to a rousing and spectacular conclusion to the timeless blockbuster series.

When trilogy director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale were writing the script for “Back to the Future Part II”, they ran into a problem…they had too much material to try and fit into the framework of a two hour movie. Feeling that their story would suffer if they tried to cut out some of the action, they made a good news/bad news call to the executives of Universal Pictures. “The bad news,” they explained, “is that we can’t make ‘Back to the Future Part II’ for the summer of 1989. The good news is that we’ll have part II for Thanksgiving of ’89 and ‘Back to the Future Part III’ for the summer of 1990”.

“I think,” recalls Bob Gale, “when we made that call, they thought we were kidding.” Both Zemeckis and Gale weren’t kidding…”Being able to complete the saga of Marty and Doc in ‘Part III’ was one of the reasons I was excited about doing the sequels,” says Bob Zemeckis. “When you hook all three movies together, they work as a complete trilogy. We knew we were taking a risk in leaving some questions unanswered at the end of ‘Part II,’ but everything is totally wrapped up in ‘Part III.’ That’s one of the reasons we always planned to release ‘Part III’ six months after Part II opened. We didn’t feel it was fair to make audiences wait an entire year”.

In order to accomplish their ambitious plan, the filmmakers undertook the unique challenge of making two films back to back. After a grueling five months in production for “Back to the Future Part II”, the cast and crew packed their bags and began what would turn out to be another five and a half months of filming for “Part III”. Filming back to back was also decided, in order to take advantage of Michael J. Fox’s extended break from “Family Ties”, which was coming to the end of its run. In the course of the year that it took to film “Back to the Future Part II” and “Part III”, Michael J. Fox had lost his father (causing production to shut down), but gained a son (his first child).

Admittedly a fan of the western genre, Bob Zemeckis insists that the reason for setting “Back to the Future Part III” in 1885 was not simply his excuse to “bring back the western”. “In fact,” says the Zemeckis, “‘Back to the Future III’ isn’t a western. It’s a film about time travel. We’re taking a 1980’s kid whose sole knowledge of the west is based on what he’s seen on television in Clint Eastwood movies, and actually sticking him in the 1880s, which brings an entirely new dimension to the genre. Given what we’ve done in the first two films, this was the only logical place the trilogy could go”.

“In addition to Marty and Doc, one of the main characters in the ‘Back to the Future’ saga is the town of Hill Valley. We’ve seen it in all it’s different permutations, including the future, so it only seemed logical to Bob Gale and me to trace the characters and their hometown back to their roots”.

“We chose 1885 because if you go back much further in California history, say, to the 1700’s, there would only be some Indians and maybe a few Spanish guys running around. Not much to work with. The time period we chose is a piece of America’s mythology,” adds Bob Gale. “It was an era of discovery, and of the growth of a people in search of a dream”. 

Michael J. Fox agrees that the time period blends perfectly into the scheme of the “Back to the Future” story. “These characters lend themselves well to that motif. The ideals that made the western an endearing genre have always been at the heart of the ‘Back to the Future’ stories, encompassing the fast paced action, the romance and the danger. In as much as ‘Back to the Future’ appeals to the kid in everyone, I think that the idea of being a cowboy invokes that same spirit. Hopefully, we’ve been able to combine the ingredients of what people have always loved about westerns, and what they’ve come to love about the ‘Back to the Future’ movies”.

While Zemeckis and his cast and crew were busy at work filming “Part II,” production designer Rick Carter set out to create the town of Hill Valley circa, the old west 1885. The filmmakers wanted to depict a town that was still in its infancy, but would grow to become the Hill Valley that audiences have become familiar with. They decided against using the Universal Studios’ town square, the site of Hill Valley in the previous films. “The problem of trying to create the old west at a studio, is that if the camera moves just a little too far in one direction, you’re suddenly in 1930’s New York, or you run into King Kong,” says producer Neil Canton. 

“We needed some elbow room. It would have been difficult to shoot the 1885 Hill Valley on the back lot, even if we had built a lot of facades,” agrees production designer Carter. “To properly conceal any traces of modern civilization, the camera could never see beyond those facades to the countryside, which would not have been an accurate depiction of the era. By building our own town over several acres, we were able to leave a lot of spaces between the buildings, give it some depth and get a glimpse of life beyond the storefronts”.

“The Hill Valley of 1885,” says Carter, “is a place to come and see the development of a town that is going to have a future. It’s a place that might have been born as a result of the Gold Rush, but didn’t disappear afterwards, as many towns did. We do see the very beginnings of the town, like the Chinese camp and the shanty town, situated close to the train depot, which would have originated at the time of the gold rush and remained as places where newcomers to the area reside”.

Carter’s design of the town included the classic main street where a showdown would take place, as well as the very familiar town square. “We took the square as we know it in 1955, 1985 and 2015 and show the very beginnings of that design coming together”. While some of the structures in the square will eventually be renovated to reflect the changing of the times, others withstand the passage of the decades with only minor alterations. 

The saloon stands in the same location as the ’50s malt shop and the futuristic Cafe ’80s. The theatre that will one day show “Cattle Queen of Montana” in 1955, and the holomax presentation of “Jaws 19” in 2015, is just being built. The most familiar landmark, Hill Valley’s courthouse, is also under construction, with the clock to be dedicated at the town’s festival.

The filmmakers considered a number of different locations in which to build their enormous set before deciding on the countryside around Sonora, California, a town located some 350 miles north of Los Angeles. Coincidentally, Sonora was one of the first locations that the pioneers of the film industry discovered when they set out from Hollywood in search of new locations. In 1919, the very first production to showcase the Sonora area on film was Universal Pictures’ “The Red Glove”. 

Since that time, the various plains, mountains, streams, waterfalls, forests and canyons of the area have served to portray the banks of the Cimarron and the Pecos to the Crimean battlefield in many classic films, including: “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Duel in the Sun,” “High Noon,” and “Pale Rider,” among many others. The location has also been seen in television series such as “Rawhide,” “Lassie,” “The Wild, Wild West,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza,” “Little House on the Prairie” and “Highway to Heaven”.

In addition to its rich cinematic lore, Sonora offered another major incentive for the “Back to the Future” production, the existence of the Sierra Railroad. Built in 1897 as a 57-mile route for the transportation of lumber products from the mountains to the main-line rail connection at nearby Oakdale, the railroad also found itself in heavy demand by visiting film companies. Over the years, the railroad’s commercial duties have been discontinued, but the line has been preserved as a tourist attraction, as well as a staple of films that utilize the area.

For a pivotal action sequence, Bob Zemeckis needed a steam engine to push the DeLorean to get it up to 88 miles per hour necessary for time travel. The big staged climax of the train going over the tracks and crashing into the bottom of the ravine was actually all done using a model. The Sierra Railroad had exactly what the director was looking for.

Engine Number 3, built by the Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works in 1891, was once again called into service. The train was originally built for the Prescott and Arizona Central Railroad, and came to the Sierra in 1897, when the line was being built. 

Over the decades, it too has become a film and television star, with appearances in such films as “High Noon,” and such series as “The Lone Ranger,” and “Petticoat Junction”. A small amount of cosmetic work was done to the locomotive to make it look brand new to its 1885 route, and Number 3 comes to the aid of Marty and Doc under the guise of Engine Number 131. The train station and setting of 1885 Hill Valley by the are now non existant due to a wildfire that destroyed the setting shortly after “Back To The Future Part 3” was filmed. 

For approximately three weeks, Robert Zemeckis would fly to Los Angeles after his day’s filming of the train climax of this movie to approve the sound dub that Bob Gale had been supervising of “Back to the Future Part II”. He would then get up at 4:30 a.m. the next day to fly back to the northern California set to continue with his filming for that day.

Not all of the action that takes place in the old west was shot in Sonora. Bob Zemeckis had a specific scene that needed a very specific look and took his cue from legendary western director John Ford. After completing work in Northern California, the “Back to the Future III” production team headed to the place where such classic westerns as “Stagecoach,” “My Darling Clementine” had been shot. 

“The first image the audience sees of the time period that Marty travels to,” says Zemeckis, “has to be absolutely correct. What we realized about going back to the 1800’s is that most of our current knowledge and memories of the West comes from the movies. When Marty arrives in 1885, the audience has to see something that’s immediately recognizable and makes them instantly accept the premise that our hero is back in the old West. That image couldn’t be shot anywhere else but in Monument Valley”.

Before Marty could travel back to 1885, he needed a point of departure that would also convey the image of 1955. In the midst of the majestic vast terrain of the Navajo land, tourists to the area were rather confused to find, of all things, the Pohatchee Drive-In Theatre. “We didn’t want our set to be a blight in the middle of such incredible beauty,” says Rick Carter of the drive-in. “It had to have a sense of humor, because it’s a drive-in that reflected the 1950’s version of how we perceived Indians. It’s a kind of goofy place with silly tepees and arrows in the ground and a huge mural of Indians charging. Actually, we had a lot of Indians working with the construction crew, and they all thought it was a lot of fun”.

While everyone involved was excited about the prospect of filming in Monument Valley, the cast and crew were not prepared for the bitter cold they faced when they got there. Arriving on location at 6:00 AM, the temperature was a frigid 12 degrees, with the mercury rarely rising above the freezing level during the course of the day. Bundled in multiple layers of clothing, the production team went about the normal business of filming, as Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd braved the elements in costumes more suitable for a summer’s day.

While building their set in Monument Valley, the filmmakers were extremely careful of not harming the wildlife of the area. After production was completed, the drive-in was demolished, and all materials were removed from the valley. The plant life that was originally cleared for the building was replanted back in the original location. “It’s a spectacular atmosphere in which to work,” says Michael J. Fox of his time in Monument Valley. “It’s the kind of place where in every direction that you look is a new and different picture-postcard type view”.

As the release of any new western invariably brings about questions as to the future of westerns and whether it’s made a comeback or not? Zemeckis states that he had no expectations of his film being able to single-handedly resuscitate the genre. “What would make me happy is if our film exposes an entire younger generation of moviegoers to images they don’t get a chance to see anymore, and to appreciate this part of America and her mythology”.

Having designed the clothes for the residents of Hill Valley in the year 2015, Joanna Johnston found her task somewhat easier when it came to the 1885 ancestors. “I had no frame of reference for the costumes of the future, but for ‘Part III,’ I was dealing with a time period I had experience with, as on the movie ‘Tess.”‘ As per instructions from Bob Zemeckis, Johnston sought to make the clothes realistic to the period, and in addition to the principal cast, had to clothe as many as 500 extras.

Johnston scoured the costume houses of Hollywood and found that most of their costumes were made for the westerns of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s didn’t reflect the authenticity she sought. Extensive research uncovered original clothing patterns and hundreds of new “antique” costumes were created. The serape worn by Michael J. Fox was reproduced from an actual article of clothing dating back the late 1800’s.

Johnston used muted, earthy tones for the wardrobes, as she wanted the people of the town to look “as if they were covered with dust,” and had a soil sample sent from the location to get a better idea of how the materials would photograph against the red earth. The natural elements of Sonora helped Johnston achieve her goal, for by the end of each day, everyone (crew included) was coated in red dust. “I wanted everyone to blend into one image,” says Johnston, “with only Marty and Clara in more vivid colors, so they would jump off the screen.”

Some of the actors that Johnston had to dress had already been in western costumes time and time again. “We had a few scenes in the saloon, where we needed some regulars to sit around a poker table,” explains Bob Zemeckis. “I thought if we’re going to have these classic western characters sitting around the table in the saloon, why don’t we get the classic western character actors?”. Zemeckis did exactly that, and cast western legends Dub Taylor, Harry Carey, Jr. and Pat Buttram in the roles of the saloon patrons, as well as Matt Clark as the bartender. Between the four of them, these actors have literally hundreds of westerns under their collective belts.

Some other recognizable faces, include three musicians who play at the Hill Valley festival. The parts were given to rock group ZZ Top, who also provide an original song, “Double Back,” for the film. As bassist Dusty Hill remembers in an exclusive interview, it took a bit of persuading on his part for them to get into the film.

“We got asked, somehow, to write a song to be in the movie, called ‘Doubleback’. Well, we stopped by the set one night. I can’t remember where it was, somewhere out in California. They built a whole damn Western town. It was really cool. Anyway, they were doing all-night shooting, so we stopped by at midnight or 1AM and they were shooting this scene. They broke for lunch and I remember that I made sure I was sitting over there by Robert Zemeckis. I kept saying, ‘You know, it looks like we belong in this movie! I mean, you don’t hardly even need to use makeup on us!'”. 

Zemeckis was up for it, but they had to make a slight adjustment, as well as come up with a bit of silver screen magic that winked at the audience. “They already had a band, so they just added the three of us. To get it where Frank’s drum would spin like the guitars did in the ‘Legs’ music video was funny. It turned out to be great. I’ve got a ‘Back to the Future’ pinball machine that’s got the song in it. Anyway, it was fun. I love movies and I’m interested in watching how they’re made and everything”. 

Hill also recalls another incident from that night, where a bit of goofing off during downtime almost led to a problem: “I did cause a little bit of trouble on the set. It was a scene where nobody was supposed to have a gun. Everybody’s supposed to give up their guns to go to this dance. I wanted the gun and I said, ‘Look, I’ll take it off before we film.’ There’s just a lot of sitting around time, so I got one and I was twirling it and doing this and that. Well, then Frank had to have one. Before I knew it, about 10 or 12 people had to have guns and the producers and directors are going, wait a minute, somebody’s going to forget and have a gun on and the continuity is going to get screwed up here! You’ve got to cause a little trouble”. 

According to the book “Billy Gibbons: Rock & Roll Gearhead”, ZZ Top was hanging around the set, and was asked to be the town band. During one take, the camera broke. While waiting for the camera to be repaired, Michael J. Fox asked if they would play “Hey Good Lookin'” which they did. Afterwards, more requests were played. Two hours later, someone inquired if the camera had been repaired. Robert Zemeckis replied that it had been fixed for quite a while, he just didn’t want to stop the party that had evolved.

The “Back to the Future” trilogy has come to represent a hallmark in the action adventure and sci-fi comedy, and “Part III” lives up to that reputation. Before beginning their sojourn into the wild west, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Mary Steenburgen and Tom Wilson all went into extensive training to develop skills that aren’t necessarily a part of an actors normal repetoire.

Mary Steenburgen, whose character Clara Clayton is in reference to Clara Clemens, Samuel Clemens’ (Mark Twain’s) daughter. She was the newcomer to the “Back to the Future” family, was quickly initiated into the fold, as she spent numerous hours on horseback as well as dangling from a moving steam engine. She also spent a great deal of time on the dance floor with Christopher Lloyd, as the two had to learn a number of period dances for the Hill Valley festival. During rehearsal, Mary tore a ligament in her foot and spent her first nights in front of the cameras dancing take after take, with her ankle re-taped every time the music stopped.

Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd and Tom Wilson were also instructed in the intricacies of handling a horse. “It was a lot of fun,” says Fox of the riding. “I’m told by the driver of the camera truck that at one point, the horse I was on was running as fast as 35 miles per hour. I don’t know if I looked particularly good doing it, but I have a great excuse in that Marty isn’t too proficient in his equestrian skills, so I didn’t have to be”.

Tom Wilson (Biff), who grew up in Philadelphia, and “rode the subway much more than horses,” found the experience an interesting one as well. “I’d ridden a horse before,” says Wilson, “but these were real cowboy type horses. When you get on them, they look at you and say ‘Well, what do you want me to do? I’m not one of those trail guys, who walks the same path every day of my life. You gotta tell me what you want”. Each actor was supplied with several horses, each of which performed a specific duty, such as galloping, rearing, bucking or merely standing still, as the actors deliver their lines.

“The one major difference, however,” adds Wilson, “is that while you’re learning to ride, they give you a horse called ‘Buttercup,’ but when it’s time to go in front of the cameras, they say, ‘Here you go Tom. Hop right up on Diablo”‘. Thomas Wilson performed all his horse riding stunts himself. He also accomplished the trick where he lassoes Marty just before we meet the 1885 Doc. While shooting the stunt after Tannen lassoes Marty and Marty gets hanged by Tannen and his gang. Fox offered to try the stunt without using a box to stand on. He then miscalculated where his hand would slip between the rope and his neck, actually hanging himself, causing him to pass out.

While in the year 2015 in “Back to the Future Part II,” Doc explains to Marty that he plans to dismantle the time machine, and devote his scientific research to one of the great unexplained mysteries of life…women. Although his approach is definitely unscientific, Doc gets some firsthand experience in the subject in the form of Clara Clayton. For the first time in his life, all of the Doc’s logic, theories and knowledge can’t help explain what’s happening to him. And as he becomes further involved, he finds himself ignoring his own rules about interfering with the events in the space-time continuum.

With this new development in the Doc’s life, Christopher Lloyd is able to stretch and show a side of Doc Brown unknown to film audiences. “I think,” says Lloyd, “what’s finally happened to Doc, is that after so many years of research and invention, he wants to be able to share his passion for science with someone. Obviously that woman has to be very special, and it’s hard to conceive of Doc falling for a modern woman. Clara is a character who doesn’t quite fit into a specific time period, and that’s part of what Doc finds attractive about her and their mutual passion for the writings of Jules Verne”.

“What’s great about Doc falling in love,” offers Michael J. Fox, “is that in a sense, he and Marty come full circle from their first adventure. Doc is now the gushing innocent, and it’s left up to Marty to set the agenda that will get them out of their predicament. What’s even more fun is that audiences will finally get to see Chris as a leading man, and perform some gentler comedy, something that he’s very proficient at, but doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to do”.

In 2011, the DeLorean with the white-walled 1950’s wheels was finally restored after a good six to seven year period, by Back to the Future enthusiast, Joe Walser. His team cleaned up both this version of the DeLorean, as well as the original DeLorean used for production of all three films. The actual DeLorean used in the filming was put on display at the Planet Hollywood restaurant in Honolulu, Hawaii. It was suspended from the ceiling and hung upside down to give restaurant patrons a better view of the vehicle from above. The restaurant closed in 2010.

While it’s the final chapter of the trilogy. The series carried on the adventures in a short lived animated television series that premiered on September 14, 1991, and ran for two seasons. The series took place after “Part III” and depicted the further adventures of Marty, Doc, Clara, their sons Jules and Verne, family dog Einsten and the DeLorean time machine makes a return after being rebuilt. 

With ‘Part III’ as the concluding chapter of the “Back to the Future” trilogy, Bob Zemeckis and his cast and crew have spanned the course of 130 years of screen time and over five years in production. The question asked most often of the filmmakers both them and now, is whether or not they plan to continue the adventures of Marty and Doc in “Back to the Future Part IV”. Their answer is a resounding “no.” “I think it’s about time we gave the McFlys and Doc Brown a little privacy,” says producer Neil Canton.

“‘Back to the Future Part III` is a truly satisfying end to the saga,” says Michael J. Fox. We can all agree on his assessment. “Part III” felt less like a breakneck conclusion and more like a cool-down lap. It’s still a lovely, rootin’ tootin’ cowboy romp with a superbly suspenseful runaway train finale. “Back To The Future” is an important part of my life, as I live and breathe this trilogy and these films is an utter joy.

“Part III” achieved what it set out to do, to bring “Back to the Future” to a calm, peaceful, and hopeful close. Believe me I was sad to see it go, but the film leaves you with a righteous kick, that has lived on in conventions, fan clubs and routine viewing parties among fans. It is one of the true pinnacles of pop culture. 

“Everything is resolved, and there’s even a moral of sorts. For all of their odysseys `Through time, our characters learn a very simple lesson,” adds writer Bob Gale, “and it’s the Doc who sums it all up for us. ‘You are in charge of your own destiny. The future is what you make of it. So go out and make it a good one… “

When Doc’s train hovers and flys off and we see the title card reading…”The End”, there’s a bittersweet quality in the air, knowing that, it was the last ride for Marty and Doc. Even though, these three dazzling movies has created quite a legacy that they left left behind.

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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