Times Staff Writer

In his new movie, “Back to the Future,” director Robert Zemeckis sends high school student Marty McFly hurtling into the pre-rock ‘n’ roll 1950s on board a nuclear-powered DeLorean sports car converted into a time machine. Tampering with destiny, McFly meets up with his own parents as teen-agers and the adventure nearly costs him his life.

In real life, Universal Studios just sent Robert Zemeckis hurtling two weeks into the future by advancing the release date on his movie from July 21 to July 4. As it was for McFly, the experience was a harrowing one for Zemeckis, who has spent the last month fighting the clock to have his movie ready.

“I had it all worked out perfectly,” says the bleary-eyed director, sitting in a windowless basement room at Universal Studios in between last-minute sound-dubbing sessions. “The movie was going to open on the 21st and we were going to move into our new house last weekend. Now I have to leave for Atlanta on a press junket and my wife (actress Mary Ellen Trainor), who is pregnant, won’t stay in the house by herself. . . . Oh, what the hell! In a few years, I guess, it’ll be fun to look back and enjoy this madness. But this is not how I plan to make movies from now on.”


After “Back to the Future,” Zemeckis will undoubtedly have a larger voice in how his movies are made. The 34-year-old Chicago native and Steven Spielberg protege is on a roll. After wooing audiences with “Romancing the Stone” ($35 million in domestic rentals to date), he has turned in a heavy favorite for the hit of the summer. Advance word was so strong on “Back to the Future” that even skeptical Wall Street backed the film, helping to drive MCA stock up to a 52-week high on June 13. A test screening of the film in Long Beach left Universal brass delirious: Ninety-nine percent of the audience rated the film excellent or very good and 94% said they would definitely recommend it to a friend.

For Zemeckis, commercial success has not come easily. His first two films, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (1978) and “Used Cars” (1980), were both well received by critics but nearly ended his career behind the camera. As a result, he is understandably cautious when evaluating the potential for “Back to the Future.” “I know we’ve made a movie that works and that audiences will respond to, but whether anyone will go to the theaters is a question that no one can ever answer until the movie opens. Anyone who tells you differently is lying.”

Described by Zemeckis as a “comedy-adventure-sci-fi-time-travel-love story,” “Back to the Future” harnesses all of the necessary elements for commercial success: Its pinball pace and continuous action should appeal to kids and its offbeat humor and witty performances should capture the hearts of adults. While “Romancing the Stone” was Zemeckis’ breakthrough movie, “Back to the Future” is likely to cement his position as a seven-figure director.

“There’s no question he is one of the hottest directors in the business,” says Jack Brodsky, co-producer of “Romancing the Stone.” “He has busted through.”

Like many movies these days, “Back to the Future” was something of a sleeping giant. Written by Zemeckis with his longtime partner and producer, Bob Gale (they were undergraduates at USC film school together), the script was written in 1980, just after “Used Cars” was released. That year was also the birth of the “raunchploitation” era and the major studios rejected “Back to the Future” for its gentle story line. “Everyone wanted ‘Porky’s’ or ‘Animal House,’ ” Zemeckis says. “We sent the script everywhere, but nobody wanted to make it. The comment we always got was: ‘Send it to Disney.’ ”

But Disney didn’t want to make t either--executives there thought the story line too risque for the studio (when McFly goes back in time, his mother falls for him). Caught with a script seemingly destined to slip through the cracks, Zemeckis found just one interested party: “The only person who wanted to make it instantly was Steven Spielberg.” But Zemeckis had made “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Used Cars” under Spielberg’s watchful eye and explained that he felt obliged to make one on his own.


This time the stakes would be considerably higher: “Back to the Future” cost $18.5 million, almost twice the combined cost of “Used Cars” and “I Wanna Hold your Hand”.

Ironically, “Romancing the Stone,” the one film made without Spielberg’s affiliation (despite obvious creative influence), was also Zemeckis’ first commercial success. After “Romancing,” Spielberg invited Zemeckis to make “Back to the Future” for Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg’s production company. Zemeckis had been set to direct “First and Goal” with Goldie Hawn, but the script needed a rewrite and he dropped out to team up with his mentor once again.

Still, “Back” is very much a Zemeckis film. “Steven did not want to see it until I had my first cut in hand,” Zemeckis says. “There’s no one easier to work with than Steven, because he’s such a good film maker--you know he’s not going to jump up in the middle of some rough cut before the effects have been added and say something stupid like, ‘Hey, where’s the lightning?’ ”

There’s plenty of that in Zemeckis’ new film. Pace has become the Zemeckis calling card. “My philosophy is that if it doesn’t advance the plot or the character, strike it,” he says.

Zemeckis believes equally in a fully developed story line. Action alone can be dizzying and ultimately boring--like a dessert that’s 90% topping. “I really have been disappointed at how story has been abandoned in the last few years,” he says. “In fact, at one point Bob (Gale) and I were worried that there might be too much story here for the kids.”

Zemeckis, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago and is the son of a carpenter and a housewife, has always had a fertile imagination (he’s co-written all of his movies except for “Romancing”). He was not a movie buff as a youngster--”I only went in order to see how they did things”--and describes himself as a totally ordinary kid. “I wasn’t the class clown; I wasn’t the class nerd; I was just an average student. I was the guy the teachers always told my mother, ‘He’s got intelligence, if he would just apply himself.’ ”

Zemeckis’ report cards improved dramatically in college, where at USC he was one of several undergraduate film majors.

“Field of Honor,” a short that won him an Academy Award for student film making in 1975, also caught director Spielberg’s eye, and Zemeckis became the first and most successful of Spielberg’s disciples. Zemeckis says there’s only been good will between them. “There certainly was never any feeling of competition. After all, he is Spielberg.”

With “Back to the Future” finished, Zemeckis says he wants to take a few months off and help usher in his first child in September. But that same pace that drives his films seems to fuel his life as well, and skeptics are wondering if he’ll make it through the Fourth of July without another project under way. “The worst time for a director is the day after a film opens,” Zemeckis says. “Suddenly you’re sitting at home and nobody calls you; nobody needs you. You find yourself with all this time on your hands--which this time I’m going to enjoy. I mean it!

For now--like Marty McFly--time is back on his side.

Postscript, 1990: Dusk on a summer’s eve. Robert Zemeckis is toiling away on his new film at his elegant offices overlooking the Santa Fe-styled Amblin Entertainment adobe complex on the back lot at Universal Studios. He pauses, gazing out the window of this scaled-down version of a domed Wrigley Field, built with unvarnished wood from the bleachers. A knock at the front door. Steven Spielberg is in a fix: MCA Chairman Lew Wasserman is coming for dinner and a look at Spielberg’s rough cut of his new film, “Max’s Revenge,” and the famed director would like to borrow a cup of sugar. On his way out, he turns, smiling, and asks, “By the way, have you got a minute to look at the film?”