THE OPENING SCENE
A good screenwriter knows that the opening five minutes of a movie are the most important. This is where you have to sell the idea of your story to the audience; to tease them with questions and intrigue them with narrative puzzles that they’ll want to solve.
BTTF’s opening scene is a miniature story in itself, and every detail is important. It honestly amazes me that it manages to do so much hard work with mostly visuals alone. It’s so packed with characterisation and foreshadowing that you might not even notice it at first, so allow me to take you through it.
(Remember: you know nothing about this film franchise. You don’t know what to expect. You are discovering each character and situation for the first time.)
The first thing we get is the title. Straight away, no fanfare or theme song. Just a seemingly oxymoronic phrase: Back to the Future? What the hell does that even mean? That alone should make you go: ‘Eh?’
We open with the sound of ticking, and a shot of an ordinary clock. ‘Okay’, you’ll be thinking, This movie has something to do with time. Well done for getting this far. But then we pan back and see more clocks. Loads more. Dozens and dozens of them. The screenplay describes: “cuckoo clocks, digital clocks, grandfather clocks, and Felix the Cat with moving eyes.”
So immediately we’re intrigued by an incongruous image: what a fuckload of clocks! Where the hell are we? A horologists? Perhaps. But all the clocks are working properly and are set to 7.53am. If this was a clockmaker’s shop, or a place of repair, surely some would be stopped, or slow, or in pieces? Why on earth would someone need so many clocks to tell the same time?
Okay, it’s not exactly subtle; but admit it: you’d ask yourself those questions, second by second, if you were watching for the first time.
At the one-minute mark, the first and most sneaky instance of foreshadowing has occurred. You can see a small man hanging off the hands of one of the clocks: a reference to the same predicament that Doc will find himself in at the climax of the movie at the clocktower. Clever and nested foreshadowing is absolutely vital to what makes BTTF work, and so we’re going to note every instance of it from here on out.
By 1.15 we’ve panned over to two newspaper clippings: one that says that a ‘Brown Estate’ has been sold to real estate developers, and another saying that the house has burned down. This is a reference to a line of Doc’s at the Mall (“It’s taken 30 years and my entire family fortune to fulfil the vision of that day”) but it also gives us a setting with the ‘Hill Valley Telegraph’ newspapers.
We pan down from the clippings to a series of portraits of famous scientists – Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Edison – and a dank and squalid mattress, with a lot of junk food and trash strewn around it.
This is a clever bit of characterisation, and also gives us another puzzle piece. A mattress means that we’re definitely not in a shop or workshop. This is someone’s home. They’re obviously quite untidy, and yet the arrangement of the clocks shows that this person is capable of being organised and precise. Add to that the portraits of great thinkers from history, and there’s only one conclusion: whoever lives here (or at any rate sleeps here) is some kind of mad boffin.
We pan left to an alarm radio, which plays a Toyota commercial which provides more scene setting: “October is inventory time, so right now Toyota is making the best deals of the year on all 1985 model Toyotas.”
We’re 1.39 minutes in and we have a time, date, and place: 7.53am, Hill Valley, October 1985. The way that these things are emphasised gives us a new clue: dates are just as important as the time of day in this movie. Otherwise, the film wouldn’t have gone out of its way this early on to tell us when we are. The audience’s sense of space and orientation is very important to the rest of the narrative, and it needs to be established as early as possible.
Next we have a proper visual joke: a coffee machine that’s spraying boiled water, since its owner has neglected to leave the pot in the right position. It’s spilled quite a lot of water onto a hot pad and left a puddle, so it seems as though the person who lives here, the scruffy clock-obsessed dude who loves famous scientists, isn’t around. ‘Where are they and are we going to meet them?’ we ask.
We pan further left: the hand of one clock turns a TV on automatically, and the news anchor mentions three things: plutonium has gone missing from a local nuclear plant, officials are denying that it’s been stolen, and Libyan terrorists are involved somehow.
This is a bit of a jump: one minute we were just wondering all about whose domicile this was, and now we’re being told about missing plutonium. We later learn that the plutonium powers the Delorean, and that Doc is embroiled with the terrorists … but we don’t know that yet. For now, it’s an incongruous detail.
Next we pan left to a shot of a complex-looking Rube-Goldberg-like device, which opens a can and then slops a dollop of dog food into a dog’s bowl. We see the dog’s name is ‘Einstein’ (more foreshadowing, as we meet him later and Einstein is vitally important for explaining to the audience how the Delorean works and why Marty shows up in this scene at all) which suggests that whoever lives here is nice enough to own a pet, and clearly has a sense of humour. The inhabitant of this house is eccentric: not insane.
Not only that, but the fact that the can-opening machine is malfunctioning (or rather, doing its job too well) tells us something important. Not only is the person who lives in this house of clocks an inventor, but their inventions don’t seem to ever work as planned. This is a big (and often overlooked) part of Doc’s character which will be developed later.
The door opens. We see a pair of white Nike trainer, blue jeans, and a skateboard: so obviously a teenager or young person. Is this the owner of this strange house? No, because we see him put the key to the door under the doormat, before stepping in. This is interesting: this boy doesn’t live here, but he has an intimate enough relationship with the owner to know how to let himself in.
The boy calls out for ‘Doc.’ Okay, now we know the name of the person who lives here, even if we’re still only playing detective to work out who they are. The boy whistles for Einstein, who we know is the dog who eats out of the aforementioned bowl, and so now we know why this boy is here: to check up on the owner’s dog.
We have a big pay off now: the skateboard rolls forward and slides under a table, to rest against a yellow case with warning signs for radioactive material. We’ve just added two guns to Chekov’s arsenal: the skateboard (Marty will use an improvised one to escape Biff’s car) and the plutonium, (which will be used to send Marty back to 1955). But more important than that, the audience has been given its first reveal: Doc Brown, the owner of this house, who is obsessed with clocks, makes bad inventions, loves his dog, and is friends with a teenager, was the one who stole the plutonium.
Already, there’s some tension. Doc Brown, who doesn’t seem like the most stable of people, has got plutonium at home. That sounds dangerous. Are the clocks rigged to a bomb? It going to explode? Is this movie actually a tense thriller?
No. It’s definitely a comedy, because the boy who has come to feed the dog then hooks his guitar up to a gigantic speaker, gleefully turns all the dials and knobs up to eleven, plays a single note, and then blasts himself into the wall through sheer force of sound.
Okay, so this kid seems to be even less responsible than Doc. Great.
The phone rings and the kid answers it. We hear a voice, an older man’s, and the kid confirms that this is Doc Brown – the man whose identity and lifestyle we have slowly been piecing together for the last minute and a half. Doc gives our teenage protagonist a name: Marty.
That’s two characters now (three if you count the absent dog) and as I will show in just a moment, we already know so much about them both. We know everything we need to know about Doc Brown already, and we haven’t even seen him in person!
Marty asks Doc where he’s been all week, but Doc is deliberately mysterious: to entice Marty (and us) to come meet him and find out what’s going on. He tells Marty to meet him at the Twin Pines Mall at exactly 1.15am.
These are also two incredibly important details: The Twin Pines Mall later becomes the Lone Pine Mall when Marty changes the future, so establishing its name is a big deal when it comes to later showing that we’re dealing with the Ray Bradbury, Sound-of-Thunder model of time travel. The time 1.15am is important because, later, Marty has to rush back to save Doc from the Libyans. Too early, and he’ll disrupt his own timeline, too late and Doc will be killed.
Then there’s a joke from Doc about the amp (“There’s a slight possibility of overload”) and all the clocks’ alarms go off at once. Doc cheers because his ‘experiment’ apparently worked, and all the clocks are 25 minutes slow. Marty panics, realises he’s late for school. Huey Lewis plays: the movie has begun.
Okay, so that was only four and a half pages of script, and only five and a half minutes of movie. But we already have so many questions, and have been given so much information. Let’s break down what we know, and what we want to find out:
- The movie is about time.
- Doc Brown and Marty Mcfly are from Hill Valley.
- It’s October, 1985.
- Plutonium has been stolen by Doc Brown from a nuclear power plant.
- Terrorists are involved in the stolen plutonium.
- Doc Brown and his dog have been missing for a week, and Marty doesn’t know why.
- Doc Brown is performing experiments with time.
- Doc Brown needs Marty to meet him late at night for a tantalisingly-vague experiment.
- He’s obsessed with time (He has many clocks in his house).
- He’s a mad scientist (See the pictures, and the inventions).
- His inventions either don’t work or don’t operate according to plan (See the can-opener, the toaster, and the coffee-machine)
- He’s nice (he owns a dog) and eccentric (who he named Einstein).
- He is mysterious (Marty doesn’t know where he’s been or what he’s been doing for a week).
- He does dangerous, risky things (like stealing plutonium).
- He’s close to Marty (Either a friend or relative.)
- He’s a cool teenager (fashionable clothes, skateboard).
- He loves rock music (His guitar stunt speaks for itself).
- He’s kind (Taking time out of his day to feed Doc’s dog).
- He helps Doc out but doesn’t always know the full picture. (See their phone conversation).
- He uses technology or science in immature, compulsive, or irresponsible ways. (Again, the guitar stunt).
- He has a real problem with punctuality (He’s late for school).
- He’s close to Doc (Either a friend or relative.)
- Why did Doc Brown steal the plutonium?
- Is Marty going to find out about it?
- Why does Doc own so many clocks?
- Why does he have to meet Marty at exactly 1.15am?
- What is the experiment he wants Marty to help him with?
2 thoughts on “Why ‘Back to the Future’ is My Favourite Screenplay: Part One”
This is really in-depth. I agree the Back to the Future movies are really good popcorn flicks. They’re entertaining, but there’s a lot of thought put into them
Agree that BTTF is a perfect movie. It’s also a masterclass in story. If you take away all the science fiction elements, the heart of the story is something universal, relatable and even touching. It’s about understanding who your parents are, which on some deep psychological level is probably the defining question of many people’s childhoods and even lives. Then, the story asks, given the chance, could you make your parents (and by extension, yourself) happier, healthier, more well-adjusted? It’s some pretty deep Freudian %^&*, really.