It has been 30 years since the Back to the Future trilogy closed by taking Marty McFly and Doc Brown to the Wild West for an homage to the world of the classic Western, featuring cowboys, gunfights and runaway trains.
Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd reprised their lead roles once again, with the movie shot back-to-back with the second film in an ambitious, gruelling shooting schedule.
The movie proved somewhat divisive, with as many detractors as there were avid fans. It introduced Mary Steenburgen as schoolteacher Clara Clayton, who proved a love interest for Doc Brown, and focused on Marty travelling back to 1885 in order to rescue Doc — a week before he is killed by the malevolent “Mad Dog” Tannen.
As the movie celebrates a milestone anniversary, here are 10 facts you might not know about one of the most interesting trilogy-closers in Hollywood history.
The setting was Michael J. Fox's idea
If the idea of travelling to the Wild West seems like an abrupt left-turn for the Back to the Future franchise, that’s because it was basically geared towards the time travel fantasy of leading man Michael J. Fox. On set of the first film, director Robert Zemeckis asked Fox which time period he would want to go and see if he had the chance and the actor said he would love to go back to the 19th century West to hang with cowboys. Five years later, he’d get his chance.
The back-to-back shooting took almost a year
It’s well-known that Back to the Future Part III shot back-to-back with the second movie and, of course, there’s a trailer at the end of Back to the Future Part II teasing the Western antics. The schedule was truly gruelling, with the two movies shooting over the course of an 11-month period, with just a three-week hiatus between production on the films. Ouch.
It seems that James Cameron was taking some hints from the Back to the Future franchise with his audacious plans to shoot many of his Avatar sequels together.
Zemeckis clocked up some serious air miles
The schedule mentioned above was obviously a crazy one for everyone, with a tonne of work required to get these two films completed. There was a three-week period in which principal photography on Part III overlapped with the edit of Part II. Zemeckis spent his days shooting train sequences in Sonora, California while writer-producer Bob Gale was supervising Part II in Los Angeles, more than 300 miles away.
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Zemeckis would shoot on location throughout the day before immediately boarding a private plane to the dubbing stage and eating dinner. He would then spend the night in a hotel before flying back to Northern California to resume shooting. It’s fair to say he probably didn’t have many minutes to spare during those weeks.
Clara was written for Steenburgen, but she almost said no
The addition of Clara Clayton is one of the most interesting elements of Back to the Future Part III, with her relationship with Doc Brown adding an interesting layer to the previously broadly comedic scientist. Screenwriter Bob Gale penned the role with Mary Steenburgen, who had won an Oscar a decade prior for Melvin and Howard.
Steenburgen, however, was a little reluctant to take on the role until she was persuaded by her children, who loved the original film. We have a lot to thank them for.
Steenburgen was Lloyd's first on-screen kiss
By the time shooting on Back to the Future Part III took place in 1989, Christopher Lloyd was 51 years old and had been a movie actor for almost 15 years. However, the kiss he shares with Steenburgen’s character in the film was the first he had done on camera.
Lloyd told the New York Times in 1990 that he had taken Zemeckis aside before the shot to tell him it was the first time he had ever kissed a girl on screen. He added: “I did have a sort of romance in Star Trek III, but this is the first humanly possible relationship I've had in a movie.”
Three icons of Western movies make cameos
As well as its various visual and narrative homages to the classic Western, Back to the Future Part III also handed cameos to several legends of the genre. Harry Carey Jr., Pat Buttram and Dub Taylor appear in one scene of the film, credited as “Saloon Old-Timers”.
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Carey Jr was best known for his work on John Ford movies, including Rio Grande, and would also cameo in Tombstone a few years later. Buttram was a character actor best known as Gene Autry’s sidekick and who also gave his voice to a variety of Disney characters, including the lupine Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood. Taylor appeared in dozens of westerns as a character actor and also starred in Bonnie and Clyde.
ZZ Top show up as musicians
Another all-star cameo in the movie is the rock band ZZ Top, best known for their 1980s hit Gimme All Your Lovin', They appear as, appropriately enough, a band playing music at a dance towards the beginning of the movie. Even among the glorious beards of the Old West, those guys stick out.
Steenburgen tore a ligament on set, while dancing
Despite the aforementioned hesitation over whether she should take on the role, Steenburgen eventually did portray Clara Clayton. She formed a delightful bond with Lloyd that really comes through on screen.
They really threw themselves into the filming of the Hill Valley Festival Dance scene — which features the ZZ Top cameo. Their commitment was so fervent that overzealous dancing led to Steenburgen tearing a ligament in her foot.
Legendary critic Roger Ebert was not a fan
The late film critic Roger Ebert was famous for his no-nonsense, barbed commentary on films he didn’t like. Sadly, Back to the Future Part III found itself in his crosshairs when it was originally released in 1990.
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Ebert gave the film a middling two and a half stars out of four and, in his review, he called it a “routine Western comedy”, in contrast to the invention of the previous movies. He added that the film was set in “a sitcom version [of the Wild West] that looks exactly as if it were built on a back lot somewhere”.
The final line was meant as a joke, not a sequel tease
The final moments of Back to the Future Part III feature Doc and Clara aboard a steam locomotive fitted with a flux capacitor to facilitate time travel. Marty asks Doc if he is going to go back to the future, to which Doc replies: “Nope, already been there”. Over the years, the line has been considered a potential setup for a sequel, but Gale has said that was never the intention.
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In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter to promote the Back to the Future comic book in 2017, Gale said: “It's a joke! It's just showmanship.” He added that the iconic “we don’t need roads” ending of the first movie was conceived in the same way — as a memorable final flourish rather than an over-confident tease for a sequel.