It was while doing research for my interview with Melora Hardin back in November 2007 that I first discovered Eric Stoltz had originally been cast as Marty McFly in Back to the Future and that Hardin had been cast as his girlfriend, Jennifer Parker. After five weeks of shooting, director Robert Zemeckis and producer Steven Spielberg realized that Stoltz wasn’t right for the role, so they recast the part, giving it to Michael J. Fox. The rest, as they say, is history.
Of course, it wasn’t just Stoltz who got canned. When he left the film, they had to let Hardin go too.
“When I got it, it was a two picture deal, so it was going to be both films and Eric Stoltz was originally cast to play McFly, so I was going to play his girlfriend,” Hardin told me during our interview. “And then they let Eric Stoltz go and I was too tall for Michael J. Fox. They called me in very regretfully and said that it wasn’t going to work out, which was sad. I was like 17 and, of course, shed some tears over that.”
(Random side note: If only Hardin had a time traveling DeLorean of her own, she might have been able to salvage her role in the film. Researchers in Germany have just developed software called MovieReshape that is capable of changing an actor’s appearance on film – it can make someone onscreen appear to be taller/shorter, younger/older or more muscular/more rotund.)
While you longtime readers of this site have undoubtedly been impressing your friends with that Stoltz as McFly bit of trivia for the past three years, the story began to pick up steam this week when footage of Stoltz in the role finally hit the Internet. The Back to the Future 25th Anniversary Trilogy collection hits stores October 26 and one of the never-before-seen documentaries on the new collection includes the Stoltz footage. A short clip from that documentary made its way across in Internet yesterday.
Finally seeing the footage of Stoltz as McFly is a bit surreal. From time to time you hear about strange casting decisions that almost happened (like Kurt Russell almost playing Han Solo in Star Wars or Will Smith almost playing Neo in The Matrix), but you never actually get a glimpse of what that person would have been like in the role. Actually seeing Stoltz as McFly is a bit jarring – it’s like stumbling into some bizarre alternate universe.
But the more I thought about this story, it wasn’t just the weird visual that gripped me. What really fascinated me about the clip was hearing director Robert Zemeckis explain his decision to give Stoltz the boot.
According to Zemeckis, there was a firm deadline the studio had for completing the film, but after five weeks with Stoltz in the lead role, he decided the film just wasn’t working.
“He’s a magnificent actor, but his comedy sensibilities were very different from what I had written with Bob and he and I were just never able to make that work,” Zemeckis said.
“So I had to make this horrific decision which was very heartbreaking for everybody,” Zemeckis added, “but luckily I was able to convince the studio to let me reshoot five weeks of work.”
Zemeckis knew things weren’t working, so he convinced the studio to let him start over with a new lead actor. It’s really quite amazing when you think about it. The time and money put into the film were allowed to go to waste in order to make the final product better. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered what the chances were of that sort of thing happening now.
I started to wonder how much better The Departed could have been if five weeks into shooting Martin Scorsese realized that Jack Nicholson was never going to stop chewing on scenery and that, yes, he really was serious when he suggested waving around a dildo during an important scene, so it would probably be best for everyone to simply recast the role. What if five weeks into shooting The Dark Knight, Christian Bale’s cookie monster voice finally started wearing on the crew and Christopher Nolan decided to scrap everything and start over with a normal-sounding Batman? Better yet, what if the directors of Almost Famous, Whip It, Band of Brothers, Fever Pitch and Taxi all wised up during filming and realized their productions would be so much better if they fired Jimmy Fallon and found someone with actual talent to play his role instead?
But sadly, I feel like studios today would never sign off on those types of reshoots. Chances are, these days they would tell Zemeckis to suck it up and make Stoltz work. While Zemeckis says he had firm deadline back then, things are even worse now. I remember seeing an interview where Jon Favreau said that the production schedule was so tight for Iron Man 2 that they started building the sets before the script was even completed, meaning they had to come up with the locations for the big scenes in the film first, then go back and write the script around the sets they had chosen. Studios today are convinced they can fix films in postproduction or, if that fails, simply convert the film into 3D and promote the hell out of it so that it makes all of its money in the opening weekend, before anyone realizes it’s awful.
If only there was some way to send these movie executives back in time to change their outlook on things. Who knows how many films could be salvaged or made better if directors and studios had the temerity to simply start over when they realized things weren’t working? So come on studios, be less concerned with your bottom line and start focusing on what’s best for the production.
Unless, like Eric Stoltz’s character in that classic 80s movie, you are chicken.
Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.