Time Travel For The First Time: Ryan North On ‘Back To The Future’
As you have no doubt been informed by the internet by now; today, October 21, 2015, marks the date that Marty McFly and Doc Brown traveled to from 1985 in Back to the Future Part II. Sure, we might not have hoverboards, and we never did make it to that 19th Jaws movie — although we have had three Sharknados, which ought to count for something — but it’s still a good time to look back on what is legitimately one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time.
And to do that, we of course turned to Dinosaur Comics creator and multiple Eisner award-winner Ryan North, the man who once wrote a book-length page-by-page critical breakdown of the novelization of the feature film, B to the F. Turn your pockets inside out and join us for a discussion of its influence on our childhood vocabularies, and the strange scenes that were cut out to make a much better movie than it otherwise might have been.
ComicsAlliance: Ryan, I think it’s fair to say that you have thought about Back to the Future significantly more than the average person. What sparked your interest in the film?
Ryan North: I think the was the first movie about time travel that I ever saw: I was six when it came out, remember! So not only did I get to experience this really tight story about time travel, but I also got to consider time travel for the first time. Years later I read a negative review of the movie that said “the movie acts like it invented the very idea of time travel” — which it kind of does, there’s no real nods to any other time travel stories — but if it is your first time travel story, it works really well. And here I am, talking about the movie thirty years later!
CA: I do feel like for people of our age, it was an extremely formative movie, and it’s probably a lot of kids’ first exposure to time travel. I remember getting in trouble for being three years old and quoting my favorite line, “Let’s see if these bastards can do 90.”
RN: [Laughs] I remember being distinctly uncomfortable with that line, because I was watching the movie with my parents and now they would know I knew what words like “bastards” meant. Also, “serious sh*t”.
CA: So now that you’re older, how do you feel Back to the Future compares to other time travel stories? I mean, aside from the obvious part where you’re a fan still talking about it now.
RN: Oh, I still think it’s great! There’s so much meat on the bones of the movie, and then the sequel is a sequel that literally revisits the first movie. That’s kinda brilliant.
CA: You are also a person who has thought about time travel, so I’m assuming that you also have opinions on the particular kind of automobile-based time travel that we see in the film.
RN: I love it! I love the idea that if you’re going to travel through time you do it in this insanely dangerous car travelling at 88 miles per hour. Like, literally the first time Marty does it, he goes back to 1955 and instantly runs over some bushes and crashes into a barn. He could’ve easily gone head-first into the brick farmhouse and died. It’s such an insane, dangerous way to do it, and I love that Doc is like, “Yes, this is the only way for time travel to work”. Then in Back to the Future Part 2, they almost hit several flying cars and a jumbo jet.
CA: Does the effect of changing the past bother you at all? The movies themselves try to streamline it a little, in that Doc draws the split-off timeline, implying that there are alternate futures but only one can exist as a “definite” future, but then you also have the more dramatic fade-outs of Marty at the dance contrasted with the seemingly instant upheaval of Biff’s 1985. I know you put a lot of thought into it while doing B to the F, but do you think it holds up in that respect?
RN: Oh there’s this big huge post where I postulate the necessity of a meta-time in BTTF (since changes to the timeline themselves take time), and there is the difficult problem of the Second Marty that goes back in time while Original Marty watches at the end of BTTF1, a Marty that would’ve had a much different life experience than the one we know. Like I said, lots of meat on the bones! We could talk about this all day, and I am saying this as a guy who spent eight months going over the novelization.
CA: What led you to the novelization?
RN: I was cleaning up my mother-in-law’s house and found a copies of all three novelizations my brother-in-law had when he was a kid. So I started reading the first one — the best one, the most amazing one by George Gipe — and a few pages in I started to notice how crazy it was getting. And then it… kept getting crazier? So I thought I’d review the book online, and wrote up my thoughts on the first page, and then instead of saving it as a draft I accidentally published it, so — that’s what I did for the next several months! I think I’m the only person on Earth who wrote a page-by-page review of a movie novelization that is much larger than the actual book.
CA: Going through B to the F, one thing that comes up again and again is that you talk about how the novel was clearly based on an earlier draft that was refined later to become the much better movie version. What was that experience like, seeing something that was so close to something that was so familiar?
RN: It was actually really educational. There’s parts that seem like they’re designed to show you how to cut down your writing, how to get to the essential part of the scene. Those are great. Then there’s parts where you can see how just a change in tone changes so much. Doc and Marty both come across as jerks, simply by tweaking their lines some, rewriting some of the plot, and of course losing the terrific performances of their actors.
On top of all that there’s the weird choices and stylistic swerves that Gipe went for, and it ends up being this really interesting text all on its own. There’s parts that are clearly errors — Doc implying that he sent Einstein to hell instead of through time, Marty lying about his uncle being in a car accident that lasted ten years — but there’s other parts that just seem bizarre, like where Gipe mentions all the brand names of the foods in Marty’s house for literally no reason. I criticize the book a lot in my blog, but I also love it.
The greatest trick of Back to the Future (the movie) is how the plan Doc and Marty and George have — it sort of appears out of nowhere, we never see them coming up with it — is that Marty is going to feel up his mom in a car, against her will. It’s almost shocking to have it laid out that way, because the movie goes so far to make that as palatable as possible.
In the book, Gipe doesn’t do that, and he focuses on how Lorraine gets terrified, how her dress gets torn, etc. It completely changes the tone of the scene, and really makes you look at Marty in a different light, and realize how completely bizarre their plan is. He needs Lorraine to stop liking him so much, and that’s the only thing he can come up with? Really?
CA: Is there an influence from Back to the Future on the way you write, other than all the Dinosaur Comics strips where T-Rex writes fan-fiction about Marty McFly?
RN: I mean, I spent age 6-12 basically thinking about Back to the Future all the time, so I think it’s probably had a pretty huge influence on me and the way I think and write. My comic The Midas Flesh with Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb is basically about taking one idea and following it through to its logical conclusion, which is basically what BTTF does too.
My brother did a comic about how he learned to skateboard and accidentally shaved off his nipple with road rash, and in that I’m talking about Back to the Future too, and his whole desire to skate is based around Marty getting pulled behind a car in the first movie. So, I think it’s fair to say it’s significantly affected both my writing and my brother’s nipples.
CA: On the subject of writing, do you think that in a world without Star Wars and, apparently, Star Trek, George McFly’s hit novel A Match Made In Space is actually any good?
RN: I think it’s a lot better than the ending in the first draft of the film, where George McFly became a professional boxer because he got really good at punching people after he punched Biff, then went to his high school yearbook, opened it up to the photo of the big dance, looked at Calvin, remembered how his son Marty looks, and then shook his head and said, “Nah…. couldn’t be!”
CA: If you were in charge of making another draft of the film script, following that progression from the novel — like, say, if you traveled back in time thirty years with some kind of flux-capacitor-enabled vehicle — is there anything you’d change from the movie that we got?
RN: There’s a deleted scene: filmed, but dropped, wherein Marty talks to Doc about his fears about going back to the future, and he says something like “making out with my mom, what if I get back to the future and I’m, you know… gay?”. You can watch it on YouTube. It’s that sort of casual ’80s movie homophobia that was so endemic at the time, but BTTF managed to swerve at the last moment, drop the scene, and avoid it.
So anyway, what I’m saying is clearly I have already lived the premise of this question, and y’all can thank me later.