Few films hold a place in the pantheon of pop culture like that of Back to the Future. The quintessential ’80s sci-fi comedy, and arguably the best film ever made about time travel, it celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year. (As well as an even more impressive milestone. For October 21, 2015 marks the date on which Marty McFly and Doc Brown arrive in their future, as depicted in the film’s sequel, Back to the Future Part II.) While the performances of Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, the direction of Robert Zemeckis, and the screenplay of Zemeckis and Bob Gale have all been rightly praised, Back to the Future‘s score by Alan Silvestri is equally unforgettable.
A frequent collaborator of Zemeckis, who also scored his Cast Away, Forrest Gump, Death Becomes Her, Romancing the Stone and, most recently, The Walk, the composer spoke with me recently about his next project with the director, about crafting a classic slice of Americana, and about expanding it for Back to the Future in Concert. An ongoing anniversary tour produced by Film Concerts Live, it hits New York’s Radio City Music Hall on October 15th and 16th with a live performance by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. For a complete list of tour dates and to purchase tickets, visit the Film Concerts Live website…
Nerdist: How did the score for Back to the Future come to be? From what did you draw inspiration?
Alan Silvestri: It was the second time Bob Z. and I had worked together. The script was one of the most beautifully written things imaginable. What I really wasn’t able to get from the script was the size possibility of the film. Everything is kind of in all small places. Yet the archetypes of the story — this great friendship and heroism and fighting the clock and all of this — it kind of allowed for a big score and a large treatment if you will. So I just really took my lead from what Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis had written, and what Bob had directed. It seemed like the story could handle a large orchestra with big heroic themes. That’s kind of how we wound up there.
N: Your score also finds room for humor while giving a certain grandeur to the film. And it magnifies the film’s idea of the power of time travel.
AS: Yeah, I think it’s what you hope the music will do. It will help magnify those kinds of aspects of the story. In this case, there was nothing bordering on shyness in Back to the Future. [Laughs.] It was very broad, and it was continuously funny and humorous. That allowed for the music to just really go for it. I mean, all that thematic material with Doc, the intention there was always that this was what was going on inside this guy’s brain. All these neurons were firing. We could really go for it! Of course when the audience is with the film, then you really can stretch the boundaries as to how broadly to go. But it all seemed to come together in the film.
N: It also has a momentum that perfectly suits the overriding visual motif of a speeding car.
AS: Well, Bob is a tremendous fan of the sense of the ticking clock in his stories. Certainly in Back to the Future, as soon as Marty winds up back in 1955, everything is about getting home and that clock is ticking. The storm is gonna happen at a very specific instant, and they have to be there. I think that kind of underlying drive and tension in the story allows for the music to subtly, sometimes not so subtly, address the fact that “We gotta go. We gotta go. There’s something to be done and we can’t miss it!”
N: How did the current tour of live performances of your score originate?
AS: This was a very interesting turn of events. I was approached by IMG about the idea of doing Back to the Future in concert. They said, “You know, the movie’s fantastic. It’s an iconic film. And we’d love to do it.” I said, “Great.” They said, “But there’s one thing we need to talk to you about.” I said, “Sure, what’s that?” They said, “Well, there’s really not enough music in Back to the Future I for us to do this in concert.” I said, “What do you mean?” They said, “Well, for instance, we don’t hear any score until something like twenty-two or twenty-three minutes into the film.” The first half of the film really is very light in terms of music. So they said, “The problem is we’re gonna have these magnificent orchestras sitting on stage, and for the first half of the movie they’re gonna basically be watching the movie with us.” So I said, “Okay, I get that. What should we do?” They said, “Well, we were thinking you might be able to write about twenty additional minutes of score.” I said, “Okay, I think I understand. You want me to go to Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis and ask them if I can change Back to the Future and add twenty minutes of music.” They said, “Yeah, that’s kind of what we were thinking.” [Laughs.]
I was pretty nervous about the whole idea. But the more the guys talked to me, the more I kind of started to see that this was somewhere between a cinematic event and a concert event. If folks want to see Back to the Future as a film they’ll go to a great theater and they’ll see it. But now we were moving into the concert hall, and we had to be prepared to in a sense dress the film appropriately for this kind of venue. So I finally went to see the guys. I went to see Bob Z. and Bob G. and really didn’t know what their response would be. They immediately said, “That sounds great. Do whatever you need to do.” So I went right to the beginning of the film and started to look at it. I remember at the time everybody was excited because I was gonna have a chance to write another twenty minutes of score for Back to the Future thirty years later. But what was interesting was when I got in front of the film the first thing I discovered was nobody wants to hear a bunch of quote-unquote “new music.” Whatever we do here has to sound like it was in the film right from the very beginning. So that led me to going right back into the scores, primarily for Back to the Future I, but of course II and III were there as a resource also.
I started working my way through the film from the main title. There was no music in the three-and-a-half-minute main titles in the original film. But there is now. There was no music in Doc’s lab in the beginning of the film, but there is now. Same thing for the dinner scene with the family. So I just worked through. What was really great about it for me was Bob Z. and Bob G. are constantly promising and setting things up in Back to the Future. Right in the very beginning when you see that skateboard hit the plutonium crate in the Doc’s office, everything that’s happening all the time — the skateboard — everything’s setting something up that will pay off later. So I was able to start doing that with this additional music. So when Marty’s in Doc’s office and Doc goes, “Where are you? Where are you?” It’s the same material that’s playing when Doc is waiting for Marty at the clock tower. So I was able to follow the guys in terms of how they were promising these things that would happen later earlier in the film. It all seemed to work out rather well.
N: Will we get a chance to hear this expanded score on an upcoming CD or digital download, or perhaps a new home video release of the film?
AS: It’s certainly a possibility. Certainly in my world I don’t think anyone’s gotten that far. We’ve been concerned with getting a really good corrected version of this to be out there for the performances. So maybe somebody is thinking about that. We’re certainly having some wonderful reactions to the concerts. We’ve been having really well attended performances. We’ve already been many places in the world, and there are lots on the way. So it’s entirely possible that we would get to go in and do some kind of version that reflects all of the new aspects.
N: Will you yourself will be introducing the Radio City Music Hall performance?
AS: I’ve been invited to attend that. Bob Gale will be in attendance. Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis really are the fathers and the godfathers of the film, so they have invited me to participate in all of that. Anything that I’ll be asked to do will be welcomed and a great honor to me.
N: You’ve also just scored The Walk and you’re working on another film with Robert Zemeckis…
AS: It’s being called an “Untitled Brad Pitt Film”. It stars Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. I believe they’re calling it a World War II drama. Bob is just in very early stages, he’s in pre-production. They’ll start shooting in the beginning of next year. So we’re just beginning with that. But it’s already out there on the schedule, and it’s promising to be a very exciting project.
N: How did your score for The Walk come to be?
AS: Well, The Walk has been a very near and dear project for Bob for ten years. I think it was ten years ago that he started developing it, and meeting with Philippe Petit and working on this. We’ve just been to New York for the opening of the film. Bob said something that I hadn’t really thought about, which is that this is the first film he’s ever made about a real person. So I think you’ll enjoy what Bob has done with the film. It’s rather breathtaking. Even though we all know there was this amazing documentary, which actually won an Academy Award, about Philippe’s walk, Bob has always wanted to get all of us up there on the wire with Philippe.
Another thing I didn’t realize until recently was Bob Zemeckis was saying, “For all of the possibilities in New York, no one was able to get their hands on a movie camera when Philippe did his walk.” So there is absolutely no film footage of his walk. There are some stills, but there are no moving images. So the challenge was to be up there on the wire, and to kind of be there with Philippe. He went through as amazing an inner experience throughout his walk as he did an outer experience. He was up on that wire for forty-five minutes. And I think it’ll be fun for you to see how it was shot, how it was done, and the love and care that went into really trying to do this beautifully and artfully.
N: Since you’re responsible for one of the most memorably melodic American film scores of the last century in Back to the Future, I’m curious as to your thoughts on why studios have shied away from melody in the scores of the last decade. Why do they favor incidental music over theme music these days?
AS: I really don’t have an understanding of why that is. But you’re absolutely right that it exists. I have noticed within the last year or two that there is this movement back towards having thematic material. So perhaps it’s some kind of cyclical event. But you’re absolutely right. There has been this progressive move away. I don’t really know what that could be.
One thing certainly is that when a score is thematically driven it has a presence in the film that’s undeniable. Perhaps there has been a movement away from music having that degree of presence in the film. Yet when we watch films, those of us who love films, and we have those strongly, thematically driven scores, we love that. [Laughs.] I certainly do. So I have every reason to feel that the tunes will come back. Filmmaking constantly is searching for different kinds of expression, trying things. Sometimes film, like any other living organism, may go down a road in exploration, and at some point say, “Maybe we don’t have to go that far down that road. Let’s go back and try some other things.” So I think we’ll see themes back as a major part of the cinematic image.
N: That’s heartening. Your own themes have been as much a presence in the films you’ve scored as any actor.
AS: I appreciate that. It’s a very powerful tool in the filmmaker’s bag of tools. Back to the Future is a perfect example. It wasn’t just a successful film when it was released. Thirty years later it’s still finding a new audience and living on. So let’s just see how all this goes. Time has a way of resolving these kinds of things.
N: Way to bring us full circle back to Back to the Future.
AS: [Laughs.] Exactly.