Since its initial release, the “Back to the Future” trilogy has had an undeniable influence on generations of filmmakers and audiences. It’s been 35 years since the original film first hit theaters and to celebrate this year’s “Back to the Future Day,” the feature is getting a new release on 4K Ultra HD for the first time with “Back to the Future: The Ultimate Trilogy.” The special release will consist of new content along with a preview of the musical show and audition footage, among other goodies.
We recently spoke to Lea Thompson, who famously played Lorraine in the franchise. Now a filmmaker in her own right, with a feature film in “The Year of Spectacular Men” which she worked on with her two daughters, Zooey and Madelyn Deutch, along with work behind the scenes in television, Thompson has led an eclectic career both as a director and actress since her iconic role in “Back to the Future.” In our interview, Thompson talked about the legacy of the “Back to the Future” films, working with her daughters, and what made her want to turn to directing.
When you first auditioned for the role of Lorraine, did you have any idea that it would have such a long-lasting impact?
Well, when I first read the script I thought it was great and was something that I really got. I could immediately recognize how fantastic of a script it was and that felt unusual, and there was Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and Universal involved and there was money behind it so all of that made it feel like a really exciting project right off the bat and I always had an eye for wacky stories. I love those kinds of movies and I really wanted the part right from the very beginning.
You’d been working for a while before doing the trilogy. Were there certain kinds of roles you’d been looking for in your career or types of characters you had been wanting to play before this all fell into place?
Well you know I wasn’t really a trained actor. I had spent my life up to that point as a ballet dancer and I had a really bad education and graduated from high school when I was 15, so I didn’t really approach acting as a kind of intellectual pursuit and just had a gut feeling for things that I wanted to do and characters I wanted to play. I’ve always prided myself on being versatile as an artist, whether as a dancer, a singer, or as an actor and a director so it was something that I was always looking for and Lorraine felt like something that played into that and let me show my range in so many different ways. Even as a dancer I had done so many different styles so doing something like that made it feel like such a special part, and here we are 35 years later still talking about respecting it and having new features added to it!
Having worked on a film with a legacy like this relatively early on in your career, does it ever feel weird to you that so many years later you’re still talking about this film? Or is it something you can still take a lot of pride in?
It’s just lovely to me. It feels so nice that my 90-year-old mother in law can show this movie to her daughter, then her granddaughter and all the way down to her great-granddaughter and have all of them get enjoyment out of it is such an amazing thing that makes you feel incredibly proud. As an artist you always want to try and change the world to make people forget about their worries and try to inform and entertain, and of course, I’ve done a million other things like the films I’ve directed and I have just done so much gratifying work, but this is the movie that is the classic and I feel so proud to be a part of that.
You mentioned that in playing Lorraine you got to dip into many of your different strengths and play many different versions of her over the course of the films. How was that experience to you as a young actress and was there a version of the character that you enjoyed playing the most?
I genuinely enjoyed all of them! I think the second one was really funny, with Biff’s alternate universe and playing his defiant trophy wife was fun. Everything was a joy from an acting standpoint, and to play with the comedic precision that Bob Zemeckis demanded was also a really fun thing to do. I equate it to sewing in that you have to link the jokes together while still being dramatically honest, and comedy is the hardest thing to do for that reason.
Were there were any parts of the filming that at the moment were memorable and stuck with you, opposed to the ones that have grown to feel that way now looking back on it all?
There were so many moments, but really it was the magic of it all. There were so many beautiful sets and costumes, even down to the cars. To walk into that courthouse square felt transportive, and knowing the craftsmanship that created it was a magic thing for an actor. I remember Bob being so excited when we got it right and that made me feel really happy, knowing how important it is to bring that total vision of the creator to life and how much that feeling seeps into everyone on set. Of course, it is human to remember the pain, the four hours of makeup and twelve hours of shooting, all the tight clothes and being nervous that you aren’t going to get it right, you remember that but mostly remember the good times. But I do remember how hard I worked, there was so much writing and thinking and immersing myself into the 50s that went into it. I read every magazine with all these stupid things in it, and I always got into character by listening to “Mr. Sandman” to just get into the headspace of that crazy time. The 50s really were a crazy time for women, and I was not that person so that song helped me get into all that.
I know some performers don’t like watching themselves on screen, but with this trilogy has it been something you’ve been able to revisit and as you’ve distanced from it?
Well my children have hardly seen my movies and I don’t really like to dwell on the past, but I have directed myself a lot so I do have the ability to separate myself from my work. I suppose if I had to play a raw character like a drug addict and have to cry all the time it would be much harder to go back and get into, but for the most part, it’s been easy for me to separate but I’m absolutely not the kind of person to go back and say “oh look how funny I was” or things like that. I do like to direct myself though, I really enjoyed doing that in my movie “The Year of Spectacular Men.”
What first interested you in going down the path of becoming a director and has that affected the way you approach other aspects of your career such as acting?
It was one of the reasons it was fun for me to watch “Back to the Future” recently at a showing at the Hollywood Bowl where there were like 17 thousand people in a stadium. Watching things as a director now lets me appreciate every aspect of work that goes into a film. I have a deep love of the process and craft that goes into making movies and it is all so serviced by being a director. I love being able to direct young actors and give them all that I have learned over my years being in the industry, giving encouragement and tricks and hints to make their lives easier, especially for young actresses. I think it is so easy for people to be both in awe, intimidated and then dismiss pretty young women and I remember being in that position so clearly so it really feels right to be able to help people in that position. I like being able to use everything I’ve learned in my life and feel happy and lucky for the chance to be able to do all that.
I can imagine that has to feel great, and how special it must have felt to do something like “The Year of Spectacular Men” and have it be able to be a family affair and to get to impart your wisdom that way.
Yeah except that my daughters are so much cooler than me that they end up imparting their wisdom on me! It is definitely an interesting household that I live in, with both my husband and me being directors, my daughter Madelyn being a writer and a composer, and Zoey being a great producer and actress, so the conversations at our house tend to end up being pretty hilarious. My husband and I have pretty much the same job right now, which is directing TV, so we have an even newer shared experience in our life, which is great after being married as long as we have and still finding new ways to share something with each other and speak a new language together.
Lastly, why do you think the legacy of this series has been so enduring?
Well, my theory is that like I said before, people of any age can find different things in the movie. Your perspective will bring so many different things to it and that is something special to a movie, where once you become a parent the entire thing shifts from how you saw it as a teenager and things like that. There is something very deep to the original film, where if you have the courage in a singular moment in your life to do the right thing you can change you or your family’s entire life, and that is a really important thing to remember and teach children. Stand up, do the right thing and be brave, and underneath all that is a very powerful moment where George finally punches Biff and says enough is enough, standing up to this bully saying you will not rape this girl and standing up for himself. That is so powerful on so many levels, and if you’re a kid you get to be excited about hoverboards, manure dumping on the bad guy or the really funny mad scientist and his cool car, so it works on many levels but it’s so affecting. It’s like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” for a movie to really endure it has to have a really deep message that movies you, so that is my opinion on why the movie endures.