Exclusive: Back in Time director Jason Aron on making the definitive Back to the Future documentary

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Apr 23, 2015, 6:49 PM EDT (Updated)

It's a big year for Back to the Future. Not only does the film turn 30 this year, but, more importantly, we draw closer each day to Oct. 21, 2015, the date when Marty McFly, Doc and Jennifer visited in Back to the Future II. There will be a grand five-day party in Los Angeles celebrating the anniversary called We're Going Back that runs from Oct. 21-25, 2015, and one of the big events there will be the premiere of the quintessential Back to the Future documentary, Back in Time, which explores the cultural impact of the time-traveling trilogy. 

The filmmakers behind this documentary, director Jason Aron, executive producer Louis Krubich and producer Lee Leshen, had a much different film in mind when they started; it began as a bar mitzvah video they shot where the client wanted to use the Robert Zemeckis film as a theme, including a rented stock DeLorean without any modifications that would mistake it for a movie replica. Still, the attention the car received planted the seed for what would become a journey across the globe to discover the impact of Back to the Future.

They started in Massachusetts, where $540,000 was paid for one of DeLoreans used in the film alongside another film artifact, Marty McFly's actual modified pickup truck. Their trek would take them across the country numerous times, including stops at a DeLorean Car Show in Dayton, Ohio, a miniature golf course in North Hollywood, and a live cinema experience in London attended by more than 80,000 people. We sat down with the director right after the Back in Time panel at WonderCon to talk about the documentary, the avenue that Kickstarter has provided special interest films, and what happens now that it has been successfully crowdfunded not once, but twice.

Back in Time Trailer from Malka Media Group on Vimeo.

What was it that interested you in making this film?

I've seen Back to the Future at this point probably a hundred times, and I don't think I've seen a dozen films more than once. Since I was a kid, it's always been that movie. Part of what we wanted to answer with this documentary is why. Why is this such a great movie? The day that we shot that bar mitzvah film, I saw how people reacted to a stock DeLorean DMC-12, and they're not looking at it as the car that John DeLorean built, they're looking at as the car from Back to the Future. And seeing that type of fan interest, and being a documentary filmmaker for a living, I had to make this documentary. The bar mitzvah film was its own private thing, and we put it to bed, and I had put a little seed in my head that I'd like to do a documentary on Back to the Future fandom, how it has affected fans, and  there was the shock that it hadn't been done already. Three months later, we went to the Sheas' house in Hubbardston, Massachusets, where we filmed the original Kickstarter trailer, which you can see online, and had instant gratification from fans and we knew we had something.

What do you think it is that makes Back to the Future such a cultural touchstone?

I'm a film guy and I do this for a living, but I love dumb action movies, superhero movies that everyone else might hate because they have no plot, or they break comic-book rules. I liked Amazing Spider-Man 2, right? So I view myself as a Joe Everybody. Back to the Future crossed so many different genres and did it so well. What genre is it? Is it a comedy, is it a drama, is it a sci-fi film, is it an action movie? It's all of them. Because of the simplicity, that was the perfection in the script. It's a two-hour movie, but it moves. Maybe it's something you can't even put into words; it's just done right. We've done podcasts from England to South Korea, so it touches every corner of the globe that I never imagined possible before we got into making this.

When did Back in Time begin to evolve from a film about the fans to including the members of the original production?

Once we got Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox interviewed -- and we were chasing Robert Zemeckis, which was a scheduling thing at that point -- we knew it was a different thing. Writer/Producer Bob Gale was involved from the beginning, and he was a great supporter of us. He said to us earlier that he could probably get us Christopher Lloyd, but we didn't know [for sure]. Look, Christopher Lloyd will do fan shows, but Michael J. Fox doesn't, really. You don't really see him at comic conventions, so he was another level. 

Didn't that change the scope of the documentary?

People will want to hear what Michael J. Fox has to say about it, and we knew the scope had to evolve. Originally, every story we had was to do with the car, and it was "the cultural relevance of the DeLorean," and then (slowly) it became "the cultural relevance of Back to the Future." What's crazy is the amount of support we've gotten in press. We came to the realization that this was going to be THE Back to the Future documentary. We were now entrusted with this franchise and have the opportunity to do with it what we're going to do. It's become a big responsibility.


Could you go deeper about Bob Gale's involvement and accelerating that portion of the film now that there was this sudden shift in access to the film's cast and crew? You already had a fair amount of footage on stories about the DeLorean.

Nothing big happens with Back to the Future without going across Bob Gale's desk. He is the gatekeeper of the Back to the Future franchise. His support was endless for us. In our second Kickstarter, he was nice enough to sign Back to the Future scripts for us as a $600 reward, and we sold 10 of them. That's a large amount of money for us! So he has helped in every way that he can, whether it was that type of stuff or getting us talent to interview, like, Robert Zemeckis. Michael J. Fox we got through [our co-producer] Adam F. Goldberg. That was a connection they had because they did a Back to the Future episode on The Goldbergs.

Bob believed in the project. He saw it evolving. We weren't foolish, we didn't try to get Michael J. Fox in the on the first day. It wouldn't have happened; we had no legs under the project. For a filmmaker, you've got to have a plan. It's got to be methodical. We were lucky; everyone said yes. From the day that we started this project, Bob said, "You will not get Thomas Wilson in this documentary," so it was no surprise to us, we knew it wasn't going to happen, he doesn't do Back to the Future anymore. It was upsetting, I love the Biff character and the four other characters he plays in the trilogy. I would've loved to have had him, but we knew it wasn't going to happen, and the same with Crispin Glover.

Understanding you weren't going to get Crispin, was there any feeling on your part to shed some light on that in your narrative? 

As far as Crispin, there's a lot of "he said, she said" out there. Our film is a love letter to Back to the Future, so, would the film have been the same without him? No way! His performance in the first film is amazing! He was a great actor in that film, and I'm sure if they had him back in the second film he would've had a much bigger role. Maybe. I don't know. The fact that we don't have him, it hurts. I'd love to get his take on the film and why he thinks people like it, but I think he's become so jaded to it that I don't know if he could talk about it objectively anymore. It's water under the bridge, I guess.

In the end, you still have great movie-related stories that people want to know more about.

I think the bigger thing we touched on in terms of loss is the Eric Stoltz story. As far as shooting nearly all of the principal filming, and losing the lead actor after six to seven weeks. It was unprecedented. Then, to replace him with Michael J. Fox, who you can't imagine anyone else?! It's a crazy story, and everybody has had a lot of great insight on it. 

What I love about the documentary is that there are two sides, the production side and the fan side. What are some non-production stories that will surprise viewers as the heart of the film? 

There are a couple. For example, the Hendo Hoverboard story. It's interesting, because it's out there. People know that it exists. They had a very successful Kickstarter campaign, they raised over $500,000 and had over 3,000 backers. They did not go into this to make hoverboards. That's the first big shocker. They did this as a way to make buildings safer in the event of an earthquake in Northern California. Essentially, if you could levitate a building, you don't have to worry about it crumbling, you could move it off the shoreline as it recedes. There's a lot of that technical stuff, but to hear about the passion, of why they did it. They're kind of like us, they did this Back to the Future thing and never knew it would grow into what it did. That's a good story, and so is Terry and Oliver Holler's. Oliver was given six months to live, and so he took out a credit card and bought a DeLorean and turned it into a time machine by hand because it was on his bucket list. Today he's raised a quarter of a million dollars, traveling to all 50 states raising money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. Talk about human interest. We have one more we didn't film yet, so I can't tell you. [Laughs]

At what point do you stop adding to the film? I'm sure more stories of fandom keep trickling in, you have more capital to work with, but when do you know you've reached your capacity for shooting?

I joked around in a podcast that we could do a Back in Time 2, because the stories are endless. We could easily do it. Time played a major factor, so we knew we had an end date. There are no insignificant stories, but if you put everything on the platter in the beginning and told us to pick the best 10, I don't think we would've shot some of the stuff we would have early on. We just had different access, we knew about different things, like that story I told you that I'm not talking about, that would've been on the top of the list of things to shoot, but I didn't find out about it until a month ago. He contacted me. A lot of it had to do with time, and it's the same thing now. There are endless amount of stories, so is it necessarily the best stories in the world? No. We're going to make the best documentary with the stories we have.

Concerning some of these stories, how do you weed them out and pursue it?

It just hits you. Some of the stuff is so obvious. When you make a movie about the cultural relevance of a something, and there are 80,000 people in East London celebrating it, I knew I was going to London. Secret Cinema is a UK organization who basically set up Hill Valley circa 1955. Every store in the film was there, they turned them into real stores. You could go inside all of these places. You could actually go into them, you were at the Hill Valley Fair, which is why you had 3,000 people there. They had a gigantic clock tower -- and we've been to the real clock tower, which was just a facade -- but this was five times higher than the actual clock tower. Then they projected the movie onto it. You got to watch Back to the Future with 3,000 other people acting it out in Rocky Horror Picture style, so when the DeLorean comes out on ramps  in the movie, they had a real DeLorean come out. When Biff gets knocked out by George, they had actors playing that out on stage. (Editor's note: Secret Cinema will bring another Back to the Future cinema experience to the We're Going Back celebration in October.)

You see a little bit of that in the trailer, right?

Yes, you see people sitting on the lawn and there's a quick time lapse where I was actually in the clock tower shooting down on the lawn as it began filling up with people to watch the film. We filmed that event for three nights, but that's the kind of stuff that destroyed our budget. I hired a crew there because flights were too expensive, but even with that, it ate up more than 10 percent of our total budget to go to London. It was like, uh-oh, we need to find more money.

Then there's someone out there with a mini-golf course --

We were in L.A. shooting Robert Zemeckis, Dan Harmon and Alan Silvestri, so it was a big day for us. We were in the car and I get a Facebook message from this guy, Adam Kontras, who owns a DeLorean time machine and you can rent it out as a service (, or play at his private mini-golf course. He sends me this news clip, I watch it and think, this is so cool, we should definitely interview him. I booked him the next day. We already had Dan Harmon in the morning and Alan Silvestri in the evening, and I just fit him in the middle of the day. Some of this stuff, you just have to jump in and get it when you can.

Let's go back to how you thought about making this film a reality, you had to find out how you were going to fund it.

The first thing we found is that nobody had done this. If you want to do anything, if you want to invent electronics, you have to make sure someone never did it. Once we saw that, that was the green light. With our first Kickstarter, we knew we couldn't go to our friends and family. If I was going to ask my rich uncle -- I don't have one, by the way -- for 50 grand to make this film, it wouldn't mean anything. It might have. Fans would've eventually got their hands on it, and maybe they'd want to see it, but it wouldn't validate anything for us. Our first Kickstarter was two years ago, and we never changed our release date; it was always going to be October 2015. It had 629 backers that pledged $45,117 from all corners of the globe, and again, we knew we were onto something. People want to see this. So, for people to open their wallets and support this film that far in advance, we knew the masses would want to see it. Kickstarter gives you that small sampling size for what is hopefully going to be the masses. 

Photo by Ernie Estrella

So, this is an extremely valid avenue to getting a niche film made?

Do something that's interesting and promote it. Look what Veronica Mars did ($5.7M), they're going to make Super Troopers 2 ($3.78M) and they raised the goal in a day. Obviously, they had massive commercial success before crowdfunding, but the Exploding Kittens just raised over $8 Million making some weird card game. Products sell better on Kickstarter than films, because it's like another market place for a product, but for a film, it's a tougher sell, but it's out there. If you're a filmmaker and you're depressed about how your film is going to get made, just look on Kickstarter and see what has been funded and for how much they've been funded for. It's real and it's worked for us twice. 

How important was it for you as the filmmaker to go this route to maintain your level of control?

That's twofold. One, is the validation we talked about earlier. Having a successful Kickstarter allowed my wife to allow me [laughs] to make this movie for two years. That was a big component. Beyond that, the Kickstarter community gave us the ability to do what we wanted. We didn't have a studio telling us what to do. On the flip side, would a studio have even taken this? Who are we? I didn't do Jaws. Now, they know and now they're calling, now that it's out there. The same thing for post-production. Without a second Kickstarter, we'd have been in big financial trouble. It wouldn't have stopped the film from getting made, but we would have absolutely 100% had to get traditional funding, but probably would've lost control. Maybe we could have maintained control, but we would've lost equity and what we did, we worked so hard before, only to give up control before the end? Going the Kickstarter route allowed us to be, hopefully, creatively successful. 

Watching the teasers, it appears that (Creator of Community) Dan Harmon appears and makes an interesting observation.

Our producer, Lee Leshen is a big Dan Harmon fan and said, "This guy knows our audience, we have to get him." Dan's a fan of Back to the Future and he had no involvement whatsoever because I think he was 12 when it first came out. So, he was a fan like anybody else, but his insight was amazing! He has such a good grasp on film and cinema. Here's a guy who gets movies, gets pop culture, has an understanding of why movies suck today and why they were so good back then. He made a great line comparing the film industry to the tuna industry that put a human finger in every can of their tuna. First, it was hilarious, and then, when you think about it, when you look at the garbage they put out today compared to the '80s and '90s, everything he was saying was enlightening. 

How much of the behind-the-scenes are you going to give fans access to on the DVD/Blu-Ray home release Kickstarter reward? You must have dozens and dozens of hours of footage, but you also have the Eric Stoltz footage out there, too. You've had to make hard choices.

We were intentionally diligent in terms of putting the behind-the-scenes videos out, so that's seeing the filmmaking process. That we've been open and honest with people. As far as the interviews, themselves, most of the interviews have gone 30 minutes to an hour depending on who it is. We interviewed Bob Gale twice at over an hour each. In total, we've interviewed 50 people, so we have around 50 hours of footage. Are we going to release it all? No. It's just not feasible, the delivery will be impossible. I would love everyone to see the Michael J. Fox interview in its entirety. We'll probably do that, but I have to put a big asterisk on that right now because we don't know who's going to buy this film, yet, and what that distribution plan is, and whether they're going to inhibit us from doing some of that. I can't imagine why, but I can't speak for them, either. But to see the full Christopher Lloyd interview, the whole Michael J. Fox interview – we're planning on doing something cool for the special features similar what we did at WonderCon, running down the whole process of each shoot and talk about making it. It's the old saying about the journey being just as good and, in this project, it really was. 

Now that the second Kickstarter has closed, you raised over $143,000 and you reached one of your stretch goals. Still, people continue to trickle in and find out about the project. How can people continue to connect with the journey of your film from this point?

First of all, we're not done shooting. We're not going to stop, in terms of producing and releasing behind-the-scenes videos. As we go through the post process, right now we have a composer lined up who's going to be doing this entire score playing everything by hand, no MIDI and we'll be filming pieces of that, the edit, the coloring process, we're hoping to hit the film festival circuit. So, we'll be doing more appearances like San Diego Comic-Con, New York Comic-Con. 

We'll be at the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday, April 25th. It will be a gigantic panel as they play Back to the Future there. Then, the following Sunday, we'll be at C2E2 in Chicago, April 26th. The journey doesn't stop for us. If anything, it's going to be more hectic. We want to build a buzz.  We had 2,600 Facebook likes before our Kickstarter, we have over 6,000 now. Percentage of growth in a four-six week span is crazy. 10 people just came up to us at the panel said they never heard of the documentary, so we'll continue to put the word out and let people know this is coming. 

What do you want to leave the fans who are patiently waiting for Back in Time

We've strived to make THE Back to the Future documentary. That, in 20 years, when it's the 50th anniversary, people are still watching this as an interesting take on Back to the Future. We want this to become the accompanying piece, the album liner for Back to the Future, and we're doing our best to do that, and that's what people can look forward to.

For those interested in seeing Back in Time, the film's progress can be tracked on the documentary's web site and Facebook pages.