My first writing gig for an animated series was for “Back to the Future.” I had met Bob Gale, the screenwriter for the film series, when I worked as a Production Assistant for Steven Spielberg. Bob had an office on the studio lot, and I would sometimes drop by to say hello. We were both from St. Louis, and he was kind enough to let me hang out a little to talk about our home town.
When Bob started producing the animated series of BTTF, I sent over a few ideas for episodes. He arranged for me to pitch directly to the show’s head writers. They selected one of them, featuring the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Once a full story outline was approved, they gave me a few sample scripts they had written, and sent me off to write my draft.
I threw myself into the task with the fervor of the newly committed. I wrote page after page of what I considered hilarious cartoon material. I turned in the script and waited. And waited.
I didn’t hear back from them, and I started making discreet inquiries from office assistants – how did they like the script, would they like me to do any revisions, etc. Still I didn’t hear a thing.
Until a package was delivered to me, containing an audio cassette tape. It was the episode’s audio track, complete with music and sound effects. I popped the tape into my deck and sat back, anxiously awaiting my first experience hearing my words recorded for posterity.
But that’s not what happened.
I was stunned to hear an episode that was half-mine, and half-rewritten. I couldn’t believe it! Where was my 1 1/2 pages of that brilliant scene between Marty and Doc Brown? Where was my diamond-sharp repartee? Where were the wisecracks and the sight gags?
The head writers had jettisoned half of my script and replaced it with their own content! What the hell?
Now, I wasn’t a complete idiot. I knew they had the right to revise my script. I just never thought they would do it. I had made the rookie mistake of falling in love with my own rose-scented words. I had forgotten that my main task was to serve the show, not my own need to be clever.
Not only was the material they cut out inappropriate for BTTF, none of it belonged in a kid-friendly show. Not that there were violence or sexual issues – rather that the dialogue was aimed at 20 and 30-somethings. Jokes that referenced cultural events that no child would understand or remember. Snappy patter that alluded to comedy bits from Saturday Night Live.
Once I understood the mistake I had made, I was at peace with the episode that was eventually produced. There’s enough of my contribution left in it to inspire pride of authorship. But there’s also the eternal reminder that, as writers for kids, we have a primary responsibility to entertain and inspire them. Not ourselves.
- Could ‘Back to the Future’ actually see the future? (huffingtonpost.com)