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Wednesday 28 September 2016

'I sat at a small upright piano, clunking away as I usually do' - Alan Silvestri talks writing Back to the Future theme

Alan Silvestri talks to Independent.ie ahead of a screening of Back to the Future with live accompaniment from the RTE Concert Orchestra at the Bord Gais Theatre on Sunday

Published 11/11/2015 | 11:31

Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd as Marty McFly and Doc Brown in Back to the Future
Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd as Marty McFly and Doc Brown in Back to the Future

Alan Silvestri had no inkling his life was about to change, thrillingly and profoundly, when, in the spring of 1984, he received a dinner invitation from a young director named Robert Zemeckis.

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"We'd worked on [Indiana Jones tribute] Romancing The Stone together and there was this other project we were going to collaborate on," recalls Silvestri, today one of Hollywood's most esteemed soundtrack composers. "But when I met him he said that actually, we weren't doing that other project after all. We were doing something else – a movie called 'Back To The Future."

It's 30 years since Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) reverse-whooshed to 1955 in a gull-winged DeLorean sports car and headlong into an accidental love triangle with his teenage parents-to-be (played by Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover). Regarded as a quirky diversion on release, the film, has, across the decades, attained an almost mythic status (witness the excitement over 'Back to the Future' day last month, when devotees of the franchise marked October 21 2015 – the date to which McFly travels forward in Back To The Future 2).

"We were all much, much younger – Back To The Future was an important film for all of us," says the amiable Silvestri (65), who would go on to score blockbusters as far-ranging as Forrest Gump (another Zemeckis collaboration), The Avengers and Night At The Museum.

"There was a lot of pressure – especially on Bob Zemeckis. We wanted it to be something special. We are slowly finding out, all these years later, that it is in fact something special. '

The famous 'Back To The Future' musical refrain – introduced as Marty zips across the tarmac in Doc Brown's tricked out DeLorean – came to Silvestri as he mucked about on piano. He and Zemeckis agreed that the movie required a big, sweeping theme – though essentially an offbeat comedy, Back To The Future had epic underpinnings, which it was strongly felt the score should play to. Silvestri was also keen to impress executive producer Stephen Spielberg, a fan of swooning cinematic fanfares.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 21: Composer Alan Silvestri attends the
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 21: Composer Alan Silvestri attends the "Back To The Future" New York special anniversary screening at AMC Loews Lincoln Square on October 21, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

"This seemed to us the kind of film that should have a central identifying theme," Silvestri recalls. "Coming up with it was not in fact that arduous. I based it on Bob's direction that it should be big and heroic – have a sense of grandeur. I sat at a small upright piano, clunking away as I usually do. I was lucky that the notes seemed to arrive rather quickly."

Was Zemeckis quick to recognise the genius of what Silvestri had written? "Back in those days, we couldn't do those big fancy mock-ups on computer. The director really wouldn't get a sense of what was happening until we had spent a lot of money on an orchestra. That was the first time Bob really heard the theme. Fortunately it went well. It's not so nice when it doesn't go well."

While Back To The Future is effortlessly charming,the shoot was initially quite troubled. Michael J Fox had been Zemeckis's first choice to play McFly. But Fox couldn't wriggle out of his contract with sit-com Family Ties. So the brooding Eric Stoltz was cast instead. It soon became clear the intense character actor was too tightly wound for a comedy part and, four weeks in, with Spielberg having helpfully secured Fox's early release from Family Ties, Stoltz was fired. Reshooting Stolz's scenes with Fox would add $3 million to the $14 million budget – yet Zemeckis felt he had to do so to save his movie.

Silvestri was a regular on set. But he had not been around when Stoltz was the star (to remain in character, the actor had insisted he be referred to as "Marty" throughout the shoot).  Silvestri did, on the other hand, recognize the matinee idol wattage of Fox the moment he clapped eyes on him.

"I did not see the Stoltz footage," he says. "When I started seeing bits of film with Michael I could not imagine anyone else being Marty. He seemed so perfect as him. He was already established as a star on TV. There is always this interesting question as to whether a television star can make the transition. Michael was every bit the movie star."

How many times has he seen the movie through his life?  The figure surely runs into into the hundreds.

"Not as often as you might think. I've seen it a lot recently, because we've been doing these live shows. It's a movie that, if I saw it on TV, I'd stop and watch it. But I don't think I've seen Back to the Future 2 and 3 since they came out."

A screening of Back to the Future with live accompaniment from the RTE Concert Orchestra takes place at the Bord Gais Theatre on Sunday, at 3pm and 8pm.

Tickets €29.50–€59.50 (€20 restricted view).  Booking: Bord Gáis Energy Theatre Box Office or Ticketmaster Outlets 0818 719 377, www. bordgaisenergytheatre.ie

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