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'Back to the Future'--Filming in Double Time : Movies: Two sequels to the megahit that took in $358 million at the box office are coming to the present. The first opens this week; the second is scheduled for summer.

November 20, 1989|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Synchronize your watches," proclaims the massive billboard hovering over the Sunset Strip, keeping a vigil on the number of hours, minutes and seconds remaining until the release of "Back to the Future Part II," a follow-up to the top-grossing film of 1985.

Similar billboards have been counting down in Universal City and in New York City's Times Square. There is no name identification. Just the familiar image of Michael J. Fox, who, as the adolescent time traveler Marty McFly, helped sell $358 million worth of tickets worldwide for Universal Pictures.

A payoff like that begs for a sequel, and now, after a 4-year wait, Universal has not one but two sequels, shot back to back and scheduled for release within six months of each other.

"Back to the Future Part II," which takes Marty, his girlfriend Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue) and wild-eyed Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) to the year 2015, opens Wednesday; "Back to the Future Part III," set mostly in the Old West, is set to surface at the beginning of next summer. The studio has yet to determine plans for the release of the sequels' videos.

The price tag for the two is about $80 million, which director Robert Zemeckis acknowledges is $10 million to $15 million less than if they'd been shot separately, but still more than twice the industry average.

"Doing both at the same time was quite a risk," said Tom Pollock, president of Universal Pictures. "It was much more expensive initially . . . like laying out the money for four films at once."

Zemeckis and co-producer/screenwriter Bob Gale, faced with a "floodgate of ideas," pitched the two-sequel idea to the studio last fall.

"It seemed an audacious, insane proposal on the face of it," said Gale, "but it made sense economically and creatively. No sets had to be reassembled, no schedules coordinated three years down the line. And since Michael had to play a high school kid, waiting the few years it usually takes for a studio to mount a big special-effects movie would have been pushing the outside of the envelope."

"Part II" begins where the original left off. "It's your kids, Marty. Something's gotta be done about your kids," warned Doc Brown--and Marty and Jennifer, zooming off in the DeLorean time capsule, take his words to heart. What they encounter is neither Orwellian nor Lucas-like, but rather a humorously depressing picture of their middle-aged selves . . . and, later on, the specter of an "alternate 1985" in which greed and environmental neglect have run amok.

"We decided there was no way we could predict the future accurately," Gale noted, "so we decided to have some fun with it."

What surfaced was a true modern-day fantasy, a world in which the Cubs win the pennant and the justice system (devoid of lawyers) works well. Sight gags and inside jokes abound. "Surf Vietnam," reads one travel poster. Playing at the local theater is " 'Jaws 19,' directed by Max Spielberg."

A trailer with highlights of "Part III" is tacked onto the end. "Depending on what happens with this one, it's either the world's most brilliant marketing ploy or the most audacious affront," said Fox, talking by phone from the Northern California set where "Part III" is still in production. "It could be perceived as presumptuous, but the last thing Bob Zemeckis wants is for people to think he phoned this one in. He's a great 'You ain't seen nothing yet' kind of guy."

The two Bobs have collaborated ever since their days at USC Film School, sharing screenplay credit on three Zemeckis films--"Used Cars," "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and "Back to the Future"--as well as on Steven Spielberg's "1941." "Bob G. is the thinker, the strategist," Fox explained. "Bob Z. is the doer, the one who takes the seeds that have been planted and reads even more into them than originally intended."

Zemeckis said that doing a sequel was the furthest thing from his mind when he and Gale knocked out the first "Back to the Future" draft in 1981. The project, originally developed at Columbia, had been turned down by every major studio, and prospects for getting it to the big screen were dim.

"It was before 'E.T.,' " said Gale, "and no one was sure there was a market for a 'sweet' film. Everyone told us to take it to Disney, which, in the pre-Eisner-and-Katzenberg days, wasn't up for a film about a romance between this kid and his mother."

A month after his "Romancing the Stone" took off at the box office in 1984, Zemeckis' time-warp comedy got the green light from Universal. When the studio asked him to do the sequel, however, the director had second thoughts.

"I didn't know if I wanted to re-enter Back-to-the-Futureland," said Zemeckis, from the Jamestown, Calif., location. "But it became clear that the train was going to leave the station whether I was on it or not. Better to have some control and be faithful to the original, I figured, than to turn my back and walk away."

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