Interview : Michael J.Fox

Talking up the “Back to the Future” DVD


Michael J.Fox took time out of his schedule to talk to us about the highly anticipated release of the 4-disc “Back to the Future” trilogy DVD set. MARTYN PALMER reports.

Q: When was the last time you saw the Back to the Future trilogy?
A: That’s a good question. I’ve seen bits and pieces of them on television now and then. I’ll be flicking through the channels and they’ll come on and I’ll find myself fascinated with them (laughs). It’s kind of like watching a home movie, you know? It’s been a long time since I watched all three in their entirety, but I’ve watched bits and pieces of each countless times.

Q: What do they remind you of when you see them again?
A: Well like I say, it’s part home movie, it’s part film history and it’s part just entertainment that works right at the moment. For me, and for a lot of people, it catches a slice of time – ironically and no pun intended – in their lives. And for me it’s even more so, because I was actually there. It’s a combination of watching the stories, enjoying the performances and remembering the moments and just remembering doing it. I can sometimes watch a scene and have the ability to see what was behind the camera at the same time too, so it’s kind of a complete picture for me, it’s almost like a sixth sense memory.

Q: What was it like when you first arrived on set after Eric Stoltz had been there in the same role for six weeks?
A: It was odd because I was doing two shows at the same time. I was doing the series (Family Ties) in the day time and then I would be picked up from the set and transported to the Back to the Future set and work on the film and I would get two or three hours of sleep each night. To be honest, after the first two or three weeks it was a blur, a kind of narcoleptic blur. But it was a lot of fun. I had no sense really of what it was. I had no sense of its size or its import or its potential or eventual impact. It was just a good laugh.

Q: It was such a high energy role and Marty spends so much time on his skateboard or playing guitar. I can’t imagine how you did the two jobs at once..
A: I was 24 years old and I was three years removed from abject poverty so I was just happy to have the gig and I was pretty energised by that. And we did that in 1985 and they shot a lot of the film before I got there, as you said, with Eric. So with a lot of it I was being put in to do coverage with scenes that had already been shot. In a lot of those scenes people are reacting to Eric and then they would cut to my close up which had been re-shot. So a lot of times I was being inserted into existing footage so they were able to get a lot done relatively quickly, although they had a gruelling editing schedule. So it was kind of a blur. And I know that a lot of the things were different: different wardrobe, different staging, different stuff. Along with Bob (Zemeckis) we re-realised the role and re-realised the energy of the piece, so I didn’t feel like I was being painted into an existing picture.

Q: You mentioned that you were three years away from abject poverty. What happened?
A: Well, in 1979 I moved to the States and I didn’t get Family Ties until 1982 and up until then I was doing bit parts on TV shows and basically living hand to mouth. Actually it got to the point where I was ducking the landlord and selling off my furniture section by section and eating plain wrapped food and all that stuff. I kind of lived that life, so in the first part of 85 to find myself doing Back to the Future and the TV show and living in an apartment and having a car and girlfriends I mean I was just in hog heaven! The idea of working 18 or 19 hours a day, felt like I was getting off easy because I was just happy to have the gig.

Q: During those tough times did you ever think about giving up on the dream and going back to Canada?
A: I did but I had this incredible tax debt. I couldn’t leave. I knew if I left the country under those circumstances it would be bad. Because I wasn’t a US citizen, I was a Canadian citizen and if I left the country with a tax debt I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back into the country, so I was determined to stick it out. And you know my parents were pleading with me to come home but I kept saying ‘something is going to happen, something will break..’ and it then did.

Q: You said you didn’t have any great sense of what the movie would do when you were making it. When did you realise that it was going to be such a big hit?
A: Ironically I was in England at the time. It was very quick between my realisation and when it actually happened – in fact it was almost simultaneous. I was doing the show and the movie at the same time and I finished the show that year around March and I finished the movie around April. And then I got ready to go to London to do a television movie based on the series. I think it was called Family Ties Goes To England. And while I was there they finished the editing schedule and started to run the film in previews. And I started getting these cryptic messages telling me how well the previews were going but I had really no experience of feature films at that point to be able to put that into context. When somebody told me it was testing 99 per cent good to excellent or whatever the tracking stuff that they do was, I couldn’t put that into context, I didn’t know what it meant. I was like ‘oh good..’ you know. I thought everybody was pretty good, the script was good, and we did our best, so hopefully it would be OK. And then I started to hear that the critics were loving it and I started doing satellite interviews from England in support of it and started to hear the reaction from journalists and television commentators and what not, and I thought ‘wow! It sounds like a good movie..’ and that in itself was a victory for me, the fact that it was a good movie. And then I got the opening and reports of the gross and I realised it was a smash. And a couple of weeks later this movie that I had made, a small independent called Teen Wolf, came out, and it was the biggest independent release ever, which was really on the strength of Back to the Future. When I realised that Back to the Future had the power to influence the release of a teen werewolf movie, then I knew that it was something special!

Q: What impact did it have on your life? Three years earlier you were broke, then you were in a hit sitcom and a blockbuster movie..
A: I had the No. 1 movie, the No. 2 movie and the No. 2 sitcom in the country. Yeah. I was getting laid…(laughs) it was really fun, it was great. I can remember I came back to the States and went to see the movie with some friends at the Cinerama Dome, which is a real piece of Seventies kitsch on Sunset Blvd in LA, and it was packed with hundreds of people and they just went ape. And I was up in the balcony and it was the first time I’d seen it with an audience, I’d paid my five bucks and went in with everybody else. And I just really got that it was something special.

Q: Did they talk to you about sequels quite quickly?
A: You know in my haste to sign, because they put me in so quickly, they didn’t talk to me about a sequel deal in the contract. Because they just had to get me in there and I didn’t know what was going on and so we didn’t talk about a sequel. So then I was in the fortunate position of not having a contract for the sequels so I was able to start afresh ‘so OK, let’s talk about this..’ (laughs). It was a good position, but at the same time I was certainly grateful to be a part of it, so I didn’t hold them up too bad. We all did well, I think. We talked straight away about the sequel but it ended up being five years before we did them, which is quite a long gap. I think it had to do with Bob (Zemeckis). Bob and Bob, you know Gale (writer and producer) and Zemeckis (director) when they wrote the sequels, two and three were just one movie originally and it was so ridiculously epic and expensive that they were talked into making them two movies. At the time it was pre Lord of the Rings and that kind of thing and the idea of doing two movies back to back like that, seemed a little presumptuous. It was pretty nervy. But in a sense it was the only economically sensible thing to do, because it was almost a foregone conclusion that there would be a three, because one was so successful and two was anticipated to be so successful, so from a business point of view it made the most sense.

Q: And were the sequels fun to do?
A: They were incredibly gruelling. I found myself in the same situation I was in on the first film. You would think I would have been smart enough to avoid it the second time, but I was doing the last season of Family Ties so there was a certain amount of overlap in the schedules, so there were times when I was doing both. And add to that the fact that by then I was married, my wife was pregnant, I had just bought a new house and then about half way through the production my father fell ill and passed away. Making those films was a wonderful experience and I’m proud of those films, but I was no longer a 24 year old kid, I was a 30 year old guy with a wife and son and a new home and like I said, my father passed away so it was a different time for me. But you know, if you are 24 years old and you’ve got life by the tail, you do well to enjoy it and so I did and so I have no regrets.

Q; What do you think of the DVD format?
A: With the goodies and the packages? It’s so great. My 16-year-old son is a connoisseur, whether it’s Back to the Future or whatever, he gets these packages and knows them inside out and he can tell you who did the catering on like the second Matrix movie. And it’s great for the fan. It makes you want to see a film for the fourth or fifth or sixth time because you get all the support information and it makes it a different experience every time.

Q: And Back to the Future does play so well to the kids. Why is that, do you think?
A: Again, no pun intended, but it’s timeless. Because it jumps from time to time it doesn’t feel like you are watching something that is anachronistic now because it’s intended to be out of time and not wholly familiar. Kids love it. But you know Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale were brilliant and Bob (Zemeckis) has gone on to prove this with all of his subsequent films. But they both have imaginations of the first order.

Q: And the on screen chemistry between you and Christopher Lloyd was essential to the success of the film…
A: You know it’s Laurel and Hardy, it’s Gilligan and Skipper, it’s all of those things. It’s such a well constructed relationship and Chris and I just had the energy to make it come to life in a way that captured people,

Q: Was there ever talk of a fourth film?
A: I think by the time we finished two and three we were all so damn tired and then Bob went on to do Forest Gump and I went on to do some television work and some other things, you know, I started my own show, Spin City. And now the only way it would work would be if I played Doc, I’m 44 years old now and I’m not interested in running around on skateboards! I think after 1,2 and 3 we all kind of felt we had done it. And I think if now they did it again they would do it with a younger cast and just do a different realisation of it, which would be fun and I’m happy to watch it.

Q: How consuming is your work with the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research?
A: It’s pretty consuming, but one of the smart things I did was to hire some really smart people, so I don’t have to be involved with it on an administrative level day to day, but certainly with our fund raising efforts I’m involved with everything. And we’ve done great, we’ve raised more than $75 million in less than five years. We came into an area where there wasn’t really a research driven foundation in support of Parkinson’s community, so we were really fulfilling a need and people responded in a really amazing way. And when you think about a disorder that in the United States affects about a million people, for us to have raised as much money as we have, and made as much progress as we have, is really remarkable. In the scheme of things it’s a relatively small population. So we are really pleased. We have done some good things. We are close to finding a biomarker which will help diagnosis be achieved a little quicker and treatment start quicker. And we support a lot of stem cell work which is difficult to do in the current political climate.

Q: That’s a cause that’s dear to your heart, I would imagine?
A: Well the great thing about it is that it’s bigger than your own experience, for instance stem cell research affects Parkinson’s, definitely, but also Alzheimer’s, MS, cancer, spinal chord injury, everything. So you sense that you are not in it just for your own camp. but if we could follow the science and some get break through in the right areas, it could affect hundreds of millions of people.

Q: Do you think this administration will change its view or will it be a different administration down the line?
A: Well, it’s definitely going to be a different administration, whether they are of a different political mindset remains to be seen. But I think there is an awakening in the country about some of the sacrifices we are making for the sake of politics. I think that stuff is being weeded out. But I don’t want to get too political.

Q: Does your involvement with the Foundation mean that you need to get out there and get the message across, like going on chat shows?
A: To a certain extent. But when you are involved in something like this and you benefit from your public reputation and your public profile, you want to be careful because that’s really precious capital and you don’t want to burn it out. You don’t want to over spend and be too strident. So I try to make my appearances when they are the most valuable and most an asset, and when they are not, I leave the stage to others who maybe have a political point of view or a scientific point of view that’s more informed than mine. But when I can be there I certainly try to and be present in the conversation.

Q: How optimistic do you feel about your own condition?
A: I’m really lucky because I’m young and I’m fit in every other way. Because Parkinson’s isn’t a degenerative disease in the sense – at least not young onset – that say AOS is or MS or other kind of progressive degenerative diseases where they affect your other body systems. For me it’s just a switch in my brain that works sometimes and doesn’t work other times. I’m 44 years old and 128 lbs and I’m in good shape: I ride my bike, I play hockey, I play tennis, I play golf, I ski. And I’m raising four kids and I’m chasing them around, so I’m pretty vital in every other way. It affects my ability to do my old job in a way that I like, although every now and then I still do. I’m going next week to do a couple of episodes of a TV show that I like called Boston Legal. It’s cool, it’s good writing and they have been asking me to do it. So I keep busy. It’s a deceptive thing and it’s just enough to keep me from doing all the things that I want to do, and it robs me of a certain amount of spontaneity that I had been accustomed to previously in my life. But other than that I consider myself pretty fortunate and that’s why I don’t mind giving my time and energy to this cause and this Foundation.

Q: And how are your family?
A: They’re great. They are great kids and they are spaced out well. I’ve got one in pre-School, two in Middle School and one in High School so I get the full breadth of the experience. The eldest, my son, is 16, the youngest is four and we have twins, 10-year-old girls. So it’s great – but you don’t get to sleep much!

Q: You’re married to the actress Tracy Pollan. Where did you first meet?
A: On Family Ties. She left the show after one season but she auditioned for me for a movie I was doing called Bright Lights, Big City. I asked her how her boyfriend was doing, and she said they weren’t together anymore, and I said ‘great you’ve got the job, let’s have lunch..’ And then we got engaged, and a year later we were married!

Q: Is Tracy working or being a full time mother?
A: She is a little ambivalent about it. She works occasionally but she is so busy with the kids. She’s fabulous.

Q: You live on the east coast…
A: Yes, Tracy grew up on the east coast and if you ask most guys why they live where they do, they’ll say ‘because of a beautiful girl..’ I guess it’s the same with me. Tracy grew up on the east coast and we came out here when my son was born in 89. We got a place in New York just as I was finishing part 3 of Back to the Future. We have this place and a farm in Vermont and we just love it out here.

Q: Do you ever go back to Canada?
A: Yeah, I go back a couple of times a year and my mother comes down to see me. She is actually visiting me right now. She is great, she is getting younger every year! I have three sisters who live in Canada and a brother, who also lives in Canada.

Q: Where do you think the acting came from?
A: I started professionally when I was about 15. I grew up in Vancouver and it coincided with the nascent American film industry in Canada – now it’s common place that they do a lot of American films in Canada, but then it was just starting so I caught that first wave and I built up a profile with American producers and directors while in Canada. So by the time I turned 18, it was natural for me to go down there and I had some pre-existing relationships and was able to get some auditions and really get a jump start.

Q: But 18 is very young. What was that like for a teenager in LA?
A: It was the late seventies and it was like Boogie Nights (laughs), it was pretty crazy. But you know what, my Dad was in the military, he was an interesting guy, and he could see that once I was making a living at it, that was really all you could ask. And having been 18 and on his own in the military, he sensed that I was old enough. If you knew what you were doing and you had something to keep you busy and keep you honest, you would be safe. And he trusted me and it worked out. Like I said, there was some tough times at first, but if there isn’t you are kind of poorer for it. You need to have those tests when you are young and rise above them and go through the crucible on your own.

Q: Are any of the kids showing signs of following in Mum and Dad’s business?
A: No, we beat it out of them (laughs). Kind of; my daughters are in the School of American Ballet, so they are doing The Nutcracker this year, my son is a musician and my youngest is a total camera hog. But you know, we encourage them to be involved in the arts, but I don’t think we’d encourage them to get involved professionally until they are older and can make their own decisions. Having not gone to college myself, it’s something I’d like to see my kids do.

Q: You played guitar and now your son is following you down that road..
A: I think he is playing guitar because chicks dig it (laughs). He’s playing the bass because I’ve told him that girls don’t know the difference…