Interview : Bob Gale

Talking up the “Back to the Future” trilogy DVD


MARTYN PALMER had the pleasure of sitting down with Bob Gale, the writer and producer of the “Back to the Future” trilogy, now being released as a four-disc set on DVD.

Q: Cast your mind back. When did the idea for Back to the Future first come to you?
A: The idea came about in 1980. Bob (Zemeckis) had been talking previous to that about doing a time travel movie of some sort but we never came up with the right kind of approach or hook for it. I’m originally from St Louis, Missouri and I was back visiting my parents and in the basement found my father’s old High School Year Book and I discovered that he had been the president of his graduating class. And I thought about the president of my graduating class, which was somebody I would have had nothing to do with, and I thought ‘Gee, I wonder if my father in High School was the type of guy my class president was.’ And if I had gone to High School with my father would we have been friends or would we have had nothing to do with one another? So that was the germ, that was the idea, what if you could go back in time and go to High School with your parents? So when I came back to California I talked to Bob Zemeckis about the idea and he got it immediately. And we just started brainstorming on it and that’s how it got going.

Q: When did you start putting these ideas on paper?
A: We had just finished a movie called Used Cars at Columbia Pictures and the head of the studio said ‘when you have your next idea, I want to be the first guy you come to with it..’ So we played around with the idea for a while and by about September of 1980 we went into Frank Price’s office in Columbia and pitched the idea and he got it immediately, he just knew right off what this was and it was one of the shortest pitches we ever had to do. So we started writing it right away and we had a first draft in February 1981 – they asked for some changes and in March or April we had a revised draft.

Q: And what was the reaction?
A: Well, everybody said it was too nice, too sweet. And this is when movies like Stripes were making a lot of money as far as comedies go. So they said ‘we’re looking for raunchier comedies..’ So we took this script all over town and everybody kept telling us that. ‘Oh it’s a great script, it’s really sweet. And we don’t want it. Why don’t you take it to Disney?’ Finally we said ‘well everybody says take it to Disney and that’s the only place we haven’t taken it, so we’ll go there..’ And this was way before Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg had gone to Disney and changed the corporate thinking over there. And the Disney executives read this and they said ‘we can’t make this, we’re Disney. You have this thing with the kid and his mother in the car. We can’t do that, we’re Disney, that’s just disgusting..’ (laughs). So the script was rejected about 44 times before we finally got it going..

Q: It’s incredible to think that now because the films went on to be so successful…
A: Absolutely. But there were a few things we always heard. One was ‘well, it’s a time travel movie and time travel movies don’t make any money.’ And another was ‘you’ve combined genres here and we don’t know if it’s science fiction or it’s comedy. You shouldn’t combine genres like that..’ I mean, everybody had a reason why they shouldn’t make it. And finally the reason it got made was as much to do with Bob Zemeckis having a hit film, Romancing The Stone, as anything else. Now I will say that one of the few people that always loved the script from the beginning and always wanted to see it made was Steven Spielberg. But we had just done three pictures for Spielberg: I Wanna Hold Your Hand, we had written 1941 for him and Used Cars and none of those movies took off. So we were afraid that if we did another movie with Steven and it tanked people would say ‘oh yeah, Zemeckis and Gale, they only work because of Spielberg…’ So we wanted some success under our belt so that Hollywood wouldn’t perceive us as just Spielberg’s guys.

Q: Did you ever give up on it and think that it wasn’t going to happen?
A: You only make it in this business if you never give up. You have to have a stubborn streak that is two miles thick and a million miles long (laughs).

Q: So Romancing the Stone helped the cause of Back to the Future?
A: Everybody wanted to be in business with Bob after that, except Fox by the way. He was originally going to do Cocoon after Romancing the Stone and after the studio saw his cut of Romancing the Stone, they fired him. This was like a month before the movie opened. (laughs) Those kinds of stories are always interesting and these are the things that keep you from jumping off the top of a building. OK yeah it’s depressing to get fired from a movie, but thank God he got fired from it. If he had made Cocoon maybe Back to the Future wouldn’t have been made. It’s a cliché to say things happen for a reason, or when you get lemons, make lemonade or there’s all this horseshit around here there must be a pony in here somewhere, but it seems to be true. So Romancing the Stone came out and everybody wanted to be Bob Zemeckis’s new best friend and everybody said ‘yeah, we’ll make any movie you want..’ and Bob said ‘you know, we can make Back to the Future anywhere, let’s go back and make it for Steven because he was the one guy who always liked the script..’ And how do you argue with that logic? Fortuitously Spielberg had made E.T and had just started Amblin Entertainment so it worked out perfectly for his business plan that we were the first outside movie – a movie that Steven hadn’t directed – to be at Amblin and Steven’s new identity, after E.T, was that he was the new Walt Disney. So in some weird way in the public perception Steven Spielberg presents Back to the Future in 1985 would have been the same as Walt Disney presents in the 1960s..

Q: So it finally got made. You must have breathed a huge sight of relief..
A: Yes (laughs). From when we conceived the idea to when we started shooting it was about four years. That length of time, in Hollywood terms, is not unusual but it’s why a lot of people get sick and tired of doing that. A lot of successful feature people decide to do television because of the amount of time it takes to do something – from when you write the script, to when it gets shot, to when it’s on the air is really condensed. It’s never the same quality as a feature film, but if you want to get your stuff out there sometimes that’s the way to do it.

Q: You mentioned that you had a little criticism of the script for the first film because Back to the Future combines genres. But that’s part of the appeal. Over the three films it plays with all sorts of genres from sci-fi, comedy, romance and western. Was that intentional at the very start?
A: Well, playing with genres was always something that appealed to us. We like doing that. You know, I Wanna Hold Your Hand is a weird mixture of comedy and history and so is 1941. Used Cars is the only one that is a straight genre picture. But that to me is one of the things that makes movies uninteresting these days, it seems that the studios always want everything to be squarely in one genre. You don’t see a movie that’s suspense or horror that is permeated with horror. Even if you watch Jaws, which is just about as good as a scary suspense movie, there’s a lot of humour in it and that makes the movie even better. So yeah, we loved doing that.

Q; So you finally got the movie into production and then I believe you had a problem with your lead who wasn’t Michael J. Fox at that point..
A: That’s right. We shot for five weeks with Eric Stoltz.

Q: It’s a brave decision five weeks into production on a big movie to suddenly say ‘you know what, we’ve got to change our leading man here..’
A: Absolutely. Which should give you an indication of how serious we thought the problem was. We had spent a lot of time on it, it was a passionate project for us and the fact of the matter was that when we ended up putting Eric Stoltz in the movie, it was because of a lot of strong arm tactics from the studio. Michael J. Fox was always our first choice, but he was unavailable at the time the movie was scheduled to start because he was doing the TV series Family Ties and the producer wouldn’t let him out of the show. The woman who played his mother, Meredith Baxter Birney, was pregnant at the time and wasn’t able to work a full schedule, so Michael was carrying the show. So the producer said ‘there’s no way I’m letting Michael leave the show and there’s no way I’m letting him read the script because he’d kill me for not letting him out..’ But we understood that. So we did a massive casting search and it came down to Eric Stoltz and C Thomas Howell and we screen tested both of these guys and all of us thought that Tommy was the guy. He did a great screen test. But whatever reason, Sid Sheinberg, who was the head of MCA/Universal, he hated Tommy and he was very bullish on Eric. He had just made the movie, The Mask, and he believed that Stoltz could do anything because he could act inside that mask. And Zemeckis was going over and over and round and round and was saying ‘I just don’t know Sid, I don’t know if this guy is going to be able to carry the movie, I don’t know he has got it.’ And in a moment of total bravura Sheinberg said ‘I’m so sure that this kid is going to be great that if it doesn’t work out, you can go and shoot the movie again with somebody else…’ Now of course he never thought that we would ever take him up on it, but he did say it, and he was a man of his word. We showed Sheinberg the footage, the first five weeks of stuff, and he couldn’t disagree with us – especially when he had Zemeckis, Spielberg, Frank Marshall (executive producer), Kathleen Kennedy (executive producer) Neil Canton (producer) and myself all saying ‘it’s not right, it’s not what the movie is meant to be. This is not right, it’s not working…’ And Sheinberg did the right thing.

Q: So you literally had to start again…
A: Yeah. Every scene had to be re-shot. There might have been two or three shots in the movie that we saved, like close ups on Christopher Lloyd or something.

Q: And did that increase the pressure on you at that time?
A: You know what happened? The first day we started shooting with Michael J Fox it was like a tremendous weight was lifted off everybody because we could just see that this kid was the character and that the movie was going to work. There was a sparkle and an energy and it just changed the whole thing, it made everybody energised. And this despite the fact that he was still shooting the television series and we didn’t get him to show up at work until 6 o clock in the evening. We would take noon calls and we would shoot around him until 6 or 6.30pm when we would take our meal break and then he would be there after working on Family Ties all day, and we would shoot with him until one or two in the morning…

Q: And now it’s unimaginable to think of anybody else but Michael J Fox as Marty McFly…
A: Yes and it’s the same with Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown. You cannot think of anybody else playing those characters and that just really shows the triumph of casting.

Q: Christopher was just perfect in that role. Was he a good guy to work with?
A: Fantastic. Chris is a theatre trained actor and it was interesting because Michael is a television trained actor. So a theatre trained actor, they memorise an entire script before they show up to work on the first day. A television trained actor, especially a sitcom actor, is used to having the script changed constantly up until they shoot in front of a live audience – so Michael never knew what his lines were until the day before. But he was amazingly quick and it didn’t really matter, he would just look at the script once and he was there. And Chris just had it all down.

Q: Did they get along?
A: Oh yeah. They developed a great chemistry together, even though off camera Chris was very quiet and shy and Michael was just the way he was off camera the same way he was on camera.

Q: Once you had Michael in place did the shoot get easier?
A: It was a tough movie to do. The schedule was horrendous because we were always shooting at night. We started with Michael in January and I remember shooting all these nights on a back lot at Universal, all the town square stuff, and it was just bitterly cold there. You don’t think of Southern California being cold but we were down in the thirties every night and that’s not so bad when you are just walking to your car, but when you are standing around in it all night and the streets are all wet, it’s cold. I remember being cold all the time. And the other memory I have was that was the post production schedule turned into a complete insane asylum. We were the movie that ruined production schedules in Hollywood.

Q; Are you serious?
A: Yes, I am. We finished shooting the movie on April 20 and the movie was in the theatres on July 3rd, something like nine and a half weeks. Originally the movie wasn’t going to be released until the third week of August. But I guess what happened was, in the third week of June when we had enough of a movie to put before an audience – even without the special effects and the music score – they got it and just went nuts and Sheinberg was there and said ‘you know what guys? We’ve got to take advantage of the summer. We’ve got to be in theatres by July 4th weekend. Can you do it?’ And we said ‘well, if you are willing to spend the money, we’ll do it..’ And we had our post production going 24 hours a day that last month to get everything done and everybody was in creative synch with each other and we did it.

Q: The core relationship on the Back to the Future films was between you and the director Bob Zemeckis. How did that start?
A: We were classmates at the University of Southern California (USC). We discovered that we had similar tastes in the movies that we liked and the movies that we wanted to make. And we admired the student films that each of us were making so we just gravitated towards each other. Some of our classmates wanted to get out and apprentice this and apprentice that and we wanted to get out of school and start making movies. And because I was focused most on writing and he was focused most on directing, it seemed a natural partnership and that’s how it happened.

Q: Where did the idea of using the DeLorean sports car first come from?
A: Well that was one of Bob’s ideas actually. In the original first draft of the script it was a time chamber, akin to an old fridge, and to move the thing around he had to put in on the back of a truck. And when it came time to start re-writing it for production, Bob said ‘you know it would make more sense to put this thing in a car..’ And the DeLorean was in the news of course and the gull wing doors just became a great futuristic kind of image. And as soon as he said it I knew it was one of those great ideas and it was like ‘damn! Of course we’ve got to do that..’

Q: And now the DeLorean is as much part of the trilogy as anything..
A: I’ll tell you a funny story. A year and a half ago I was invited to be a guest at the bi-annual DeLorean car show – and I didn’t even know there was such a thing. They have it in different location every two years on Father’s Day and I went to Pigeon Ford, Tennessee. I walked into this hall and there were more than 100 DeLoreans in there and DeLorean owners from all over the world. There were three or four of them that had modified their cars to make them look like the Back to the Future car. And I would say that 30, 40 per cent of the people there came up to me and said ‘I bought this car because of Back to the Future..’ and there is a whole little cottage industry for these owners, people are making custom parts to replace whatever goes wrong. So there’s this whole little sub culture that you don’t even think about. These people are just all Back to the Future fanatics and it’s like ‘Gee, just because of this movie, people will always remember the DeLorean and all these people have DeLoreans because of the movie..’ (laughs)

Q: The movies have endured and have found a new, younger audience. Why do you think that is?
A: Well the reason I think they have endured is, even when you take away all the bells and whistles, the movies deal with some really important human truths and a really powerful human concept, especially in the first one, which is that our parents were once children. Which, if you think back to the time when you were six or seven or eight, when you finally understood that these adults around your house were kids once too, who threw up and had to be toilet trained and all the same stuff that you had to go through. All of these things, like going on a first date, you never associate with your parents. You see a picture of your Mom and Dad when they were a child and you realise ‘my God, they were children!’ That’s a powerful idea and it transcends all cultures.

Q: At what stage did you start thinking about sequels?
A: I think once the movie took off we probably got a call from the studio during that summer where they said ‘we’d really like you to think about another one…’ Everybody always thinks that we knew we were going to do more after the first one but that’s not true. The ending of the first movie was a classic kind of ‘the heroes ride off into the sunset..’ And it was a joke, you know, ‘something’s got to be done about your kids, they’re assholes..’ (laughs). So that was a joke but when we realised we were actually going to do it we had to figure out how it was going to pan out.

Q: Did you enjoy going back to it?
A: Oh yeah. Because at the end of the day as tough as a production as the first movie was, everybody got on very well, the cast was just great, it was a pleasure working with everybody. And that’s why about 80 per cent of the cast and crew from the first movie came back to do the sequels. When we went round asking everybody they were like ‘well if it’s Bob and Bob count me in..’ So we just got everybody to come back and everybody clicked again. The fact that we did two movies back-to-back and spent 11 months in production and nobody got crazy or lost their temper or anything. It was great.

Q: These days we’re used to films like Lord of the Rings and The Matrix filming back to back. It was quite rare back in the eighties wasn’t it?
A: Well we have to give the Salkinds (Alexander and Ilva Salkind) credit for that, doing the Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers in the 70s. So they pioneered that concept.

Q: Was there ever talk of a fourth Back to the Future?
A: No, not really. After the third one we said ‘we’re not really interested in mining this anymore because it’s just going to become prostitution really…’ And that further became the fact when Michael was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The idea of doing a Back to the Future movie without Michael J Fox would be unthinkable and I wouldn’t want to go and see that. You look at the last three Star Wars pictures and they are terrible. People are going and they are making money, but they’re not so great and even Star Wars fans will tell you that.

Q: What do you think of DVDs?
A: I love DVDs and that’s why you see me and hear my voice all over those damn things! (laughs). Absolutely, I think DVD is a great medium and one of the things which was in the back of our mind was that home video was going to become a powerful entity. We knew that was going to be the future. People say ‘why did you shoot the movie in 185 aspect ratio instead of shooting it in total wide screen?’ and we said ‘well we know the future standard for television is 16 by 9 and more people are going to see this movie on television than ever see it in a theatre so we are going to optimise it..’

Q; That showed a lot of foresight..
A: Yeah. There were other reasons as well. When you shoot a lot of stuff at night, as Back to the Future 1 was going to be, if you shoot in wide screen you don’t have as much depth of focus as you do in 185. Bob Zemeckis loves having a lot of focus so that was another technical reason. He shot Romancing the Stone in wide screen. But he said ‘you know what let’s shoot it this way, because it’s going to be seen on television..’

Q: And now in the DVD format..
A: Yes and the nice thing about the box set, which we were always happy about, it was always in the back of our minds doing the sequels was that if you watched all three movies in a relatively short time, you no doubt saw a lot of things in there that you didn’t notice when you saw the movies separately years ago. And we always thought that some time in the future that people were going to watch these movies on successive nights and wouldn’t it be great if they could pick up a whole level of detail because they are watching them one after the other.

Q: Those films must have changed many lives, including yours?
A: Absolutely. And in a good way. Certainly the financial rewards were incredible but so were the creative rewards. The fact was that here we were, having written something that was rejected 44 times by different studios, different regimes at the same studios, everybody telling us ‘no, no, no!’ and we kept saying ‘but we want to make this..’ and finally we get our chance to make it and it worked. It just proves if you really believe in something you have to keep going after it, and you can’t get depressed because people say no. And that lesson has been something that has kept me going many times on projects. When I’m going round with something and it gets rejected I just say “OK I’m not going to get depressed on that because you may not like it but somebody else some day will..

Q: Do you look back on one of the films with more affection than the others?
A: You know the first one, I suppose, if you had a gun to my head because it was the most original at the time; it was brand new with stuff people hadn’t seen before. So the first one overall I would say. The second one was really fun because of all the chances we took and how we just messed around with everything we had done in the first one. And the third one was the most fun to shoot, getting to go to work every day wearing a cowboy hat, that was just a blast (laughs)

Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have a bunch of things I’m trying to get off the ground but I don’t have anything in production at the moment. I like the original stuff but it seems the studios are more interested in remakes and sequels. It’s just harder but the lesson of Back to the Future keeps me going. A couple of years ago I directed my first feature called Interstate 60, which is out there on DVD, and it featured some cameos from Christopher Lloyd and Michael J Fox.

Q: How is Michael?
A: I haven’t been in touch with him in about a year and a half. You know, he is trying to keep it under control. His mind is sharp but it’s tough.