Screenwriter Bob Gale goes back in time to discuss Back to the Future and its sequels for its 25th Anniversary
It isn't too often, even in my line of work, that I get to talk to a legend. Someone who has created something that has stood the test of time, and will continue to do so for many years to come. When I say the name Bob Gale, I'm sure the word "legend" doesn't immediately come to your mind...That is, until I say that he is the screenwriter of Back to The Future, Back To The Future Part II and Back To The Future Part III.
I had the chance to speak with Bob Gale over the phone recently, in celebration of this magnificent new Back to the Future: 25th Anniversary Trilogy Blu-ray set, which hits the shelves on October 26. He had plenty to say about the development of the films and this new, incredibly comprehensive six-disc BD set as well:
This set is pretty amazing. Can you talk about some of your favorite parts of just putting this amazing Blu-ray trilogy together?
Bob Gale: I have to say, my favorite part is how good the movies look, going through this digital restoration process. I was just blown away at the technology used to get these movies looking like they came off the original negative. When you saw the movie in the theater, you were looking at a fourth-generation element. You start with the negative, then you make a positive, and then a negative so the release prints come off as a negative. The grain reduction, dirt cleanup, scratches are all gone and I had the good fortune of seeing all of them projected from these new elements. It just looks so good.
I was reading up on your initial inspiration to write the movie, and I thought it was very interesting that it came from seeing your dad's yearbook and wondering if you'd be friends with him at that age. Can you talk about how the idea evolved from there, and did you come up with an answer to that question? Would you have been friends with your dad at that age?
Bob Gale: Yeah, I did think about that and the answer was no, I probably would not have been (Laughs). I was running around with a movie camera in high school, I was pulling pranks and stuff. My dad was captain of the debate team, as well as the president of the class. We wouldn't have been friends at all.
Bob Gale: I told Bob the story about, what if you could go to high school with your dad. He said, 'Well, what if your mom went to the same high school and she was like the class slut?' We just started riffing away on that, thinking about things that our parents told us that they did or didn't do. We'd always talked about a time travel story, but we had never been able to figure out the hook. We realized this was a time travel movie, so we began working on it, developing it a little bit and finally we went in and pitched it to Frank Price at Columbia Pictures. Even though Used Cars wasn't a big hit at Columbia, not a big hit at all, Frank really loved the movie. He told us, 'I don't care if the movie makes any money. Come to me first.' So, we did. We had a lot of stuff figured out, or what we thought was figured out, and we told the story to Frank. As soon as we told him about a kid who goes back in time and his mom falls in love with him instead of his dad, Frank got it. Bob kept wanting to tell him more scenes and I kept elbowing him (Laughs).
You had a few other things in mind before you settled on the DeLorean as the time travel device. Can you talk about how you first discovered the DeLorean, and why you ultimately decided on that very unique car?
Bob Gale: Sure. In the earlier drafts, when we knew we were going to make the movie, the time machine was this chamber. It was sort of halfway between a telephone booth and a shower stall. Doc Brown had to put it on the back of his truck. He had to do that because he needed nuclear power to work it and he thought they'd have to take it to Nevada to nuclear test sites to harness the nuclear power. He had the time chamber on the back of his truck and, one day, Bob said, 'You know, what if the time machine was a vehicle already, and we didn't have to mess around with putting it on a truck?' I said that, yeah, it would make a lot of sense. Bob said, 'Wouldn't it be cool if it was a DeLorean?' As soon as he said it, I knew he was right. So let's give Robert Zemeckis the kudos for being inspired enough to come up with that idea.
That was right around the time when John DeLorean himself was in some legal troubles. Did you have any contact with anyone there?
Bob Gale: No, no, no. We wrote that draft, we changed it to the DeLorean in 1984 and the DeLorean Motor Company was already out of business in 1984. I don't quite remember exactly when he was having those problems, but we just thought it made it more interesting. It made it more dangerous that it would be that. It never concerned us. The gulwing doors were just too cool.
Oh, I agree. I live in Hollywood and someone still has that model that I see driving down my hill some days. It's hilarious and, obviously, that's the first thing I think of.
Bob Gale: Yeah. Everybody does. If you go to the DeLorean car shows, all the DeLorean owners either own it because of Back to The Future, or you didn't want to get rid of it because of Back to The Future.
(Laughs) With the sequels, at that time, there weren't many sequels that shot back-to-back like you did with Back To The Future Part II and Back To The Future Part III. Can you talk about why you shot them back-to-back like that? It wasn't really a standard practice at that time.
Bob Gale: We can't really take credit for coming up with the idea for doing two movies at the same time, because we were copying off of Alexander Salkind and Ilya Salkind, when they did The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers. Actually, they intended to do Superman and Superman II back-to-back but they ran out of money. We can't take credit for inventing that idea. We started just doing Back To The Future Part II and we ended up just putting so much stuff into it. Bob said, 'Let's go back to the Old West for Part II,' and we ended up with a script that was just way too long. It was 165 pages. It was way too expensive and it didn't really work well. It had four acts instead of three, with the fourth act being the Old West. Three quarters through the movie, we're introducing all of these new characters that we hadn't even heard of before. It didn't feel right, so I said, 'You know what, we should make two movies.' Bob said, 'Really?' and I said, 'Yeah, let me show you what I have in mind.' I said to give me about a week and I'll write the West the way I think it ought to be written. When I was writing it the way that it was, we were rushing through everything. So, I took a week, 16-hour days, and I had a 210-page script. I said, 'Read this and you'll see that it can be split equally in half and I think we should make two movies.' He read it and said, 'You're right. That's what we should do.' We went to our production manager and said we wanted him to budget it, break it in half and do the arithmetic. I brought Kathleen Kennedy, one of our executive producers, into the conversation. It turned out we could make one movie for $55 million or two movies for $70 million. The $70 million turned out to be $80 million, so $40 million apiece, but the economics of it convinced the studio that it's what we should do.
There was a video released a few weeks ago from this Blu-ray set, which shows the first footage of Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly from the first five weeks. I know that Michael J. Fox was the first choice but you had to go with Eric Stoltz because of his commitment to Family Ties. Can you walk us through how that whole scenario unfolded? Did everybody part ways amicably?
Bob Gale: Well, more or less. Getting fired is never enjoyable. We've all been fired. It's not fun. If you're honest with people, you hope they don't hate you. It was one of those things. Some people said, 'Well, they should've made it up to him somehow.' Well, he got paid. He got paid his whole salary and he went on and had a very good career. He works all the time. It's good that it happened in the 80s instead of today, because that would've been all over the Internet and it could do a lot more damage to somebody's career than it did then, because it wasn't all that well-known at the time. In terms of the process of it, as you noted, Michael J. Fox was our first choice, but Gary David Goldberg, the producer of Family Ties, we went to him and said, 'What are our chances of having Michael do this?' He read the script and said, 'Look, I'm not even going to let Michael read this script because it's so good and when I tell him he can't do it, he's going to hate me for the rest of his life.' He said they can't let him out of the show. Meredith Baxter was pregnant at the time and Michael was carrying the show a lot. He said, 'Yeah, he'd be perfect for it, but I can't let you have him.' We pushed back our start date a couple of times, trying to find the perfect guy to cast in it and, again, putting Eric Stoltz in the movie for five weeks turned out to be a blessing in disguise because that's how we ended up getting Michael J. Fox. We were in such a bind and this was eight, nine, 10 weeks after we had asked Gary the first time. We went back to him and Meredith had her baby and he said, 'OK, if you guys are willing to shoot around Family Ties and if Michael is willing to live that way, go with God.'
It's interesting with the second movie, all these "predictions" that have sort of come true, except for the Cubs winning the World Series, of course.
Bob Gale: (Laughs) Yeah, that's not going to happen. There are still five years for that to happen, though. We predicted that Miami would have a baseball team, but we thought they'd be in the American League and not the National League and we thought it'd be the Miami Gators and it's the Florida Marlins. We were sort of right about that, but we've got 3D movies, right? (Laughs)
That's true. Can you talk about some of those initial conversations, trying to think about what would happen in 2015, about how the future might look?
Bob Gale: Yeah. I did a lot of research and our art department did a lot of research. I remember we even went down to the Jeffries Banknote company in Los Angeles, where they print money for foreign governments. We asked what would money look like in the future? They were absolutely right. They said the President's picture was going to be much bigger in the future and they showed us some samples of what some ideas might be, with the metal strip running through it. That was something that we researched and also financial transactions with your thumb, that was already being talked about when we were researching. We thought that seemed logical and the whole thing about video-conferencing, people were talking about that. Of course, there things that we know would probably never happen that were just too funny to not do.
I know there's a big celebration in Burbank on November 5 for the 25th Anniversary. Is there anything more you can say about that?
Bob Gale: I'll tell you what you can do is go to the website called WereGoingBack.com. There are all sorts of various locations where we filmed and there will be lots of people who were in the movies participating. It will all raise money for Team Fox, Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's foundation. Your money goes to a very good cause. The fans are putting this thing together and they're just doing an amazing job.
You're also working on a new Back to The Future video game. Is there anything you can tell us about that?
Bob Gale: Sure. Back to The Future has been plagued by some of the worst video games in history. The old LJN, 8-bit cartridge is one of the worst games ever made, so bad that I myself would even tell people not to buy that piece of crap. So, the guys at Telltale Games are huge fans of the movie and they really want to get it right. They came to me and said, 'Would you help us? Would you be involved?' So I said yeah, I would. I've been working with them and they ran a bunch of story ideas and possibilities by me. The game takes place in 1986, about six months after the events in the trilogy. We pick up Marty in Hill Valley and the DeLorean arrives. There is a bit of a mystery about that and I can't tell you anything more about that because I'm not supposed to (Laughs). Michael J. Fox has approved his likeness in it, Christopher Lloyd is voicing Doc Brown and has approved his likeness and we are trying to make this the best Back to The Future ever and keep it totally in the spirit of the movies. It's not Back to The Future Part 4, because it's a game, not a movie. I like to say that you can give a melody to a jazz group and they'll riff on it and do some really interesting things with it. It won't still be the melody, but it will be inspired by the melody and that's what these guys are doing. It's not canon any more than our Saturday morning cartoon series was. I think this game is going to be a lot of fun and it will be a really great riff on the movie.
Is there a release date for that set yet?
Bob Gale: The first installment is supposed to be released, they're saying Winter, which could mean December or January or February. You're never really sure about a game. We don't want them to rush it out to make a release date if it will be detrimental to the quality. We'd rather it be a couple of weeks late and have it with better quality.
To wrap up, what would you like to say to any fans of the series about why they should be first in line to pick up this amazing new trilogy box set on Blu-ray?
Bob Gale: If you love these movies, you're going to see them looking better than they've ever looked and sounding better than they've ever sounded. The new documentaries are really well done. Everybody is in them, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy, Robert Zemeckis. It's really well done. All the features you have in the original 2002 set have been ported over as well, so you can replace your old set and not feel like you've lost anything. We have the ride in there, new galleries, new movie transfers, it just looks great.
That's about all I have for you. Thanks so much for talking to me. It was a real honor.
Bob Gale: Thank you. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
You can relive Bob Gale's fantastic trilogy in the best possible way, the Blu-ray way, when Back to the Future: 25th Anniversary Trilogy Blu-ray debuts on October 26.