PRINT | E-MAIL Brain Storm
An Interview with Bob Gale
by Scott Holleran
November 18, 2003
Writer and producer Bob Gale, who created and wrote the Back to the Future [official Web site] pictures with director Robert Zemeckis, is a force of nature. At 52, the Missouri native possesses the youthful enthusiasm one might expect from the man who transformed a fun, brilliantly conceived adventure into one of America's favorite movie trilogies.
From his home in suburban Los Angeles, Gale, who also wrote Used Cars, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and 1941, tells Box Office Mojo about Back to the Future and his most recent motion picture Interstate 60, which shows Nov. 18 at the ArcLight Cinema in Hollywood [Web site] for Gordon Meyer's Master Storytellers series.
Box Office Mojo: If you could turn back time, would you change any aspect of Back to the Future (BTTF)?
Bob Gale: Yes. It wasn't like I didn't try to deal with this issue—and I had a very obstinate studio head who didn't want to do this—[but] a lot of people were disappointed in Back to the Future Part II [BTTF2], because it didn't have an ending. It had a cliffhanger. And back then people didn't know that there was a Part III [coming soon thereafter]. Today, you would know that. But I wanted to say in an ad campaign for BTTF2 that it's part two of a three part trilogy so that people would go in knowing that there was a third part and wouldn't be disappointed with a cliffhanger ending. We alienated a lot of people in the audience. They thought it was a crummy thing to do. That doesn't happen anymore because we sell the movies as a boxed set and everyone knows that there are parts one, two and three, but back in 1989 when BTTF2 came out, audiences weren't prepared for that. If there's one thing I could change that would be it.
BOM: How would you have ended BTTF2?
Gale: The ending is fine if people knew going in that it was a cliffhanger. But, while I look at the movies and there are things that make me cringe and so forth, this business of filmmakers going back to their work and changing it—that's crazy. The movie's of its time and, for better or worse, that's the movie we made. [Director Robert] Zemeckis was very adamant about that. The movies are really good. Are they perfect? No, nothing's perfect. But they're perfect enough.
BOM: What is the basic theme of Back to the Future?
Gale: That you are in control of your own destiny. It's all about personal responsibility. And just because somebody says that something is supposed to be a certain way, it ain't necessarily so. Doc Brown [played by Christopher Lloyd] sums it up at the end of BTTF3 when he says "your future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one."
BOM: In BTTF3, Marty confronts his enemy, Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen, in a classic Western scene. But why did Marty, when first faced with his foe, walk away from a physical altercation?
Gale: You have to face your foe if it makes sense—but not if it's about something really stupid. Barfights are not heroic. It's not the same thing as facing Darth Vader, who's out to destroy the universe [and it's not as if] people's lives are really at stake. If it's just a macho thing, then it's stupid. It doesn't matter what other people think [of you].
BOM: BTTF was released in the summer, BTTF2 in late November, and BTTF3 in May. Are you pleased with the release, promotion and box office successes of each movie?
Gale: Sure. Compared to the way movies are released today, it's unbelievable to think that BTTF, over the summer of 1985, was the number one movie 11 out of 12 weeks. That could never happen again. Our second weekend was higher than our first weekend, which is indicative of great word of mouth. National Lampoon's Vacation came out in August and it kicked us out of number one for one week and then we were back to number one. How movies are released today is so different than how movies were released then. For the first BTTF, we opened on 1,100 screens. [View weekend breakdown of BTTF]
BOM: Which BTTF movie was the most fun to make?
Gale: BTTF3. We were on location so it was nice to be away from the studio. We all got to wear cowboy hats.
BOM: Which do you get the most mail about?
Gale: The first one with good reason. It's complete in itself. It's the purest one. It's certainly the audience's favorite. But BTTF2 and BTTF3 have all this time paradox stuff so we get all this mail like, how come this and that. On the DVD [trilogy set] there's a FAQ [frequently asked questions section] so people can find the answers.
BOM: What's your favorite BTTF memory with Michael J. Fox?
Gale: The first day Michael worked after [actor] Eric Stoltz had been fired [Stoltz had initially been cast as Marty McFly and worked on BTTF for five weeks]. That first night [Mr. Fox] came on to the set. Just seeing how excited he was to be there and knowing that he really was Marty McFly.
Watching him interact with Christopher Lloyd and the crew—he had this infectious energy. We were making one of the most difficult, riskiest decisions that you can make as a filmmaker—to replace your lead actor—and on that first night of shooting with Michael J. Fox we knew this was really good.
BOM: Who was responsible for firing Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly?
Gale: Bob [Zemeckis] was cutting the movie as he shot it, and he said to [producer] Neil Canton and me, after he screened forty minutes of cut footage [with Stoltz as Marty]: "I think we've got a problem—I want you guys to look at it and tell me what you think." So we looked at it and said, yeah. Then he screened it for [producers] Frank Marshall and Kathy Kennedy and later Steven Spielberg and everybody agreed it just wasn't working. We had wanted Michael J. Fox to begin with but [Fox was committed to playing Alex P. Keaton on NBC's Family Ties]
BOM: Who made the call to Eric Stoltz?
Gale: Bob Z. He just sat Eric down in the trailer and gave him the bad news.
BOM: How did you meet Robert Zemeckis?
Gale: We were classmates at the USC film school. Bob was the first person I'd ever met in my life who, like me, had the soundtrack album for The Great Escape, the first movie soundtrack album I ever bought. It's still one of the greatest war movies ever made. We just started hanging out and talking about movies [that we like] and going to movies. He was from the south side of Chicago and I was from St. Louis so we [both] had a middle class upbringing. We started making movies with respect for each other's work.
BOM: Whose central idea was BTTF?
Gale: Bob and I had always wanted to do a time travel movie. We just could never figure out how to do it. I was back in St. Louis visiting my parents over the summer of 1980 when Used Cars opened and I found my father's high school yearbook. He'd been president of his graduating class. I thought about the president of my graduating class, who was someone I'd never have anything to do with, and I started thinking. When he was in high school, was my dad one of these rah-rah, school spirit kind of guys that I couldn't stand? And what would have happened if I'd gone to high school with my dad—would I have had anything to do with him or not? So that could be something that was a time travel movie. So when I got back to L.A., I told Bob about this, and he was excited and he said "yeah, I wonder if your mom was at the same high school" and it just started snowballing from there. The secret of doing this time travel movie was not having an adult go back in time but having a kid go back.
BOM: So the central idea was yours?
BOM: But you and Zemeckis already had this fixed idea of doing a time travel movie?
Gale: Right. Bob and I were always fascinated by how people predict the future wrong and by these images of the future that we saw when we were kids. You know, flying cars, this sort of Norman Bel Geddes [Web site], Art Deco, General Motors' Futurama-type of look. So we actually thought wouldn't it be cool to do a movie where you changed history and the world actually looked like that.
And, in the early drafts of BTTF, we had that happen, where it wasn't just changing this guy's family—the whole world changed because Doc Brown had some technology to make things happen earlier. But people were real uncomfortable with that.
BOM: Had BTTF been rejected?
Gale: Yes. 40 times.
BOM: What was the key to finally getting it made?
Gale: Zemeckis had a hit movie called Romancing the Stone and then he could make any movie he wanted to.
BOM: Why didn't you write Romancing the Stone?
Gale: It was a script that had already been submitted to Zemeckis. It wasn't developed. It existed. We were in pre-production on a movie for ABC, which had a feature film division, and were going to make this gangster movie, and then five weeks into pre-production, they pulled the plug. Zemeckis was real depressed because he really wanted to direct, and he said to me: "Bob, I'm just going to have to take the next decent script that comes around because I've got to get out of the floor and I can't go through developing—and the pain of writing, scripting, developing and so forth." So when Romancing the Stone came along, he said, "I'm doing this."
BOM: Why did you leave open the possibility of a sequel in BTTF3?
Gale: We didn't, did we? The end of BTTF3 is a throwback to the end of BTTF. The car flies off at the end of BTTF and the train flies off at the end of BTTF3.
BOM: How did Steven Spielberg become interested in BTTF?
Gale: Steven had been involved in [Messrs. Gale's and Zemeckis's] careers from the beginning with I Wanna Hold Your Hand, 1941, Used Cars. He had read BTTF in its early version, and he had always liked it. He would have made it right away, but we were afraid that here we had been associated with Steven for three projects in a row and none of them had caught any fire. So we were afraid that we would get the reputation that we were two guys who could only get a job because we were pals with Steven Spielberg. So when Romancing the Stone became a hit and Steven had no involvement in that at all, then Bob [Zemeckis] felt, okay, let's go back to the guy that always believed in us and the guy that we like. But this was after E.T. [in 1982] so Steven was a much bigger brand name than he was prior to E.T.
BOM: How did you decide the character Marty McFly's name?
Gale: Well, we knew a guy named Marty who was a production assistant on Used Cars and it seemed like a good, all-American name. And Zemeckis just said, "How about McFly?"
BOM: Why did you take BTTF to the Old West?
Gale: Bob [Zemeckis] came up with this climax of the train—that was his inspiration. He had said, "we can go wherever we want and I want to do a Western." It was: we can create any time period we want, let's go to the Old West and do the beginnings of Hill Valley.
BOM: Who cast Mary Steenburgen as Clara, Doc's romantic interest?
Gale: When we talked about what type of woman would be in love with Doc Brown, there was only one person.
BOM: Was it because Steenburgen had starred in the 1979 time travel picture, Time After Time?
Gale: We had seen her in Time After Time. We had seen her in Goin' South, and we were big fans. She's great. She just had this quirkiness that said we would believe her in the Old West and in love with Christopher Lloyd. Chris knew her and confessed that he'd always kind of had a crush on her. It worked out perfectly. Mary wasn't even sure she was going to do it—it was her kids that told her she had to do a Back to the Future movie.
BOM: How did you create the science fiction for BTTF, including the time travel features of the DeLorean?
Gale: For a time travel movie, you've got to figure out what's the mechanism to travel through time. [In other time travel themed movies,] you'd seen that people make wishes and get on their head but we wanted to be technological. But then you've got to figure out, if it's a machine, where did the machine come from? Did a corporation build it? Was the government building it? The Defense Department? We said, no, no no—we thought those were bad ideas. The guy who invented the time machine is that guy you've always heard of—that guy who invented the reusable match and the internal combustion engine that gets 250 miles per gallon—all these legendary inventions that don't exist but that everyone wants to believe are there. And it would be some eccentric guy who invented it in his garage—Doc Brown. So the character of the guy who would invent this thing in his garage meant that it had to have this slapdash, kind of cool look to it. In the first draft, it was just a stationary time machine, like a time booth or something. But then Zemeckis came up with this idea that it would be cool to use a DeLorean because it could be mistaken for a flying saucer. That's how that came about. It makes sense to use a car because that gives you mobility.
BOM: It was a conscious choice to make the time machine's creator an individual?
BOM: What's on the Back to the Future DVD series?
Gale: You get all three movies, two commentary tracks on each one, and the ones with Bob [Zemeckis] on it are question and answer sessions that were recorded at USC. Neal Canton and I do scene-specific commentary on all three movies, so you get sick of my voice real quick. We also have outtakes on some gag reel stuff, of course the trailers, the music videos and a new behind the scenes story on making the trilogy. Then each disc has a behind-the-scenes piece that was done at the time that we made the movie. And a lot of deleted scenes.
BOM: Actor Kirk Cameron narrated behind the scenes feature for the VHS trilogy set—
Gale: Yeah, that's on the DVD, too. That was a television special that we did to promote the release of Part III.
BOM: In the VHS series' extra feature, you included a deleted scene in which the 1950s era Doc opens a Playboy centerfold and comments that the future's looking better. Why was it cut?
Gale: Just for time.