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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.
BOM: Did Spielberg, the studio or Pepsi ever insist upon any changes with which you fundamentally disagreed?
Gale: Pepsi didn't want us to have the Tab joke in BTTF, but it's funny, Tab [a diet cola made by the Coca-Cola Company] doesn't exist anymore, so people today don't understand the joke. On the commentary, I had to explain what Tab was. So Pepsi didn't like that, and we just said, "Well, tough." You gave us nice exposure, but you're not going to tell us what's in the movie. [MCA Universal president Sid] Sheinberg at one time wanted us to change the name [of the movie] to Space Man from Pluto, which I talk about on the DVD. He didn't think BTTF was a good title.
BOM: Lord of the Rings and the Matrix sequels were made back to back. But BTTF was among the first. As a series, has BTTF been given its due?
Gale: For BTTF fans, it certainly has. You can't evaluate the stuff in its time. I mean, will Matrix make more money? Yeah. Will it last? No. The first one, maybe. But not the sequels. Lord of the Rings probably will because it's based on a book that has a lot of fans.
BOM: Is it true that BTTF was among the first franchises to intentionally film sequels simultaneously?
Gale: Yeah. I mean, they shot The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers at the same time [but] the [cast and crew] thought they were making one movie [and] the producers knew it was going to be [two movies], so that's a precedent. And when [director Richard] Donner was making Superman, that was supposed to be two movies.
BOM: BTTF was among the first movies to inspire an amusement park ride. Now they're making rides into movies. Any thoughts on the reverse trend?
Gale: Today, movies are so expensive and everyone's looking to maximize their potential that they want to try and find as much familiarity and some sort of a brand name as they can. If it's a good movie, sometimes you can be surprised where it comes from.
BOM: What are your thoughts on product placement?
Gale: The first time I saw product placement used brilliantly was in 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you remember that, they get to the space station and there's a Bell logo on the telephone and it's a Pan Am spaceship commuter line, so all those things made the future believable because you said, "oh, yeah, all those companies are going to be around [in the future]." Though, interestingly enough, they're not. We used product placement in the BTTF films to create a sense of reality. The reason that the backlot [scenes] look so good in BTTF in Hill Valley is because we put real brand names—like Texaco—on the storefronts, which, prior to that, people had never seen. You've seen enough TV shows where you can't see the type of cereal the character is eating, and, come on, it's Cheerios or Corn Flakes or something. You don't drink generic soda—you drink Coke or Pepsi. You drink beer. I remember when we did our first movie, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, we showed a bottle of Miller High-Life, and the character says "Hey, we've got a whole case of Miller High-Life," and the studio said we had to take that line out. And we said, "why? We're not insulting anybody." And [the answer] was what if Budweiser wants to sponsor the movie when it's on television. We said, "well, that's their problem and that's your problem, but we're not going to change it." Use products where it makes sense. Don't bend over backwards to promote a product that doesn't make sense. That's the difference.
BOM: How did Walt Disney's animated feature movies inspire you?
Gale: I wanted to draw and copy pictures out of Disney picture books. The first movie that I can remember seeing when I was a little kid was Peter Pan. And I watched the Walt Disney TV series, The Wonderful World of Disney, religiously. I was a Disney fanatic. What was great about that show was that Walt took you behind the scenes and he showed you how stuff was done—and that people drew these drawings and they built the Nautilus [Captain Nemo's submarine in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea]—all this great stuff—and here we're building this amusement park [Disneyland, which opened July 17, 1955] and I remember watching the Woody Woodpecker TV show and they had a segment where they took you behind the scenes and showed you how they made an animated cartoon. I was always fascinated by that, and I'm sure that all that had an instrumental effect on me. Plus the Disney stories are so tight. Dumbo and Cinderella are just perfect examples of great screenwriting.
BOM: Was your education at USC's film school essential to your success?
Gale: Yes. I met Zemeckis—that was really important—and the discipline.
In our 8mm class, we had to make an 8mm film every two weeks. Having [that] discipline imposed on you—you had to do this and you had to that—makes you do it. One of the hardest things about being creative is having an atmosphere where you're creative but you're also problem-solving; they both go together. So you have to be able to deal with the illusion of perfection that you're going for that meets the real world. And it exposed me to other people who are film fanatics in addition to Zemeckis and Hollywood professionals who came to [USC] to talk about films. Then over the weekend—remember this was before home video—they ran four films on Saturday and four films on Sunday so I got to see all these Frank Capra movies and Alfred Hitchcock movies and John Ford movies and things I would never have seen—maybe on television—but seeing such beautiful, pristine prints projected is a different story.
BOM: After attending Tulane's engineering school, why did you decide not to become an engineer?
Gale: I didn't like it. And there was a kid there who told me there was such a thing as film school—and I'd never heard that. There were only three or four [schools] back then—USC, NYU and Northwestern had a fledgling film department—and I thought that sounded a whole lot more interesting than organic chemistry. So this kid said, "why not make your hobby your career?" Best advice anybody ever gave me.
BOM: Do you remember his name?
Gale: Yeah. Ron Weinberg. He went on to be in films himself.
BOM: You wrote episodes of McCloud and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Have you considered writing for television in the future?
Gale: Nope. I just don't like it. There's too much meddling and then the number of executives you have to deal with—you know, my agent called me up and said, "Would you be interested in doing a Western?" And I said, "Yeah!" I had a meeting with the company that was interested in doing it and they said, "Well, the fact is that the network says they want [a Western] but we really don't think they're going to go for it." And [the network] didn't. Anytime you want to do something a little different, they don't like it, so what's the point?
BOM: Why didn't I Wanna Hold Your Hand do well?
Gale: Because they didn't want to spend any money promoting it. The movie cost $2.7 million. We had our first meeting to discuss the ad budget, and the ad budget came in at $3 million. They said we can't spend more money to promote the movie than it cost [to make it] yet they had Jaws 2 coming out two months later, which cost $20 million and they had no problem spending $7 million to promote that. If they had spent $3 million to promote I Wanna Hold Your Hand they would have made a profit. Universal didn't even want to release the movie on video. It doesn't happen anymore like that, but you know when a company has a lot of money in a movie, they spend a lot more to promote it if they want to get their money back.
BOM: What are some of your favorite recent movies?
Gale: I loved Shattered Glass. I rather enjoyed Open Range—I love Westerns. I thought the gunfight at the end was one of the best gunfights I'd ever seen. I would have thrown away the last ten minutes of the movie which was just interminable. But I love watching Robert Duvall. I liked Phone Booth—it was a simple idea, they sustained it, it was a neat little exercise. It was very creative. I really enjoyed Phone Booth. And another little movie that came out last year that I really enjoyed but nobody saw was a twisted little movie called Frailty with Bill Paxton. It's about an axe murderer.
BOM: You wrote and directed "House of Horror" for the HBO television anthology series Tales from the Crypt. What draws you to horror?
Gale: Monsters are cool—dismemberment, blood and guts. It's cool. I've got a dark side. A good horror movie is a great experience. I was very disappointed in 28 Days Later. I was all up to see a good horror movie, and it wasn't scary.
BOM: What's the scariest movie you've ever seen?
Gale: Well, let's see… The original Night of the Living Dead was pretty scary, though I haven't seen it in a long time. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was pretty damn scary. Alien was scary. Straw Dogs was scary.
BOM: Are you drawn to the mocking of fear, overcoming one's fear or to the gore?
Gale: It's not the gore because you can do a good horror movie without showing a lot of blood or you can have a lot of blood and that doesn't mean anything at all—it can be a joke. I just like it. I can't sit here and analyze it. People like to be scared and if somebody can do that to you, that's great.
BOM: You were nominated for an Academy® Award for Best Original Screenplay for BTTF, but that was it. Is Oscar averse to heroic action?
Gale: The thing about awards is, if you get nominated, they mean something. If you don't, they're meaningless. If you win one, it means everything. If you don't win one, it's meaningless. We remember great movies. We don't remember whether they were nominated.
BOM: Yours was the first interactive film, Mr. Payback, for Sony New Technologies in association with Interfilm, Inc. in 1995. The hook was that the movie was never shown the same way twice. Did the audience get to decide the outcome of the story?
Gale: The audience chose everything—they made 20 choices to create a 22-minute movie. Interfilm invented the technology, and Sony decided to get involved with it. My agent called me up and said they've got this new interactive thing, and you're always interested in this crazy stuff—do you want to check it out? I said sure.
BOM: Why do you think it wasn't more successful?
Gale: A lot of reasons. At the end of the day, this did not belong in a movie theater. People don't go to a movie theater to interact. They go to a movie theater to sit back and be shown. The kids were really into it, and it worked really well. But it belonged on CityWalk as an attraction or in a Vegas casino. Also, the movie came out right after Sony took its $2.5 billion writedown, so they cut back everything and the ad budget was gone.
BOM: What is the theme of Interstate 60 [official Web site]?
Gale: It's a movie about making personal choices and deciding for yourself. And it's in the form of a road trip that combines Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver's Travels and Ihe Twilight Zone. It doesn't fit into any category. It's a fantasy but it's a comedy, and it has some social satire that borders on being dramatic. You walk out of the movie feeling really good, which is why we couldn't get it into film festivals. It had a happy ending, though there are some festivals that consider that an attribute.
BOM: Why haven't you made a drama?
Gale: I like larger than life things. I've written some historical stuff that hasn't gotten made that would probably be in the category of drama. But I just don't gravitate toward things that are domestic drama. That just doesn't float my boat.
BOM: How did you assemble the cast for Interstate 60?
Gale: Part of it was me calling everybody I knew and asking if they could do a couple of days on my movie. Gary Oldman read the script, loved the character and got interested—same with Chris Cooper. Jimmy Marsden came in with a great sensibility and the right sense of humor—he's really got a great sense of humor.
BOM: Is it on DVD?
Gale: Yes—and there are extras.
BOM: Why wasn't Interstate 60 released in theaters?
Gale: [The production company] Fireworks was in financial trouble. They also didn't know how to promote it properly. They didn't set up the proper kind of distribution screenings. They had people trying to sell the movie who had never done this before, who weren't smart enough to take advice from people who knew more than they did. They just wanted to do it their way, which was the cheap way. And sometimes it takes money to make money. The good news is that I got to make the movie I really wanted to make. They helped me make my movie. I stayed on schedule and stayed on budget.
BOM: You are a fan of The Honeymooners. Any thoughts on Art Carney's recent passing?
Gale: He lived a long life, and he provided the world with a tremendous amount of laughs—that show will probably always be in reruns. My daughter loves it. He made people laugh, and he'll continue to make people laugh. May he rest in peace and God bless him. Thank you, Art Carney.
BOM: You've recently rediscovered John Wayne. What's his appeal?
Gale: He's a hero. He knew what a hero was. He's not generally thought of as a great actor but there are movies where you realize he was a good actor. He made too many movies, and he's got his share of stinkers but there are the great movies and the guy just dominates the screen. You can't keep your eyes off him.
BOM: What are your favorite John Wayne movies?
Gale: Red River. The Quiet Man. The Searchers. I love The Cowboys. Rio Grande—he was great in that. I like Rio Bravo, but I actually like El Dorado [the remake] better mainly because it has Robert Mitchum. Robert Mitchum and James Caan are just better than Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson.
BOM: What is your favorite motion picture?
Gale: What day of the week is it?
BOM: What are your three favorites?
Gale: Oh, look, I love The Godfather Part I and Part II, and I love Dr. Strangelove. The Great Escape. Red River. I rediscovered Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
BOM: What is your next project?
Gale: I don't know. I've got a number of projects that I'm out hustling and trying to get made.
BOM: Is there an overall theme in your work?
Gale: I don't think, "What am I trying to say with this?" I like things that are larger than life. I like to go to someplace that I haven't been before or experience characters that I've never seen before or in a new way.
BOM: Does Hollywood consider the depraved more important than the benevolent?
Gale: Sure. Some people say you can only get a point across if you're dramatic. I don't believe that. I think you can make a point much better by being entertaining in whatever way it is—you don't have to be bleak to make the point. Preston Sturges is great at that and so is Capra. On the other hand, you've got Hitchcock. I love Hitchcock movies but they don't have anything to say. They're just great cinematic exercises in suspense and good storytelling.
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