Bob Gale Talks Back To The Future, 25 Years Later

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With Back To The Future celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with the release of a 3-disc blu-ray boxset collection of the entire trilogy, I talked to producer and co-writer of the series, Bob Gale, about what it’s like to revisit your past self revisiting the past.

How does it feel looking back at 25 years ago, both at the legacy of Back To The Future and all the behind the scenes footage for the Blu-Ray release? Does it seem like yesterday, or some time ago?

Well, it’s both ways. Some of it, you say “Wow, I forgot that we did that,” and some, it’s so fresh and immediate, it’s almost like it happened last year.

Do you feel very protective of the movies, or do you look at them and only see the mistakes, and things that you wish you could’ve done differently?

I don’t think about the mistakes. There are mistakes, there are things that, when I watch it, I go “Oh God, why didn’t I change that?” But there are very few, and the movies have gone on to have this life of their own, this huge impact on pop culture throughout the world, their popularity, so, like Doc Brown would advise, “Don’t tamper with the space time continuum.” [Laughs]

Back when you were first writing Back To The Future, did you have any idea that it would be such a success, or that it would have such an impact?

Oh, no, no. In fact, Bob Zemeckis and I wrote the first draft for Columbia Pictures in the spring of 1981. We wrote another draft there, and then Columbia passed on it, and we received over 40 [more] rejections in trying to get this movie made. Every major studio rejected it, every one. Some, more than once. Studio executives kept saying, “Eh, time travel movies don’t make any money. Time travel movies don’t make any money.” We were just hoping that it would make its money back! So the idea that it would become this phenomenon…!

But I’ll tell you the moment we thought, maybe, maybe we’ll have a chance with this thing. We were shooting down at Whittier High School, the exterior scene at the dance where George finally confronts Biff, and word got out that Michael J. Fox was shooting. Kids lined up seven deep to just get a glimpse of Michael J. Fox. I remember, Bob and I just looked at each other and said, “Wow, we had no idea that this guy was as big a star as he is, just from that TV show.”

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Was that the point when you started thinking about sequels? Did you always have the idea that there was a way to continue the story, or was it just meant to be only one film, at first?

Oh, yeah, the first film was made complete and of itself. One of the myths that I can deflate right now… A lot of people say, “I can remember seeing it at the theater and it said ‘To Be Continued’ at the end of it.” Well, eyewitness testimony is one of the most unreliable in the world [Laughs]. The “To Be Continued” thing was something that we put on the VHS release. At that time, we knew we would be making a sequel, and we put that on there to tease the buyers and viewers that there was another one coming. But when we made the first one, the ending of it was, you know, Doc and Marty fly off into the sunset to have another adventure.

Bob Zemeckis and I have said many times, if we knew, if we were absolutely sure we were having a sequel, we would never have had Jennifer get in the car. When it came time for us to write Part II, we kept saying “What are we going to do with Jennifer? What are we going to do with her?” She’s not a very well-defined character, and she kind of gets in the way of the Doc Brown/Marty McFly relationship, which is the crux of it, so we knocked her out! We left her unconscious for most of the sequels.

When you sat down to come up with the sequels, did you feel as if the two of you had written yourself into corner with end of the first movie?

Yes! [Laughs} Yes, of course we had. The point of the first one is, you are in control of your own destiny, that your future has not been written. We say that literally at the end of Part III. So the idea of going into the future, and Marty has to change something about the future, we said to each other, he could just turn to Jennifer in the car and say “Hey, let’s not get married.” Problem solved, and now we don’t have to go to the future. But we didn’t think the audience would like that. [Laughs]

At what point did you come up with the idea to make both Part II and Part III together? Was that your idea, or was it a studio decision?

When we started [planning the sequels], we were only thinking about Part II. Part III came on when we kept adding stuff to Part II. We actually had a script to Part II that was, oh, about 165 pages, I remember, which had four acts, with the fourth act being that they had to go to the [old] west. And it never really worked because, suddenly, three quarters of the way through the movie, we were introducing all these characters that haven’t been set up, and when I read the script through, I said to Bob, “I think we have enough material to make two movies out of this. Give me a week, let me write it the way I feel it.” He said, sure, go for it, so I worked some 16, 20 hours days, and came up with this 210 page script that bisected quite nicely into two movies. Bob liked it, and then we just had to convince the studio.

For the studio, it was an economic decision more than anything else. We said, “We can make Back To The Future Part II and it’ll cost you $55 million, but we can make you Back To The Future Part II and Part III and it’ll cost you just $70 million.” We got the idea, actually, from Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who shot The Three Muskateers and The Four Muskateers in the 1970s back to back. They’re terrific movies, they’re movies that we loved. And then, when they went to make the Superman movies, their intention was to shoot two movies at the same time. It didn’t work out that way because they ran out of money, and they were unable to finish shooting the second, but we can’t take credit for coming up with that idea.

We actually put the trailer for Part III at the end of Part II, to let everyone know, yes, we know you’re upset that we didn’t end this, but the third one’s coming, and here’s what it’s going to look like, and you’re going to get to see it in six or seven months, because we put “Coming Summer 1990” at the end. Again, an idea we got from The Three Muskateers, because they put a trailer for Four Muskateers at the end. I remember, when I saw The Empire Strikes Back, how pissed I was at the end, because Han Solo’s in carbon freeze. I was thinking, “Wait, they’re just gonna leave Han Solo in carboon freeze? That sucks!” We didn’t want fans to be that pissed off at us.

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By the end of the third movie, were you and Robert Zemeckis finished with Marty and Doc? Was the story over, or could you see ways to continue it, beyond the TV cartoon or the theme park ride or whatever?

Yes, the story’s over. That’s why it says “The End.” As far as the Marty/Doc Brown story goes, yeah. It’s done. As you pointed out, we did the cartoon series, and the cartoon series is a rip on the themes and the spirit of the movies, and it’s a different medium, and I’m very proud of that series. I think there are some great episodes, and it did what we wanted it to do. And now, Back To The Future is going into the videogame medium; Telltale Games are working on a Back To The Future game, again, it’s not to be considered Back To The Future Part IV – It’s taking the concepts of Back To The Future and translating it into the game world. and the good news is that the guys working on the game are big fans of the movies, so we have a very good shot at… I think it’s going to be really good. I’m working with them as a consultant, and they’re doing an excellent job in capturing the spirit of the movies, and I think fans will enjoy that.

You’ve just finished a run on Amazing Spider-Man with Marvel. Considering the success of things like Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Star Wars, is Back To The Future something you could see continuing in comics?

I don’t think so. We did that, Harvey Comics had a short-lived series in the style of the animation show, I don’t know. Interestingly enough, in terms of where time travel works well and where it does, it’s never worked well in comic books for some reason. I don’t quite understand it. There was a DC comic when I was a kid called Rip Hunter, Time Master, which I thought was really cool but it never caught on. They tried it all the time in comics, and for some reason, it doesn’t resonate.

Do you have any other comic work in the future?

My last Spider-Man story is in Amazing Spider-Man #647, it comes out later this month, and then after that, I don’t have any comic book work on the horizon until I come up with something I want to pitch to Marvel or DC.

I’m very superstitious talking about projects when I’m working on them. I’m working on a couple of [non-comic] things, but I never talk about them. I’m superstitious. Otherwise, next time I’m talking to you, a year from now or whatever, you’ll say “Bob, whatever happened to that thing you were telling me about?” and I’ll have to tell you some sordid story about why it didn’t get made, and relive some bad memories.

Is it odd to still be talking about Back To The Future a quarter of a century after the release of the first movie? Do you ever let yourself stop and think about what it’s like to have created something with such longevity?

It feels great [to have created something with such impact]. It feels amazing. Why does it have that longevity? I think it’s a combination of several things. We created some really wonderful characters thate veryone can identify with, and it’s fun and it’s funny, but what the movie really captures is that everybody has a moment in their life when they realize that their parents once were children. And that’s a big revelation to a kid, when they realize that, jeez. When they say “When I was your age,” they actually mean that. That’s something we can all think about. It doesn’t matter what year we were born in, and it doesn’t matter what country we were born in. It’s a human thing that the movie really captures, and I think that’s what people really identify with. They put themselves in Marty’s shoes and say, “Wow, what would it be like to watch my parents first date? What would that be like?” And that’s what it is.

The Back To The Future: 25th Anniversary Trilogy boxset is released October 26th.

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