Interview: ‘Back to the Future’ Writer Bob Gale

Friday, October 15 by

Back to the Future is one of those movies I’ve wondered about my whole life. I love it, even the theories I don’t think make sense, I love thinking about them. The upcoming Blu-Ray release answered my number one question: What would Eric Stoltz have been like as Marty McFly?

For the rest, I got to talk to screenwriter Bob Gale. He’s in the bonus features, with Robert Zemeckis, Stephen Spielberg, Michael J. Fox and Lea Thompson talking about all three films, with still new stories to tell since the last DVD extras. Sorry, I neglected all the burning 1941 questions.

More after the jump…

Screen Junkies: I have been waiting my whole life to see any scenes that Eric Stoltz shot. What did it take to finally get snippets of that in the bonus features?

Bob Gale: Well, what it took really was the guy that did our documentaries, Laurent Bouzereau, he’s a big Back to the Future junkie as well. He kept saying, “Come on, you’ve got to release something.” I kept saying, “I don’t know.” Bob [Zemeckis] said, “No, no, we don’t want to do that. It might hurt Eric.” Finally what Laurent did is he went ahead and he put together a rough cut of what you’ve seen now. He said, “This is what I want to do. This isn’t going to do harm to Eric. This is just going to be really interesting to the fans.” I looked at it and I said, “Yeah, okay, I see it. You’re right.” Bob Zemeckis saw it and he said, “Yeah, I’ve got no problem with it. Go ahead and do it.” You have Laurent to thank for that.

SJ: To me, that is the alternate 1985 where we get a peak at what might have been.

BG: There’s another alternate 1985 on the DVD set which is the animatic of our storyboards for the nuclear test sites sequence. The reason we have the clock tower sequence at the end is because we didn’t have enough money to do the other one. Having less money made it a better movie. The clock tower scene is way better than that nuclear test site would have been.

SJ: Now do you think we’ll ever get to see some actual dialogue scenes Eric Stoltz shot, maybe in another 25 years?

BG: Yeah, I’d say so. Hopefully it won’t be that long. It probably won’t be quite that long. Look, we didn’t destroy the footage for that exact reason. They asked us at the time, “Do you guys want us to destroy the footage?” Bob and I talked about it and said, “No, there could be some historical significance. This sort of thing rarely happens. Let’s not destroy it. We don’t want to release it right away but let’s keep it.”

SJ: We all know the story about Crispin Glover’s involvement with the sequels, and it’s recounted in the bonus features. What might George McFly’s role have been in the sequels if you’d been able to work it out?

BG: The truth is that we never got that far. Bob and I didn’t start writing the sequel until we knew who was going to be in it.

SJ: Because you did the sequels together, II ends in a cliffhanger. Is there an alternate reality where maybe II wraps up the ending and III starts a new adventure?

BG: Well, the alternate version of Back to the Future II is that in the third portion of it, instead of going back to 1955, it turned out that old Biff gave the almanac to himself in 1967. I wrote this entire script where the third act of Part II was in 1967 and Marty, in trying to get the almanac back from Biff interfered with the event that was going to lead to his conception, George and Lorraine in a hotel room in San Francisco the night he was conceived and he had to make sure that they both ended up in the Mark Hopkins Hotel.

SJ: Wow. I was wondering if you ever considered having Marty ride back to 1985 with his 1955 self from the previous movie?

BG: No, that could have disrupted the space time continuum.

SJ: In the bonus features you said the original script for the sequel was 185 pages, which was too long for one movie. It’s too short for two movies though, so how did you beef up the third script?

BG: Well, it was actually I think 165 pages and it didn’t work at 165 because we were introducing all these characters that you’d never heard of before in what would have been the fourth act of the movie. Even when I was writing it, I kept thinking, “Boy, it would have been nice to spend some more time with Clara and it would have been nice to set some of this stuff up better and not rush through this. Wouldn’t it be cool to do a scene here and a scene there?” So as part of the process of saying, “Can we make two movies?” I said to Bob, “Give me a week to go through this and write it the way I think it should be written, to write the scenes and give them a chance to breathe and give the characters a chance to develop. Let’s see what happens. Let’s see how long it was.” That script was 210 pages. Then we said okay, that splits in half nicely. That’ll be okay.

SJ: You have a lot to explain at the beginning of III to get everything where it needs to be. What did it take to get all that out there?

BG: Thank God we had Christopher Lloyd. He’s such a great actor and he could just say all that stuff and get it across. It is a testament to being able to be succinct in writing and have a really good actor that you can get that much exposition out and make it clear to everybody. Despite all that, nobody has a problem understanding what’s going on.

SJ: Did you ever hear that you can see someone in the background of the mall when Doc is shot by the terrorists, and that could be Marty coming back 10 minutes early from his trip?

BG: Yeah, Starlog magazine, [Bruce Gordon] wrote this whole piece. There was an article called “The Other Marty McFly” and they did screen captures and said, “Look at this, look at this.” We didn’t put that in there. Somebody saw a shadow of something and said, “Oh look, that could be Marty standing there.”

SJ: Are we coming up on a time when a remake of Back to the Future would make sense, if a modern kid travels all the way back to 1985 this time?

BG: No, but let’s leave it alone. Our attitude is, as Doc Brown would say, don’t mess around with history. We love the movies exactly the way they are. It’s like when people said, “Do you think the Beatles would ever get back together?” I was one of those people who said, “No, I don’t want the Beatles to get back together because it’ll never be as good as what I would imagine it should be.” As we’ve seen remakes of things that maybe ought not have been remade and sequels of things that may be one too many, two too many, three too many sequels of a brand name and we’re disappointed in that stuff. So we’ll do the opposite of what everybody else is doing and not go there. Hey, these movies are just fine the way they are.

SJ: Will this video game they’re making at least give me sort of a fix for a sequel?

BG: Telltale is doing this computer game and they’re all fans of the movies and I’m consulting with them. It’s going to start in 1986 about six months after the events of Back to the Future. A new adventure with Marty and Doc and it will be in the spirit of Back to the Future. It’s not Back to the Future IV but it’s sort of a riff on it. We’ll try to recapture some of the spirit of the movies in this game.

SJ: Have you done some writing on the story of it?

BG: I haven’t done any writing but I have steered the guys doing the game in particular directions and kept them from going down certain paths that I thought we ought not go down.

SJ: Robert talks about his idea of a trilogy versus a series of four, which makes artistic sense, but I thought could this be a good use of his motion capture technology to do Back to the Future IV? Maybe Michael J. Fox could still play Marty, filming it in short segments he’s comfortable with.

BG: Again, the problem is that the bar is set so high, people are going to be disappointed no matter what we do. As good as we might be able to make it, there’s going to be people who are disappointed. Back to the Future doesn’t belong to us anymore. That happened when we did Part II. It belongs to everybody so everybody feels their opinion ought to be taken into account in what we do.

SJ: Isn’t it nice that people have come around to II though.

BG: Yes, it is.

SJ: I always thought it was more interesting to go back into the first movie, not so much the future.

BG: That’s the coolest idea we did, yeah. Bob Zemeckis deserves all the credit for coming up with that idea.

SJ: One of the controversies of the sequels was Marty’s sudden obsession with being called “chicken.” Where did that come from?

BG: Well, we realized Part I is really George McFly’s story. Even though Marty’s the central character, George is the character that goes through a character arc. For another movie, we had to have somebody go through some character arc. We came up with something for Marty and we came up with something for Doc. We sort of alluded to the idea that Marty has a little bit of hotheadedness in him in the first one because he’s always ready to do at it with Biff. We just said, “That’s already in there. Let’s turn the volume up on that a bit and make that his real character flaw that had to be corrected in the course of this adventure.”

Q: Do you really believe evil 1985 would change back around Jennifer? Wouldn’t it erase her with it?

BG: Well, we don’t know, right? It’s time travel, we can decide how that’s going to work. Same thing with Einstein, he got left there as well. The point is we explain it that way and the idea is we were thinking about it. Whether you like our explanation or not, we do attempt to explain it.

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