Interview: Back to the Future Co-Creator, Bob Gale

Bob Gale, co-created, co-wrote, and co-produced the Back to the Future Trilogy with director, Robert Zemeckis. Gale and Zemeckis are longtime friends and collaborators and Back to the Future was a film that they were planning for a longtime before it became a reality.

Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale

The duo made I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) and Used Cars (1980) together early in their careers. Both films were well received, but they didn’t earn the kind of box office returns everyone wanted. Zemeckis and Gale wrote 1941 (1979), which Steven Spielberg directed, and that is still known today as one of Spielberg’s biggest financial failures.

While they were creating other projects­—Back to the Future was always being developed and worked on by Gale and Zemeckis. The big issue they had in the development process was finding the hook. What could they do to make Back to the Future different from all the other time traveling adventures that were out there? One day, when Bob Gale came across his father’s high school yearbook, the hook came to him. What if he went to high school with his father? Would he like his father if they went to school together?  Would they have been friends?

Even with the idea, and eventually a script, they had a hard time finding a studio to make the film. The studios felt the film was too childish and didn’t have the kind of edge they were looking for at the time. Robert Zemeckis eventually took a break from trying to get Back to the Future made. During that break he directed the film, Romancing The Stone (1984). The film was a surprise hit and gave Zemeckis and Gale the freedom to finally turn Back to the Future into a reality. They took BTTF to Steven Spielberg to produce. Spielberg knew about Back to the Future since it was first written and had produced I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars.

Back to the Future would become the biggest film of 1985 at the box office. It inspired two successful sequels and it is considered to be one of the greatest trilogies of all time. The Back to the Future series is one of the most beloved pieces of popular culture ever.

I spoke to Bob Gale about creating the Trilogy, comic book movies and how he deals with the success of helping to create Back to the Future.

You have stated in past interviews that comic books have always been a love of yours since childhood. They helped inspire you to become a writer. With comic book movies dominating the industry right now, have you ever thought about trying to write a comic book film?

I wrote two drafts of Doctor Strange back in the 80s. I flirted with that. It was always hard not controlling the material. As a creative person…you want to keep your hands on it at all times. When you are dealing with other people’s stuff that can be difficult. I took a shot with Doctor Strange, but it was never going to get off the ground back in those days.

I wrote comic books. I enjoyed doing that. I wrote the first opening arc in Batman: No Man’s Land. I wrote a 6 issue run of Daredevil. I wrote a bunch of Spider-Man: Brand New Day books. I was a consultant on Batman: No Man’s Land and Spider-Man: Brand New Day. The editors at DC and Marvel thought it would be good to get some new thinking from people who would approach comics from a more movie sensibility.

What do you think of all the comic book movies that are out there now?

I don’t even go to see these movies anymore.  I don’t even understand them. I enjoyed the first X-Men movie. I enjoyed the first Iron Man movie. The first Captain America and the first Thor I liked. Once they started crossing over and you had to see every movie to understand stuff…I’m not knocking it…it works for Marvel…but that whole continuity thing is what turned me off to comics. I just want to read 2 or 3 books a month. But, if I have to read 10 other books to understand what is going on…that’s not fun anymore.

About a year or so ago it was rumored that Robert Zemeckis would direct a Flash film for DC. The rumor was that it would be a film based on Flash’s Flashpoint storyline and would deal with time travel. The thought was that the film would be sort of Back to the Future inspired. Did Zemeckis ever talk to you about it?

Bob had mentioned it. He is approached by Warner Bros. and DC all the time about doing their stuff. I know the one thing he would love to do is Sgt. Rock. He loves WWII so much. I think he was onboard with a version of that at one point.

Look, the hard part about these comic book movies is that no matter what you do you are pissing people off. Everybody has their own idea about what these things should be. Sometimes they work really well and sometimes not so much. Sometimes people have a different vision of the characters than I might have. People are enjoying them. Great. It’s bringing money to the industry. Great.

BTS photo of Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, Michael J. Fox, Neil Canton & Steven Spielberg on the set of Back to the Future.

You and Zemeckis wanted to do a time travel film for a long time. You guys struggled with finding a hook for it. When you found your father’s yearbook, you found a way to make it unique. Some of your previous film work with Zemeckis, like Used Cars and 1941, was edgier than Back to the Future. Did you guys always envision Back to the Future as a family film? As a light comedy?

It wasn’t that until we had the hook. We didn’t know what it would be. We thought about the mechanic of changing history. Would it be interesting to have someone talk to President Harry S. Truman about dropping the A-Bomb? That’s just idle chatter we had as we were trying to find that element that sticks to the roof of our mouth. None of that kind of stuff did.

The big epiphany, beyond the concept of going to high school with your parents, was the idea of creating a fictional history that we could change. We couldn’t change who the President of the United States was going to be. There are a lot of movies, and Twilight Zone episodes, where characters try to change history and they can’t do it. Because if they do change history the audience is going to scratch their head and say, ‘What time zone are we living in?’ That was one of the big things we were able to do with Back to the Future that hadn’t been done before, at least not to my knowledge. The trick, and the difficulty, of doing an effective time travel movie is figuring out all the paradoxes and how to change history.

The hook itself, a kid going to high school with his parents, just sort of lent itself to a family friendly tone?

Absolutely. How can there not be a ton of humor in the idea of going to high school with your parents?

It took a while for you guys to get Back to the Future made because all the studios felt it was too soft. Teenage comedies in the 80s had more bite to them. When you guys were getting that pushback, you didn’t consider making it a more adult film?

Nope. Nope. That felt wrong. It’s hard when you realize how you got here. It’s hard when you realize your parents did it. Whether it was in a bedroom, backseat of a car, or in a hotel room…you don’t like to think too much about it. That was always the taboo area. We wanted to walk the line really, really carefully. That was one of the hardest things.

You guys had an extremely short and rushed postproduction schedule. This was partly due to an amazing preview screening BTTF had in San Jose, California and the studio wanting it out quickly. Did that rushed schedule hurt anything in the final cut for you guys? Did you guys wish you had more time to put the finishing touches on that final edit?

We are happy with the final cut. There are a couple of visual effect shots that would have been better if they had a few more days. We have never been happy about Marty’s disappearing hand. The hole in the hand shot. It never turned out the way we thought it was going to. But at a certain point you have to say, ‘It’s good enough. Put it in there. We gotta get the movie out.’

People always ask will there be a Director’s Cut? No. The movie is the Director’s Cut. There are deleted scenes you can find on the DVD and Blu Ray. A lot of that stuff was in the first preview we showed in San Jose. We cut it out because when we played it to an audience it slowed the movie down…or it didn’t get the laughs we wanted…so we cut it out. There was a much more elaborate version of the Darth Vader scene (When Marty tricks George into asking out Lorraine.) and we cut that way down. We didn’t need anymore than what was in the movie. In terms of what was written in the script…it was the same joke over and over again. The audience got it and it was much funnier when George runs up to Marty the next day and says Darth Vader told him he was going to melt his brain.

I recently watched an interview with Tom Wilson (Biff) where he said that leading into the summer of 1985 he felt The Goonies was the more promoted and hyped Amblin film. Do you agree with that at all? Did you feel that way in 1985?

The movie we were worried about was a movie called, Explorers (1985). It was directed by Joe Dante. We thought that was going to be the big movie. Nobody heard of Back to the Future. We were way under the radar. We were already in trouble for firing Eric Stoltz (Stoltz was replaced by Fox weeks into the shoot.). Nobody realized what a big deal Michael J. Fox really was. When you are making your movie, you are just making your movie. Especially with that postproduction schedule we had. We couldn’t worry about what everybody else was doing. You learn quickly that worrying about what other people are doing is a real waste of time. You can’t do anything about it anyway. All you can do is make the best movie you can. That is what we focused on.

I have been a Back to the Future fan since 1985. When I was a kid, I was disappointed that there wasn’t a lot of Back to the Future merchandise available, especially compared to Star Wars. When the sequels came out, we did get some stuff, but still not a large amount. Was there any reason why Back to the Future merchandise was so scarce when the films originally released?

For the first movie the answer is real obvious….nobody knew about it. Nobody knew it was going to be a hit. There was no concept that the movie could even generate merchandise. I think if you go back and look at Star Wars, it came out May 1977. There weren’t any toys until that Christmas. Back in those days the way of merchandising wasn’t the same as it is today. Star Wars was the first movie, separate than some of the Disney stuff, that generated a huge amount of merchandise. The toy companies then started thinking about what is the next Star Wars? Before that, unless it was a Disney animated movie, you won’t find a movie that had that kind of merchandise push. So, that answers why there was no merchandise for the first Back to the Future movie. On the second film, there started to be more stuff. The reason why there wasn’t as much as Star Wars is the actors weren’t comfortable licensing themselves as action figures. So there was a lot of DeLorean toys (Laughing).

You held onto quite a few props from the films. I have seen you share the Hoverboard you own different places. Did you get the chance to hold on to a Nike Air Mag sneaker from II?

No. Truth be told, the fact that these sneakers have become such a big deal is pretty unbelievable to me. Collecting people’s wardrobe…there is something a little creepy about that to me (Laughing). What are you gonna to do with it? My feet are a lot bigger than Michael J. Fox’s. The shoes that did the work, the real ones, had wires coming out of them. You’ve see that famous photo, Michael is standing on the platform in the shoes, and there are 6 special effects guys on the ground getting ready to pull the wires to make the shoes lace automatically.

One Nike Air Mag sneaker recently sold on eBay for $92,000. Did you see that?

Yeah. It wasn’t even screen used, it was a prototype. The whole sneakerhead phenomenon was something I was introduced to in 2011 when we did the first Nike Air Mag promotion (Nike Air Mag sneakers were auctioned off in 2011 & 2015 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation.). I had no idea people would wait in line for days for the new Michael Jordan tennis shoes. There is a subculture for everything.

The sequels, especially Part II, are truly beloved today. But, when they first released, the response from audiences was mixed. You have talked before about how you think Part II was marketed poorly and that the audience didn’t know a third movie was coming. Do you still feel that way today?

Yeah. The audience didn’t know what was coming. I had arguments with Tom Pollock, who was running Universal at the time, about that. I was really adamant that we should of promoted Back to the Future II as the second part of a trilogy. People should of known before they bought their tickets that there was going to be a third one. All of that stemmed from two things. One of those things was when I saw The Empire Strikes Back (1980) for the first time and at the end Han Solo was in Carbon Freeze. I was walking out of the theater saying, ‘What the hell kind of ending is that?’ My favorite character is dead and we don’t know if he is coming back to life? We don’t know if there is going to be another movie? Prior to that, the other thing was that Richard Lester made the best version of Three Musketeers in 1973. At the end of the movie, before the end credits, there was a one minute or so trailer for The Four Musketeers (1974). I was so pumped seeing that and knowing there would be another one. That inspired us to put that Part III trailer at the end of Part II. That way the audience would know there is going to be a third one. This is what it looks like, folks. We shot it. It’s really coming. Again, I feel that back then, when movie promotion didn’t have the internet, people weren’t as savvy about what was in the pipeline as they are today, I think it would have been a smarter move to have let people know it was part two of a three part series.

Part II was a much, much darker film than the original. Do you think that surprised audiences and maybe hurt the reception?

They were absolutely surprised by it. The whole 1985A stuff…we went places the audience was not ready to go. That is some of my favorite stuff in the whole trilogy. That warped vision. Frank Capra is the godfather of that kind of thing with It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

Originally, Doc and Marty traveled to the old west at the end of the script for Part II. You guys eventually realized that the script for Part II was becoming too big and took the old west portion of the II script and turned it into Part III. What was the story structure for Part II originally like?

There were 4 acts. First act in the script for Part II was the future. Second act was 1985A. Third act was 1955. The fourth act was 1885. Right there we were making a mistake. How many plays have 4 acts? For a movie, to break it into 4 acts, not a good idea. When writing it…it was very clear to me…the idea that we were going to this other time period…and introducing new characters…the 1885 stuff warranted its own picture.

Was a lot of stuff added to the script for III when it was decided it would be its own picture?

Yeah. It was lengthened out of necessity. There was a 165 page script for II and the last 40 or 45 pages were the 1885 stuff. It always felt rushed. The Doc and Clara relationship needed to breathe and build better. There was a lot more that we needed to do. We put more in the set up and improved that. There was a lot of stuff that I was able to write in a much better and more dramatic way. I gave more substance to the story and characters. The love story between Doc and Clara got a lot more. The concept that, on a certain dramatic level, Marty and Doc trade places in terms of what their dramatic function is. Marty becomes the guy giving the good advice and Doc is the one acting irresponsibility.

How do you explain how you got to the place of having a 165 page script for Part II? It was a script that you knew couldn’t be made. Did you just fall in love with the story and what was written?

It’s not falling in love with the story. Part of it, as a writer, is you know when your story and script are working. You know because your characters start telling you what they are going to do. You don’t have to ruminate and scratch your head and say, ‘What is Doc going to do here?’ I know what Doc is going to do. The character is well-drawn. The situation is well-drawn. It’s why the best sitcoms work. You know when Lucy and Ethel (I Love Lucy) get a job in a candy factory it’s going to go south real quick. It’s because the characters are well-drawn and they tell you what to do. When you have wonderful characters, and you feel like you know them, you know what they are going to do.

One idea that you guys flirted with for Part II was Marty going to the 1960s and messing up being conceived. Did abandoning this idea have anything to do with Crispin Glover (George McFly) not returning for Part II and III over financial disputes?

Glover wasn’t going to be involved in anything. We didn’t start writing a word until after his agent said he didn’t want to be involved.  In the 60’s version of Part II he was away as a guest lecturer on some other campus at Berkley or something. He was out of town. He was not in Hill Valley. He did make an appearance in the script. We thought maybe he would change his mind and if he didn’t we would get someone else.

The ending of Part I was never supposed to lead to a sequel. You guys wrote it as a joke or as a nod to the idea that the adventure continues. You guys didn’t have plans for a trilogy from the start and never dreamed the film would be successful enough to warrant sequels. The tremendous success of Back to the Future led to more films being made. Do you ever wish you guys had the chance to plan the trilogy from day one?

We never think about that stuff. You can’t. What’s done is done. We ended up with what we ended up with. Everything turned out way better than we ever thought it would be. There is no reason to start thinking about that stuff. We don’t have a time machine. We can’t go back and do it. Having learned lessons about time travel—it would be a dangerous thing to try and do.

Everything worked out so perfectly with Back to the Future. The casting, the script and story were all perfect. The film was a financial smash in 1985 and the series is still incredibly popular today. Do you appreciate the success of Back to the Future even more because you struggled early in your career to make movies that were financially successful?

The fact is, and I always say this when I talk to filmmakers, failure on whatever level is a learning experience. We were much better prepared to deal with the success of Back to the Future because we went through the box office failures of other movies. You don’t want to start believing your own press. People get in trouble for that a lot. Believing they can do no wrong. Success at the box office is something you can’t predict. You just have to make the best movie that you can. You have to try and be able to look back at it and feel good about what you accomplished.

You have done a lot of things in your career. You have written other movies, you have written comic books and novels. But, there are people like me that always want to talk to you about Back to the Future. Does the success of Back to the Future ever become tiresome for you?

You know what, it’s so rare that anyone gets something like Back to the Future in their career. It’s a blessing to me everyday. I’m never unhappy when someone comes up to me and says, ‘I just love Back to the Future.’ Why would I ever be unhappy about that?