Back to the Future Screenwriter Bob Gale

The Future Is Now

Oct 21, 2015 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


When Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis met as film students at USC, a wildly successful writer-director team was formed. The two began working in TV out of school, eventually moving into film with movies such as Used Cars, 1941, and I Wanna Hold Your Hand before penning their biggest hit with 1985’s time travel classic, Back to the Future. Gale wrote both sequels, and has remained the main creative force behind the franchise’s extended mythology, overseeing the Telltale video game and the new comic book series from IDW Comics.

To celebrate the film’s 30th anniversary, We talked to Gale about his writing process behind Back to the Future and about predicting the “future” year, 2015, in Back to the Future: Part II. (For more, check out our full anniversary feature on Back to the Future in Under the Radar’s fall issue.)

You’ve mentioned that one of the tricks you use while writing a screenplay is to imagine a certain person or actor as you’re writing character dialogue, just to pair a voice with your words. Do you recall any of the specific voices you used for characters while writing Back to the Future’s early drafts? 

Bob Gale: Actually, no. [Laughs] When you’re writing a 17-year-old kid, you’re not thinking of anybody in particular, really. Maybe I had the voice of some kid I knew in high school in my head, but there were certainly not any movie stars that come to mind. And when writing Doc Brown, there was no particular person in my head, but Bob [Zemeckis] and I kind of had a rule about writing Doc Brown: he should always use a big word when a small word would do.

I love that rule—I’ve heard you mention it before in interviews. Were there rules like that used to write any of the other characters?

You know, I’m not sure that we did. By the time we got around to writing Part III, Lee Marvin—from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—was in our heads when we were thinking of Buford Tannen, including some of the swaggering that he does throughout the movie. I think we said to [actor] Tom Wilson that  he should watch that movie, and note what Lee Marvin did. That type of Western dialogue, I certainly absorbed a lot from books on Old West slang. I know the way that Ben Johnson talked in a lot of movies was circling in my head when writing general Western dialogue. I used some syntax that wouldn’t have been used in modern times.

In one of the commentaries, you mention that you started a first draft of Back to the Future in September, were doing rewrites by February, and then shopping the script that following spring. That sort of timeline -- how does that eight-to-nine month timeline compare to your other collaborations with Bob Zemeckis?

We got the greenlight to start writing Back to the Future in September of 1980, and we had a first draft by some point in February. That was fairly quick, I would say … I know that Used Cars took us the longest to figure out. It depends on the project, I guess, and when the proverbial lightning bolt strikes you!

Back to the Future is one of the rare examples of a time travel stories that makes sense within its own logic. Were there any particular elements of that which you really struggled to sort out before it all finally clicked?

No, actually. It all made sense to us once we accepted the idea that things that you do [in the past] would create an alternate timeline. I think we once used the New York subway as an analogy. If you change trains at Lexington, and go from the red line onto the green line, you can’t get back on to the red line. To explain that as clearly as possible, that’s why we put the blackboard scene into Back to the Future: Part II—so that everyone could actually see that. And then, the idea that things would get erased from existence as a different timeline is either erased or absorbed—however you want to try to think about it. It’s fiction, of course, so you can ruminate on this stuff forever. One of the things that people always want to speculate about is—at the end of the trilogy—what are the memories that Marty actually has? Does he have the memory of his father as a nerd that was always put-upon by Biff, or did a sort of ripple effect come across, and now he remembers his father as an author? You could speculate about that forever and, well, whatever answer suits you the best is the right answer. [Laughs]

I know that one of the common notes you got back on your rejections for the script was that it was too nice, and that the comedy should be raunchier – more like a Porky’s movie. Obviously, the two of you stuck to your guns and stayed true to your vision, but I have to ask – was there ever, even for the teensiest moment, any temptation to add more cursing, or what-have-you, if it would give the film a better chance to be greenlit?

No. There was a lot that we ended up changing, but the tone of the film was never in question. There’s that great George Bernard Shaw line: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the conventions of the world, and the unreasonable man adapts the conventions of the world to himself, and so all progress depends on unreasonable men.” We were really “unreasonable men.” [Laughs]

It certainly would have been a totally different film if you had bent to those demands.

Yeah, I would say. That just wasn’t what the movie was. And, I mean, we’d been around the block and seen things. One particular thing I remember from film school was when John Huston came to campus with The Man Who Would Be King. It’s a movie I happen to love. I remember him saying it took him 20 or 25 years to make that movie. He originally wanted to make it in the 1940s, with Cagney or Clark Gable, and it turns out it was a good thing it took the movie a long time to be made, because the way he made the movie when he did, it made it a lot more realistic and more interesting. He had a better cast, I think, using British actors rather than American actors in it. You hear those sorts of stories and you think, okay, alright. Sometimes things take a whole lot longer than you want.

The actors I’ve spoken to have mentioned that the vibe on set never felt overly stressful, which is hard to believe considering you had to shoot things over [when Michael J. Fox replaced Eric Stoltz as Marty], and when you were already working under such a tight schedule. How did you and Bob manage to stay so cool-headed during production, or were you just really good at convincing the cast you were calm?

Well, the only thing you can do is take everything one day at a time. As filmmakers, one of the most important things you have to do is make you cast feel really comfortable and safe. So that was always priority number one. You know, Bob Zemeckis would tell you that the cast is the most important element that you have. You can have a shot that’s out of focus, or sloppy editing, or a camera movement or a prop that doesn’t look right, but if the cast is good, that’s why people will be interested. That’s the first question that anyone asks when you say, “Hey, do you want to see a movie?” They ask, “Who’s in that?”

Another thing I’ve picked up from talking to cast members is how accessible you made yourself to them, if they character questions or things like that. It’s easy to see how being able to get character or story clarifications from the writer would benefit them, but I’m wondering if and how you found that close writer-actor relationship to be beneficial to you?

Well, it’s like I was saying: it’s our job as the filmmakers to make the cast as absolutely comfortable with their characters as possible. We can answer all of their questions and give them what they need to do the jobs that they have to do. When Bob and I are coming up with these characters, we’re thinking of little backstories for them. It’s stuff that doesn’t actually end up on the screen, but it helps us write them, and then when the actors ask questions, we can give them that. Like, if Michael J. Fox had asked me, “How did Marty and Doc meet?”  … Marty McFly had been told for years to stay away from Emmett Brown, because he’s a dangerous nutcase. I thought he was the type of kid who would wonder, “Who is this guy?” [Laughs] So he snuck into Doc’s lab—we actually have a version of this story in the first issue of the comic book that’s coming out—and Doc said, “Hey, you want a job? Help me get things set up and help me out with some of these experiments.” Not being judgmental, Marty saw the kinds of things he was doing and started to think Doc was the coolest guy in the world. Just knowing that they’ve known each other for a couple of years, and you watch the relationship between Doc Brown and Marty McFly, and it just works. You just go with it. Today, if we tried to do that, they’d probably ask, “Oh, is Doc Brown some kind of child molester?” [Laughs]

Of course, that movie came out and was incredibly successful. When did you realize it was going to be such a huge hit? Did you have any inkling before the actual release?

There was one time where I started to think that maybe people were going to show up [to see the movie] … We were shooting at Whittier High School over spring break, because that was when we could get into the high school and there wouldn’t be any students there. We’d shot at Whittier High School with Eric Stoltz over Christmas break. When we shot with Eric Stoltz, no locals came by to see what was going on. When we shot with Michael J. Fox, we had kids lined up seven deep, and they just wanted to catch a glimpse of Michael Fox. The first night when that happened, I thought, “Wow, this kid is a much bigger star than any of us realized.”

It’s cool that you’ve stayed so involved with Back to the Future’s extended mythology, when so many creators leave their franchise and then watch as the quality fluctuates. You’ve worked on the cartoon, the video games, and are overseeing the upcoming comic book. Do new Doc and Marty adventures pop into your head frequently? 

Well, no, I’m not always thinking about them. The comic book is interesting—is actually an outgrowth of the Telltale video game. Those guys said they wanted to do a Back to the Future video game, and Universal said, well, let’s get Gale into this. Those old Nintendo cartridges that were “Back to the Future” games were total garbage, but the guys at Telltale really wanted to do it right and make it true to the franchise. Their first thinking was that it would start contemporary, in 2011. We kicked that idea around for a bit, and I said, “You know what, guys. No Back to the Future fan wants to see Marty McFly in his 40s.” They want to see Marty in his youth. So we came up with a story that was based in 1986, after the end of Part III, and it worked really, really well. The fans really liked it, and it was indeed what they wanted to see in a story.

When we were coming up with what the comic book was going to be, I said to the guys that the approach that I think we need to take is to call it untold tales and alternate timelines. We could riff on stuff in the movies. We weren’t going to start a new science fiction adventure where a new Doc and Marty go to 2045 or whatever. We’re going to focus on all the little questions and other aspects of things that are suggested by the films. And so far, that’s working out really well. We have the story of how they met, and a backup story about how Doc Brown wound up on The Manhattan Project. That was always an idea Bob and I had in the back of our minds when we created the character. And then the second issue we tell the story of how Doc’s house burned down. That’s a thing that fans have always speculated about, and seemed like the right story to tell.

You set Part II in 2015. Now that you’ve seen the real 2015, what technology from now would you have considered putting in BTTF 2? Would Doc Brown have a smart phone?

A smart phone, yes. That’s the one big piece of technology that we did not foresee. So yeah, that would be one that I’d include. We knew that nobody could predict the future accurately, and we never expected that we were. So we thought we’d make it entertaining, and riff on already-established technology. But we did some research, and thought about what people might be doing and how we’d incorporate that into the story. We put so much in there that we’re constantly saying, “Oh my god, I thought we threw that away” but it’s still in there. When he walks into the house and you hear a voice say, “Lithium Mode: On.” What the hell does that mean? [Laughs] I don’t know! We just said, okay, yeah, let’s do that. We put in a lot of stuff where people weren’t going to know what those elements were. There was a rule that we went by—I don’t remember if Bob Zemeckis came up with it—where 85% of [the future] should be familiar, and 15% of it should be out there. [Laughs] But if you show people living that way, the audience will go with it.

***

For more on Back to the Future, check out our anniversary feature with Lea, Christopher Lloyd, Claudia Wells, and writer Bob Gale in Under the Radar #55, on stands this fall. (Click here to read our other online Q&As.)

The Back to the Future trilogy is available in a new, deluxe 30th anniversary Blu-ray collection. Head to the series’ website for further anniversary celebrations.



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