Back to the Future Writer Bob Gale on The Cubs, Jaws 19, IDW's New Series And More

In just two days, it will be October 21, 2015 -- the day Marty McFly reportedly traveled to a future with flying cars and hoverboards in Back to the Future Part II.

In recognition of that -- and of the thirtieth anniversary of the first Back to the Future movie's release on Fourth of July weekend in 1985 -- franchise writer Bob Gale joined for a look back at three decades of Back to the Future memories.

I asked a lot of people, because speaking with you about Back to the Future is one of those things that's very exciting, so I asked a handful of my friends and other reporters and family, "if you could ask Bob Gale one question..." I think my favorite question was, was it ever in the script, the line from the novelization about, "What's a quarter," when Marty is looking for the slot on the arcade machine in Back to the Future Part II?

Oh man. I forgot about that.

That's pretty much why it was my favorite. This is the kind of fandom this franchise has generated over the years! One of the things that I think is really interesting, you talked in a number of interviews how Carl Sagan had told you he really appreciated you guys' serious attempts to make the time travel work. Given the success of Back to the Future, how much do you think that shaped kind of the next 30 years of time travel stories?

Well, one thing that it did do, certainly, is it made studios unafraid to do time travel movies. One of the objections that studios had back in the early Eighties when we were trying to get the movie made was, "time travel movies don't make any money." We're not going to make a time travel movie. As Dean Cundey, our director of photography said, "Well, yeah, but nobody's ever made a really good time travel movie before."

One of the interesting things that we did in Back to the Future that I know you will appreciate because you're clearly educated in all this stuff: With so many time travel movies, time travel stories, you're understanding an appreciation of a story is based on knowing history. We're going to go back in time and try to kill Hitler. We're going to change the outcome of the Final Countdown. We're going to prevent Pearl Harbor. Where, by definition, if you know the history, you know that the mission is doomed to fail. We don't kill Hitler. We don't stop Pearl Harbor. Why do a story where the audience already knows the ending like that? It can't work. You already know that it's going to be failure.

The other version of the story is if you messed around with the past you're going to pay for it in the present -- which is Ray Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder, one of my very favorite time travel stories, and so many others -- where you go back and you're going to try to profit from time travel, and it backfires which ended up as a plot of Part II. In Part One, the only history we change is the history of the McFly family. We educate everybody in the audience in the first 20 minutes of the history of this family. You learn about how George and Lorraine first met, so that when Marty interferes with that, the audience goes, "Oh, my God. Oh, no. That's grandpa hitting him with the car," as Linda says.

The other aspect of it is that Marty had no intention of traveling back in time. All he's trying to do is escape from getting shot by the Libyans. He didn't have any plans to go back to 1955, and he gets there and he doesn't want to be there. All he wants to do is go home. That gave us a completely different focus on a time travel story because most time travel stories are about somebody who deliberately intends to travel through time. Therefore, we were able to do all kinds of very interesting things with the genre that have never been done before which is Marty makes his father into a better man and ends up in a world that's better for him than the world that he left and changing the past ends up having a positive impact. That was a totally different approach to doing a time travel story.

Zemeckis said at one point he had been reluctant to do the second film because he didn't want to do a movie that predicted the future. How were you guys feeling about the fact that there are all these think pieces on how much you got right, 30 years later?

Are you kidding? It's great.

The jumping off point for what we did in predicting 2015, was, of course, Part One, the first movie. What we said was, "Look, what people want to see in the sequel is the same thing they saw in the first movie except different." How much the same and how different it is I think what determines how successfully the sequel ends up working.

We said, "Okay, let's look at the iconic scenes that we created in the first movie, and let's do riff on them in the second movie." We said, "Okay. We've got to do a dinner table scene," because we have two of those in the first movie. "We have to do a café scene." Remember, we do all these things in part III as well. We had the dinner table scene at Shamus' house. We have the saloon scene in Part III which is the analogue to the café in Part I and Part II. We have Marty wandering around town square in all three movies. We have, "I had this terrible nightmare," and waking up and it's Lea Thompson there. Of course, the skateboard chase which in Part II becomes the hover board chase and in Part III becomes Marty being dragged by Biff all over the town square.

Those are the things that we started off with as saying, "We need to hit these notes." Then we'd say, "Okay, how would the town square of 2015 look and what are the things we could pick out from Part I that we want to do in Part II in 2015?" The movie theater, The Cattle Queen of Montana in 1995. What's going to be at that theater? It's still going to be a theater in 2015 and it's Jaws 19 in Holomax, which is basically 3D IMAX. We get 3D IMAX right. We don't have Jaws 19, but we're now up to Sharknado 3, so it's not that different.

We have the café, and we think about what is the futuristic technology that was going to be used in the café? We were pretty sure that people would be nostalgic about the 1980's in 2015, so that's why we come up with Café 80's. We got that one right. Now, some of the technology in the café is still not quite there yet, but I would predict that by certainly ten years from now you'll go into a café and there's no waiters. It's all order through some kind of robot or your phone or your iPad or whatever. We weren't far off with that.

Again, we are looking at Popular Mechanics and Popular Science and we're not trying to be stupid. We're not trying to be so ridiculous that people are going to groan. We do want to have everything based somewhat in reality so people get it. They say, "Yeah, okay. Yeah, all right. I get that. I see where we can go there." Flat screen televisions at the McFly house. Those were in development in the eighties. We thought, okay, that makes sense. We can have that. The home video conferencing, Skype or Facetime or whatever you want to call it, with a data screen like Facebook. Again, that was sort of saying, okay, we think that people will be able to do visual phone calls because that actually has been predicted since the New York World's Fair in 1964. Bell Telephone had a prototype of that.

The data thing, that was just something we thought, okay, this makes sense, a visual Rolodex so that people would have all this extra information about who they're talking to. Yeah. We didn't make all this stuff up out of whole cloth. We did do some homework. We did do some research. Yeah. How about that? We got a lot right.

We didn't expect that there would be flying cars, but at the end of the first movie we knew we had to pay that off. There we are. Maybe we should not have flying cars given how people still drive in two dimensions. Maybe we don't want them driving in three dimension.

All of that being said, on a bit of a lighter note, are you guys playing extra close attention to the baseball playoffs at this point?

Of course. Are you kidding?

Listen, about two or three weeks ago the Miami Marlins had Back to the Future night at their ballpark because remember, in 1989 there was no Major League Baseball in Florida. We predicted that Miami would have a team. We got the league wrong. We got the name of the team wrong. They were cool about that. They said, "Hey, you guys predicted this." I can't tell you how many people have been contacting me saying, "We want to talk to you about the Cubs. We want to talk to you about the Cubs."

Now, there was a Q&A on the Back to the Future Blu-ray. One of the things that I believe it was you said was that, and you kind of alluded to this in a previous answer, but that the best sequels are the ones that kind of retell the story rather than trying to start something entirely new because the odds of being able to start something entirely new with these characters and still kind of strike gold are diminished. How does that play into some of the other things that you've done in terms of looking at the comic you're doing with IDW or looking at the video games or anything, what are the challenges of translating these characters to entirely new stories and new media and still having it kind of ring true?

The whole ground rules of the video game which is very very good, I think. It is not a particularly difficult game, but if you're a Back to the Future fan and you want to have an experience of what a Part IV could be like, that's about as close as you're going to get. Some of that stuff was based on concepts that we kicked around for the sequels.

What was so important was that we based these in the world of the movies. In my first preliminary meeting with Telltale about it, they came to me with the proposal that it was going to start in 2011, and it was going to involve Marty's kids, and I said, "Stop. Stop. Nobody wants to see a video game with 47-year-old Marty and an old man Doc and these kid characters that they don't even know who they are. People want to see the characters from the movie. We've got to have the Marty McFly that everybody loves." The game starts six months after the end of Part III. AJ LoCascio, who voices Marty, does an absolutely incredible job capturing the essence of the character.

When IDW came to us and said, "We want to do a Back to the Future comic," Universal kind of said, "Bob Gale is probably going to say no to this, but we'll mention it to him anyway." I had a conversation with the guys at IDW about what did they have in mind, and the first proposal was actually some kind of weird idea about trying to explain why Jennifer looks different in Part II than she does in Part I. I said, "Guys, guys, no, no, no, no. That's too geek oriented, and the reason that she looks different in Part II is because she's played by Elisabeth Shue and not by Claudia Wells. Everybody understands that. Nobody is worried about that."

I said, "If we're going to do this, let's go back to the characters. Let's do stories suggested by the movies, by the characters. People have always asked how did Mary and Doc first meet? That's a good story. Let's do that in the first issue. People have asked, how did Doc Brown's house actually burn down? Was it a fire insurance scam? What was that? In issue #2 we tell that story. Issue #3, people have asked, wouldn't have George and Lorraine wanted to find out what happened to Calvin Klein? Well, we deal with that in issue #3.

These are all things that are suggested by the movies, suggested by people thinking about the world of the movies, and I think that our fans are going to be very very happy with the way these things are turning out. I certainly am. These comics are exceeding my expectations. Again, the people at IDW said, "Can we say that these are canon," which is always something that makes me crazy. It's fiction. How can it be canon? I said, "Look (and we actually have a text piece in the first issue talking about this) when you have a time machine and infinite time lines everything is canon, so, yes, it's all canon and none of it's canon."

It's entertainment. We hope you have a good time reading these stories. We hope you enjoy them. They don't change or alter anything that's in the movies. The movies are what really counts. The idea that we can have fun with the characters in the movie, keep them true to who they are and tell these new aspects of the characters and explore these full elements. It's a lot of fun. There are quite a few ways, more than a few. There's almost infinite possibilities of what we can do.

Should we do a story that tells about how Biff could have George McFly killed in 1985-A? That would be a pretty interesting story, I think. We haven't actually done that yet. That's the type of thing that we can do in the comic book that I think people would enjoy.

How many people have come to you with the Donald Trump comparisons, because you talk about the Cubs, but what about the Condo President?

Yeah. Quite a few. Quite a few.

A weird question, and I want to sneak this in here because this is a weird me question.

Hold on a second though, Russ. We're talking about Donald Trump. One of the things that I haven't seen, and again, I can't say I'm totally connected anymore to the comic book anybody in the comic book world talking about the Lex Luthor as President of the United States subplot that was in DC Comics?

It's come up. Not quite as much as the Biff one has, but it has definitely come up.

Okay. Because I thought, wait, isn't that kind of like Lex Luthor?

Yeah. It's funny because especially at that particular moment in time you had the John Byrne Lex Luthor, so it was very much the white collar business tycoon of evil. He wasn't running around in a purple suit of armor trying to kick the crap out of people. That actually segues into a goofy question that I wanted to ask you. Just you personally, you're famous for time travel, and you've worked with DC. Would you ever be interested in working on a Booster Gold movie?

No. I've read Booster Gold and it's a lot of fun, but I've come to the point where I've decided working with other people's IP; it's really hard. You're always going to piss people off. I've got enough original stories that I want to tell. That's what I want to work on. No matter how good a comic book movie is, there's always going to be people complaining about it -- or you can totally misfire like the last Fantastic Four movie, and for my money I've got to tell you, I'm OD'ed on these movies. They all seem to be pretty much the same. They all are kind of following a formula. They are all way too long. It's all special effects at the expense of good characters.

Back to Back to the Future. When you're in that world, you've been doing a lot of press for this, are you involved with the viral campaigns they've been doing because the viral campaigns are actually kind of inspired?

Did you watch the trailer for Jaws 19? That is so funny. Am I involved with it? Yeah. Everybody at Universal kind of knows that I'm like the creative gatekeeper on Back to the Future, and most people are happy about that because one of the things that I've tried to make sure about is I don't want Marty and Doc being pitchmen for corporations or for certain kinds of products. There are certain exceptions like remember the DirecTV commercial on the clock tower?


It's very well done. I said, "Okay. We can do that because DirecTV is a good way for people to see the Back to the Future movies." It's okay. Somebody at Universal had encouraged this who was kind of in another department. They wanted us to look at a proposal by a Russian insurance company that was going to have cartoon Doc Brown being a pitchman for this insurance. I said, "What the f---? We can't do this. Doc Brown doesn't sell insurance." It's just so wrong. It so misses it.

What can happen when you have a big corporation involved in creative IP like this, every department is just trying to say, "Well, I can make a few bucks for my department by making a deal here." Luckily, certainly thanks to our partnership with Amblin Entertainment and Steven Spielberg being very sensitive about this type of stuff, I try to make sure that everything feels like the right thing for Back to the Future. You're going to see something. I think Toyota's already teasing it. Have you seen any of those teases?

Yeah. All we have is like a 20-second tease and the fact that it's going to be called "The Conversation," I think it is.

Yeah. I had a lot to do with keeping that in the direction that it ended up going. It's really neat and people are going to love it and they're going to enjoy it and they're going to say, "You know what? This is okay. This is okay that they did this."

The Pepsi Perfect commercial: That's come out great. The only problem is they didn't make enough of those models.

I know! They are going for like $300 now on eBay.

Bob Gale:I know. It's insane. Apparently the production costs ended up being way higher than they expected. Maybe if they had committed to making 40,000 of these things they could have got the costs down. They weren't thinking in those type of numbers.

One weird thing a friend of mine asked: Why 88 miles an hour? I'm sure you've probably answered this before, but I couldn't find it. Why specifically 88?

Two reasons. First of all we wanted it to be a speed that somebody wouldn't accidentally drive at. The other thing is, is it's easy to remember. Everybody remembers 88 miles an hour. Maybe you'd remember 89 miles an hour. I don't know, 88 just had the right ring to it.

One of the things I think really worked for the film was bringing back the cast in the various different generations and things. You talked a little bit in the past on a commentary track and things about your desire to have everybody back in one place. At what point in the conversation did you say, "Oh, no, they can play multiple characters?" You guys committed to this cast, saying, "No, these guys are going to be everywhere."

It was one of the very early ideas that we thought about. "What are Marty McFly's kids going to be like?" Obviously, we knew we had to answer that.

I don't think there was every a moment in our minds that Marty's son wasn't going to be played by Michael J. Fox and at some point we said, all right, every actor likes to play in drag. We've got to have Michael play his daughter too. Of course, Michael, he was ecstatic when he heard that. One of the early ideas that we had was that Marty Jr. was going to be six feet tall -- we'd have a Michael J. Fox that was 6 feet tall -- but back in 1988 and 1989 the technology to do that did not exist. We weren't even using computers yet in movies back then. That had to wait until Jim Cameron made Avatar, I guess, since they take a guy from one height and turn him into a guy 10 feet tall.

One of the things that really strikes me about this franchise is the fact that everybody I know, everybody likes it. It's one of those films that I've heard filmmakers before say that it's essentially the perfect screenplay. When you finish the first draft of a screenplay like that, do you have any sense of, this is a real accomplishment? Or is it not until after the film is done and you see what Michael does for it and what Chris Lloyd does for it and everything, and you really start to realize, "holy cow, this is something special?"

Remember, we shot six weeks with Eric Stoltz. If we hadn't replaced Eric Stoltz, you and I wouldn't be having this conversation right now. It just would not be happening. That's how much Michael J. Fox brought to the character, brought to the movie. For a movie to do what Back to the Future has done, so many planets have to line up. It's hard enough to get a movie made, period. It's hard enough to get through a production to get it into theaters. Then it's hard to get an audience to show up. It can be hard to get an audience to show up. Somehow, and I don't consider myself a particularly superstitious person, but Bob Zemeckis and I have often said to each other, "I guess if there are movie gods, they were sure looking out for us when we made Back to the Future."

Again, other decisions, our second sneak preview which the studio attended was so successful that the president of MCA, Sid Sheinberg, said, "I want this movie in theaters for the Fourth of July weekend, and I'll spend any amount of money to do it. I think this movie is going to be that successful and that popular."

Thank God he had both the wisdom and guts to say, "Okay, go ahead and re-shoot the movie with Michael J. Fox," and then to say, "I'm going to put my money where my mouth is. This movie's great and people are going to love it." We spent a bunch of extra money to have 24-hour post-production to get that thing done. The movie was in theaters nine and a half weeks after we wrapped principal photography.

It's always interesting too because you talk to folks who have done films like this or like Rocky, where they had that super condensed production window, and nowadays you have James Gunn live blogging that he wrapped Guardians of the Galaxy three days before it was in theaters. It's incredible to talk to people who were actually working on film because I think that sometimes the modern audience doesn't get it.

No, but you know what? It's not important for the audience to get it. What's important is for the audience to find movies that they really like and support them because that's why we're going to keep making movies. I wish the audience liked some other movies than some of the ones that they do seem to like because as I said I think we're getting too many comic book movies that I think are needless sequels and I worry that the Marvel movies particularly are getting so continuity heavy that a normal audience that hasn't seen every single Marvel movie isn't going to be able to understand some of this stuff. That's what happens in the comic books!

I know that you have been approached by everybody from reporters to presumably studio folks about following up Back to the Future. Is it nice to have kind of the financial security to be able to say no to that? It seems to me that right now the environment of Hollywood is that that would be a brilliant idea.

Yeah. Again, thankfully Bob Zemeckis, in particular, but me too, we got in our sequel contracts that there could be no more sequels made without us signing off on them. At the time three was enough, and the good news is that we don't want to make another one and we don't think the public really wants to see one.

If there was a Back to the Future IV, would audiences show up? Yeah, but they would show up kind of begrudgingly and they might even go knowing that the movie wasn't going to be very good which has happened on a number of high-profile franchise sequels that came much later where you heard all your friends say, "It's really kind of a disappointment," and you say, "Well, I've got to see that for myself anyway." You walk out saying, "Yeah. It's really disappointing."

We're not going to ruin your childhood. We're not going to do that. The movies are just fine the way they are. There's nobody that could be Marty McFly except Michael J. Fox. The most horrifying rumor that went around a few years ago was that there was going to be a reboot of Back to the Future starring Justin Bieber. Oh my God. That lit up the Internet for a few weeks a few years ago. Again, I had to get out there and say, no, no, no, no.

Do you feel kind of sometimes like you're the mean father figure though, because people do get legitimately excited about this stuff even if it's kind of a terrible idea self evidently. Do you ever feel like you have to go out there every six months or so when some crazy rumor happens and disappoint a certain subset of the audience and be like, "No. I'm doing this for your own good?"

Yeah. Exactly right. It is like your father telling you "This is for your own good, son." Absolutely right. That's a good analogy.

I will let you go. I really appreciate your time, though.

Thank you Russ. Let me insert the plugs here. We've got the 30th Anniversary Blu-ray DVD set coming out on October 20. If you get the super deluxe Complete Adventures package, it comes in a Flux Capacitor that you can light up. It doesn't actually flux, but it lights up. In it, you get the trilogy, you get the new bonus disc which is in the new trilogy set. It has a couple of really interesting documentaries. One really interesting documentary about how the DeLorean was restored from being totally neglected on the Universal backlot. There's a little eight-minute short called Doc Brown Saves the World, in which Doc Brown explains why the 2015 we're living in is different than the one in the movie for those that really need it. It's not the William Shatner, "get a life, moron." It's pretty funny. It's pretty clever. The Jaws 19 trailer is on there.

There's two episodes of the Animated Series and the entire Animated Series is also part of this super deluxe collection, so all 26 episodes which you can also buy separately, so if you bought the Blu-ray the first time and don't feel like you want to buy it again, okay, fine, but get the animated series because it's a lot of fun. Full disclosure: It's DVD standard format. Those episodes were finished on video in 1991, so there was no HD television. We didn't try to convert them to BluRay because it looks like crap when you do that. I'm not going to officiate over crap. If you remember the cartoon series, they're really pretty good shows.


Also you've got the IDW comics, and Arthur Collins has the book, Back to the Future: The Ultimate Visual History which is an absolutely gorgeous book that all Back to the Future fans will absolutely want to have or put on their Christmas list because it's that good. It really is gorgeous. The complete scores for all three movies available on CD and digital download. Go to or to find out about that stuff. There's a Back to the Future Monopoly game that just came out, I think. I think it's out now, Back to the Future Yahtzee game. It's amazing. It's the Energizer bunny that keeps on ticking.

The Back to the Future trilogy is coming back to Blu-ray on Tuesday with a thirtieth anniversary edition meant to celebrate Marty's trip to the future -- which took place (takes place?) later this week.