The second-last time I watched Back to the Future was in July 2019 at an outdoor cinema at Hyde Park in London.
At the time – a time which feels like 90 years ago – I vehemently protested with the event organisers because the access to the screening was strictly limited, whilst Hyde Park has 350 acres of free space all around. I additionally protested because you needed to collect a paper wristband to enter, and I also eventually protested like a madman because the big screen was put on mute, and you would only be able to listen and follow through if you could get a pair of branded wireless headphones they borrowed you – and, of course, there was just a limited stock of them.
What was the point, exactly?
Who could possibly be disrupted by some full-audio outdoor cinema, in the middle of Hyde Park, at half-past five in the afternoon in the summer?
Where were the last-minute teenagers shouting over each other and the pensioners picnicking in the park with completely inappropriate food?
People who didn’t make it on time for the headphones would be served a cruel mute screen without any captions.
Our privilege was stripping away other people’s desire to enjoy an irresistible 1985 Micheal J. Fox starring as the young boy Marty McFly accidentally sent back to 1955 by his funny scientist friend Doc Brown in a time-travelling machine made up of a modified DeLorean car, who inadvertently prevents his future parents to meet the way they were supposed to – threatening his own and his siblings’ existence.
Our local Back to the Future fan club was being ruined by the budget of a sponsor that, instead of putting money on a regular billboard, decided to conduct a social experiment through these idiotic, fastidious, branded red headphones that aimed at making you feel like part of a very exclusive club.
There was some inner loneliness in the act of leaving the house, taking the tube, going to the park, sitting on the grass and eventually having to wear some headphones to connect with the people you were sitting with.
That was the second-last time I watched Back to the Future.
The last time I watched it, it was in the year that followed 2019.
A year on, I now needed police permission to leave the house, I would be forced to take the tube looking like a professional bank robber and I could get arrested for going to the local park and sitting somewhere on my own – let alone with a bunch of other Back to the Future fans.
Interestingly enough, everybody now was deemed dangerous and suspicious for the simple fact of walking the street at the same time as you, whilst the ones who deprived you of your basic civil rights would be good and responsible.
The good and the bad were of course interchangeable because everybody was faceless, and they would all tell you that this was the new normal and what’s more – this was how life was supposed to be from the beginning, it’s just that humanity was too selfish to realise – and by the way, your real enemy is climate change.
The last time I watched Back to the Future, in the year that followed 2019, I refused to stream it.
I made a point of waiting to see the movie when it was aired on the national telly at a peak viewing time.
This time, I knew I was not alone, because there was an unorganised and beautiful crowd made of thousands of lonely people in lonely homes all across the country, enjoying one of the best sci-fi movies ever made for the umpteenth time, and no headphones could set us apart now, and nobody could put us on mute this time.
For the first time in life, watching the television felt like a clever thing to do.
This home appliance we’d criticised for decades suddenly gave a sense of privacy, freedom and equality, because the most nonconformist thing you can do today is not using a global streaming platform to watch a 1980s movie that hasn’t been touched yet by the buffoons who censored Walt Disney cartoons.
Our Back to the Future fandom was now dispersed under the same firmament like agonising armies of some Risk board game, but on that evening, on that evening alone, we were grateful to TV commercials for extending our time with Marty McFly and Doc Brown and let all us dream of flying off on a Delorean on 88mph across the universe, all together and as socially attached as possible.
On that evening alone, the genius of Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis and the incredible performances of Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd would make us feel like the world hadn’t torn itself apart.
One year later, the world is still all over the place, but there’s finally some good news: Back to the Future has become a musical that you will be able to see in London until February 2023, if God permits. The show has been produced by the prodigious creators of the film franchise Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, and – Great Scott! What an unexpected gift and unbelievable honour is this for me! – today I’m interviewing Mr Gale about the show, the film legacy, space travel, the amazing comics he makes and much more.
This legendary genius here is a film producer and director who authored over 30 screenplays in his career, and he’s also an entertaining, brilliant and lovely man of manners. He co-wrote Back to the Future with Robert Zemeckis and co-produced it with Neil Canton for Steven Spielberg‘s Amblin Entertainment.
The film cost 19 million dollars and earned over 381 million dollars at the box office in return; it was the highest-grossing film of 1985, and the pair Gale-Zemeckis was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards.
Bob also co-wrote the screenplays for Back To The Future Part II and Back To The Future Part III, which were released respectively in 1989 and 1990, and he created a monthly comic book series titled Tales From The Time Train in 2015, which can be considered a sort of sequel of the trilogy, exploring what Doc Brown and his family did after the end of Back to the Future Part III.
As many as 36 years after its release, Back to the Future still has an impressive worldwide fanbase, and its long-standing popularity has lead to a successful media franchise that includes an animated tv series, video games, board games, comics, gadgets, clothing, magazines, toys and dedicated theme park rides; the book for the high-tech show Back to the Future: The Musical was also written by Bob Gale.
In addition to the musical co-creators and producers Gale and Zemeckis, to Tony Award-winning stage director John Rando and to producer Colin Ingram, the team behind Back to the Future: The Musical includes Oscar-nominated composer Alan Silvestri, who originally put together the iconic score for the film in 1985, six-time Grammy-award winning songwriter and music producer Glen Ballard who worked with Micheal Jackson and Alanis Morissette, and a full array of 28 talented stage performers which includes Olly Dobson starring as Marty McFly, Roger Bart starring as Doc Brown and Rosanna Hyland starring as Lorraine Baines.
Back to the Future: The Musical will be at the Adelphi Theatre in London until February 2023, and I hope it will give you hope for a future where the only thing required to walk into a theatre, a concert, a plane or a football match will be – just guess! – a ticket.
Because if the show must go on, then this perverse Truman Show must come to an end now.
Bob, I’m the biggest fan of Back to the Future, of your comics and of everything else you do. Thank you so much for saying yes to the interview. This means the world to me.
Oh, thank you, Silvia.
What challenges did you face in the theatrical adaptation of Back to the Future?
The challenge was to be able to retell the story of the first movie but tell it in a way that took advantage of all the great things that you can do in musical theatre, and then figure out what songs would be best to translate certain things – even if they couldn’t be translated. For example, we knew pretty quickly that it would be crazy to do a skateboard chase on stage because somebody could really easily get hurt. In movies, we have stunt guys to do that, but in theatre, you’re watching the real people doing it, so that was something that had to be replaced with a dramatic equivalent. We couldn’t have the terrorist car chase on stage either, for obvious reasons. So it was like: let’s come up with a dramatic substitute that tells the story but it uses the stage, and what people expect from going to a stage show. I think that when people buy a theatre ticket, there’s a sort of a contract that they have with the theatre company, and everybody knows that in theatre sometimes an actor can break the fourth wall, and that’s okay in theatre because everybody is sort of in the joke, if you will. And so we wanted to take advantage of that, and it was all about not to make the musical so much like the movie, so people would walk out of it and say “Well, I would have been better off just renting the video or watching it on Netflix or something”. So that is definitely not the case. We have the songs that Glen Ballard has done and they’re just incredible. The visual effects are amazing. I didn’t know how they were going to make the DeLorean look like it was driving 88 miles per hour, but it really does it, and it’s something that you really have to see! And then the clock tower sequence, you know, I sort of had an idea that maybe they could do this and that – but boy, the people that we have in the art department and in visual effects and in the sound are all like you, they’re all big Back to the Future fans, so their attitude was “Hey, this is Back to the Future, and we’re going to do it right, and if we don’t know how to do this, we’re going to figure it out”. So, I think you’re going to see some things that were never seen on stage.
What else should people expect from Back to the Future: The Musical?
It’s not really different from the movie, it’s the same story. It follows the same basic plot. Marty accidentally goes back in time and he prevents his parents from meeting the way they were supposed to meet and has to solve that problem and then figure out how to get back with Doc Brown, how to get back to 1985. So that’s all, exactly as it was in the movie, but we translated it with music, and we’ve changed the location of certain scenes. The dialogue has changed and what’s been really fun is that we are now looking back at the 1980s way that when I made the movie, we were looking back at the 1950s. So there are a lot of things about the 1980s that the first time I saw – like the ensemble of the 1980s wardrobe – I was like “Oh my God, did we really look that terrible?” It’s about to revisit the 1980s from 2021 and be able to make some jokes about that.
Staying in the 1980s, the reality we are living in has been compared to George Orwell‘s dystopian social science fiction novel titled Nineteen Eighty-Four. Would you have ever predicted a future like that when you signed the film contract, just exactly in 1984?
Well, I’ll tell you that when it comes to the future that we have, nobody predicted it. The only thing that we can be certain about regarding the pandemic is that there’s no such thing as clairvoyance and astrology because no clairvoyant and no astrologer ever predicted that, you know, the world would be in such turmoil and havoc. So, that’s at least one good thing that came out of this. Now, it’s pretty frightening what’s happened to people’s civil liberties and, of course, like many people, I’m very, very concerned about it now.
What do you think of the current state of the movie industry?
Well, the movie industry is in a pretty big mess with the pandemic. You know, people don’t know whether they should go to the movies, or if they should watch them at home or stream them. They say “Well, why should I go to the movies?” But you should go to the movies because there are certain things that need to be seen on the big screen. So I’m very worried about what the future of theatrical film is. The audience experience that you have in a live theatre is completely different. Bob Zemeckis was talking about that recently, and he said, you know, when you go and you’re sitting there, watching Jaws with an audience, it’s just great. People are screaming. The shark comes out and people jump out of their seats, it’s just not the same as watching it at home. And so, at least we have live theatres. So the only way you can experience that is with a whole bunch of people in an auditorium and that’s the one thing that makes it great.
Why do you think has Back to the Future impacted so many people in the world? As many as 36 years following the release of the first movie, there are millions of people worldwide – including me – spending a great deal of their time discussing the trilogy in fan clubs, groups and more.
Well, in terms of the first movie, we dramatised what’s really a very cosmic idea that transcends all human culture and all time periods, which is the realisation that your parents were once children. When you figured that out, when you are like 8, or 9, or 10 years old you are like “Whoa, wait, really? They were little kids like me? These people that are God and know everything, they were stupid kids like me?” And that’s a big deal. Everybody wonders “What did my parents do on their first date?”, and Back to the Future really dramatises that, and makes us think about that. And then, of course, the other thing; Back to the Future says that one small thing that we do – whatever it might be – can completely change the course of our lives. The fact that George learns to stand up to Biff changes his life, and so, you know, sometimes you say “Well, should I go out with that person or not?” And maybe the decision whether you do or you don’t will have a far-reaching effect on your life. Everybody likes to think about that stuff. And again, here we have Back to the Future, which really dramatises that because we see the two lives of George McFly; the life where he didn’t stand up to Biff, and the life where he did, and yet we continue to explore those ideas in part two and in part three. And we’re able to bring this story kind of in a full circle. By the end of part three, Marty and Doc Brown have dramatically changed places, Marty is the one telling “Doc, Doc, you can’t do this, you need to go back to 1985, you don’t belong here”, and Doc is thinking “Well, maybe I do belong here”, so that is a part of it, to have the characters grow that way and for the audience to understand their relationship. Certainly, when you go to see a sequel, you want to see the characters that you love, and now that was so important for us to say, “Okay, what happens to these characters? What really does?” And, of course, then we have the fantasy that everybody has, well, if I went to the future, I could find out what stocks to invest in, I could find out what sports teams to bet on. And, of course, when you use time travel for nefarious reasons or greedy, selfish, reasons, it has a tendency to backfire.
Could your comic book series Back to the Future: Tales From The Time Train be considered a sort of sequel of Back to the Future?
Sure, sure, the whole IDW Back to the Future comic book series really does try to preserve and explore elements of the trilogy. So, it is exactly what happened. We’ll never know, right? It’s time travel, we’ve already said that there are many different possibilities in time travel. But I think that I’ve heard from so many fans that read those comic books that yeah, you know what, these really do preserve the spirit of the movies, and the characters are correct and, of course, we answer a lot of questions that people had about the movies, like how did Doc and Marty met, and that’s in the first issue of the comic book, and then all about George and Lorraine, and whatever happened to Marty McFly – we do that, and how Doc finances all of his futuristic experiments, we have that too. So there’s a lot of questions that people have about the trilogy that we answer in the comic books.
But there will never be a Back to the Future sequel or reboot on screen, as you have always said.
No. We put the end at the end of part three because we said it’s the end. We’ve taken these characters on a great journey. We don’t have anything more than we want to say about them. And people say, “Well, when are you going to do a part four?” or “Maybe you should do a remake”, I said well, instead of that, we’re giving the world Back to the Future: The Musical. And when people say I want to see another Back to the Future movie, what they’re really saying is “I want to feel the same way I felt the first time I saw Back to the Future, I want to capture that”. Well, at the risk of blowing my own horn, I really do believe – and based on the audience reaction at the musical premiere in Manchester in February 2020 – that when you go see Back to the Future: The Musical, you will feel that way, and you will just be energised. Some people had tears in their eyes. We had a couple who came from Germany, and they came up to me, it was on a Saturday afternoon, and they said “We just want you to know that we got married this morning and coming here to see this show is our wedding present to ourselves”. It’s really a wonderful joyful experience, and even Bob Zemeckis had tears in his eyes the first time he saw the full show from the beginning. So, there you go.
Do you think this film could ever be made today?
Can somebody do another time travel trilogy, could somebody do that? Sure. Who is who to say what anybody can do? People are always surprised at things that work in a movie. And people are also surprised that they thought “Oh this is gonna work great”, and it doesn’t. So that’s what kind of keep us challenged to say “Wow, I didn’t expect that” – either good or bad.
In another interview, you said that if Back to the Future was released today, a lot of people would question the nature of the relationship between Marty and Doc. That shocked and saddened me at the same time.
Well, the good news is that people are still watching the three Back to the Future movies, and they don’t have a problem with that, and nobody who watches the original movie is really seriously thinking about that. I think that one of the problems that we have in contemporary society is that people overthink everything, they read more into it than is really there. And you see the relationship between Doc and Marty and you say “Okay, I get it. This kid doesn’t have a relationship with his father, and Doc Brown is his father, and Doc Brown is the guy that does all the crazy stuff that every kid would like to have their father or some relative be able to do”. It’s pretty easy to understand. People have dirty minds and they come up with these interpretations that are just not appropriate.
An actor called Eric Stoltz played the role of Marty for five weeks, before being replaced by Michael J. Fox. That was a very courageous decision for you to take, such a big deal. Not many people would have done that – they would have probably just accepted the movie not to be perfect and that’s it. How did you manage the situation?
Well, yeah it was a huge thing, and you’re right, nobody did that. The only time that it ever happened was because an actor died, I think Tyrone Power died in the middle of a movie and they had to start all over with somebody else. But Michael J. Fox had always been our first choice to play Marty, and we couldn’t get him out of his TV series Family Ties at the time. So that always seemed like that could never happen, but when Bob Zemeckis had put together five weeks of shooting with Eric Stoltz, he said to me, he said to Neil Canton, or co-producer, he said to Steven Spielberg, to Frank Marshall and Kathy Kennedy: “Guys, you need to see this footage, it’s not funny, it’s not working”. And we all looked at it and said, “Yeah, it’s not what it’s supposed to be”. And we were trying to convince ourselves just like you said – “Oh yeah, it’s gonna be okay – now here’s a good moment that he had in this tape and we can use a piece of that tape, we cut it together and it’ll all be great”. But we cut it together and it wasn’t great. So, you know, Bob Zemeckis said “This is not going to be a good movie if I finish it this way”, and the president of MCA at Universal, who had really been bullish on us putting Eric Stoltz in the movie, at one point in a kind of a moment of great pomposity he said: “I am so sure that Eric Stoltz is going to be great in this, that if he doesn’t work out, you recast the movie and do with somebody else”. Of course, he didn’t ever think we’d take him up on that, but we did, and he had a hard time arguing against it when all six of the main people with Bob in making the movie, we were all saying the same thing. So he did the right thing, obviously, and we never looked back and I think once he started seeing the footage coming in, he could see a huge difference. You know, our crew were saying “Do these guys know what they’re doing?” But again, people often ask me what was my favourite moment from shooting the three movies, and it’s a very easy answer. It was the first time Michael J. Fox came to work because he came to work, and he did his first take, and it was like “Oh my God, yes, this is the character we wrote, this is the character we imagined and is going to be okay, is going to be great”.
It’s because the chemistry between Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future can’t be replaced.
Yes, that can’t be. And when people kind of scratch their head and say: “Boy, that actor is getting paid a whole lot of money”, I say well, if a performer can do that, if a performer has those skills, it’s a rare thing, and that’s why they get paid so much money, because look, if you think about it, if we were talking about the Marvel movies, think about how much Robert Downey Jr. brought to those movies, right? If somebody else had played Iron Man in that first movie, who knows what would happen but it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good. He breathed so much life into that character.
Where did you take the inspiration for the character of George McFly? He seems like somebody who exists in real life.
Everybody, no matter who they are, at some point has been picked on by somebody who is bigger or has more status. As children, we’re all powerless, of course, and our teachers accused us of doing things that we didn’t do. And there’s the bigger kid or the mean girl who has all the social people in line and kind of commands, and we all have to deal with that. So it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, I think that everybody can understand that. And the idea that maybe you have a dream, and you just haven’t had the confidence to try to pursue it… and here we have George who dreams of being a science fiction writer and Marty gives him the confidence to explore that. And it’s always helpful to have a mentor in our life, to say, “Hey, yeah, you should really try that. You know I’m not going to tell you “don’t do that”. And the world is full of stories like that. Like J.K. Rowling: she just decided that she was going to write Harry Potter, and look what happened. Now, she didn’t listen to anybody saying “No, you can’t do that”. She went and did it. My parents told me “What are you doing going to do after film school? You’re not gonna make it to Hollywood!” Well, I’m going to find out!
What was your dream job when you were a child? What did you want to do?
Actually, when I was in elementary school, I used to tell my friends that someday I was going to go to Hollywood and work for Walt Disney. Walt Disney was my hero. I learned how to draw by copying pictures out of Disney picture books. So that was my dream when I was in grade school. When I got a little bit older, I said, well maybe I’ll do comic books, because I love comic books. And guess what, I did that too. So, I’ve always liked telling stories, I started making movies as a hobby. When I was in high school, there was a kid in my freshman year dormitory at Tulane University, who gave me the best career advice anybody ever gave me, he said: “Well, if filmmaking is your hobby, you should figure out a way to make it your career, because then it won’t feel like you’re going to work”. That’s very wise! So, there were film schools in California and so I told my parents “This is what I want to do”, and they shook their heads and said, “Well, we’ll let him get out of the system, and maybe he will get sane and decide he should be an engineer or a lawyer or a doctor or something respectable”.
Not all people take comic books seriously – what would you say to convince them that comics are just another form of art?
Well, there was a time when that needed a lot of convincing, and all I would have to say is “Look at how much money the Marvel movies are making – where do you think those came from?” Right? I think that all the kids that read those comics when they were kids, they grew up and they said “Well let’s make movies out of these things”, as they’re in their empowerment fantasies. Those are great fantasies, everybody has those and there’s validity to it. I always thought that comic books were sort of modern-day mythology. Think about Superman, right? His parents know that they’re gonna die, so they put him in a spaceship from Krypton and send him to Earth. Well, that’s pretty much the story of Moses; Moses’ mother knew well that if she didn’t send him down the river, the Egyptians were going to come and kill him. And so he gets raised by an Egyptian princess, thinks he’s an Egyptian and there’re a lot of interesting parallels and I’m sure that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had a Biblical education and they were probably thinking about it.
What is your favourite story? Generally speaking. It can be from a movie, from a book or whatever else. What’s the best story ever made in your opinion?
Oh, oh, my goodness, This is a long conversation! I will tell you that a movie that I revisit frequently is The Godfather, I love that movie. An author whose work I am constantly revisiting is Mark Twain, I love all his writing. When I want to laugh my head off, I’ll sit down and watch the old Warner Brothers cartoons. I think those are masterpieces of comedy. So, yeah, and of course when I read for recreation, I mostly read non-fiction, because I’m always trying to educate myself and learn more things. So there’s an author named Erik Larson, he writes historical novels… well, they’re not novels, they’re non-fiction but they read like novels, I love his work. And there is the name of a science writer called Mary… I’ll have to try to remember what her last name is [Ed. Note: she’s likely to be Mary Roach]. Just like people say: “Well, I want to go see so and so in a movie”, I kind of go for wanting to read what this and that author are writing next.
What do you think of billionaires going to space?
Well, there are worst things they could spend their money on, I guess. I’m a big fan of the space programme. I love what Elon Musk is doing with SpaceX and, you know, – I think anything that gets and keeps people interested in travelling to space is a good thing because we’re always learning that the technology that we have to put together to make that happen is not only great for that, but there are always sidebar and ancillary things that we end up doing with the technology that make life better for everybody else. So, yeah, hey, I’d rather know that these guys want to go out and see what’s going on in outer space than buying a bigger yacht!
What do you think of the concept of time? Are you obsessed with time?
Haha, well, we’re all obsessed with time because we never have enough of it, right? I have come to the conclusion that time, our own time, is really the most valuable thing that we have because you can make more money but you can’t make more time. And so, as I get older, it’s very important for me to say that I want to use my time wisely. And if I’m watching a movie, and I’m not enjoying it, I’ll turn it off or I’ll walk out of the theatre because I don’t get my money’s worth in terms of time spent, and I spent this money to buy a ticket, but I’d rather have my time instead, because that’s a more precious commodity.
What are your plans for… the future? What are you going to do now?
Well, this is really my focus now, I just want to see Back to the Future: The Musical launching properly. When I’m in the theatre, sitting there in rehearsals I’m always looking at details, thinking, “Well, is there some way we can make that little thing better”? It’s the same kind of attention to detail that we’re all putting into the musical that everybody has discovered in the movies. So, as the barbed-wire salesman said in Back to the Future: Part III, “You never know what the future may bring!”
So maybe if this shows a giant hit, other musical theatre producers will start calling me and say “Bob, can you help us out with this one? or “Would you be interested in that?” So, we’ll see.
We will see in the future, right?
We will see in the future, exactly!
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