Bob Gale remembers the future

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      With landmark dates like 1984 and 2001 quickly receding in the rear-view mirror, it’s clear that the future ain’t what it used to be. Sure, we have armed drones and frankenfoods, but there’s nary a hoverboard or home cold fusion reactor to be seen.

      Still, with Back to the Future turning 30 this year (as well as the 2015 setting of 1989’s Back to the Future Part II) there’s no better time to celebrate the future that could have been.

      This Saturday, the Spark FWD Festival and Conference—Vancouver’s annual gathering for the local visual effects industry—will offer a Looking Forward and Back to the Future panel discussion, as well as a viewing of the movie. Speakers will include production illustrator Andrew Probert, director of photography Dean Cundey, and special effects supervisor Kevin Pike.

      While prior commitments preclude the trilogy’s co-writer and producer, Bob Gale, from attending, he was still more than happy to talk up his creation with the Straight.

      On the phone from his home in California, the affable Gale reveals that the idea for the film came during a visit to his parents’ house in the summer of 1980, when he came across his father’s high school yearbook.

      “I was shocked to discover that he’d been the president of his graduating class. And I’m thinking about the president of my graduating class, who was one of these rah-rah school spirit jerk guys that I couldn’t stand, and then I started thinking, “Gee, was my dad like my high school president? Was he a guy I would’ve had nothing to do with?” And that’s when the light bulb went off—what if you could go to high school with your dad? Would you be friends, what would that be like?”

      It was a solid idea, but for Gale and his writing partner Bob Zemeckis (who would later go on to win an Oscar for directing Forrest Gump), it would it prove to be a hard sell.

      “We got 44 rejections,” Gale says with a laugh. “Every studio rejected the movie—some rejected it more than once—and it finally got made because Bob Zemeckis went off and made Romancing the Stone, which was a big hit.”

      It also helped to have friends in high places. As members of the famed ‘USC Mafia’, Gale and Zemeckis had close ties with up-and-coming filmmakers like John Milius and Steven Spielberg.

      “Steven Spielberg had actually been one of the few people who had always liked the script,” Gale recalls. “We had a relationship with Steven and we went back to him and said, “Steven, you liked this a few years ago, would you like to make it now?” He had just set up Amblin Entertainment over at Universal so the timing couldn’t have been better.”

      Nevertheless, Back to the Future had one more major hurdle to overcome: after shooting for five weeks with Eric Stoltz as lead character Marty McFly, it was clear that things weren’t gelling, and a major cast change would have to be made.

      “I don’t know that anything like that had ever been done before, at least not after shooting for that many weeks,” Gale reflects. “Everybody on the crew was wondering “What are these guys doing here, are they out of their minds?” but as soon as Michael J. Fox came on the set it was like this tremendous weight had been lifted off everyone involved. We all just said, “Oh my God, this kid is Marty McFly, this movie’s going to be great now.” It was gutsy, but obviously the right thing to do.”

      Of course, this being 2015, it would seem remiss to have Gale on the phone and not inquire about the alternate 2015 of Back to the Future Part II.

      “I’ll tell you, some of the things in Part II were half-ass predictions and some were just jokes,” Gale says, laughing. When asked about his prediction that the Chicago Cubs will win the 2015 World Series, he laughs again. “That one was a joke! But…I’m a baseball fan and if I were going to pick a Cubs team to be contenders, the 2015 Cubs have to be on the list…”

      With all this talk of the future, it’s easy to forget that Gale’s past is just as interesting. After graduating from USC, he and Zemeckis wrote for the classic TV show Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and then went on to make their first feature, the Beatles fantasy I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Following that, Spielberg hired the team to write his epic comedy, 1941.

      When asked if he spent much time on the set, Gale laughs heartily.

      “Zemeckis and I were 27 years old, and any other self-respecting 27-year-old would say “let’s go to a bar and see if we can pick up some girls,” but we were saying “Let’s go to the set and see what Steven’s going to blow up tonight!”

      “There was no way we weren’t going to be around for as much of that as we could,” he continues, seemingly awed at his own luck. “My God, we’ve got Warren Oates delivering our dialogue, we’ve got Robert Stack, we’ve got Belushi and Ackroyd—how are we not gonna want to be around for that?

      1941 was also the beginning of a close relationship with John Milius (The Wind and the Lion, Big Wednesday). The controversial director—known in the press as much for his conservative bluster as his immense skill—would go on to produce Gale and Zemeckis’s next film, Used Cars.

      “John, gee, he’s just a totally inspiring guy,” Gales says, with obvious affection. “Crazy, in his own way, but wonderful. A natural-born, consummate story teller. A raconteur.”

      When asked about the rumor that the John Goodman character in The Big Lebowski is based on Milius, Gale just laughs. “Yeah, I’ve heard that too, but I just think of John as John.”

      Despite a life of amazing experiences, it’s clear that Back to the Future—and its can-do message—holds a special place in Gale’s heart.

      “There are two aspects of it that, I think, people really like. One of them is the whole voyeur thing about seeing your parents as awkward teenagers—that’s such a very human thing, we all wonder about that—and then the other thing is that yes, there is free will and we have control over our destiny and the decisions we make. The things that we do can completely change our lives in the future.”

      Clearly, the film going public agrees. And for that, Gale is clearly touched.

      “It’s just been great,” he reflects. “To be part of something that gets so much love, generation after generation…my God, what more could you want? “

      Find more information on the Spark FWD Conference and Festival here.