A Conversation with Bob Gale

“Were not going to reboot or remake the films with another cast, we are not going to turn them into 3D.”

1985 is often remembered for its notorious bubble-gum pop music, soul destroying fashion and obscene hair styling, but for film fans that particular twelve month block is celebrated as a Golden year of cinema with such classic movies as The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, Fright Night, Weird Science, Explorers, Brazil and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure redefining cinema. And yet, even among this catalogue of brilliance, it can be argued that none have remained as celebrated or resilient as Robert Zemeckis’ time travel, coming-of-age, comedy caper Back To The Future, a film that not only launched its star Michael J. Fox into stardom, and which ingrained the DeLorean DMC-12 into the pop-culture collective of future generations.

Now, 25 years later, the Back To The Future trilogy is celebrating it’s latest milestone with a truly exceptional transfer to Blu-ray, supervised by the trilogy’s co-writer and producer Bob Gale.

Fletcher: With Blu-ray finally making its mark on the home entertainment market, there seems to be this list of classic films that fans of the format are clamoring for. And Back to the Future has been at the top end of that list for a while. Can you explain what’s taken so long for its release to come about?

Bob Gale: Absolutely, in fact any movie with Spielberg’s name attached have been some of the most requested from Universal to be put on Blu-ray.

Back to the Future took a little while longer than most others to put onto Blu-ray because I think Steven was of the opinion that we should wait to make sure there was enough of a demand for it. But in this case certainly what happened is that with the impending 25th anniversary it was a no-brainer. I mean ‘come on’, what better way to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Back to the Future than to have the Blu-rays out there.

It always takes Universal too long to pull the trigger on these things so we badgered them for a while and the fans were also writing in and so eventually they did. They bought back Laurent Bouzereau who has done countless documentaries, including the docos on the first Back to the Future DVDs released when we had no time and no money.

Even back then I think the interviews he did with Bob Zemeckis and myself were tops, but this time he had a much bigger budget and much more time so he got just about everybody; Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd who use to never do interviews, Mary Steenburgen, James Tolkan, the director of photography Dean Cundey, film editors… just about everybody. Alan Silvestri who did all he music had scheduled in some time but we had enough interview footage with him from when we did the DVDs that you’ll feel like its all new stuff. Laurent really did a good job.

F: And apart from pulling all these elements together, was there much restoration work required on the actual negatives in order to get the visuals and sound quality up to scratch for Blu-ray?

BG: The elements we had to work with were the ones created for the 2002 transfer. And that’s all those had ever been used for so they were in pretty good shape.

So we started by scanning them at 2K resolution and did colour correction on a DaVinci 2K+. And if you know anything about what that machine can do, you might remember it can do colour correction to just certain areas of the frame, so we were able to colour correct stuff that we couldn’t possibly have done back in 1985. They spent 170 hours on the first movie alone just for colour correction. And then they had an automated dirt processing system, which they spent over 400 hours with on the first movie doing dirt clean up.

So they did all that work with part one, then on part two and part three as well.

F: It must have been an impressive watching what went into the machine and then comparing it to what you saw come out? Did you manage to test drive the Blu-rays at home before they hit replication?

BG: I was a really interesting process for me because I actually didn’t even have a Blu-ray player. I use to be an early adapter and even bought the first Betamax back in 1976. But when I had to throw away all my Betamax tapes, well that cured me of being an early adapter.

I just figured, especially with the HD / Blu-ray wars that I was going to wait and make sure that whichever won would stick around and then of course make sure that there were enough movies that I cared about to make it worth investing in. You know how it is, you buy one piece of equipment and then you realize all your other equipment is out of date. And that’s exactly what happened.

But yeah, I’m sitting there watching all this stuff and I’m blown away by how good it looks.

In fact I was ready to sign off on it and say ‘Yeah, its beautiful. Ship it!’ but Amblin has a guy named David Martin who they use as another set of eyeballs on these things, and David is a total, and I mean total fanatic about quality and image and so forth and he said to me ‘No Bob, no. They’re not ready yet.’ and I said ‘Why? What do you mean? They look so good’ to which he replied ‘They could look even better.’

So we sat down with one of the tech guys and David started pointing things out ’See that? We can fix that up. That we can clean up’. Universal weren’t too happy that they’d have to spend more money on the clean up at the time, but I think they’re real happy about it now.

And that’s the element that they created the theatrical one from that’s going to play in the UK on the big screen.

F: Speaking of the film playing on the big screen, there seems to be this ingrained argument between film puritans and technophiles about the presence of grain in any given transfer. Was there a discussion on how much film grain would or wouldn’t remain as part of the Back to the Future transfers?

BG: Concerning the frequent question of grain issues, there are some Blu-ray jobs where they take all the grain out. We didn’t do that. It still looks like film.

But when we made part three Kodak had a new fine-grain stock, so theatrically there was less grain than there was in part one, so a lot of the grain reduction we did for the Blu-ray was to make part one look like it was shot on that same fine-grain stock as part three.

So it looks like film; it’s beautiful, it’s clean.

And of course it sounds great too. When it was released back then in cinemas it was in Dolby A stereo. We could have gone to Dolby SR but there weren’t enough theaters supporting it and DolbySR played in a Dolby A theatre sounds crap, but now it’s uncompressed and sounds great.

F: Brilliant. Lets talk a little about the films themselves. Was the franchise always intended as a trilogy?

BG: Oh God no. No, no, no, never. We had enough trouble getting the first one made. We were told that time travel movies don’t make any money, and in fact the script was rejected over forty times so we were anxious trying to get just one movie made. And as Bob Zemeckis has said repeatedly ‘If we had known that we were going to do a sequel before the first one was made, we would never have had Jennifer get into the car’. Because when it came time for us to write the sequel we said ‘Oh man, what are we going to with Jenifer?’ She wasn’t a very well defined character and so we had to knock her out and leave her unconscious for the last two movies.

F: It’s hard for time travel movies not to get tangled up in their own continuity, even more recent ones fail because they can’t navigate their own paradoxes. Yet Back to the Future managed to deliver a seamless time travel cross-over between parts one and two, Was it difficult writing and executing the complexities of the time travel story for the sequel?

BG: Oh yeah. And that’s why one of my favorite scenes in Part Two is where Doc is at the chalkboard actually explaining about how the time line splits. We figured that was the only way we could get our head around it. And so by having Doc do that for Marty he was also educating the audience in how this insanity could develop. So yeah, it was crazy.

F: Considering you were working with 1989 technology for the sequel and that the visual effects you had access to can be considered primitive by todays standards, was the script written with what was available or did you pen the script with a goal of creating new ways to execute your vision?

BG: The fact is that when we were writing it, the first thing we conceived was that Michael J. Fox would play the multiple roles in the future. Zemeckis was making Roger Rabbit at the time and working with Ken Ralston, the ILM Visual Effects supervisor. So Zemeckis says to Ken ‘Look Ken, here’s what we have to do; create a camera that can be compute controlled so that we can duplicate moves exactly to deliver a moving camera shot with two or three Michael J. Foxes in the same frame.’

And that was ILM’s marching orders and so they developed what they called a Vistaglide System and it worked really really well. So we didn’t feel all that limited. Certainly we designed the shots based on the technology that we had, so from that angle it all went hand in hand.

F: It’s been fun revisiting the trilogy and noticing a number celebrity cameos that I think people might be surprised by, or perhaps have forgotten about? Any favorites that your most proud of?

BG: Yeah, Billy Zane. Back to the Future was his first movie. And then in Part 2 we got Elijah Wood in one on his first films.

F: The films are renowned for their in-jokes, visual gags and for being self-referential. Were these elements always part of the original script or did they evolve as production got underway?

BG: I’d say both. Most of them were part of the writing process, stuff like Uncle Jailbird Joey and the Twin Pine Mall becoming the One Pine Mall.

But as an example, there a scene where Marty walks through the Town square for the first time in 1955, and when Bob Zemeckis came out on the set and he saw that Texaco Station it immediately occurred to him to do the gag where the girl pulls in and the four gas attendants come out and take care of the car, just like in opening of the Texaco Star Theatre TV show with Milton Berle. And he said to the wardrobe girl, I don’t care how you do it, find our uniforms, then he said to the assistant director give me four extras because I want them in uniform to rush out and service that car. And that was just something he though of on the moment when he stepped onto set.

F: And so, 25 years later here you are. Still doing interviews and media for these films. Are you still as passionate and enthusiastic about the franchise as when the films first hit cinemas?

BG: Oh yeah. The films are great. I’m just so tickled that people love them so much. And of course the other question that I get a lot is ‘What about Back to the Future Part 4?’ and the answer to that is No. We are not doing part four, were not going to reboot or remake them with another cast, we are not going to turn them into 3D.

The movies are what they are. I don’t think you can go back and make a good sequel to a movie four or five years after the last one was made. I haven’t been able to come up with any sequel made this many years later that is really any good. It’s just hard to recapture that same kind of magic that existed at the time.

F: And what is the essence of that magic that has allowed these films to become such identifiable and celebrated classics, and whose popularity shows no sign of abating 25 years down the road?

BG: That’s a good question to ask, because how do you predict this sort of thing? It’s impossible to know what movie people are still going to be interested in 25 years later.

And it’s as amazing to Bob Zemeckis and myself as it is to anyone else that kids today watch these movies and love them just as much as kids back in the 80’s.

I think that beside the obvious, that the films are very entertaining, its because we had just an absolutely great cast. The characters are very identifiable, as is the situation of a kid who can’t figure out his parents and the crazy professor whose the black sheep of the town.

But at the core, what I think it’s that there’s a moment in every kids life where they totally understand that their parents were also children at one time. But when your four or five years old and you hear your parents saying that old thing ‘Well when I was your age…’ you think ‘What are they talking about? They were never my age; they were always just my parents’. But then a couple of yeas later it starts to dawn on you ‘What if they really were kids once?’ And then there’s the point when you start to figure out what sex is all about and your horrified to think that your parents could have actually done that, in fact had to have done that for you to even have been born.

So the movie connects with that sort of thing, and everyone experiences those things. It crosses all cultures, and resonates with everybody in the world. Back to the Future really resonates everywhere.

    J. Fletcher

    Based in Sydney, Australia. Entertainment Journalist. Critic. Photographer. Coffee Snob. Not necessarily in that order.

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