Back to the Future Writer Bob Gale on Risks, Re-Shoots and Eric Stoltz vs. Michael J. Fox

bob_gale_getty_250.jpgBob Gale, who co-wrote (along with Robert Zemeckis) and produced all three Back to the Future movies, can't believe it's 2010 and we're still talking about Back to the Future. He's got a point: The original film is nearly as old today as "Johnny B. Goode," the Chuck Berry hit that Marty McFly co-opts in the first film, was in 1985 (as pointed out in Chuck Klosterman's latest book). But considering how it is Back to the Future's 25th anniversary and footage of Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly has finally been made public, there's quite a bit to talk about.

Back to the Future, 25 years later, still remains one of the most beloved films of its generation. You know the story: Michael J. Fox starred as Marty McFly, a high school student who finds himself stuck in 1955 after accidentally traveling there in Dr. Emmett Brown's (Christopher Lloyd) modified DeLorean. Movieline spoke to Gale, the St. Louis native, about the decision to scrap five weeks of shooting -- about a third of the film -- in favor of recasting Marty, the hoops-jumping that the move required, and why he's happy that people have finally come to accept Back to the Future Part II as a masterpiece.

So the big recent news is the released footage of Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly. I was surprised that five weeks of footage was shot. How much of the film was completed before replacing Eric with Michael J. Fox?

About one third of it. Bob [Zemeckis] had about 45 minutes of cut footage. It wasn't fine-cut footage, but that's how much we looked at to realize that it wasn't working as it was supposed to. And we had to do something about that.

I know at the time there's a lot of pressure considering the budget. Looking back at the footage now, does the situation with Eric seem as dire? Or is it still apparent that it wasn't working at all?

Well, you know, I haven't watched that footage since it happened. We didn't throw it away because we recognized that it has some historical significance. Look, as we say in the new documentary, it's one of the hardest decisions you can make. To spend that much time filming and then to go back and say, "You know what, we're going to start all over again." I mean, nobody does that.

It's nice that Eric Stoltz has had a nice career. It would be even more of a shame if his name were, I don't know, Sheldon Dupree or something and we never heard from him again.

What would be terrible, if this happened today, with the Internet, I don't know whether an actor could recover from that. Then, on the other hand, look at Robert Downey Jr. Look at all of the peaks and valleys he's had in his career and how he managed to totally mess himself up and how he pulled himself out of that. And now he is as big of a star as you can imagine. Even with the Internet, it can be okay.

If a film just goes through some simple re-shoots not involving cast changes, online, the movie has become a disaster.

Thankfully we don't have to go back to do that today and find out.

Unless you have a flux capacitor, then we could.

If I had one, that's something I wouldn't use it to do.

Looking back, if I were Eric, I would have tried to get the ownership of that footage as part of my buyout.

He wasn't anywhere in his career that he could ask for something like that. And nobody envisioned what was going to happen to the future of films and the Internet back then. Nobody thought about it. As you say, he's a good actor, that's why we cast him -- we didn't make a mistake about that. We recognized that he was very talented; his talent was simply not in the area of comedy. He's gone on and he's had a very successful career, we couldn't be happier about that. And he figured out what he was good at; you haven't seen him in any comedies since then. Maybe that experience helped him figure out what he was best at doing as an actor.

When you cast Michael J. Fox, what did you look at from him to know that he's be right for the part? Was it just Family Ties or did you even watch his other stuff like Midnight Madness?

The fact is, we'd seen Family Ties -- everyone in America had seen the show -- and he was out first choice early on. And we actually went to the producer of Family Ties to find out what were the chances that we could get Michael out of the show to do our movie. Gary David Goldberg, the producer -- who happened to be a good friend of Steven Spielberg, which was very helpful for us to get to him -- read the script and he said, "Guys, I love the script, Michael's going to love the script, I can't let him see it because Michael's going to love the script so much that he will hate me for the rest of my life for not letting him do this. I can't let him out of the show. He's really carrying the show right now," because Meredith Baxter-Birney, who played his mom, was pregnant at the time. And we understood that, we knew it was a long shot because we knew he was committed to the show.

So we actually pushed our start day back a couple of times trying to find the right guy to be in the movie. So by the time we knew that we were gong to have to replace Eric Stoltz, we decided, well, let's go back to our very first choice. It's many, many weeks later; maybe Gary will change his mind. Gary was very sympathetic. He said, "I'm very sympathetic to the situation you guys are in. I'll tell you what, I will let Michael read the script and if he wants to do it, I will say yes as long as you will adjust your schedule around ours and know that Family Ties has to come first." Well, we were up against it and we said, "Yes, of course we'll do that." And Michael read the script and he said, "I'm 22 years old, what the hell do I need to go to sleep for?" He didn't quite have to do that, but it was close, actually.

When filming, did this feel like a movie we'd still be talking about 25 years later? Look, I have friends that when I'm around them and we see someone wearing a vest jacket, one of us will say, "Hey, did you jump ship?"

[Laughs] Listen, if we went back in time 25 years ago and somebody said to me, "Hey, Bob, you know what you're going to be doing in October 2010? You're going to be doing interviews about Back to the Future." I'd say, "Get out of town." How many movies have that kind of longevity? Even movies that are really good, how many are we still talking about? The fact that we happen to be one of them, God, no, we had no idea.

I assume the first film gives you the fondest memories, but there are a pretty significant number of people who claim the second film as their favorite. It's the most sci-fi of the three.

It's nice that people have figured out how good the second one really is. Because, at the time, it was pooh-poohed by a lot of people. It was too dark, it was too complicated, but people have come around and recognized what a really interesting movie Part II is. If you're a parent, you love all of your children and you love them for different reasons. And I love Part II because it takes the most chances. I love the fact that we went back into the first movie and look at it from a different point of view. And Part III I love because I love Westerns. It was the most fun to make of the three, definitely. We got to go on location and we really were transported into this other world that we created, the Old West. To get to work with those great old western character actors was a trip. To be running around on a steam locomotive? Come on, what self-respecting American boy wouldn't want to do that? They're all my favorites for different reasons.

[Top photo: John M. Heller/Getty Images]


  • Scraps says:

    I love BttF 1 and 2. I grew up loving trains like any self respecting American boy, but the disc for part 3 that came with my DVD set a few years back makes a great coaster...

  • Biff Bronson says:

    BTTF3 is a western?! Where is the god damn spoiler alert?!

  • sinbad says:

    Come on, he couldn't say a few nice words about Midnight Madness?!?

  • Kristen says:


  • The Cantankerist says:

    Nah. 2 still blows.
    And it's nothing to do with the complexity of the storyline. (They actually did a good job mapping that out within the movie, a la Cameron in Titanic; the Doc Brown scene explaining the multiple-timeline alternate-1985 stuff is memorable and clear.) And it's also nothing to do with the film's determination to take chances - revisiting the first film from another angle, for instance, would have been a smart idea in another film. It's just that by the time we get to that in BTTF2, it feels like desperation; it feels like a nasty film's attempt to co-opt the goodwill of a nice one.
    That's the problem for me, in a nutshell. BTTF2 is an ungenerous film, and I couldn't find anyone to barrack for in it. It relied heavily on the first film for Marty McFly to be at all sympathetic, 'cos he spends most of 2 being a dick and behaving selfishly. It seems to be more intent on laughing at people than with them. It was cowardly in its repetition of first-film tropes rather than embracing one of the great, simple sequel-setups of cinema: "It's your kids, Marty! Something's gotta be done about your kids!" Well, no, as it turns out, nothing has to be done about the kids, because we'll use them for cheap MJF cross-dressing gags that cheapen the reality of the film, because we can't bear to set up new characters.
    This laziness even extended to Elizabeth Shue's character (jarring already that Claudia Wells suddenly morphed into Elizabeth Shue, though they look absolutely nothing alike). Alright, Wells had almost nothing to do in the first film but look attractive; can't we at least give this character something to go on with in the sequel? You've got Elizabeth Shue there, fer Chrissakes, it shouldn't be hard to make her likeable. But no, some early half-hearted hijinks aside, once again Marty's girlfriend has nothing to do for the rest of the trilogy, and we're given no reason to care.
    The moment the Sports Almanac is introduced you just let out a little sigh. This is gonna be the plot motivation? Marty considers going back in time to bet on sports events, so he can make a bundle? Yes, because Marty's a greedy cheat, that's what we've always known about this character. Wha?
    Then there's the alternate 1985 - a bold attempt to push the boundaries of the BTTF world, but only partly successful. By the time Lea Thompson is venomously decrying her own fake boobs, you know they've wandered a little too far off the reservation. It's something of a betrayal of the audience and, yes, that can be used to good effect, but it just isn't put to any worthwhile use. By the time you get back to 1955, you feel mauled and the movie has soured.
    Your mileage may vary, of course - but don't take it above 88!

  • cashnetusa says:

    Id like to see that footage.

  • casting couch says:

    Very interesting interview.
    About Part II... It always feels like wandering over to the wrong side of the tracks watching it. I guess it's the dark middle sequel, but after the lightness of the first movie it's a major downer.

  • Julie says:

    It's a shame Bob Z always put the kaibosh on you directing. Not much of a partner really, was he?
    But it's nice you can still make a profit on the person you fired. Releasing footage no one is proud of to make money! Genius!

  • Jack says:

    While Back to the Future clearly wasn't working for the filmmakers with Stotlz in the lead, Gale is fairly wrong about his comedic output since then. Stotlz hasn't top-lined any high concept Hollywood comedies, but he is definitely funny in Pulp Fiction, gets a laugh in every one of his scenes in Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming, and is great in all his Cameron Crowe cameos (even his subtle "pisses me off," to Jerry Maguire). Stotlz isn't short on talent in comedy, but I read an interview with Lea Thompson in which she reveals that Stotlz was taking the premise seriously and at the time even referred to the story as "a tragedy," referring to Marty having grown up in a 1985 that, due to the actions in the past, can never be returned to. He was probably just a headstrong young actor not onboard with the tone Zemeckis was pushing for, and all signs point to the movie being better and Stoltz being better off for not completing the part (has Eric Stotlz ever seemed to be chasing superstardom in his choices of roles?). Saying he doesn't know comedy strikes me as more than just a little arrogant of Gale.

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