My most recent episode of Metaverse was a fanboy fantasy come to life. To my delight, I got to chat to Oscar-nominated screenwriter-producer and director Bob Gale, who is best known for his work on one of my all time favourite films, Back to the Future. Bob co-wrote the science fiction comedy and its two sequels with his writing partner, Robert Zemeckis. The award-winning film grossed over 200 million dollars in 1985 at the U.S box office, becoming the year’s number one attraction. Bob co-produced all three films, was associate producer on the subsequent TV series, wrote the book for Back To The Future: The Musical, and is often noted as the franchise’s “gatekeeper.”
We kicked off our discussion by unpacking the genesis of Bob’s beloved film, and how it can all be traced back to finding his father’s yearbook from his senior year in high school. The “proverbial lightning bolt” hit as he pondered whether he and his father would have been friends had they attended school in the same era – thus, the seed for this iconic time travel film was planted. Herein lies the unique magic of the film, which Bob broke down into two discrete features. First, every child has a moment when they realise their parents were also once children, and later in their teenage years, they realise that their parents were also sexual beings. Back to the Future taps into these cosmic, universal realisations in a unique and entertaining way, allowing one teen to befriend his own father at the same age. Second, one of the most human impulses is to wonder, “what if?” The film creatively explores how the little choices we make daily could have a profound effect on your life and even the world. While as individuals we never get to experience the world as it “could have been,” Back to the Future allows us to see this on screen, giving the audience a kind of collective wish fulfillment.
Bob gave me an insider’s peek into the creative process – how he and Robert mapped out the logic behind the story using the “index card method” so they could keep track of myriad ideas and plot points, making sure to establish in the “present” things Marty McFly would go back in time to invent, whether skateboarding or rock-n-roll. We discussed how the movie very consistently follows its own rules, especially considering it’s dealing with the complicated issues of time travel paradoxes. Bob emphasised that, for any futuristic or fantastical story element in a screenplay, the most important thing is to “let the audience in on what your rules are” and they’ll go along with it, even if those rules don’t actually make any sense in the real world. We also touched upon the different inspirations for the movie’s richly developed and unforgettable cast of characters, which Bob confesses were partially inspired by people from his own past.
Since Back to the Future is so well-known for its predictions of future tech, I asked Bob what the movie might resemble had he written it today. Bob noted how it’s an entirely different question to consider the future from where we now stand. To begin with, in 1985, there was no Internet. We now live in an interconnected surveillance society, where, thanks to many of us blindly “opting in,” major corporations know everything we buy, watch, and where we go, which Bob deems “pretty scary.” In Bob’s opinion, the future stemming from today, especially in the face of COVID, is considerably more dystopian.
Speaking of unforeseeable futures, the pandemic itself disrupted Bob’s recent project of Back to the Future: the Musical, whose Manchester opening night I had the pleasure of attending in March 2020 shortly before lockdown. Bob discussed the gestation of the musical, which started all the way back in 2006, and took years to finally find the right team and support to bring it to life. Their first workshop finally mounted three years ago, and Bob notes it was “something magical,” as six members from the original workshop are still in the show, many in leading roles, which is exceedingly rare. Bob described the joy of working on this adaption, how all the actors have made the parts their own, and how adding music lends a deeper layer of meaning onto an already familiar story, infusing the characters with new depth. He likened working on the musical to attending a family reunion – everyone involved was a fan of Back to the Future, from the cast and pit musicians to stagehands and lighting guys to the production designer.
Whilst it was disappointing to shut down the Manchester production so soon after opening, Bob is eager to get back to the good work of sharing the show: there are already international productions slated for development in Germany and Korea. He’s looking forward to the travel this will entail, and the challenge of bringing the script’s wordplay to life in translation.
I cannot understate how much I enjoyed chatting to Bob, who shared a wealth of entertaining and interesting insights: including why he never actually believed flying cars would be in our future. To learn why– and hear the rest of our talk– you can listen to the episode here.