CHATHAM – Bob Gale has fond memories of vacationing in Chatham, so when Jeff Ippoliti, owner of the Chatham Inn at 359 Main, asked if he'd be willing to participate in a “Back to the Future” fundraiser here, there was really no question about his response. Especially when his wife found out about it.
“She's usually leery about going to these events,” said Gale, co-creator and co-writer of the series of classic time travel films. “She's heard all my stories and she feels like she's a 'Back to the Future' widow sometimes. But when I said it was going to be on the Cape, she said 'Sign up!'”
Gale will be joined next week by two of the films' co-stars, Christopher Lloyd and Lea Thompson, for a series of events to benefit the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, a nonprofit organization founded by “Back to the Future” star Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease. The events include wine dinners and screenings of the original 1985 movie at the Chatham Orpheum Theater, as well as an appearance by the film's DeLorean time machine.
Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the first “Back to the Future,” a film that nearly didn't get made. Gale and co-creator and director Robert Zemeckis pitched the film to every major Hollywood studio – multiple times – with no luck. Even Columbia, for whom they had already made “Used Cars,” passed on the idea, saying the script was “too nice and sweet.”
“They came to the conclusion that time travel movies never made any money,” Gale added in a telephone interview last week from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif.
But after Zemeckis directed the successful “Romancing the Stone,” the studios changed their tune and the director had carte blanche to make whatever film he wanted. The film he wanted to make was “Back to the Future.” Needless to say, it was a monster hit. Why?
“The short answer is it's really good,” said Gale, who will participate in an hour-long question and answer session with Lloyd and Thompson before screenings of the film at the Orpheum on June 8.
The real hook to the story, however, came to Gale when he was visiting his parents in St. Louis in 1980 and he came across his father's high school yearbook. Leafing through it, he discovered that his father was class president, something he hadn't known.
“I wondered if my dad was the same kind of class president as mine was,” Gale said, adding he did not get along with that person. “I was thinking, if I went to high school with my dad, would I have had anything to do with him? That's when the proverbial lightning struck.” The concept obviously struck a chord with the public, as did the idea of meeting your parents when they were kids. “There isn't anybody on the planet who doesn't wonder what happened on their parents' first date. Amazingly, nobody had ever made a movie about that. That really makes the movie stand the test of time,” Gale said.
Today, the film's present-day setting of 1985 is just as distant as the 1950s were when the movie was made. Gale said the film was deliberately designed so that the 1980s were just as much of a period setting as the 1950s, which makes it distinct from other movies made in that era.
“We were also really fortunate to end up with the cast we ended up with,” he added. “When you can't imagine anyone else playing the parts, you really know you nailed it.” Michael J. Fox was the first choice as hero Marty McFly, but he was initially unavailable due to his shooting schedule for the TV show “Family Ties.” The film shot for several weeks with Eric Stoltz in the lead before Zemeckis and producer Steven Spielberg agreed he wasn't right for the part, and a deal with struck with the “Family Ties” producers to allow Fox to film at night and on weekends. Gale said without that change, “Back to the Future” wouldn't have been the same.
“All kinds of wonderful things happened where the proverbial planets lined up for us,” he said.
He called Zemeckis “one of the great directors,” who was “firing on all cylinders” at the time. The two met on their first day in film production class at the University of Southern California film school, and clicked on all sorts of levels. The two sold a script to the TV series “Night Stalker” before making “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” with Spielberg producing, and “1941,” which was directed by Spielberg and produced by John Milius.
Gale and Zemeckis worked together on the two “Back to the Future” sequels, which Gale said he didn't initially anticipate. “We thought we had a very satisfying ending [to the first film], to have our characters band together to go off on another adventure.” Had the sequel been anticipated, he added, Thompson's character, Marty's girlfriend Jennifer, never would have gottten in the DeLorean to go “back to the future.” In the second movie, she's knocked unconscious at the beginning and stays that way throughout the film.
Gale was also involved with other “Back to the Future” projects, including a theatrical musical which he said is “taking a lot longer than we thought, but it's going to be really good.” He's also overseeing a “Back to the Future” comic book series; a comic book fan since childhood, he's written for both DC and Marvel, including stints on Batman, Daredevil and Spider-Man, work that he calls “a dream come true.” It also proved to his father, who was horrified by his comic-book reading habit, that all that time was not mispent.
He's not anamoured of the current crop of superhero movies, however. “I've OD'd on them,” he said. “They're really turning into movies by geeks for geeks, which has been my pet peeve about regular comics. If you haven't read every single issue of Marvel for 15 years and pick up a book cold, you can't figure out what's going on.” He is curious to see the upcoming “Dr. Strange” film; in the 1980s he was hired to adapt the Marvel comic to the screen, but his script was never shot. “I'm interested to see if any of mine got into this new one,” he said.
Gale said he's worked with other “Back to the Future” cast members on a number of benefits over the years. He met Ippoliti as a Make a Wish Foundation benefit in Florida. Coming together again to benefit Fox's Parkinson's Research Foundation seems like a nature, especially if it means coming back to Chatham.
According to Ippoliti, the two $150-a-person wine dinners with Gale, Lloyd and Thompson sold out “within hours.” The June 8 7 p.m. screening is also sold out, but a second showing was added in the Orpheum's 34-seat smaller theater. Tickets for that event are $150 and include a reception with an open bar featuring the three guests beginning at 7:30 p.m., with the film showing starting about 8:30.
There will actually be two DeLorean time machines in town next week: a touring model of the vehicle from June 7 to 12, and one used in the filming of “Back to the Future 3” June 9 to 12. Photo opportunities are available June 7 to 11 for a $20 donation to the Michael J. Fox Foundation; for a $100 donation, film buffs can get a ride in the DeLorean. See 359main.com for exact times.
Gale said he's looking forward to “Back to the Future” week in Chatham.
“We're all on good terms,” he said of the gang that made the classic film. “We did something that people are still loving, we all get along really well, we like each other, it's un to hang out with each other.”