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Secret Cinema: Interview with Back to the Future's Bob Gale and SCs Fabien Riggall

To celebrate Secret Cinema's audacious Back to the Future event, we sat down with the movie's screenwriter Bob Gale and Secret Cinema creator Fabien Riggall to chat all things BTTF.

Along the way we waffle about the controversy surrounding the event's launch, what Bob thought of the experience, the troubled production behind the actual movie and much more.

Not only that but we're happy to report that tickets for the Bank Holiday Monday 25 and Wednesday 27 August will be available from Wednesday 20 August at 1pm at .

But onto the conversation with the two main men behind the story and the brand new experiential production....

Bob Gale : If somebody had told me then: “Bob, thirty years from now, you’re gonna be twenty minutes outside of London, you know, replica Hill Valley with thirty-five hundred people dressed in the 50’s”, I would say, “What are you drinking… and may I have some?”

TF: I read a really interesting article recently about your script and the whole trilogy, where it basically said that the story, is a chiasmus, which is a writing term for a story that works the same front and back. It’s kind of like a palindrome, where the first scene reflects on the last scene. And thie theory maintains that it was like that. Did you write it like that?

Bob : No. There’s so much of that stuff that happens and people see things in it, that weren’t intended. It’s like when they take the Old Testament and they find all these little things that tell you “Oh this means Jesus is coming, this means Jesus is coming”. And it’s like “Well no, it didn’t really mean that, but okay.”

TF: We can see here today that the film means so much to so many people. We’re just wondering how people have reacted to you over the years, have they told you stories about what the film means to them?

Bob: Oh yeah… I meet so many people in my business who say “I became a filmmaker, or I want to be a screenwriter because of Back to the Future”. And then the guitarist John Mayer has always said that he saw Michael J. Fox play ‘Johnny B. Goode’, and that’s why he wanted to be a rock n’ roll star, because of that scene. So, wow. (laughs)

TF: I guess a lot of people think that the film as this perfect journey, but it was kind of tough...

Bob: Oh my God.

TF: Forty rejections....

Bob: Over forty. I don’t remember exactly how many, but there were over forty.

TF: What kind of feedback did you get from the people that turned it down? Why did they turn it down?

Bob: Well there were a couple of reasons. A lot of times we would hear, “Time travel movies don’t make any money”. And with I think the exception, of the George Pal movie of The Time Machine, I think that was probably an accurate statement. So we heard that a lot. This was in the early 80s and I think the movie Porky’ s came out in 1982, so then everyone wanted a raunchy comedy, and they said “Well you guys, that’s a very nice script, it’s very sweet, it’s very peachy, why don’t you take this to Disney?” And we heard that so many times, we just decided “Well what the hell, everybody had rejected it, let’s just take it to Disney”. So we go in for a meeting with the Disney executive… he’s read the script, we sit down, and he looks at us, appalled. He said: “Are you two guys insane? We can’t make a movie like this at Disney. This is a movie about incest! The kid and his mother in the car? We’re Disney studios! We can’t do that!" (laughs)

TF: And how did you keep going during that period? Because that’s a lot of rejection, and one of the big themes of the movie is dealing with rejection and how to get through that…

Bob: That’s right, that’s right. Well… I’m not sure if it was George Bernard Shaw who said it... you can look this up, so that you think you sound smarter than you really are... "The reasonable man conforms himself to the ways of the world; the unreasonable man tries to conform the world to his ways, therefore all progress depends on unreasonable men.” That’s the gist of it. So, Bob Zemeckis and I just had to keep looking at each other and say, “Look, either they’re crazy or we’re crazy, and I don’t care how crazy they think we are, we want to see this movie”. And, what finally happened that made it possible was that Bob Zemeckis directed Romancing the Stone , and it was a big hit. And then everybody wanted to be in the Bob Zemeckis business. And, of course the movie that Bob Zemeckis wanted to make more than anything else was Back to the Future .

TF: Yeah, that’s wonderful. And, production was delayed by you searching for your Marty. It was originally Eric Stoltz...

Bob: Yes, and then we shot for five weeks with Eric Stoltz. Eric is a very good actor. He came prepared, but he just didn’t have that certain something that we felt that the character needed. And Bob was editing the movie as we were shooting, and the way we had always worked on our two previous films is, he never showed me any cut footage until he had a first cut of the film. Because he wanted somebody who he completely trusted to be able to see the movie from the first frame to the last frame, all in one continuous time, you know, it’s a different experience than if you watch a movie, a scene today, a scene the next week, and then… But he said “Bob, you’ve gotta see this, you’ve gotta look at this film”. So, because we’d see things and we’d think “Well, when we cut that take with this take, it’ll be okay”.

And I watched twenty-five minutes of cut footage and it just wasn’t working. And we showed the footage to Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall and Kathy Kennedy, our executive producers, and they agreed, and Steven said: “If you’re gonna change the lead actor, we have to find somebody. Now, Michael J. Fox had always been our first choice but he was not available because of his television series. But we had given the script to the, to his producer Gary Goldberg and Gary called us up and he said “This is a great script, it’s perfect for Michael, and I can’t let him see it, because if I do he’ll hate me for not letting him out of his show to do it”.

But this was in, September/October 1984. Now we’re at the end of December, and we came to him begging, which had let Michael read the script. And he said “Okay. Michael wants to do it, I’ll say yes. But what you guys have to understand that you have to work your schedule around ours. Family Ties has to come first”. We said “Okay, if he wants to do it, we’ll do that”. And Michael loved the script, and he said, uh: “What do I need to sleep for? I’m twenty-two years old…” And we had an insane shooting schedule, and it’s a testament to the great directing of Bob Zemeckis that he was able to shoot stuff way out of continuity, because we only had Michael for a limited number of hours, and we’d shoot the coverage of a scene before we’d shoot the master, because we’d take our call at noon, and we wouldn’t get Michael in before 6 or 6:30 in the evening and then shoot ‘til one o’clock in the morning.

TF: It must have been a real challenge.

Fabien Riggall: Yeah, I mean the thing was, I always go back to that line where Marty says “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything”. And I think we put our mind to it, and we tried to take a film that was loved by millions of people, and I didn’t want to do it half-arsed, I wanted to make it something epic, and try and bring back that innocence of what I felt when I saw the movie.

I think what we’re trying to achieve with this, and I think when people see the show is that it’s a complicated production. And it was tough, and I think, you know, when you’re creating something which… when you say you’re going to build a town to the press at the beginning, and you say “We’re going to build a town”, and suddenly you have to build a town. And then you want the town to work, and you want each shop to be something that people are gonna go in and each actor has the history of that shop, and even if it’s like ‘Ask Mr. Foster’ or ‘The Hill Valley Telegraph’, which you only see passing glances.

You know, there was a thing where Bob caught me out [on a character's name], and saw it and said “That’s not his name” and I said “Well, I’ve gone through the Internet and we’ve looked everywhere”, and he said “Well don’t trust the Internet, I wrote the movie”. So we didn’t do our research, but we had to do it justice. It was a pretty stressful experience. But you know, I think, I felt if we could just open the doors... and I think hopefully now people understand.

TF: Did you see some of the backlash on social media? Because obviously the story’s had a happy ending, because the reaction whenever anyone comes out of this show on social media, is just giddy with delight...

Fabien: Well I think it’s kind of ironic. Firstly I felt, obviously I felt quite emotional and upset about what people felt. You know you say you don’t react to social media, you kind of have to understand what people feel. So you can react to it. But I think it was kind of ironic that, that what we’re trying to do here is bring back people to 1955 Hill Valley, where there are no mobile phones. There is no social media. There is just people reacting to the experience of being alive. And I think what I was trying to do was stop people from Instagramming and Twittering and Facebooking and then we come to the show and they did it more than they’ve ever done. And so it was sort of like this ironic thing...

But at the same time I think… I get it, I just think for me, what we’re doing and what this film represents is the old world. A world of innocence, a world of hope, a world that you can actually do anything you want, anything you want, there is no barrier to anything you want to achieve.

My production team are heroes for just sticking to it - we just refused to believe it wasn’t gonna happen. And we got there and everyone involved, the local council, everybody involved were supportive overall.

TF: Bob, how did you feel when you first heard that Fabien was going to do this?


Fabien: He hit his head on the toilet.

Bob: (laughs) I had heard of Secret Cinema but I didn’t really know much about it. I mean when anybody says that they want to do an event around Back to the Future, I say, “Go for it, man!” (chuckles) Why wouldn’t I? Right? But when he started explaining to me that he’s gonna build Hill Valley outside of London, um, I’m thinking to myself “Either this guy’s the biggest fucking lunatic I’ve ever spoken to or he’s a visionary”. And I guess he’s a visionary."

Fabien: I’m a lunatic?.

Bob: (laughs)

TF: How did you feel watching it in this experiential way?

Bob: Well it's just wonderful. I mean, I’ve seen the movie many times with audiences, and it’s always a rush. But this was like, this was like nothing else. But the enhancements that [Fabien] came up with... it was just glorious.

Sam Ashurst is a London-based film maker, journalist, and podcast host. He's the director of Frankenstein's Creature, A Little More Flesh + A Little More Flesh 2, and co-hosts the Arrow Podcast. His words have appeared on HuffPost, MSN, The Independent, Yahoo, Cosmopolitan, GamesRadar, and more.