Bob Gale Talks Spielberg and '1941' on Blu-ray

Posted Fri Oct 10, 2014 at 08:05 AM PDT by
Bob Gale with a copy of the '1941' novelization

"Do you want to interview Bob Gale?"

That was the email sitting in my inbox. The 'Steven Spielberg Director's Collection' is out on Blu-ray this Tuesday, October 14, and Bob Gale is doing press for '1941' because it not only includes all of the Bonus Material from the previous LaserDisc and DVD, but also, for the first time, the ability to watch both the 1979 Theatrical Cut and the Extended Edition. 

Did I want to interview Bob Gale?

Oh, I'm sorry, you mean the co-creator of the 'Back to the Future' series, writer of 'Used Cars', and the co-writer of '1941'. Do I have time in my schedule to talk to him about what it's like to collaborate with cinematic heroes John Milius, Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Spielberg???

[...dramatic pause...]

Oh HELL yes I have time! But alas, dear reader, the Universal PR Gods graced us with an all-too-short eight minutes. Still... We were able to cover the new Blu-ray, working in Hollywood in the mid-'70s, what it was like to be down in Alabama while Spielberg was making 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind', and the woes of being an early adopter of home theatre gadgets. Yup, Bob Gale's one of us.

Here's the full transcript.

HDD: Before we get into the interview, I just wanted to thank you for 'Back to the Future'. Life changing movie--

Bob Gale: I never get tired of hearing that [laughs].

So thank-you-thank-you-thank-you. Now onto the task at hand, '1941', have you seen this new Blu-ray?

Yes I have. It's glorious.

Are you, by any chance, a home theatre enthusiast?

Yeah, I got an Epson projector, a flat screen. I've had projection TVs ever since Sony made one you could afford to buy. I got a decent sound system and I love to crank it up. Even the home theatre setup discs and all that stuff. I want it to look and sound great at home.

Cool. Most of the time I interview folks, they tell me "oh, I've still got a CRT or something", but I guessed you might be into [home cinema].

I bought the first stand-alone BETAMAX in 1976, which cured me of being an early adopter when I had to throw out all my Beta tapes.

There's a lot of HD-DVD fans who feel the same as you.

Yeah, I waited until that format war settled down before I bought a machine.

Back to 1941. I'm most interested in the development process. I watched the Blu-ray's 'Making Of 1941', which was on the previous DVD. At the time, you and Robert Zemeckis were out with a spec called 'Tank'. John Milius loved your writing and you all decided to collaborate because you have an idea about the LA Air Raid and he was researching General Stillwell. What was the early part of the development process like, and what were you comedy influences?

Bob [Zemeckis] and my comedy influences are pretty vast. It goes from Frank Capra to the Three Stooges to Looney Tunes to Buster Keaton and everything in between. And let's not forget Billy Wilder. There's a black comedy aspect of it we can credit to the Billy Wilder influence. 

Those sessions that we spent with John were just great. He had a condominium out near Zuma Beach because John's a surfer. So we go out there late at night. Bob and I didn't surf, but John had been out there surfing and he'd say [in a full on John Milius impression], "you know guys, come over tonight and we'll brainstorm about '1941'." Actually, it wasn't called '1941' then; it was called 'The Night The Japs Attacked'. We'd hang out with John until midnight, two o'clock in the morning, spitballing ideas. It was a fun time. Did you see the documentary, 'Milius'?

Oh, no, I haven't seen that yet. 

Put it on your Netflix queue. I think you can stream it on Netflix. It's really a great look, and gives you a great sense of what the industry was like back in the mid-70s. It's a good documentary.

Very cool, I'll definitely do that. Okay, so after that early process, you had a little bit of a setback with MGM passing on the project. When was it in that process that you sent the script over to Steven Spielberg?

What happened was we'd go shooting trap and skeet with John out in Newhall once a week. And Steven would come sometimes too because Steven and John were good friends. John was telling Steven, "these two crazy guys from USC wrote this insane script." So John starts telling Steven about it and Steven says, "I gotta read this script, John, gimme a copy of the script."

So John gave Steven the script and Steven just loved it. He loved the insanity of it all. The exuberant craziness of doing a riot and a bar fight on Hollywood Boulevard, a tank on the [Santa Monica] pier, and all that stuff. And at that time, Steven was one of the few guys in Hollywood that could put those types of things on screen. So Steven said, "I gotta make 'Close Encounters' at Columbia, but let's see if we can set this up. Universal wants my next picture too." 

Steven wisely made it a co-production between the two studios and we flew down to Mobile, Alabama, while he was shooting 'Close Encounters' down there, to start working on the rewrites. Interestingly enough, you're talking about comedy influences, Steven had a -- this is before there was home video -- 16mm print of 'Dr. Strangelove'. He rented a house where he was living and editing 'Close Encounters' and two or three nights a week he'd run 'Dr. Strangelove' just to look at a close-to-perfect movie which would remind us all why we were in the movie business. So the black humor of 'Dr. Strangelove' also may have been an influence in '1941'.

Right. Actually, I wanted to ask about  your rewriting period down there to get a sense of how the script changed when [Spielberg] came aboard. In the 'Making of 1941', Spielberg was talking about how, if Zemeckis had been at a place in his career where he could have directed the movie, it probably would have been a little darker, more of a black comedy satire versus the screwball--

Just in terms of the approach it would have been darker. The best example I can give you in terms of that is how Steven had Ned Beatty play the part of Ward Douglas, the home owner. Bob and I saw the guy more as a lunatic instead of a nebbish. In our version of the character he would have been more proactive about signing up to get the gun and its placement in his yard. Just really tortured he was too old to actually get into the war, but wanted to do his part. If he got a chance to sink a sub, he was gonna do it. Steven played it where the character's a little more reluctant to get involved. He feels it's his patriotic duty. 

There's a great scene in the restored version where Ward offers his daughter some fatherly advice on what she's supposed to do in the USO. That counts as an example of out twisted black humor.

Yeah, I re-watched the Blu-ray yesterday [thanks, Universal!], that joke had me rolling. I've been reading a few books set in this era, and [Ward's advice] was pretty unexpected. My last question [damn your eight minute time limit, Universal!], Theatrical Cut verses Extended Cut, not necessarily about content, but what was it like seeing the movie come back to something closer resembling your original intent?

It's great. I'm so excited that Universal decided to spend the extra bucks and meld the additional footage back into the movie in such a great way. It's almost seamless, really. You're a high-def guy, I'll bet you didn't even notice some of the places where it switched over. 

I'm delighted audiences are going to get a chance to get a better idea of what the movie intended to be and now really is. I think the movie, over the years, has gained in stature. It was kinda trashed when it came out, but it was never a disaster like people think it was. Steven had hit one home run with 'Jaws' and another with 'Close Encounters' and '1941' really was a single, but it was far from being a strike out or ground out or fly out. 

Thank you so much for talking to us. And I'm sure people will be super excited to see the movie in HD for the first time

Yeah, I was blown away by how great it looked and I hope everybody else is too.

Cool, thank you so much for your time, sir. 

You're welcome, thank you for talking to me.

Cheers. And thanks again to Universal Home Entertainment for arranging the interview. '1941' debuts on Blu-ray next Tuesday (October 14) as part of the 'Steven Spielberg Director's Collection' along with three other first-time HD titles -- 'Duel', 'Sugarland Express', and 'Always'.

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Discs mentioned in this article: (Click for specs and reviews)
Steven Spielberg Director's Collection (Blu-ray)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: 30th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray)
Jaws (Blu-ray)
Back to the Future: 25th Anniversary Trilogy (Blu-ray)
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Blu-ray)
Tags: Steven Spielberg, Blu-ray, Bob Gale, Robert Zemeckis, 1941, Duel, Back to the Future, John Milius, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dr. Strangelove (all tags)