Screenwriter Bob Gale at a press event in April 2006
Out on Blu-ray and DVD this week, the Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection packages four of the American master’s biggest blockbusters — among them, Jaws and Jurassic Park — alongside four of the lesser-known entries in his canon, all of which are receiving a first-time high-def release. That quartet includes Spielberg’s two earliest features, 1971’s thrilling bit of road rage Duel and 1974’s The Sugarland Express,as well as 1989’s Always, a remake of the ’40s-era romance, A Guy Named Joe.
But the lost Spielberg movie most worthy of a closer look is 1941, the WWII comedy starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd that brought the director’s high-flying career down to Earth when it opened to withering reviews and indifferent box office in 1979. Written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis — who would later go on to collaborate on a little movie called Back to the Future, which Spielberg executive produced — 1941 is a product of its late-’70s era, and represents a still-unique creative risk for its director. In advance of the box set’s release, Gale shared some of his memories about the film with Yahoo Movies, and also provided a tease of how he plans to celebrate the upcoming 30th anniversary of Marty McFly’s first trip in Doc Brown’s DeLorean.
John Belushi plays a rowdy fighter pilot in ‘1941’
1941 wasn’t well reviewed upon its theatrical release, but its reputation has improved over the years. Has that been satisfying to witness?
It’s nice that the film has gained in stature, and I think it’s going to gain in stature even more when people see it on Blu-ray. Steven was scrambling to make his release date — it was an expensive picture and the studio had been promoting a Christmas film, so there was no way they were going to blow that release date, even if Steven had said, “I want to spend another four weeks in the editing room.” Steven felt the movie was being promoted as a comedy, so he wanted to put every gag and bit of production value that he could. And I think that maybe that took its toll on setting up the characterizations, and the whole conceit of the film, which is these disparate characters crossing paths in such a way that it caused all this insane mayhem.
The legend behind the film is that its difficult production and box-office failure made Spielberg leery of directing another out-and-out comedy for years.
I think the movie did kind of put Steven off of comedy for a while, which is too bad because he’s got such a great sense for comedy. The comic moments in Jaws really help make the movie scarier because he’s playing so much with your emotions.
1941 also represents a very specific style of conceptual comedy, one that you don’t see as much in mainstream studio releases anymore.
It’s true — you don’t see that kind of comedy [today]. There’s way more bathroom humor and stuff, and none of the pure creative gags, especially the visual gags that Steven put together. What’s great is that everybody is playing it totally seriously — like Robert Stack (below) is so understated and so funny. That’s the type of comedy that appeals to me and Bob [Zemeckis] — like in [1980’s] Used Cars. Everyone is taking what they’re doing desperately seriously, even if it’s insane, and I think that’s what makes it really funny.
'1941' co-screenwriter Gale loves Robert Stack's understated performance
The box set includes both the theatrical version and an extended cut of 1941. Which would you advise viewers to watch first?
I think the extended version is the way to go. Our music guy at Universal found the original John Williams scoring sessions, and we added the original score back to several of the scenes in the extended cut. So there are three or four scenes that are scored differently than in the extended version of 1941 that’s been available before. Those scenes play so much funnier with the right score in it. When people see the extended version and how beautiful it looks, if they don’t already have a more positive view of the movie, they will then.
Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the original Back to the Future. What sort of birthday celebrations do you have planned?We’ve got some books in the works, and some fan celebrations. And I hope some other things are going to come to fruition. We’re definitely going to celebrate it, not only because the original movie is 30 years old, but also because Part II takes place in October 2015, so there are a lot of people looking at that angle, saying how accurately, or inaccurately, did these guys predict the future. It’s amazing how people still love that movie as much as they do, maybe even more than it when it came out.
What’s the latest update on the Back to the Future musical?
It’s still in development; we’re not going to have that out next year. It’s going to take longer to get right. If and when it finally comes out—and we expect that it will — Bob and I will be all over it. I’m working on the book, Alan Silvestri is working on the music, and Glen Ballard, who wrote the songs for Polar Express, is doing the lyrics. We’re not going to have a sh—-y version of a Back to the Future musical. If it’s going to be out there, it’s going to be great and if it’s not great, we’re not going to have it go out.
Photo credit: @Getty Images, @Everett Collection