Exclusive: David Guy Levy Talks Back To Back To The Future
Two weeks ago we ran a contest for a six part digital comic called Back to Back to the Future. It’s a story that looked at what would happen if Eric Stoltz had never been replaced as Marty McFly in the Back to the Future films. It’s one of those untold Hollywood stories that was just begging to be explored. It also helped out a good cause. The first three issues of the comic are completely free to download, but the final three are for sale with all of the proceeds going to the Young Storytellers Foundation. The man that thought the whole thing up is filmmaker and producer David Guy Levy. I got the chance to speak with Levy late last week about the story, how it came about, and what the future holds for Back to Back to the Future.
You’re primarily known as a filmmaker and producer. What made you decide to venture into the world of comic books with Back to Back to the Future?
It was actually my second time getting my hands dirty in the comic world. I worked on a comic book called Cornboy which was a screenplay that was pitched to me in like ’04. There was something I always loved, but I didn’t know if it would make a great movie. My plan was to let it become a comic instead. We adapted it with Joshua Dysart (Unknown Soldier) and Liquid Comics helped to show me the ropes. That came out and I had such a great experience with it.
At the same time it was coming out, I had just brushed off Back to Back to the Future which I had written 7/8 years earlier. I took it out and read it with some people, and they really liked it. I had had so much fun making Cornboy, I thought I should make this story as a comic. I won’t have to throw anything out, I can show it all with the art. As a filmmaker I’m always confined to budget and schedules, but with a comic book I realized I could break through those boundaries. The story was prefect for the medium, so I just ran forward with that.
So it started out as a script, but it sort of evolved into a comic?
Yeah, I actually started writing it in 2001 when I was a film student at Ithaca College. I had to turn in my senior thesis the next day to graduate. I had no ideas what to write. I was surfing the internet, I’m a huge Back to the Future fan, and I was on the Back to the Future website BTTF.Com and they had just posted an interview with Bob Gale who had written and produced the movies. They had new information that not only was Eric Stoltz fired, but there was an actress who was also fired because she was too tall for Michael J. Fox. I continued to read this article, and Bob confirmed that it was Melora Hardin who a lot of people might know from the Office as Jan. Bob said it was the toughest thing he ever had to do letting her go, because she didn’t merit being let go. It was one of his major regrets in life.
I thought it was really interesting that the man who wrote my favorite time travel movies of all time had a major regret. I thought it would be really cool if he could go back in time and tackle this regret using the same device he created. The book opens up with Melora Hardin and him not having talked since the incident. He has this interview that plays out in the first few pages. He goes home and he can’t stop thinking about her, so he calls her up. They have dinner and he’s giving her a ride home in his Tesla, it gets struck by lightning, he takes her home, and he doesn’t realize that it’s 1984 yet. They find out pretty soon they’re in 1984, and not only that but Eric Stoltz is still cast as Marty McFly. They sort of go through a lot of the story structures of the beloved films and decide to make it so Eric Stoltz doesn’t get replaced. Bob Gale also sort of steals some other ideas from the 90s for some screenplays while he’s there. Then they go to the future and it’s out of control. Then they have to go back and it becomes the whole farce.
And you worked with Jeffrey Spokes, who provided just some amazing interior work on the six issues. How did the working relationship with him come about?
That guy is a gem. I knew at the very beginning that I wanted this to be very cinematic. It’s a comic book about movies, and beloved movies that have really recognizable faces and characters. I wanted it to be almost photographic, like we’re looking at the actual people. I knew I needed a cover artist to do the book. Cover artists are usually paid between 1000 to 3000 dollars per cover and they only do one page a month for a company. The inside art is done by an interior artist and their work is a lot more rushed and less specific. I knew I wanted every page inside to be just as beautiful as a cover. I was talking to my friends at Liquid Comics, and I asked if they knew anybody. They said a lot of those people get paid too well and won’t do it, but there are a couple of up and comers you should talk to. They pointed out Jeffrey Spokes on a list of 5 names. He was the only one on the list I knew I wanted to work with. I got in touch with him, and he said he wanted to do a whole book of cover quality art but it’s such a time consuming project he had never found a project he wanted to do it for. I asked him if he would read the script and he said he would get back to me in a week or two. By the end of the day he had read it and got back to me saying “I’m in.” I paid him the rate of an interior artist because I was doing this out of my savings and it wasn’t for any commercial gain. He thought it was a fun story, and he’s such a great artist. I was very lucky and he was very giving. Each issue took about three to three and a half months. It took about three and a half years in total with the different work he had to work around. I started in 2009 and I finished it at the end of 2012. He nailed it. He really nailed it. He’s in Saskatchewan so we were working over the internet the whole time. I never met him in person.
So how did that work out? Did you guys email back and forth, Skype or what?
Email and Dropbox are brilliant tools for these large files. We shared Dropbox folders. To make the comic, I took the screenplay I wrote in college and readapted it to comic format. Every page was just panel by panel, shot by shot literary descriptions of what was going on. He would draw the page, I would put some bubbles in and play with it, and I would see once in a while something I thought would work and it didn’t. He was very easy to work with, so he’d go back and adjust and we’d move on. Each issue would have five or six pages where it just would not click and we’d have to adjust. But it was pretty great.
That’s one of the better collaboration stories I’ve heard. Things don’t always go that smoothly.
I’m starting off with comics, and I’m definitely not done. I’m a huge fan of it. I’ve had some ideas I’ve abandoned because I figured it would be really hard to get them off the grounds as movies. I don’t want to sacrifice the story for the budget, so a lot of time I work on low budget ideas. I realize I can focus on these bigger ideas now and still execute them. Since I’m starting off on the process, I’ve learned a few things from Cornboy and Back to Back to the Future. So if anyone is thinking about making a comic book, please take note of this experience. I definitely think this is a book…it’s six issues, 130 pages…I would have loved if this was 200 pages. There are definitely moments where I felt I had set constraints on the project very early on because I didn’t’ want to spend five years on it, but pacing in comics is so vital. I think there are moments in books where writers and artists wish they had more pages or a couple more issue to work with. If you’re ever in a position to actually get that, and somebody else isn’t spending their money on it, do it. I think pacing is important. That’s what I’m learning. It’s a new medium and I’m getting my bearings. I’m proud of the book, I’m just saying I think there are moments where you think “that would have been great if there was three more pages of that.”
With the story itself, what made you decide to present it as a digital comic? That’s an ever expanding world, especially the last two years. Was digital’s more cinematic presentation a deciding factor?
Oh for sure. It’s a great tool because there’s so much you can do. Digital is not something to be afraid of I think. That’s part of the reason I decided to release it without a print copy initially. For the next year or year and a half it will just be available digitally. Then I’m thinking in 2015 I might have to visit the idea of a print edition for that famous year for Back to the Future fans.
You pull off a lot of wild things in the story, I’m particularly fond of M. Night Shyamalan’s involvement, but were you ever concerned about ticking off the people you used in the story? Were there any concerns about the rights to this stuff?
Yeah. Not only was I concerned, but I was writing characters that have the images and likenesses of people I don’t know. I don’t know who they are, how they act, or how they behave. I had to come up with original characters with their faces on them. A lot of characters were inspired by Back to the Future. Bob Gale started out as Bob but sort of tares into Doc Brown territory. Eric Stoltz started out as George McFly and ends up as evil Biff Tannen. You know I got to do that, but when I put the M. Knight bits and Melora Hardin in there who wasn’t really playing anyone else or were people I knew, I just said ‘you don’t know this person so just write them hyperbolic and free spirited.’ I also knew that if Melora Hardin was going back in time 25/30 years after this experience, she would look a lot older than she did on set. As a device in the story I had her have a lot of work done. She’s at dinner with Bob in the beginning and she’s talking about having some plastic surgery. I wanted to get the idea in there that she was holding on to her youthful image. I knew that wasn’t something many people may be pleased about as imaging them in real life, but I think it’s fairly obvious it’s a device image and it wasn’t coming off as insulting.
I was definitely worried. I sort of figure I don’t know them, they don’t know me how would they take it as an insult? M. Night can usually take it as an insult. I sort of say he hasn’t done anything with his career since Sixth Sense, which I don’t even agree with because I’m a big fan of Signs. I think a lot of people like to chuckle at M. Night so it’s an easy target. And then I was nervous because I didn’t want to approach them because I had been working on this since 2001. I had a moment where I was like ‘Should I show it to them? Should I approach them?’ I just felt creepy. I didn’t want to send them an email, ring them up on the phone, or come knocking and say I’m this guy you’ve never heard of and I’ve been writing about you so long. Look at these images that took years to draw. So I figured I would put it out in the world and if I hear back from them I hear back from them. Melora Hardin tweeted out that she thought it was fantastic and I was very relieved. And Bob Gale and Eric Stoltz, I haven’t heard if they’ve said anything. There are other people that make cameos. The guy that inspired the whole comic book, Stephen Clark from BTTF.Com, is in the comic book doing the interview in the beginning. He reached out within minutes of the release saying he thought it was great. The Back to the Future community have been very supportive. Before I had even announced anything, they knew about it. They were very supportive about getting the message out there.
The books are making the rounds now. What has the response been from the regular reader, not necessarily the diehard Back to the Future fans?
The readers like it. I think a lot of people, if they take more than a minute to read a tweet or headline for however this comes into their lives, they’ve been very excited. I’ve had a lot of people that say they can’t wait to read it. And with the website the downloads have been every few minutes somebody is downloading one. It’s been very satisfying because Cornboy didn’t have that kind of reach.
The diehard fans who just stick with a headline ‘What if Eric Stoltz was never replaced by Michael J. Fox?’ who assume I’m saying f**K Michael J. Fox, which I’m not, they immediately think I should stay away from their baby and this should never exist. I’m sure I can drink any of them under the table with my love of Back to the Future, so it’s fun. I love any chatter, anyone who’s talking. I love being part of the conversation about the Back to the Future movies. Even if they’re not talking about the comic book, I’m really pleased that this book is sparking conversations about the movies in general.
So so loving this fun series. It really proves what great “future storytellers” are amoung us and how we need new… http://t.co/zAnTvCaVFN
— Melora Hardin (@MeloraHardin) July 22, 2013
I don’t want to give away the ending, but let’s say it’s not a complete finite ending. Could you see yourself returning? I mean there were three movies.
You know, I wouldn’t be against it. I would want to stick with the same characters. I wouldn’t want to spin off and do other things like…one of my favorite movies is There Will Be Blood. There was a guy named Kel O’Neill who was actually cast in Paul Dano’s part for a full month of production and they reshot him. I thought that was similar and a great story, but at the same time it’s pretty much the same story. I’d love to see Bob and Melora travel again. I would also love to see a video game. I want to see if I can talk to some video game companies and get this going as a video game. I think it would be fun to explore the Back to the Future world with a new story, but not also try to say we’re making a Back to the Future movie. Unless Universal is monitoring this and wants to make a Back to Back to the Future then go for it! I don’t think I can pull it off.
Is there another untold Hollywood story you think would make for an interesting comic?
I don’t know. Someone told me the other day that Chewbacca is getting his own point of view movie for Star Wars. I was like ‘oh, that’s genius.’ I think it would be fun to do an underestimated Biff Tannen. Just have him as a sweetheart who is misunderstood.
I think when people have icons or characters that really speak to a generation, imagination can go crazy. I started writing this at the same time that George Lucas In Love came out, which was a really great short film about Shakespeare In Love with George Lucas. I think there’s this love for just the playground of ideas that are inspired by something this whole community is aware of. The fact that so many people have seen Back to the Future, it’s in the zeitgeist in a major way. Just to play with these ideas people already love to being with, I didn’t realize just how strong that was. It’s been lucky to be a Back to the Future story because that community is already ready to talk. If I made this an original story with no anchor in history, it would be a lot tougher to get the conversation going.
Now one of the things that makes this whole saga unique is that the money is going to the Young Storyteller’s Foundation. Can you talk a little about how that decision came about?
I started this with no business model or commercial aspirations. I just wanted to tell this story I started working on years ago as a student. I was working on it and my friend was like ‘what are you going to do with it when it’s finished’ I said I don’t know, I’ll probably just give it away or something. He told me I should give it to charity, and I thought might as well. After thinking about it for a little while I thought it was a great idea. There was a charity I was trying to get involved with for a while, the Young Storytellers Foundation. What they do perfectly fit with this. They go to arts poor communities and work with underserved public school students who don’t have much of an arts program and brings in mentors to the schools to work with them as they write short plays. At the end of the mentorship, which is a 10 week program, professional actors from stage and screen come in and perform these plays. I tried to mentor with them for a while, but with my job I could never give 10 consecutive weeks. Then I figured I could give this story I was trying to get out into the world to them and then if it makes any money, it’s how I got to give back to this great organization. I felt like the spirit of how I approached the project and what they do every day was hand in hand. I reached out to the Young Storytellers Foundation and said ‘what if we gave the first three issues for free and then the last three, if people want to finish the story and support the Foundation, it will go to you guys?’ And they said sure, so that’s what I get to do. Every dollar benefits them.
Is there anything you’re working on or involved with now that we should be on the lookout for?
I’m working on a couple of movies. I did a movie that came out about a week ago on DVD after a nice little run in February called Would You Rather. It’s a horror movie with Brittany Snow, Jeffrey Combs, and Sasha Grey is in it. A lot of great people. One of the Trailer Park Boys, Rob Wells, is in there. It’s about a deadly game of ‘would you rather?’ It’s like Clue meets Funny Games. It’s pretty fun. We’re working on some movies we haven’t announced yet because it’s a little premature, but we’re getting moving and probably shooting by the end of the year. The last few weeks I’ve been going through the bin of big ideas I’ve abandoned and opening them up. I’m excited about some of the ideas. I want to tell big stories. If I’m going to stick with comic books, it’s going to be these big universes I can fill with my imagination.
Our thanks again to David Guy Levy for talking with us about the project. You can find Levy on Twitter by clicking here, the official Facebook page of Back to Back to the Future here, and the website to learn more about the Young Story Tellers Foundation and how you can get your hands on the comics here. I read all six of the issues, and I have to say the art is amazing and it’s a story that’s accessible to all manner of Back to the Future fans. I highly encourage you to check out the first three issues. I mean, come on, they’re free. If the third one hooks you like it did me, you can buy the final three and have the money go to a good cause. Hopefully we see more comics from Levy in the future. He’s very passionate about comics and it sounded like he has a lot of good ideas he’s kicking around. What do you think? Have you read Back to Back to the Future yet?