Steven Spielberg has directed some of the most treasured films of the past four decades, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial and Jurassic Park among them. And then there’s 1941.
The 1979 comedy extravaganza was not only helmed by the acclaimed filmmaker but penned by then-newcomers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (who would go on to create the beloved Back to Future franchise, produced by Spielberg), along with veteran screenwriter John Milius (Apocalypse Now), and boasted a cast that included actors ranging from John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd to Toshirô Mifune and Christopher Lee to Penny Marshall and John Candy.
Set during World War II, the film promised a comedic take on a possible attempted Japanese attack on Los Angeles in the anxious days following Pearl Harbor, with the epic scope and multiple storylines of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the countercultural anarchy and mayhem of the comedies of the era that preceded it. But it was Spielberg himself who proved to be the target: Although 1941 made money at the box office and to this day has its defenders, the film was subjected to a critical carpet bombing, with detractors arguing it lacked the populist touch that made Jaws and Close Encounters hits, and suggesting that full-on comedy wasn’t Spielberg’s ideal cinematic milieu.
With 1941 now available on Blu-ray as part of the Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection, alongside the filmmaker’s aforementioned blockbusters and other charmers such as Duel, The Sugarland Express and Always, co-screenwriter Gale shares with Spinoff Online his memories of making the comedy and surviving its reputation.
Spinoff Online: A lot of the backstory of 1941 is told in the extras on the new Blu-ray, but because we’re also talking about the Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection set here, tell me what Steven brought to what you guys had put together on paper. Tell me where the alchemy started, once you were working directly with Steven.
Bob Gale: I have to answer one part of that question, specifically, because that opening scene with the Jaws parody – obviously, that was Steven’s idea to do that, so it started right there, and it was kind of nice to see that Steven was willing to parody himself with that. The way that plans lined up for us – or didn’t line up, for those that hate the movie – was that with the script that Bob and I wrote, we didn’t have any “adult supervision,” if you will. We just came up with these gigantic set pieces. You know: “Let’s have a plane crash on Hollywood Boulevard. Let’s have a tank go down Santa Monica Pier, and the sub shoot a Ferris wheel and have it roll down. Let’s do the Zoot Suit Riots. Let’s put all the stuff in the movie, in the script.” And, you know, we were 25, 26 years old when we’re writing this stuff – in our heads it was, “Why not? That would be a great scene! That would be a great thing to see – let’s put this in!” Older and wiser writers who’ve been around the block might’ve said, “How’re they gonna ever do that? How’s somebody going to put that on the screen? It’s going to make the movie too expensive.” But luckily our script landed in the hands of a guy that could actually do that stuff.
So here we have Steven Spielberg, who is off of Jaws and Close Encounters, and he’s the wunderkind of Hollywood. Everybody wants to be in his next movie. So his presence attracts this unbelievable cast. And Steven has, with Close Encounters, met and worked with Greg Jein, the greatest miniature creator, probably, in the history of Hollywood, and hires Greg to create what, in my opinion, are the finest miniatures ever done. Even in high definition – especially in high definition – you look at that and you say, “My God, how did he do that?” And it looks even better, I think, than some of the digital stuff that’s going on, because you look at it, I think that there’s some sort of intrinsic understanding that people have about the way real objects move and you watch those planes going back and forth and you say, “It certainly doesn’t look digital. It doesn’t look like an optical [effect],” and it’s not. Those were huge miniatures, but miniatures nonetheless. Only Steven could’ve made that stuff happen on the scale that it did and could just go for broke.
You mentioned the amazing cast. I’m going to single out my personal favorite, John Belushi. Do you have a specific memory of watching John and Steven at work that you still think back on fondly?
Well, I don’t know if “fondly” is the right word for it, but it was the first time in my life that I totally understood what was meant by somebody having screen presence. Because I remember watching Belushi work – I think it might’ve been one of the scenes when he’s on the motorcycle – and he was jetlagged a lot, because he and [Dan] Aykroyd were going back and forth between LA and New York, because they were doing Saturday Night Live. John was doing a lot of cocaine then, and we’re watching Steven direct John and doing the scene, and Bob and I are thinking, “It doesn’t seem that funny. It just doesn’t seem that funny,” and then the next day, we watched the dailies and it was really funny. And there was something magical about this quality that Belushi had that when you saw him on screen, he just jumped right off the screen. You wanted to watch him, the camera loved him, and he did these things with his face that were just great.
Give me one of your very favorite memories of the making of 1941. Tell me one that always kind of comes back to you, when you think about the movie.
When Steven was shooting – and again, “What did Steven add to it? What did Steven bring to it?” The idea that he got Toshirô Mifune in the movie – oh, my God, what an amazing accomplishment that is! So, I remember watching those scenes in the submarine. It was surreal. They have Toshirô Mifune and Christopher Lee and Slim Pickens all in the same set, working together in the same scene. But one of my most vivid memories was that Mifune was just an amazingly disciplined and trained actor. He could do his performance exactly the same way, every time. Every breath at the same place, every movement at exactly the same place. And he was appalled that the extras that were playing his crew were kind of slovenly. So he, through his translator, whipped those guys into shape. He actually became like a drill sergeant to his submarine crew, and that shows in the scenes when you see the Japanese line up and doing all that stuff. So that is absolutely embedded in my brain.
By no means was this movie a box-office bomb; it just wasn’t a sensation like Jaws and Close Encounters before it. Tell me what 1941 came to mean to you, as far as your film résumé and where it got you in Hollywood – what being a part of it meant, and that association with Steven that continued for you on various projects like Back to the Future.
Well, when 1941 came out, Bob and I had just started shooting Used Cars – this was in November-December 1979 – so we had our next movie happening. But Used Cars was a bona fide bomb, and 1941 was perceived as one, even though as you correctly realized, it was not. So here we had done three movies with Steven: I Wanna Hold Your Hand, 1941 and Used Cars, and our two were not successful at the box office, and 1941 wasn’t perceived that way. So we were actually concerned that if we did another picture with Steven right away and it failed, we’d never be able to get another job. So although we went right off of Used Cars to write Back to the Future, and Steven had always liked the script from the very first draft that he read, we kind of knew that it would be wise for us to get a movie made without Steven, in whatever way that had to be, and prove to Hollywood that we could make a movie without Steven. And Bob Zemeckis did that with Romancing the Stone, and then once that was a huge hit, and Bob said, “We gotta make Back to the Future! Let’s go back to Steven: He made E.T., he was kind of the new Walt Disney now, and he always believed in it and he believed in us. If he wants to get on board this, let’s reward his loyalty to us with loyalty to him.” And the planets really lined up for that.
As a result, you’ve obviously had great successes over the years that followed. Tell me what’s happening now: There’s a Back to the Future musical in the works, and that you’ve written some comic books for Marvel and DC in the past. Give me an update on what’s happening right at the moment for you.
Well, the musical is in development. I’m taking a big part in crafting the book and working with Al Silvestri, who’s doing the music and Glen Ballard, doing the lyrics. We thought that we might have the thing mounted in time for our 30th anniversary next year, but we’re not going to rush it. We realize we need to spend some more time getting it right, so that’s in the works. I don’t have any plans to do any more comic books, because quite frankly the level of continuity that you have to be aware of to follow comic books these days is beyond my limits now. I’ve got a TV project that I’m working on. I’ve got another feature script that I’m developing. Nothing for sure, because the business is a little different than it used to be. But I haven’t gone away and – knock on wood – one or more of these things will come to fruition, and people will quit asking the question, “Whatever happened to that Bob Gale?”