'Giving Back To The Future': Author David Guy Levy Talks His Literacy-Benefit Digital Comic

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Tuesday, MTV Geek brought you the exclusive premiere of issue #3 of "Back To Back To The Future", a time-twisting digital comic detailing what would happen if Michael J. Fox had never replaced Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly in Back To The Future.  Today, the project's official website, www.givingbacktothefuture.com, launches. The site features the first three issues of the series for free, and issues 4-6 of the series can be purchased for $2 each, with all of the proceeds going directly to the Young Storytellers Foundation, a Los Angeles-based charitable organization.

We spoke to author David Guy Levy about the series, its unique method of distribution, and the work that went into creating such an ambitious project.

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MTV Geek: What was the genesis of this project?

David Guy Levy: It started a while ago, like in 2001, I believe… I was reading an interview on BTTF.com, a fan site for Back To The Future.  I knew a lot about the making of this film, and I had heard that Eric Stoltz was originally cast as Marty McFly before being replaced by Michael J. Fox, but in this review with the writer, Bob Gale, I was surprised to discover that as collateral damage when Eric Stoltz lost the role, a woman named Melora Hardin was also fired.  She was originally cast as the female lead in the movie, but once Stoltz was out and Fox was in, she was just too tall.  Gale mentioned this, and how bad he felt that she, through no fault of her own, got taken off the picture.

I thought it was really ironic that the guy who wrote what is, I think, the greatest time travel story ever…  Had a major regret that he wished he could undo.  And I thought how it would be great to use his own device to set this right.

So I started writing it as a screenplay, just for fun.  I figured I'd write it, even though there was no way I could ever actually produce it.  It was a pipe dream, and I knew that.  So I wrote the draft, and pushed it to the side.  I had other projects.  But I kept thinking about it, it stayed in the back of my mind.

Geek: So how did it end up going from a film script to a comic book project?

Levy: I took the script out of the drawer in 2009, and did a reading of it for an audience.  Just a few people, a staged reading…  And the reaction it got was really great.  My friends were jazzed about the idea.  It sort of moved to the front of my mind again.

And as I thought it over, I realized, if it was a movie, how much I'd have to give up in terms of creative control and ability to realize my vision.

I had worked on a comic book in 2007: 'Cornboy', with Joshua Dysart.  And in the process of making that happen, I noticed the thing about that was that nothing had to change from idea to realization.  It wasn't limited in imagination and scope as movies are, with filming and time constraints.  And when I was thinking about this Back To The Future project, I realized… I should do that.  I could create the story as I saw it, and none of my ideas had to fall to the floor.

Plus, there were ideas that I wanted to convey that were out of my reach as a filmmaker, but they're not out of my reach as a storyteller.  I could script things and make them happen.  We could keep the visual likenesses of the characters, and not try to cast look-alike actors.

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Geek: That's a good transition to talking about the art for this book.  Your collaborator on this, Jeffrey Spokes – how did you come to work with him?

Levy: Once I made the decision to do it as a comic, I started looking…  I decided that I wanted to see someone who could really capture a cinematic quality, and deliver what I saw in my head.  When you look at comics in a comic shop, you see so many covers…  They're cinematic, amazing, and then you open it and it's someone different doing the interiors, in an entirely different style.  And I didn't want that for this story.  The only way I would do this is if every page was the quality of a cover.

So I started looking around for artists who had the right qualities in their work.  And Jeffrey, he had done work for Boom and Liquid comics, and I'd seen some things he'd done, and he seemed like the exact right choice.  So I emailed him, I called him up, I told him i'd written this story and it was a passion project, and I was looking for someone to handle the art.  I wasn't sure he'd do it, since he was mostly a cover artist.  He hadn't really done any major interior long-form work.  And I was calling him out of the blue.  But within a couple days, he said yes.  His response basically said 'I've wanted to do something like this, but I've never found the right project'.

Geek:  So how did the creative process work?  You did it entirely at your own expense?

Levy: I didn't want to even think about distribution at first…  And since I'd never really done something like this before, I decided to wait until the whole thing was done before releasing anything about the project.  It took Jeffrey just under 3 years to draw it, putting his all into these pages, so we weren't on a really tight schedule.  And I had been interested in the Young Storytellers Foundation and wanted to do something with them, so I called them up, said there's this story I've been working on and I wanted to figure out some way that it could assist in their work…

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Geek: So yes, the Young Storytellers Foundation!  Tell us more about them, they're the group that sales of this comic benefits?

Levy: They're an organization based out of LA primarily, and they go into underserved public schools, schools that don't have much of an arts program, and they work with students, and mentor them.   They work with kids, have them write short plays, and after a session of nine or ten weeks, professional actors from tv and film come in and act out the plays the kids have written.  They have actors from Glee and other big TV shows, and they come in and perform these scripts, and it's a mind-blowing experience for these kids.

I mean, I didn't have many issues being creative when I was young.  People supported me.  I was always encouraged, and I've always wanted to give that encouragement back to someone else, and do my part to help.  And this organization does exactly that, and doing this comic gave me the chance to chip in and contribute something in a really cool way.

Geek: The concept of the series, pivoting on a specific point behind-the-scenes of a specific movie…  Did you have any concern that this might be a little too 'inside baseball' for a general audience?

Levy: Yeah, certainly!  I mean, if you're gonna get everything out of this story, you're gonna have to be a Back To The Future fan to begin with.  Back To The Future was the movie that made me want to be a filmmaker, and really got the wheels spinning in my brain when I first saw it, so it's very personal.  And it's not for everyone, it's a passion project.  But also, everyone knows the movie.  Everyone of my generation remembers it, and it had enough of a cultural impact that people probably know more about it than they realize.

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Geek: What was the collaborative process between you and Jeffrey when working on this?  How did you go back and forth on things as you worked?

Levy: There was lots of talking, via phone or Skype.  And I adapted the original film script quite a bit.  I made a new script just for him, a panel for panel description: "page 3: panel one, image of this", you know.  We mapped it out very specifically, and most of it worked the way I hoped.  Maybe every ten pages we'd find something, say "yeah, that's not gonna work" and change it around, but for the most part, it was pretty smooth.  I tried to anticipate as much as I could, give as much direction as possible, so nobody got too confused, and then we did our best.  And then we did that for three years!

Geek: How intensive was the research for this project?  How worried were you about the minutiae of behind-the-scenes history, the details of the time period...?

Levy: The research wasn't insane.  I wasn't really worried about having everything exactly accurate for the behind the scenes stuff, I was really just trying to capture the Los Angeles atmosphere.  And while writing I would constantly have one of the movies in, watching them, thinking about them.  I'd disassemble story devices, see how they worked, and apply them to this series in the way original movies used them.

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Geek: And how closely did you want to echo the movies in this series?

Levy: Well, the biggest callbacks are to the story and story structure of the movies.  I obviously know Back To The Future really well, and in the end, this whole project is a love letter to the movie…  They go back, they go to the future, there's things they don't like, they go back again, they get in trouble.

But there's also major differences.  It's not just a reflection of the trilogy.  It ends in a way that the movies wouldn't.  Telling this story allows us to poke fun at some of the questions that the movies left you with, and the ending is a little more bittersweet.  The movies are fun, but this touches on some other emotions like greed and regret.  Regret isn't a big theme of the movies.

Geek: And these are just available digitally off your website?  Have any publishers shown interest in collecting the series?

Levy: Well, the first three are being given away for free online.  People can decide if they like it or not, and if they do, they can donate $2 per issue for the last three issues, and all that goes to the Young Storytellers Foundation.  And it's exclusively digital, right now there's no plans for a print edition, but maybe next year if enough people demand it…  I'll deal with that down the line.

It wasn't always my intention to self-publish, though.  Toward the end of the production process, I started considering publishers, but nothing seemed quite right.  It's such an offbeat project, I just thought I wanted to be a little more creative with the distribution.  When I told my friends I was doing it, the idea came up of giving it away for free, which seemed appropriately weird.  But then I realized I could contribute to a good cause as well, and the idea blew up in my mind and I just kinda ran with it!