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Mindhole Blowers: 20 Facts About Back to the Future That Might Make Your Flux Capacitor Hit 1.21 Gigawatts

By Cindy Davis | Lists | April 2, 2012 |

By Cindy Davis | Lists | April 2, 2012 |

There are certain films that when we re-watch them after years gone by—having inexplicably forgotten their magic and charm—make us wish we hadn’t waited so long to see them again. Back to the Future is one of those movies, so go pull out your DVD right now and pick a night to settle in with a couple of old friends. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd were born to play Marty and Doc, you’ll remember how good Crispin Glover can be, and even Lea Thompson surprises with her super sweet (and sometimes creepy) portrayal of Marty’s amorous mother. Its time travel method and logic may make no sense but the beauty is, we don’t really care—we’re just along for the nostalgically fun ride.

1. Michael J. Fox was always the first choice to play Marty McFly, but when the film was initially being cast, Fox was working on “Family Ties” full time and the show producer (Gary David Goldberg) would not release the actor. Eric Stoltz (Two Days in the Valley, Pulp Fiction, The Butterfly Effect, “Caprica”) was chosen and about a month of filming (in January 1985) with him as Marty McFly was completed. Both the actor and Director Robert Zemeckis (Castaway, Contact, Death Becomes Her, Romancing the Stone) felt the role wasn’t working out; Stoltz reportedly played Marty too dramatically. By this time, the production was able to make a deal to use Fox part time, with a shooting schedule of 9:00 am to 6:30 at “Family Ties,” then Back to the Future until 2:00 or 2:30 am. Fox said he was often asked how he could maintain that schedule and he referred to Zemeckis being “possessed” (excited), saying that if his energy dropped, the director’s enthusiasm always brought him back up. While filming with Eric Stoltz was taking place on Bushnell Avenue in South Pasadena (George McFly’s house), Fox had been working on Teen Wolf on the same street, and the actor recalled seeing the crew and saying that he wished he could be in a Spielberg film someday.

2. The opening scene was shot at Universal stage 12. Producer Bob Gale (Used Cars, Back to the Future Part II/III) called the shot of all the clocks a “pain in the ass” because of the necessary intricate camera movement; they are an homage to (“or rip off of”) The Time Machine [1960]. The original script (written by Gale and Zemeckis) had the film climaxing at a nuclear test site in Mexico; in the opening, Marty was to have been watching a documentary about those events. The classroom set where it was to be shot was built, but after Fox was recast they realized the scene was not needed. (Additionally, Fox was only available half days and they were trying to cut the budget wherever possible.)

3. John Lithgow was first considered to play Dr. Emmett Brown but he was unavailable. Producer Neil Canton (Trespass, Get Carter) suggested Christopher Lloyd, who chose to play Doc over an off-Broadway stage role he’d also been offered at the same time. Lloyd based his portrayal of Brown on Albert Einstein and “…conductor Leopold Stokowski, with the hair that way, and the big, broad gestures. Doc Brown walks around like he’s conducting the orchestra of the world.” (Gale)

4. Claudia Wells (“The Mentalist”) was originally cast as Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer, but because the film’s start date kept getting pushed back, Wells became unavailable and she was recast. Melora Harden (“The Office, The Wedding Band,” I Melt with You) took her place, filming started and stopped, and then Stoltz was replaced with Fox. Harden was much taller than Fox and it was felt that “it was not a good image to have Marty’s girl be taller than he was,” so Harden was let go and by that time, Wells was available again.

5. Gale explained that seeing Marty in Doc’s garage gives the audience a sense of who Doc is—we’re interested to meet this character even before we see him—who keeps plutonium under his bed? “The plutonium lets you know something major is going to happen later on.” Set decorators “had fun” creating Doc’s place—they just brought in everything they could find from the prop department. “CRM 114” is in reference to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, “…one of their (Gale and Zemeckis) favorite movies.”

(Back to the Future)



6. This was Billy Zane’s first film role (as Biff’s sidekick, Match). When he didn’t appear in one scene with Biff, Skinhead and 3D (unable to make a Saturday filming) Gale quipped that the audience wouldn’t miss him. Actress Deborah Harmon (Bachelor Party, “The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Darkside, The Facts of Life, Malcolm in the Middle”) made an uncredited appearance as a newscaster on television as a favor to them—she had worked with Zemeckis on Used Cars. Meanwhile, Ivy Bethune (Ma Peabody) didn’t show up on time for filming, so producers convinced one of the hairdressers to put on her costume and were about to start shooting when the actress finally showed up.

7. The garage was on a flat just next to Burger King on Victory Boulevard; they had a deal to shoot free there. The film made use of product placement that included California Raisins (the money was returned after the company discovered their branded bench wasn’t fully visible), Pepsi (wanted a reference to Tab cola taken out, producers refused), Texaco and Miller Beer (Gale thought they got no money, but the crew did get free beer).


Gale was unhappy with all the issues product placement caused and said he wouldn’t make such deals again. Stunt Coordinator Walter Scott (“True Blood, Las Vegas, Six Feet Under,” One Hour Photo, Face/Off) drove the jeep from which Marty caught a ride. When the movie played in Australia, Fox was required to do promotional spots warning kids not to ride behind cars on skateboards.


8. The school in the film is Whittier High in California and is Richard M. Nixon’s alma mater. James Tolkan’s Mr. Strickland (Prince in the City, Underworld, “Leverage”), who appears in all three films, was described by Gale as “a joy to work with.”

9. Singer/Songwriter Huey Lewis, who provided two songs (with the News) for the soundtrack, appears as the audition judge. It was Lewis’ idea to reject the band for being too loud; it had actually happened to him. The singer said that if people saw him “dressed nerdy (in the brown suit) on MTV his career would be over.”

(Huey Lewis, second from the left):


Lewis’ acting resume includes roles in Short Cuts, Duets, “One Tree Hill, The Cleveland Show” and “Hot in Cleveland.” His songs have been used on the soundtracks for “Chuck, Glee,” and Big; and he sued Ray Parker Jr. over his Ghostbusters theme, which Lewis contended was a rip off of I Want a New Drug. The case was settled out of court. The guy playing guitar with Marty was Michael J. Fox’s guitar instructor, Paul Hanson (who has also taught George Clooney and María Conchita Alonso), but an entirely different guitarist—Tim May—recorded the guitar piece for the film. Vocalist Mark Campbell provided Fox’s singing voice for Johnny B. Goode.

10. Gale noted that at the film’s outset, the clock tower ledge on which Doc will later walk is still intact. The producer said that “in their version of time travel, things can be changed—Doc was (seemingly) never out there. The ledge is broken in the later version and in Back to the Future II. “Family circus aerialist and stunt air bag inventor” Bob Yerkes was Doc’s stunt double for the clock tower scenes; Gale said, “He was always the first guy you’d try to get when you needed someone up high.”

11. It was “an unusual choice” at the time to use the same actors to play young and old. They did a lot of make-up tests with lighting to make sure no one looked “too make-upy.” In the end a combination of latex and make-up was used. Lea Thompson (Lorraine) said, “You had to go in early, they’d lay glue and add on pieces…it takes hours and hours and smells bad. Then they paint.” Thompson played a practical joke on her mother (who was staying at Thompson’s home); the actress drove home in her aged make-up and caused her mother to “gasp.”


12. The 50s time period was chosen simply to have the actors aged from 17. Fox said the Universal backlot “was 1955,”with all the cars—it makes it easy for an actor” (to step into another time). Production Designer Lawrence Paul (Blade Runner, Escape from LA, Unlawful Entry, City Slickers) said it was hard to find the right things because “people don’t think of the 50s as a period yet.” Paul used photographic research (Life magazine, books and films) to come up with the visual concept. They had to take a place and show what happened to it over thirty years—the same thing happened to everyone—“they built a mall out in the boonies and shut down the small town.” All the 50s stuff was shot first, trashed, then they did the 80s stuff. The (Universal backlot) diner was also featured in 1973’s The Sting. Getting the shots of the photo in the neck of Marty’s guitar was “impossible,” so Industrial Light and Magic built a giant guitar neck, blew up the photo and that’s how they got the shot. The plutonium box was “fairly accurate. The prop man had a guy come to show him how it would be stored and carried around.”

plutonium box.jpg

13. The Twin Pines/Lone Pine Mall (Puente Hills Mall, Industry, CA) was a “long schlepp” from the movie studio, but it was the closest one they could find with a hill coming down from the parking lot. Though shooting started in November, they had to wait until after Christmas to do the mall scenes, as it would have been decorated and too busy. Filming was done in a small section of the parking lot during the day, at ten o’clock at night they could film the whole area.

14. Because of Fox’s part-time schedule, coverage (more detailed shots intended to be intercut with masters or scenes) had to be shot before masters (recording of an entire dramatized scene, from start to finish, from an angle that keeps all the players in view—wikipedia). Masters were blocked (positioning and movement of actors) the night before, they would shoot before Fox came in—this is why during the dinner scene the camera doesn’t move around a lot. Often, Fox was later added into a scene.

15. A couple of shots of the dog in the car were a stunt man in a dog costume; close-ups were the real dog. Gale called those scenes an homage to The Shaggy Dog (1959).

16. People “always ask the significance of the DeLorean needing to reach 88 mph,” but there is none—it was just an easy number to remember. The fire trails were “a pain in the ass,” a combination of gas and pyro fluid. Special Effects man, Kevin Pike (Jaws, Fight Club, Jurassic Park) “had great theories about why something would work, but often they wouldn’t.” The fire would go out before they needed to start shooting. Because of the disparity in height between Lloyd and Fox, the scene was blocked with the actors each walking back and forth in different directions—“it’s very effective.” Liquid nitrogen was sprayed all over the DeLorean; it dripped off several times before they were ready to film. The first time you see the icy car is the iciest in the film, each time after there is less and less because it was so difficult to maintain. The red, yellow and green time displays are again in homage to The Time Machine.

(Back to the Future)


(The Time Machine)


17. Zemeckis and Gale felt it was important that Marty go back accidentally, they struggled a long time over the time travel. “Traditionally, a time traveler wants to go back and mess something up—Marty didn’t want to mess up anything, he wanted to make something better. The hero just wanted to get back.” Gale knows about the continuity mistake—odometer readings aren’t consistent. “Don’t worry about it, it’s a movie. You’re supposed to be watching the speedometer hit 88.” The producer also mentioned receiving letters about a scene where Marty’s pocket flaps are out and in and out again and how the letter at the end of the film doesn’t read exactly as it does earlier (noted by a kid in Japan). Gale also pointed out examples of “movie logic vs. real logic,” such as the case of the disappearing photograph. “It makes no sense that characters would disappear one by one—why not all at once? Why didn’t the whole photo disappear? But it just works.”

18. Marty listened to a cassette tape labelled “Edward Van Halen” because Van Halen, the band wouldn’t give permission to use their name, but Eddie would. He also composed and played (uncredited and uncompensated) a piece of music for the film.

19. Bob Gale said it was difficult to find skateboarding experts in 1985, the sport had not yet become popular. He went himself to Venice Beach on a Sunday, “because every crazy person who has a weird skill is hanging around in Venice on a Sunday afternoon.” The producer saw two guys doing demonstrations; he “felt like a jerk when he walked up to them, saying they were doing a movie that had a skateboard chase.” One of the guys pulled out a business card and told Gale to call his agent and set it up—the guy was a European skateboard champion, Per Welinder. Welinder served as Stoltz’s stunt double when the actor was filming and later, Charles Croughwell served as Fox’s stunt double (since Fox was much shorter than Stoltz).

20. “Some people complained that Back to the Future was a racist movie because Chuck Berry was inspired by a white guy. Sometimes a joke is just a joke. Chuck Berry liked it.”

Bonus fact: Bob Gale on “jigowatts”: The proper pronunciation, of course, is “gigawatts” [with a hard “G” sound], and when Bob (Zemeckis) and I were doing research, we talked to somebody who mispronounced it “jigowatts”. We were actually completely unfamiliar with the term, and we thought that was how it was supposed to be said. It does come from the Greek ‘gigas’ [that Greek root is pronounced with a “J” sound, not a “G” sound], for gigantic, so I suppose it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. But never having heard of it, we actually spelled it in the script “jigowatt”. A “jigowatt” is actually supposed to be a gigawatt, a million watts. So the mystery of the gigawatts is now solved.”

Cindy Davis wouldn’t mind doing a little time traveling at all.