Travel in Time W/ BACK TO THE FUTURE Anniversary Annotations

BACK TO THE FUTURE Ann. Annotations

Twenty-five years ago on this day, October 26, a dog named Einstein and a teenager named Marty McFly became time travelers. This past weekend saw the re-release of the film “Back to the Future” in many AMC theaters and the BTTF trilogy is being released on Blu-Ray soon. So to celebrate this beloved film and today’s special date, here are annotations on the first film of the trilogy. This is written in roughly the order of when events and characters appear on screen, so when you watch the film next time you can follow along with these fun facts.

“Back to the Future” (BTTF) was written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, who also directed it. It was inspired largely by Gale finding his father’s high school yearbook and wondering if they would have been friends had they met each other as teenagers.

The film opens up on October 25, 1985 and Marty makes his time travel journey the next morning of October 26. The film premiered on July 5, 1985, so for the first audiences who saw it in theatres, the story technically took place in the near future. Just as the movie states, October 25 fell on a Friday and October 26 fell on a Saturday.

Opening with a series of clocks is a deliberate homage to the 1960 film “The Time Machine” which had a similar opening sequence. Like that film, the time machine in BTTF can travel through time but not really through space, unlike “Doctor Who” and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Hence, when Marty later goes from 1985 to 1955, he remains in Hill Valley.

One of the clocks in Doc Brown’s home depicts comedian Harold Lloyd hanging from the minute hand. This references a scene from Lloyd’s 1923 film “Safety Last!” and also foreshadows how Doc Brown (played by CHRISTOPHER Lloyd) will wind up hanging from the clock tower later on in the film.

Newspaper clippings framed on the wall inform us that Doc Brown used to live in a mansion and own an estate but that he sold the land soon after his home burned down on August 1, 1962. According to Bob Gale, this is the reason his current home is so cluttered. He took everything he could salvage and threw it into a garage. This same garage is where Marty and Doc will hide the time machine in 1955.

The news anchor speaking about a plutonium theft is played by Deborah Harmon, who was featured on Gale and Zemeckis’ previous film “Used Cars.”

Marty McFly is played by Michael J. Fox, who was the actor that the filmmakers wanted for the role. But because Fox was committed to filming “Family Ties”, his agent declined the offer. Filming on BTTF began with Eric Stoltz in the lead role, but it was then decided that the filmmakers still really wanted Michael J. Fox. They approached his agent again and this time Fox agreed. To make sure he didn’t upset his schedule with “Family Ties”, he filmed BTTF every night until early in the morning, catching only a few hours of sleep between being on set for the movie and on set for his TV series. All day scenes were filmed on weekends.

The mirrored sunglasses Marty wears is a reference to the pair he wore in the teaser trailer for BTTF. They never appear again in the film.

When Marty is turning on the amplifier in Doc’s home, one of the first gauges we see (with the key hanging in it) reads “CRM114.” This is a direct reference to “Dr. Strangelove”, a favorite movie of both Gale and Zemeckis. In that film, there was a piece of equipment called the CRM-114 Discriminator, which itself was a reference to a device simply called the “CRM 114” in the novel “Red Alert” which was the inspiration for that film. Kubrick, who directed “Dr. Strangelove”, also referred to “serum 114” in the film “A Clockwork Orange.” In the show “Heroes”, the catalog code for the Kensei sword is “CM 114” and it is later owned by a character portrayed by Malcolm McDowell, who starred in “A Clockwork Orange.” In the episode “Business as Usual” of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” references a weapon known as a CRM-114. An e-mail spam filter has also been called CRM114, directly named after the fictional device in “Dr. Strangelove.”

Although how Marty and Doc became friends was never established, a few ideas were kicked around. One early idea was that Doc had offered Marty money and free beer if the young man cleaned and organized his garage/home. This was largely rejected and Gale and Zemeckis remarked that it is not unusual for teenagers to take an interest in an eccentric neighbor, especially if that same person treated them as an equal rather than as a kid. The opening scene that shows Marty in Doc’s home and playing with a guitar and giant amplifier was intended to quickly establish that Marty and Doc had known each other for some time and were comfortable enough that Marty would have keys. The fact that Doc has a giant amplifier and a guitar implied that he shared Marty’s interest in music and encouraged Marty’s musical career.

While on the phone, Doc claims that his experiment has ensured that all of the clocks in his home are running exactly 25 minutes slow. When Marty enters Doc’s home, most of the clocks read 7:53 but one clock that lies on the floor reads 8:20, which means that one is 2 minutes fast for some reason.

When Marty leaves, we see that the address of Doc’s garage home is 1646. His mansion was on 1640 Riverside Drive and, as we’ll see in 1955, this garage was down the road from the main house. As Marty leaves, we can see what was done to the surrounding area after Doc sold the land.

Michael J. Fox was an experienced skateboarder before this film. But he and his stunt double Per Welinder were helped out on set by a young Tony Hawk, who coordinated the choreography for the more complex skateboard scenes. Screenwriter Bob Gale had brought in Hawk and Welinder after seeing them both skateboarding on Venice Beach.

While heading to school, Marty passes by “Lou’s Aerobic Center.” When he gets to 1955, it will be “Lou’s Cafe.”

Marty’s high school is actually Whittier High School in Whittier, California and it is Richard Nixon’s alma mater.

The character of Strickland offers Marty “A nickel’s worth of free advice.” This phrase was spoken often by a disciplinarian that Bob Gale crossed paths with in school.

The bass guitarist in Marty’s band is Paul Hanson, Michael J. Fox’s guitar instructor. Fox’s love of the guitar and skateboarding helped him connect to the character of Marty McFly.

In the school auditorium, the judge who tells Marty that he and his band are “too darn loud” is, in fact, Huey Lewis. The ending credits song “Back in Time” and “The Power of Love”, which Marty and the Pinheads had started to play, are both by Huey Lewis and the News. The line was Huey Lewis’s idea, apparently because that was a criticism he himself had once gotten.

A Texaco gas station is featured in both 1985 and 1955. Christopher Lloyd’s grandfather was a founder of the Texaco oil company.

While hanging out with Jennifer, Marty is told that the clock tower’s clock stopped at exactly 10:04 PM on November 12, 1955. In BTTF III, Doc and Marty are present for when the clock first begins running on September 5, 1885 at 8 PM. This means that not only were Doc and Marty present at the clock’s beginning and end (fitting for two time travelers) but that it ran for 70 years, 2 months, 7 days, 2 hours and four minutes before being struck by lightning.

Notice that in 1985, when Marty and Jennifer are hanging out, the ledge underneath the clock of the clock tower is intact. It won’t be after Marty’s trip back in time. More on that later.

After “Back to the Future” was released in Australia, Michael J. Fox was asked to air a public service announcement informing Australian kids of the dangers of holding on to the back of moving vehicles while riding a skateboard.

It has been said by several that Crispin Glover’s performance as George McFly often had to be reined in, that he improvised a lot of behavior and sometimes was deemed to be too “over the top.” One trait that he improvised was George McFly’s constant gesticulations with shaking hands.

Biff Tannen was named after studio executive Ned Tanan who once accused Bob Gale of being anti-semitic, apparently unaware that Bob was Jewish.

When Marty meets Doc Brown in the parking lot, the mall is called “Twin Pines Mall”, named after the “Twin Pines Ranch” that used to occupy that land (which Doc Brown later refers to as a “crazy idea”). At the end of the film, the sign is changed to “Lone Pine Mall” because of Marty’s actions in 1955. More on that in a bit.

Marty meets up with Doc Brown at Twin Pines Mall at 1:16 AM on October 26, 1985. Months after the film came out, many fans met on the South-East parking lot of Puente Hills Mall, which is the actual location that was used to shoot Twin Pines Mall. They met there between 1 and 1:30 AM on October 26, claiming that they wanted to see if anything happened.

The DeLorean seen in the film is a 1981 DMC-12 model. The DeLorean Motor Company went bankrupt in 1982 after founder John DeLorean was arrested for drug trafficking (although he was later found not guilty). The European model had 170 horsepower but US emissions regulations required new parts that caused a reduction in power output to 130 horsepower. The US DMC-12 model could achieve 0-60 mph in 8.8 seconds, which was good for the early 1980s and would certainly be advantageous for Doc Brown’s need to achieve 88 mph.

The reason why a DeLorean was chosen for the time machine was two-fold. First, the initial script had Emmet Brown build the time machine out of a refrigerator and a concern was brought up that kids might try to imitate the film and lock themselves inside a fridge, which led to the idea of using a car instead. Second, since the DeLorean had a steel body and gull-wing doors, it was seen as more plausible that the farmers of Twin Pines Ranch in 1955 would believe it was a space ship as opposed to simply a strange looking car. For “Back to the Future II” and “Back to the Future III”, the production team replaced the engines of their DeLoreans with higher-powered Porsche engines.

Christopher Lloyd plays Dr. Emmet L. Brown. In the second season of “Back to the Future: The Animated Series”, in the episode “Put On Your Thinking Caps, Kids! It’s Time for Mr. Wisdom,” audiences were told that the “L” stood for Lanthrop. According to the novelization, Emmet Brown is age 65 in 1985 (meaning that he’s 35 when Marty meets him again in 1955). According to Robert Zemeckis, Doc worked on the Manhattan Project, though this is never brought up in the film.

When asked about how he approached the role, Christopher Lloyd said that he was inspired by conductor Leopold Stokowski. In the film, he gesticulates and looks about because when Doc is discussing and pondering scientific ideas, he imagines that he is “conducting the orchestra of the world.”

During some of the shots of the dog Einstein inside the time machine, it is actually a stunt driver in a dog suit.

Several people have asked if there is a symbolic significance to the car needing to get up to 88 mph to travel through time. According to Bob Gale, the number 88 was chosen because it was easy to remember.

In this film, when the time machine emerges from each trip, its exterior is frozen over. Since this effect became too difficult and time-consuming to deal with, Bob Gale concluded that the addition of the Mr. Fusion device at the end of the movie altered the time machine’s energy so that it not longer frosted over when it passed through time.

The time circuits are color-coded to red, green and yellow. This is a direct reference to the colored bulbs that were on the control panel of the time machine featured in George Pal’s 1960 film “The Time Machine.”

The Flux Capacitor has two labels on its glass casing that read: “Disconnect Capacitor Drive Before Opening” and “Shield Eyes from Light.” As we see later when Marty travels to 1955, the Flux Capacitor gives off a blinding light when it causes the car to jump through time.

Doc Brown explains that the time machine requires 1.21 gigawatts of electricity to break through the time barrier. Today, gigawatt is usually pronounced with a hard G sound, but in 1985 it was often also pronounced with a J sound, as evidenced by Doc. The film script, as well as the novelizations of BTTF and BTTF 2, misspell the word as “jigowatt.”

Marty later asks “What the Hell’s a gigawatt?” A gigawatt (gw) is equal to 1 billion watts and 1 billion Joules per second of energy. It is sometimes used to measure the energy used in power plants and power grids. A typical power plant may produce 1 to 3 gigawatts, so it’s a serious amount of energy that Doc needs to travel through time. The average stroke of lightning can peak at 1 terawatt, which is equal to 1 trillion watts, but only for 30 microseconds so timing would be key if you wanted to tap into that power.

Doc says that he got the plutonium after being asked to build a nuclear bomb. In the early drafts of the script, the time machine didn’t use a lightning bolt to return to the future but instead needed to be present at the detonation of a nuclear bomb.

As he prepares to leave for the future, Doc jokes that he can make money by learning the upcoming sports scores of the next several years. In BTTF II, this exact idea is what allows Biff Tannen to re-write history and create a parallel timeline where Doc and Marty’s lives are ruined. At the time this script was written, Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis had no idea that they would use this joke as a plot since they were not planning on a sequel.

When Marty arrives in 1955, he is compared to a comic book cover. This comic book is fake and was made up specifically for the film.

As Marty escapes Twin Pines Ranch, he destroys one of the twin pine trees that stands at the entrance. Twin Pines Ranch is owned by "Old Man Peabody" who has a son named Sherman. Two characters named Sherman and Mr. Peabody were time travelers in "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show." When he returns to 1985, the mall that stands where Twin Pines Ranch used to be is now named “Lone Pine Mall.”

As he enters the 1955 version of Hill Valley, Marty hears the song “Mr. Sandman.” This was written by Pat Ballard and recorded by the Chordettes in 1954.

The Hill Valley movie theatre is playing “Cattle Queen of Montana”, a 1954 western starring Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan.

When Marty checks the newspaper, the date says that it is Saturday November 5, 1955. It is accurate that November 5, 1955 was a Saturday and this was deliberately researched. In different interviews, Bob Gale has explained that he wanted to make sure that Marty’s arrival date was on a Saturday so that he would run into his parents during the day and not have to wait until they were out of school and so it would be more realistic that he could hide the DeLorean on a construction site and not have it be discovered because no one would be working that day. Likewise, it is accurate that November 12, 1955 also falls on a Saturday, a day that seemed likely for a school to have a dance. Gale chose November as the month because he believed it would be reasonable for a school to have a large, formal dance towards the end of the semester.

November 5 is Guy Fawkes Day and in 1955 it was also the day that racial segregation was outlawed on trains and buses in Interstate Commerce in the U.S.A. By sheer coincidence, it is also the birthday of Bob Gale’s father.

“Marty” visits the cafe diner and meets the owner/bartender, a man named Lou. In the award-winning film “Marty,” which came out in 1955, there is a bartender named Lou. The film “Marty” deals with the title character falling in love with a schoolteacher named Clara. In BTTF III, Doc Brown falls in love with a schoolteacher named Clara Clayton.

It’s an interesting coincidence that the episode of “The Honeymooners” which is playing at the Baines house is entitled “The Man from Space” and involves a character pretending to be an alien. When he first arrives, Marty is mistaken for an alien and later on in the film he pretends to be an alien when he confronts George McFly in his bedroom. Because of these scenes, Sid Sheinberg, head of Universal Studios, wrote a memo suggesting that the movie’s title be changed to “Spaceman From Pluto” and argued that audiences would not care for a film with the word “future” in the title. Steven Spielberg openly mocked this suggestion by replying that he wanted to thank Sheinberg for such a wonderful joke and the title was left untouched.

Doc Brown mocks the idea that Ronald Reagan could be President. In his 1986 State of the Union Address, President Reagan referenced the film: “Never has there been a more exciting time to be alive, a time of rousing wonder and heroic achievement. As they said in the film ‘Back to the Future’: where we’re going, we don’t need roads!” President Reagan was also in talks about possibly playing the Mayor of Hill Valley in “Back to the Future III,” but later declined the role.

On Doc’s mantle, he has photographs of his heroes: Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein. After learning that the time machine needs to generate 1.21 gigawatts of power, Doc laments to Thomas Edison that such a thing “can’t be done.”

While Marty is talking to Lorraine in the school hallway, one of the books she is holding is “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” This fits the recurring theme of alarm clocks going off and Marty needing to time his actions perfectly.

George McFly tells Marty that he can’t go to the dance because he needs to watch “Science Fiction Theatre.” This was a real show that aired from 1955 to 1957 and it did air on Saturday nights. The show did different stories each week that focused on robots, space travel, aliens, mutated creatures, time travel and other topics of speculative fiction. In its syndication run, it was also known as “Beyond the Limits.”

The issue of “Fantastic Stories” that is next to the sleeping George McFly is not a mock-up created for the movie but is an actual issue found by one of the prop men, who felt it would be perfect as it resembled Marty in his radiation suit.

While convincing George that he is an alien, Marty references both “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” by claiming to be an extra-terrestrial named Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan. He even makes the hand greeting that Vulcans use in “Star Trek.”

While he confronts George in the bedroom, a hairdryer in Marty’s belt vanishes and then reappears. In a deleted segment, Marty used this hairdryer to convince George that he possessed an alien weapon.

When he meets with Marty at the Texaco station, George mentions that he overslept. In a deleted segment of the movie, Marty used chloroform on George before leaving his bedroom and then expressed a concern that he may have used too much, hence the kid sleeping through school.

At the Texaco gas station, Marty is having difficulty opening his Pepsi bottle because he’s used to twist off caps in the 1980s, whereas George automatically understand that it needs a bottle opener.

When George tries to ask out Lorraine, the song playing is “The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry)” by Etta James, a top chart hit in 1955.

Marty winds up turning a homemade scooter into a makeshift skateboard, astonishing several teens who are watching him. The skateboard rose to prominence in the early 1960s, when the “surfer craze” began hitting teenagers in the U.S.

The song “Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)” was released by the Penguins in 1954 and became a major hit for the Crew-Cuts in the following year.

The song “Johnny B. Goode” was not released until 1958, but Chuck Berry did write it in 1955. According to Berry, the song is partly autobiographical and references the fact that he was born on Goode Avenue in St. Louis. This movie reveals that Chuck Berry actually stole the song from Marty thanks to a phone call from his cousin Marvin. Chuck was not against borrowing from other artists. The opening of “Johnny B. Goode” is a very close copy to the opening solo of the 1946 song “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman” by Louis Jordan. Chuck Berry also featured the character of Johnny B. Goode in his sons “Bye Bye Johnny”, “Go Go Go” and “Johnny B. Blues.” Some have argued that “Johnny B. Goode” was the first true rock ‘n’ roll song.

Although now one of the most famous scenes of the entire movie, Marty’s performance of “Johnny B. Goode” was nearly cut from the film because Zemeckis felt it didn’t advance the story and would slow down the pace of the film. He relented when it was obvious that test audience loved the scene.

As Doc is on the top of the clock tower and Marty is attempting to warn him about the future, a wind machine used on site was so powerful that it caused actor Michael J. Fox to cough up some blood.

While attempting to re-connect the cable at the top of the clock tower, Doc Brown causes part of the ledge beneath the clock to break. When Marty returns to 1985, the ledge is now broken whereas it was intact when he and Jennifer were hanging out in front of it earlier in the film.

When Marty leaves 1955, he does so in front of a movie theatre that is featuring “The Atomic Kid”, a 1954 movie starring Mickey Rooney that takes place on an atomic test site. This is another reference to the earlier drafts where Marty needed to bring the time machine to an atomic explosion in order to have enough energy to get back to 1985.

As he celebrates his return to 1985, Marty greets a sleeping homeless man by calling him “Red.” Although the Mayor of Hill Valley in 1955 was named Red Thomas, Bob Gale has stated that this is not meant to be the same character as the homeless man and that Michael J. Fox ad-libbed the line.

When he enters the new version of his living room and kitchen, Marty is inexplicably carrying an envelope he seems intent on mailing. In a deleted scene, Marty had placed the demo tape Jennifer had told him to mail into that envelope and then threw it away right before he left to meet Doc at the mall, deciding he couldn’t face possible rejection. After he returns from the past and says good-bye to Doc, a deleted segment showed him retrieving the envelope from the trash, now intent on mailing it.

When Biff brings in the copies of George’s book “A Match Made in Space”, he refers to the novel as the man’s “new book.” But Lorraine then states that this is George McFly’s “first novel.” It’s possible that Biff merely meant “new” to indicate that the book was, in fact, just newly published and not that George had published previous books. Or it could be that George had published short stories before in previous book collections and that’s what Biff meant. Or Biff could be an idiot. That’s possible.

In BTTF II, Marty and Jennifer will discover that by 2015, “A Match Made in Space” has been turned into a film.

When Marty opens the garage, the truck is parked in a really weird, awkward way. This has nothing to do with interesting trivia, I just felt we should all note what a horrible parking job was done here.

It is a joke of the film that Marty McFly NEVER gets to kiss his girlfriend Jennifer.

When Doc Brown arrives from 2015, he is wearing a shirt decorated by Japanese characters. Bob Gale has stated that this was to indicate a greater influence of Japanese culture on the U.S. in the future. Doc is also wearing a transparent tie. When asked why he would wear a tie if you couldn’t see it, Bob Gale has responded “What’s the point of wearing a tie when you CAN see it?”

Earlier in the film, the DeLorean had a license plate that read “Outatime.” When Doc Brown returns from the year 2015, the license plate appears to be some kind of bar code, indicating that cars are identified by different means in the future.

Originally, Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis didn’t intend for a sequel. In subsequent interviews, Gale stated that had they planned for a sequel, Jennifer Parker would never have joined Marty and Doc in the car at the end of the first film, since they didn’t know what to do with the addition of her character.

That’s all she wrote for Back to the Future. Hope you enjoyed this trip into the past.

Back to the Future 25th Anniversary Trilogy is on Blu-ray now!

What was your favorite moment in Back to the Future?

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