Tick Tock, Doc
In the first movie’s first scene, while the credits are still appearing and before we even get any dialogue, we’re treated to a long pan shot of the interior of Doc Brown’s house. It’s full of clocks, all ticking and tocking, and all exactly twenty-five minutes late.
Looking closely, one can find a clock that has a man hanging from the minute hand. This is an allusion to the movie “Safety Last” from all the way back in 1923, a romantic silent comedy starring Harold Lloyd. It’s also foreshadowing for the end of the movie, which has Doc Brown hanging from the clock tower in much the same fashion.
Statler’s History of Fine Vehicles
“Back to the Future” has plenty of running gags, and a lot of them are due to the changing – or not-so-changing – nature of Hill Valley. Whether we’re in the eighties, the fifties, all the way to the year 2015 or all the way back to the eighteen hundreds, some things never change.
One of these gags is the Statler dealership. In 1885 it’s Honest Joe Statler’s Fine Horses, in 1955 it’s Statler Studebaker, during the eighties it’s Statler Toyota, and in the far-flung future of 2015, it becomes Statler Pontiac. People always need transportation.
A Nod to Kubrick
No matter what you think of Stanley Kubrick’s movies, they have a unique style that sticks with you, and in-jokes to his movies will appear in a lot of other works.
For instance, CRM 114, the huge monitor that blows Marty through a wall at the beginning of “Back to the Future”, is a fictional device used in “Dr. Strangelove”, and is also the name of an experimental chemical in “A Clockwork Orange”, two well-known Kubrick films. 114 is seen in lots of different films, such as “Star Wars” or “Men in Black”, as a geeky reference to Kubrick or film history in general.
Have You Heard the News?
Huey Lewis and the News is a beloved band that contributed plenty of music to the films, including “The Power of Love” from the first film. He also makes an appearance in the first film as a school teacher during Marty’s audition for the school’s battle of the bands.
Amusingly, Marty and his band (“The Pinheads”) choose a Huey Lewis and the News song to play. Huey Lewis stands up, brings a megaphone to his lips, and tells the band they were “too darn loud.” If you either didn’t recognize Lewis or the song, it might have gone over your head.
Recognizing the Assistant
There are lots and lots of details that will take repeated viewings to catch. One of them is a shout out from executive producer Frank Marshall to his assistant Mary.
Apparently, Mary was worth it enough for the executive to push a reference in the first film. After Marty’s failed audition for the battle of the bands, he and his girlfriend Jennifer are walking down the street and discussing Marty’s direction in life, they pass a car that has the license plate “For Mary,” and this is recognized as a nod to Mary Redford, Marshall’s personal assistant.
Set to be President
On the wall of Hill Valley High School in 1955, there’s a sign that appears on the wall that is begging you to vote for Ron Woodward for senior class president.
It turns out Ron Woodward was the name of a key grip, in charge of rigging and lighting for the movie, and the set decorators used his name on the poster as a joke. After standing up to Biff Tannen, George McFly wonders if he should run for class president, which means he might have tried to go up against Woodward.
The town of Hill Valley is a place of many references, and though this one might be a coincidence, we could one hundred percent believe that it was intentional.
In the scene where Marty hitches a ride on the back of a pick-up truck on his skateboard, he passes a “Used Cars” sign. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, but “Used Cars” is actually the title of the first film that Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale collaborated on, a satirical black comedy released in 1980.
Irony, thy Name is Clock Tower
A big part of the film is the clock tower, the lightning that strikes it, and the way Marty and the past-version of Doc Brown use it to send Marty back to his own time.
Marty gets a pamphlet in ’85 that tells him everything he knows about when the lightning will strike, urging him to help save the clock tower from destruction. The irony is that Marty and Doc Brown were the reason the clock tower was struck by lightning in the first place since they attach a lightning rod to attract the lightning bolt.
When Marty lands in 1955 and has dinner with his mother’s family, they’re watching an episode of “The Honeymooners”. Marty calls the episode a classic, surprising everyone – mostly since it was the first time the episode aired, and it was even the very first episode of the show.
Looking closely at the television has actor Jackie Gleason dressed as an alien, which foreshadows a trick Marty pulls on his father a little bit later in the movie. It was the only way Marty was able to convince his father to ask Lorraine out, which sets much of the plot in motion.
Follow the Yellow Brick Road
When Marty drives the DeLorean through time to thirty years in the past, he goes from an empty mall parking lot to the middle of a farmer’s field. The very first thing he sees after the night sky and trees is a scarecrow in the middle of the field.
While it’s pretty common to see a scarecrow in a field, it’s been thought this is a subtle reference to “The Wizard of Oz”. Everybody remembers the Scarecrow on his search for a brain, but it’s one of the first main characters that Dorothy meets when she lands in the strange land of Oz.
Not by the Band
When Marty scares his father into asking Lorraine to the dance, he does so with a crazy alien getup and some shocking music by “Edward Van Halen.” The band you’re thinking of is “Van Halen,” but why was the “Edward” squeezed in there at the top?
It’s because while Eddie himself (R.I.P.) was okay with his name being in the movie, the rest of the band wasn’t. So, Eddie whipped up a quick solo for the film, and the prop guys added his first name to the tape, to ensure that no copyright violations were taking place.
More Than Just Johnny
One of the most memorable parts of the first movie was when Marty is conscripted into the band at the high school dance. He plays Johnny B. Goode, one of the most famous rock and roll songs ever – since it was one of the first.
Marvin Berry calls his cousin Chuck to tell him about the sound, a reference to Chuck Berry, the song’s actual creator. However, Marty also references other famous guitar players like Pete Townshend from The Who kicking over the amplifier, Angus Young from AC/DC lying on his back while playing, and Jimi Hendrix playing behind his head.
The Mayor in Disguise?
Near the end of the first film, when Marty finally gets back to his time and races off to try and save Doc from his gruesome fate, a homeless man Marty refers to as “Red” yells at him, complaining about drunk drivers.
The mayor of Hill Valley back in 1955 was also named Red, and while many think this was intentional, Michael J. Fox, Marty’s actor, made the line up on the spot. While it’s certainly in-tune with the rest of the movie, the filmmakers have neither confirmed nor denied if the characters are one and the same.
Almost Didn’t Get Made
It wasn’t a smooth ride for this famous film, and though the movies are now pretty much universally-loved, the pitch for the movie was rejected a staggering forty times before Universal finally purchased it.
One of the main reasons it was rejected was because of the incest detail. Disney in particular brought up the fact that they didn’t like Marty being kissed by his own mother in a romantic way, though Lorraine was unaware of the relation, and immediately after kissing him she is creeped out in a manner she doesn’t fully understand.
How Many Pines?
The changes wrought through time by Marty’s antics are one of the big problems the movie presents as drama – if his father and mother don’t get together, he will vanish. But there’s more.
At the beginning of the film, Doc Brown and Marty experiment with the DeLorean at Twin Pines Mall. When Marty goes back in time, he crashes through one of two pines at the edge of the farming property, and then all the way at the end of the film the name of the mall has been changed to Lone Pine Mall. It’s hard to catch if you aren’t paying attention, but an incredible detail nonetheless.
Greasing the Wheels
As Doc Brown and Marty are working feverishly to pull off their plan to send Marty back to when he came from, a police officer wanders up and begins to wonder if they have the right permits for their “weather experiment.”
As Marty works on getting all of his details of the night right – the plan to endear Lorraine to George, fighting off Biff, and then getting back in time to help Doc – Doc can be seen taking something out of his wallet, after which the officer has no problems. Permits? Not exactly. Instead, a little bit of cold hard cash keeps justice moving.
Marty McFly is Michael J. Fox’s most famous role. Though he’s done plenty more, he will always be remembered, and rightfully so, for playing Marty, but even within the “Back to the Future” trilogy he plays a couple of roles.
Not only does he play himself as well as his older self in 2015, but he also portrayed both of his children — Marty Jr. and Marlene. In addition, he played his own ancestor Seamus in 1885, and finally, he portrayed his own great-grandfather, Seamus’s son, William, for a picture in “Part III”, and also voiced him in the Telltale game based on the series.
I’m a Nice Guy! Honest!
Thomas F. Wilson plays Biff. The megalomaniac bully. It’s by far his most well-known role, and, as it turns out, he’s the exact opposite of this violent, mean character. He actually drew upon his real-life high school experiences of being bullied in order to play Biff, who practically turned into the quintessential high school bully.
He wrote a comedic song about how he isn’t Biff and has even taken to carrying small laminated cards that have the answers to the most common questions he gets, such as “What is Michael J. Fox like” or “was that real manure.” (Nice, and no.)
Ever wondered why George and Marty eat peanut brittle in “Back to the Future”? Well, the first movie has eight deleted scenes. These include Marty asking a woman to pinch him after he lands in 1955 and a longer “Darth Vader” scene.
There’s also a longer scene in 1985 where Marty tries to get George to stand up for himself when a child selling peanut brittle comes to the door. Instead, George crumples like a cheap suit made out of a house of cards, and that, reader, is why George and Marty are enjoying peanut brittle in one scene.
We all know Marty thanks to Michael J. Fox, but there was originally a different name attached, Eric Stoltz. The producers wanted Fox originally but went with Stoltz until Fox signed on. They filmed several scenes with the first Marty, including the cafeteria scene where Marty tangles with Biff.
Stoltz did his move wrong and almost broke Wilson’s collarbone – Wilson planned to get revenge by really punching Stoltz at the end of the movie, but couldn’t because Fox replaced him. In addition, Fox does a genuine spit take when he sees Lorraine smoking because he didn’t know there was real alcohol in the bottle he held.
A Hostile Set
One of the reasons Fox was brought in so quickly was because Stoltz was something of a prima donna. Others thought he was too serious for the role, and so when Fox finished his latest project, Stoltz was out and Fox was in.
Neither Tom Wilson nor Crispon Glover got along well with Stoltz, according to them. In addition, Glover proved to be quite more demanding than his character — argumentative, and often battling with director Robert Zemeckis. But, thanks to Stoltz being fired, many of the actors were frightened of doing too much, thinking their jobs might be in danger.
Improvisation Brings the Laughs
In every movie, there will be scenes of ad-libbing or throwing in details that the filmmakers hadn’t envisioned, and the “BttF” movies are no exception. Most of George McFly’s mannerisms are just Crispin Glover acting naturally or putting his spin on the character, such as his laugh at the episode of “Honeymooners”.
He had to try and act “naturally” for the scenes of his improved 1985 self. Huey Lewis actually improvised the line of “I’m afraid you’re just too darn loud.”
They Thought it Would Flop
It took far too long for the first film to be made, and even then it wasn’t smooth sailing. The script floated around Hollywood for years, a lot of executives wanted to meddle even after Universal Studios picked it up.
Stoltz was replaced with Fox, and even after Fox signed on, he was running on fumes filming both this and the show “Family Ties”, leading to a few breakdowns and nightmares for Fox. It made his acting in Back to the Future a little more lifelike, but it was still a rough time.
No Sequel Intended
Every version of the movie these days will have the bright, colorful “To Be Continued” card at the end of the film as Doc Brown, Marty, and Jennifer take off.
This wasn’t present in the first cut of the film, since the filmmakers had no intention of continuing the series, and the “cliffhanger” ending was made as a joke. Yet the film went on to break records and garner immense praise, and so a sequel appeared anyway. The “To Be Continued” card was hurriedly added to the home video release in order to advertise “Back to the Future Part II”.
A Long-Running Series
“Back to the Future II” is set in the distant future of 2015. Things didn’t exactly match up to what the filmmakers had envisioned, but they probably don’t care. There’s no hoverboard, and there’s no way the “Jaws” franchise got nineteen movies.
The huge hologram that sprang out of the movie theater was inspired by the incredible number of sequels “Jaws” spawned in such a short time – four had already come out by the time of “Back to the Future Part II”. After that, however, the series pretty much tanked, and not even Steven Spielberg’s son (“Max” in the movie) is interested in resurrecting it.
Are You Sure These are Antiques?
When Marty lands in 2015, to say it’s a culture shock is a little bit of an understatement. He wanders past an antique store, where he finds the sports almanac, and the store is jam-packed full of things from his era – a 1984 Macintosh computer, NES games, and even a Roger Rabbit doll.
Interestingly “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” was the film Zemeckis directed right after “Back to the Future”. There are plenty of other items in the antique shop (including a copy of the “Jaws” book) which were commonplace in the 1980s, and even now you might have some of it still in use.
A Wave of Nostalgia
When Marty wanders into the 2015-version of Lou’s Diner, he finds it full of styles and pop culture from the eighties. Doc Brown even calls it “one of those nostalgia places.” Michael Jackson is playing, popular television shows from the eighties cover a wall, etc..
There’s even a reference to what Lou’s Diner used to be in the eighties version of Hill Valley since in the 2015 version there’s an aerobic exercise machine stuck in the corner. In the first film, Marty swings past the location as it’s full of women following the aerobic craze of the eighties.
Just a Year Off
As Marty wanders through the distant future of 2015, he comes across a billboard or advertisement telling him all about the champion Cubs, who have just won the World Series!
This is of course a reference – and joke – about how the Cubs hadn’t won the Series for eighty-two years, even when the movie came out in 1989. They even beat a Miami team, which didn’t exist. A Miami team does now exist – the Miami Marlins, begun in 2012, and the Cubs would win the World Series in 2016, just a year after the movie was set.
His Shirt Tells the Future
In 2015, Hawaiian shirts are IN. Doc Brown fits in like a charm, throwing on clothes that stand out and blend in just right. However, looking closely tells us that the filmmakers were planning for the third installment of the series while even filming.
The pattern is quite significant. It seems to be a group of men on horseback chasing after a speeding train. While that’s a relatively normal Western scene, it’s also foreshadowing for what happens in “Back to the Future Part III”. It’s known that the filmmakers worked on “Part II” and “Part III” at the same time, so this seems quite on purpose.
Another Peek at the Future
When Marty steps into the retro eighties diner in “Part II”, there’s a wild-west arcade game called “The Wild Gunman”, which isn’t an actual game. Marty takes the pistol controller from the befuddled young player and blasts the bad guys away, showing off his retro-video game shooting skills.
While the rest of the video games in the diner were real, this one is another reference to what lies in wait for Marty down the tracks of the series in “Part III”. The main antagonist of the third film, Mad Dog Tannen, even shares his nickname with the main character of the game.
The problem that brought Marty and Doc into the future was that of Marty’s son getting jailed, which is humorously on the front page of USA Today. As the characters discuss how to fix it, the eagle-eyed viewer can pick out a few interesting headlines.
At the top of the Newsline is “Thumb Bandits Strike,” a reference to using your thumbprint to get into your home in the future. There’s also “Man Killed By Falling Litter,” “President Says She’s Tired,” and even “Shredding for Charity.” Plus, at the top of the page, we have some sports headlines: “Slamball Playoffs Begin,” and we really wish we could learn more about that sport, and “Marshall Runs 3 Minute Mile.”
When old Biff arrives in 1955 to give his younger self the Almanac, he’s wincing in pain. Most people assume it’s from the DeLorean’s shocking ride, but it’s actually supposed to be because he’s fading away like Marty almost did in the first film.
He’s going back to change his own future, which eliminates his own timeline. The rest of the shots of his suffering were cut. Pretty gruesome, now that we think about it – but it takes some time for him to disappear entirely, which allows him to get back to his own time and save himself. We think.
He Makes His Own Time
When Marty finally gets back to 1985, he finds the world turned on its head, with Biff Tannen in control. Biff has killed George McFly, married Lorraine, and amassed endless wealth thanks to the Almanac his elder self came back to give him.
His Hill Valley is completely different, and it’s best seen by his decision to get rid of the city hall clock tower. It’s the only version of the town seen in all three films with no clock tower. The filmmakers went this route with the Biff timeline on purpose, in order to contrast Marty’s effect on Hill Valley as opposed to Biff’s.
The Wildest Man in the West
In the Biff Tannen version of 1985, Marty comes across a TV extolling the virtues of Biff Tannen, and how he rose to power and fame. In this film, it talks all about his family’s start, which begins with Mad Dog Tannin in 1885.
This foreshadows Mad Dog Tannen’s appearance as the bad guy in “Back to the Future Part III”, and is actually the first time in the series that we see Mad Dog as he actually is, not just on shirts or in video games.
Stopped Off in 1989 on His Way to Mount Doom
Remember the befuddled video game player that Marty schools in the ways of video-game zapping in 2015? None other than Elijah Wood in his very first role!
You can just barely see the young man who will grow up to become the famous hobbit of the “Lord of the Rings” series. He was already on his way to acting with the best of them back in 1989. Wood’s credentials were set from the start – hard to do better than having your first appearance in the “Back to the Future” films.
Due to contractual problems, Crispin Glover decided that he wouldn’t appear in either of the “Back to the Future” sequels. It forced the filmmakers to figure out how to do things when they couldn’t use one of their principal actors, especially since Marty once again travels to 1955.
It all culminated in a lawsuit against the producers because they reused shots for the first film in the second and third without Glover’s expressed or written consent. Glover won his lawsuit, and because of the landmark case, it became illegal for studios to use someone’s likeness without their consent.
Life Imitates Art
The sequels’ 2015 brings us lots of odd predictions, many of which don’t exactly come true. However, there are plenty of noteworthy guesses: it is currently possible to surf Vietnam, voice-activated electronics are becoming more and more commonplace, 3D movies made a big comeback, and video calls have become much more common, especially starting in 2020.
From widescreen TVs to the number of shows Marty Jr. is watching (how many tabs do you have open right now?), a lot of these seeming jokes by the production team have turned out to fit into our current lives.
Or Maybe it Doesn’t
Of course, there are plenty of missed predictions. While the film did predict the internet – sort of – it predicted it based on the fax machine. That was true for a short time, but we’ve leaped past it now. It thought that Japan would have overtaken America in the Economy, and while Japan is a huge producer, it simply didn’t happen.
While we have devices that will talk back to us, they have eschewed the robotic Stephen-Hawking-style voice. While Laserdisc is on the way out in the movie’s 2015, most people under thirty have never even heard of it today.
The McFly Boys Have a Type
One of the odd problems people have with “Back to the Future III” is that Lea Thompson, who plays Lorraine Baines in 1955, also plays Maggie McFly, the woman married to Marty’s ancestor Seamus McFly.
While it makes sense for Michael J. Fox to play both Marty and Seamus, it’s a little strange for the same actress to play people not related to the McFlys. The reasoning the filmmakers went with was that it wasn’t too much of a stretch for the McFly men to all be attracted to women with similar features – something that is somewhat true to life.
Just Let Him Drink
The series has plenty of recurring gags, and one of the first that we see in each movie is Marty unable to finish his drink.
In all three films, he wanders into the local watering hole and gets a drink, be it a fifty-dollar Pepsi or a shot of whiskey. But every time he’s about to bring the drink to his lips, the antagonist of the film – be it Biff, Biff’s son, or Mad Dog Tannen – barges in and calls out his name. Marty is never able to wet his whistle, though in the case of the whiskey it’s a good thing.
Plenty of accidents happen on set, but most of them are simple trips or flubs. In “Back to the Future Part III”, however, something much worse almost happened. At one point Marty is dragged behind a horse and hanged.
Because Michael J. Fox wasn’t standing on a box – his own choice in order to make it more realistic – after a few takes he got tired and couldn’t get his hand under the noose in the right spot to keep his airway open. He actually passed out for a few seconds before the filmmakers noticed. He later recounted the incident in his autobiography “Lucky Man”.
Switching Things Up
After two full films, we’ve gotten used to the catchphrases of the two main characters. Marty McFly calls things heavy – a very eighties phrase – and Doc Brown likes to exclaim “Great Scott!” By the time we get to the third film, the characters and the filmmakers decided to swap things around.
The characters have at this point become so close that, after one shocking scene, Marty yells out “Great Scott!” immediately followed by Doc Brown saying: “I know, this is heavy.” After two whole films of establishing the characters, it’s fun to see them swap phrases for a one-off joke.
“I Hate Manure!”
An ongoing gag from all three movies is the unfortunate way that Biff (and Mad Dog) keeps ending up in manure. All three movies feature a scene of this kind, and the version from the third film even features an additional easter egg.
In the first two films, it’s due to vehicular misadventures that land the bad guy in the bad stuff, but in “Part III” it’s because of Marty’s heroic gunfight and fistfight with Mad Dog. When Marty lands the knockout hit, Mad Dog spins and passes out just like Biff did when George McFly punched him near the end of “Back to the Future”.
The Shirt’s Second Appearance
It’s hard to tell, but one scene in “Back to the Future Part III” has a unique throwback from “Part II”. At one point, Doc Brown and Marty put on their best wild west bandit looks with cowboy hats, dusters, and bandannas.
If you look closely, you can see that Doc’s bandanna is made of the same material as the Hawaiian shirt – the one with men on horseback chasing the train – from “Part II”. Writer Bob Gale said it was the same fabric, but faded and washed out so much it might have been impossible to tell if he hadn’t pointed it out.
Not a Real Train
In the climax of the third film, Doc Brown, Marty, and Doc Brown’s lady Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen) have to drive a train into a canyon in order to reach the requisite speed required to get Marty back to 1985 with all problems finally corrected.
While it might have been pretty cool to send an entire steam locomotive shooting into a canyon in what must only result in a huge explosion, it’s just not feasible. For both economical and shooting reasons, the filmmakers went with a model that topped out at about fourth the size of a real train.
Just Like the First Film
In the final scene of the trilogy, Doc Brown and Clara Clayton jump into their time-traveling train with their two children, Jules and Verne, and head into their next adventure. The train lifts into the air, flies away, spins a hundred and eighty degrees, and shoots straight into the camera.
It should be a familiar sight for fans of the series, since it’s pretty much the same way the first movie ends, though the vehicle in question in the first film was the DeLorean, and this time, the series was over for good (unless you count the animated TV series).
Lightning Never Strikes Twice?
Since the set was far different from the first two films, the third film had to find a new place to set – somewhere a little more wild, dusty, and Western. The cast and crew took their story to Jamestown, California, the perfect place to set a movie set in the late eighteen-eighties.
In a strange twist of fate, six years after the movie came out, Jamestown was struck by lightning and destroyed – an especially weird coincidence, given that lightning bolts play a big part in how Marty gets back to his time period in the first film.
The Series Is Over
In today’s reboot-swamped Hollywood, it might come as a surprise to people that Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale have no intention of rebooting the series. They’ve even gone on record that they won’t be singing on to a reboot for the rest of their lives, and since they hold the rights, it’s not happening.
Zemeckis even hopes his estate will continue the tradition, and let the series rest where they are. He has said that it would be like remaking Citizen Kane: “Who are we going to get to play Kane? What folly, what insanity is that? Why would anyone do that?”
Back to the Same Place
If you’re a big fan of Westerns, you might recognize the Hill Valley from 1885. It was the same place where Clint Eastwood shot his box office hit “Pale Rider”, which leads us to a few amusing coincidences. First off, the first “Back to the Future” film knocked “Pale Rider” out of the top spot at the box office.
In addition, Marty calls himself Clint Eastwood when he lands in 1885 in order to avoid suspicion. It’s currently unknown if this was because it was the same set as the town in “Pale Rider”, or if it was just the most recognizable Western name at the time.