Back to the Future: An Annotated Guide to Marty McFly’s Journey

In 1981, director/producer Robert Zemeckis and producer/screenwriter Bob Gale finished the first draft of a movie called Back to the Future for Columbia Pictures. The story was inspired by Gale looking over his father’s high school yearbook and wondering if they would have been friends had they met as teenagers. After Columbia dropped the project, Zemeckis and Gale wrote four new drafts over the next four years, all of which were rejected. The final draft and the involvement of Steven Spielberg as a producer finally resulted in a green light from Universal Pictures, and Back to the Future was released in July, 1985.

The story kicked off when teenager Marty McFly became the first human time traveler on October 26, 1985, and its sequel Back to the Future II featured a journey to October 21, 2015 (which was obviously big news last month when real life finally caught up to the future…) But let’s not forget that Doc Brown actually invented time travel on today’s date, November 5th, back in 1955—the date that Marty travels to on his very first trip in the DeLorean. So why not celebrate with a look at the many references and fun easter eggs that can be found in the original Back to the Future?

Please note, these annotations are listed roughly in the order in which they appear in the movie…

• The film opens on many clocks, similar to the opening sequence of the 1960 film The Time Machine. Just like the machine used in that movie, Doc Brown’s DeLorean has controls decorated in green, yellow and red lights. Another similarity to the machine used in the 1960 film is that Doc Brown’s vehicle can travel through time but not space (except, of course, through the conventional means of driving, as it is a car, and taking into account the Earth is always moving through space).

• A clock in Doc’s home/lab references a scene from the 1923 film Safety Last! starring Harold Lloyd, foreshadowing when Doc (played by Christopher Lloyd) hangs from the clock tower later in this movie.

• Watch the walls: collected newspaper clippings reveal that Emmett Brown’s family mansion burned down on August 1, 1962. This led to Doc selling his estate and moving into the separate garage unit. One part of Doc’s background that isn’t revealed in the newspapers is that, according to Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, he worked on the Manhattan Project during the 1940s.

• Doc’s full name is given as Emmett L. Brown. In Back to the Future: The Animated Series, in the episode “Put On Your Thinking Caps, Kids! It’s Time for Mr. Wisdom,” his middle name is said to be Lathrop. According to the novelization of Back to the Future, Emmet Brown is 65-years-old in 1985, making him 35 in 1955. Christopher Lloyd was 46 at the time Back to the Future filmed.

BTTF Doc Brown 1

• John Lithgow was offered the role of Doc Brown but turned it down. Christopher Lloyd initially turned it down as well, but reconsidered when his wife insisted it would be a good role. While many compare Doc to Albert Einstein, Christopher Lloyd has said that he was also inspired by conductor Leopold Stokowski. Doc gesticulates while pondering scientific ideas because, according to Lloyd, he is imagining himself “conducting the orchestra of the world.”

• Michael J. Fox’s agent originally turned down the offer to star in Back to the Future because he believed that the rising TV star would not be able to film around his schedule for the TV show Family Ties. Fox later said that this was a reasonable decision. Eric Stoltz was chosen next, but was fired after six weeks of filming when Gale and Zemeckis concluded that he wasn’t right for the role (a belief held by several others in the production). When Fox’s agent was told that Zemeckis was willing to reshoot all of the scenes they’d already filmed with Stoltz, he brought the offer to the actor who then read the script and eagerly accepted the role. Fox filmed many of his scenes during his off-hours from Family Ties, which is why a lot of the movie takes place indoors or at night.

• Marty McFly is 17 years old during the Back to the Future trilogy (all of which takes place for him in just over two weeks). During filming for the first movie, Michael J. Fox was 24 years old. He was 28 when the two sequels were filmed back to back.

• When Michael J. Fox first appears as Marty McFly, he wears the same mirrored sunglasses that he wore in the teaser for Back to the Future. He does not wear them again throughout the trilogy.

BTTF Marty McFly 1

• Doc’s amplifier (which informs us that Marty visits often and Doc encourages his music) has a gauge that reads “CRM114.” This is a direct reference to the CRM-114 Discriminator from Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove, which in turn was a nod to a device simply called the CRM 114 in the novel Red Alert, the film’s inspiration. The CRM 114 also inspired the name of an e-mail spam filter and is referenced in A Clockwork Orange, the TV show Heroes, and the TV series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, as well as other areas of pop culture.

• One early idea for how Doc and Marty met was that the older man offered Marty money and/or free beer if the young man cleaned and organized his home. Gale and Zemeckis decided an origin for the friendship was not important, believing that it is not unusual for teenagers to take an interest in an eccentric neighbor, especially if said person treated them as an equal rather than as a kid.

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

• 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.

• Many of you know that Huey Lewis is the man judging Marty’s band, the Pinheads. But check out the bass player. That’s Michael J. Fox’s guitar instructor Paul Hanson. And Huey Lewis’s line, “You’re too darn loud,” is a criticism he himself got when he was younger.

• Marty meets up with Doc Brown at Twin Pines Mall at 1:16 AM on October 26, 1985. The movie Back to the Future came out on July 3, 1985. So on October 26, between 1 and 1:30 AM, several BTTF fans met on the Southeast parking lot of Puente Hills Mall, the location used to shoot Twin Pines Mall. When asked about it, they said they just wanted to see if anything happened.

BTTF DeLorean Time Jump

• Doc’s time machine is a US DMC-12 model, which can achieve 0-60 mph in 8.8 seconds. 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. Part of why the DeLorean was chosen was so that it would be believable that Old Man Peabody would mistake it for a spaceship in 1955, due to its steel body and gull-wing doors.

• The initial script for Back to the Future has Emmet Brown build a “time ray,” which transmits a person through time if they’re inside a “time chamber” and are zapped. In the original script, Brown (called “Prof” rather than “Doc”) attempts to send Marty home by building a makeshift time chamber out of a lead-lined refrigerator and placing it on a nuclear testing site so that the atomic blast charges its time circuits, hurling the teenager back into the future.

• In this movie, the DeLorean is always covered in ice when it emerges from a time trip, at least until the film’s end. The idea was that, for just a moment, it traveled through a vacuum during its journeys (which shouldn’t really cause it to freeze instantly, but people often make that assumption). Since the effect became too difficult, Bob Gale decided that Doc’s later updates, including the highly efficient Mr. Fusion device, altered the nature of how the car moved through time and eliminated the freezing problem.

• Doc tells Marty that the DeLorean needs 1.21 gigawatts to have enough power to tear open a hole in time. A gigawatt (gw) is equal to 1 billion watts and 1 billion Joules per second of energy. A typical power plant may produce 1 to 3 gigawatts.

BTTF Model

• As he prepares to embark on a journey through time, Doc jokes about wanting to find out sports scores of the future. In Back to the Future II, Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis call back to this idea.

• When Marty arrives in 1955, he knocks down one of the twin pines that decorate the entrance of Old Man Peabody’s Twin Pines Ranch. This changes history, causing the future Twin Pines Mall to be named Lone Pine Mall instead. Many of you probably know that already, but did you catch the other joke that happens on the ranch? Old Man Peabody’s son is named Sherman. Both characters are references to the time traveling duo Mr. Peabody and Sherman, who were first introduced on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.

• Marty travels to Saturday, November 5, 1955, 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. Bob Gale checked to make sure that November 5, 1955 was a Saturday so that Marty could reasonably run into his parents during the early day rather than wandering around until they were out of school. A Saturday also made it more realistic that the DeLorean could remain hidden on a construction site until it was brought to Doc’s garage that night. Gale chose November as the month because it wouldn’t be unusual for a school to have a large, formal dance towards the end of the semester.

• Marty meets Lou, the owner/bartender of Lou’s Cafe. In the 1955 award-winning film Marty, there is a bartender named Lou and a schoolteacher named Clara. In Back to the Future III, Doc and Marty meet schoolteacher Clara Clayton.

• When Marty arrives in Hill Valley, he passes by a movie theater showing Cattle Queen of Montana, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan. Later, Doc mocks the idea that Ronald Reagan would be president. In his 1986 State of the Union Address, President Reagan referenced this film, saying, “As they said in the film Back to the Future: where we’re going, we don’t need roads!” President Reagan was also offered the role of the Mayor of 1885 Hill Valley in Back to the Future III but declined the role.

• When Marty meets Lorraine in the school hallway, she’s holding For Whom the Bell Tolls, which calls back to the repeated use of alarm clocks in this film and foreshadows Doc’s encounter with the clock tower bell.

• George says he can’t go to the dance because he’ll miss Science Fiction Theatre. This was an anthology TV series that aired on Saturday nights from 1955 to 1957, featuring speculative fiction. In its syndication run, it was also known as Beyond the Limits.

BTTF Spaceman from Pluto

• Ripping off The Honeymooners episode seen earlier at Loraine’s house, Marty pretends to be an alien to freak out George McFly. This inspired Universal Studios head Sid Sheinberg to write a memo to director Robert Zemeckis, suggested the movie title be changed to Spaceman from Pluto, arguing that people wouldn’t see a movie with the word “future” in its title. Steven Spielberg then wrote back, thanking Sheinberg for his hilarious joke memo with its preposterous title. Embarrassed, Sheinberg let the matter drop. But if you noticed, the mock-up comic book Sherman Peabody holds during the Twin Pines Ranch scene features a story called “Space Zombies from Pluto.”

• See that issue of Fantastic Story Magazine on George’s bed? That’s not a mock-up. It’s an actual issue of the magazine found by one of the prop men, who noticed the robot on its cover resembled Marty in his rad suit. Another thing to notice in this scene is how Marty’s hairdryer changes position, due to a moment being removed where he wielded it as if it were a weapon.

• The morning after Marty pretends to be an alien, he runs into George at the gas station and asks where he’s been. George remarks, “I overslept.” In a deleted segment of the previous scene, Marty used chloroform on George before leaving the guy’s bedroom and then wondered if he’d used too much.

• For the skateboard scenes outside of Lou’s Cafe (which is Lou’s Aerobic Center in 1985), choreography was handled by a young Tony Hawk, who was recruited when Zemeckis saw him and Per Welinder (Michael J. Fox’s stunt double) skateboarding by the beach.

BTTF Marty Skateboard

• No one actually knows who made the very first skateboard. Betty Magnuson, an American WAC, mentioned seeing French children playing with boards with attached roller skate wheels in 1944. It’s widely believed that skateboarding started in California in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but it still wouldn’t be widespread until years later, so it makes sense that the kids of Hill Valley have never seen one before.

• After this film was released in Australia, Fox aired a public service announcement (at the request of the Australian government) informing kids that it was dangerous to skateboard while holding onto a moving vehicle.

• At the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, Marty sings “Johnny B. Goode” and evidently inspires Chuck Berry, its writer. According to Berry, he wrote the song while on tour in New Orleans in 1958, referencing parts of his own life and that he was born on Goode Avenue in St. Louis. It wouldn’t be totally out of character for Berry to borrow the song for himself after hearing Marty play it, as he sometimes copied from other artists. The opening of “Johnny B. Goode” is taken from the opening solo “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman” by Louis Jordan in 1945 and the guitar break is from a 1950 T-Bone Walker song called “Strollin’ With Bones.” Chuck Berry also featured the character of Johnny B. Goode in his songs “Bye Bye Johnny,” “Go Go Go,” and “Johnny B. Blues.”

BTTF Marty Johnny B Goode 2

• Zemeckis wanted to cut Marty’s performance of “Johnny B. Goode” because it didn’t advance the story and slowed down the pace of the film. He relented when test audiences loved the scene.

• Some fans argue that Marty playing “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry and thus apparently giving the song to Berry in the first place is an example of a causal loop, also known as a predestination paradox or “bootstrap paradox,” wherein a person, object or event has no independent origin outside of causing itself through time travel. That, however, seems to go against the rest of Back to the Future‘s time travel rules, where we see that travelers to the past do alter history rather than fill roles that were waiting for them the whole time. So maybe Marty is once again changing history, simply saving Chuck Berry the trouble of writing a song he would have written anyway. Or maybe Berry couldn’t really hear the song all that well over the 1955 model telephone and forgot all about it by the time he wrote “Johnny B. Goode” himself three years later.

• During the clock tower scene when Marty attempts to warn Doc about the future, the wind machine used was so powerful that Michael J. Fox was forced to shout his lines at the top of his lungs; after several takes, he wound up coughing up blood.

• While Doc is hanging from the clock tower, he accidentally breaks off a piece of the ledge. That ledge was intact when we saw it in 1985 at the beginning of the film. When Marty returns to 1985, the break Doc caused will still be there.

BTTF Atomic Kid

• When Marty leaves 1955, his fire trails lead to a movie theater featuring The Atomic Kid. This is a 1954 movie starring Mickey Rooney that takes place on an atomic test site. The movie references earlier drafts where the time machine had to be powered by an atomic blast and the title is a nice nod to the fact that teenage Marty just vanished in a nuclear-powered car.

• Marty wakes up in his bed and, at first, believes that his time travel adventures were all a dream. This harkens back to A Christmas Carol, the first published time travel book, where Scrooge’s adventures all occur in one night and it’s not explicitly clear if they actually took place or he dreamed it all. It also echoes many time travel stories where the main character travels via dreams or mental projection.

• As he leaves his bedroom, Marty is carrying an envelope. In a deleted segment of the film, Marty puts his demo tape in there, the one his girlfriend Jennifer told him to mail to a record company, but then throws it in the trash on his way to meet Doc at the mall. After returning from the past and parting ways with Doc, Marty retrieves the envelope from the trash, leading up to this morning when he intends to take a risk and mail it. It’s a shame these segments were deleted, as they show that Marty growing through his experiences with young George McFly, now taking the advice that Doc, Jennifer and he himself gave.

BTTF Match Made in Space

• Thanks to Marty’s alteration of the timeline, many things about his family have changed. George never gave up on his writing and publishes his first novel in 1985, entitled A Match Made in Space. In Back to the Future II, check out the USA Today newspaper that Doc shows Marty. According to it, Hollywood is planning a remake of the movie to be directed by Robert Zemeckis, since the 1989 original movie adaptation was “a creative misfire as well as a box office bomb.”

• Two things always confuse me during the end of this movie: 1, why is the truck parked in such an awkward way? 2, why is Biff treated as a loveable loser when thirty years ago he attempted to rape Lorraine? Did George and Lorraine just decide to forgive and forget? It’s just odd, people.

• Jennifer arrives and you might notice that, once again, she and Marty are interrupted before they can actually kiss. Those poor teens. They will not actually kiss in the entire trilogy until towards the end of Back to the Future III.

• When Doc Brown arrives from 2015, he is wearing a shirt decorated by Japanese characters, created to indicate a greater influence of Japanese culture in the future. When asked why Doc Brown would also wear a transparent neck tie, Bob Gale responded “What’s the point of wearing a tie when you can see it?”

• The DeLorean’s “OUTATIME” license plate now instead displays a bar code, indicating that cars are identified by different means in 2015 (or possibly a later date in the future, since there’s no telling how many time travel trips Doc has made by this point and how far he’s gone).

• Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis didn’t intend to make a sequel. In subsequent interviews, Gale stated that if they’d known there would be a second film, Jennifer Parker would never have joined Marty and Doc in the car during the closing scene of Back to the Future. This is why she spends most of the next two movies unconscious—they seriously didn’t know what to do with her character.

BTTF Clock Tower Lightning

• In the theatrical release and the later DVD release, the credits immediately appear when the time machines flies at the screen. The title card reading “To Be Continued…” was added to the Back to the Future VHS release because at that point Universal had already greenlit a sequel and they wanted to get audiences interested. Originally, there was only going to be one sequel, but a third one was rushed into production when Michael J. Fox announced he was leaving Family Ties and would be focusing more on his film career.

That about does it, folks. Everyone has their own idea of what should be mentioned in a “complete” trivia list, so feel free to share your own notes in the comments below!

Alan Sizzler Kistler (@SizzlerKistler) is an actor and freelance writer, as well as the author of the New York Times Best Seller Doctor Who: A History. He is the creator and host of the podcast Crazy Sexy Geeks.

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