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11 Things We Just Learned About Back to the Future

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In his new book, We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy, author Caseen Gaines chronicles the conception, creation, production, and legacy of the trilogy, thanks to a bevy of important interviews and a ton of really fun stories. Even for fans of Back to the Future, the book is packed with new information about the classic series, and even we couldn’t help but be shocked by some of the new stuff the book contains. You should probably pick up your very own copy before Biff steals them all for his personal gain. 

1. Family Ties scheduling didn’t (really) keep Michael J. Fox from his starring role.

The search for the right Marty McFly—and a major detour into casting the wrong one—is a big part of We Don’t Need Roads, including some seriously juicy tidbits about how exactly casting shook out.

Although Michael J. Fox topped Robert Zemeckis’ short list, the actor didn’t have a clue about the director’s interest until many months later. During the initial casting, executive producer Steven Spielberg took it upon himself to call up his friend Gary David Goldberg, who was executive producing the Fox-starring sitcom Family Ties, to see if he thought Fox would be a good fit for the part. Goldberg thought he was—and that the film would be a huge hit—but he refused to even give the script to Fox, he was so afraid his young star would take the role and potentially upend the success of Family Ties. 

2. The decision to axe original star Eric Stoltz was “agonizing.”

Unable to secure Fox, the team eventually decided to give the part to Eric Stoltz. After four weeks of shooting, Zemeckis couldn’t shake the feeling that something was very, very wrong with his production. One night in the editing bay, he finally realized what it was: his lead actor. Zemeckis calls the realization a “horrible truth” that he had a “gnawing suspicion” about for weeks. Once the decision was made to cut Stoltz (and Fox was secured), filming kept going for a few days, with Stoltz notably cut out of shots before he was officially let go. 

3. Stoltz was fired at the Twin Pines Mall.

In January 1984, Stoltz arrived at the Puente Hills Mall in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley for a night shoot, seemingly unaware of what was about to transpire. He shot a few scenes (none of which featured his face), and was later informed by Zemeckis himself that his services were no longer needed. Before the boom dropped, however, other members of the cast (including Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, and Crispin Glover) were told what was about to transpire by various members of the production team. Days later, Fox arrived to begin filming. 

4. Stoltz’s termination led to Melora Hardin’s exit.

Originally cast as Jennifer Parker, actress Melora Hardin was fired from the production before she even shot a single scene—her height, while perfect for Stoltz, was all wrong for the shorter Fox. Claudia Wells, who had originally been offered the part before turning it down to work on a sitcom, was then officially brought on board for the role (her sitcom, Off the Rack, had been canceled in the interim). Wells, of course, was replaced in the final two entries in the franchise, due to personal reasons. 

5. The original time machine was a truck.

In the very first draft of Back to the Future, Marty and Doc traveled to the future in a pickup truck (perhaps Marty’s cool new truck from the end of the film?); the big climax didn’t happen at the clock tower, but at a nuclear test site. Eventually, Zemeckis and Gale decided that the time machine chamber had to be something a little more “dangerous,” deciding on the DeLorean DMC-12 as the perfect fit. By the time filming rolled around, the beleaguered car company had gone bankrupt, but even that didn’t stop the production from acquiring the three models necessary to make the movie. 

6. Lea Thompson didn’t love her dance dress.

Lorraine’s crinkly, very pink Enchantment Under the Sea Dance outfit is one of Lea Thompson’s signature looks from the film, but the dress drove actress Lea Thompson mad. It was uncomfortable and tight, and Thompson often spent off-times during shooting walking around in her '50s-era underwear to just get away from the thing. Yet Thompson recognized the value of the dress, ultimately keeping one version for herself once filming wrapped. That certainly came in handy once filming on the sequels began, because no one could locate the stored version, and Thompson had to bring in hers from her own collection! 

7. That “TO BE CONTINUED…” title card in the film’s credits was only available on home-video.

The film wasn't greenlit for two sequels until long after the film had left theaters, but Universal cleverly inserted that famous “TO BE CONTINUED…” title card into the credits when the film was released on VHS and Beta on May 22, 1986. The card was later removed from the film’s 2002 DVD release because, per screenwriter Bob Gale, the production team “wanted the DVD to represent the movie as it was seen theatrically.” 

8. The sequels almost went to the swinging '60s.

As Zemeckis and Gale got around to crafting the sequels, casting negotiations were breaking down with Crispin Glover. With the possibility of Glover returning for the new films looking increasingly bleak (and indeed, he didn’t return), the team had to figure out how to have a film that didn’t feature George McFly in a way that wasn’t wildly obvious. An early idea held that Marty and Doc would actually go to 1967 in Back to the Future Part II, and that George would be busy giving a lecture at Berkeley, keeping him neatly out of frame for the majority of the movie.  

9. The first script for the sequels was a massive, 165-page affair.

Bob Gale’s screenplay for one sequel, titled Paradox, eventually ballooned out into a giant, 165-page screenplay, and then a 220-pager, both of which had all of the bones of what would become Part II and Part III. The screenplay was split—and two new sequels set up to accommodate it—by the end of January 1989.

10. The flying cop car from Back to the Future Part II broke a forklift.

One of the recurring themes in Gaines’ book is the overcoming of incredible odds—and bizarre circumstances—by the BTTF team. While all of the casting kerfuffles that marked the series are easily the biggest hurdle the project had to overcome, there was also a steady parade of technical snafus that threatened to derail the production. During the filming of Back to the Future Part II, Zemeckis planned to stage a shot that focused on the landing of the futuristic flying cop car as seen from below. To accomplish such a shot, the car was kitted out with a special channel between its undercarriage and the interior, one that allowed a forklift to slip through, all the better for seamless lifting. Unfortunately, the forklift bent in the middle of a test run, making the shot impossible, which is why the final shot only shows the front of the car (the rest of it was chained up to lift the vehicle up and lower it down).

11. The reference art for the Drew Struzan-crafted poster for Back to the Future Part II was shot on the set of Part III.

Drew Struzan, who had also designed the iconic poster for the first film, spent a day on set in the Sonoran Desert, where both Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd took a break, changed out of their Western apparel, donned their Part II duds, and posed for a series of photos for the artist. Struzan posed them as he saw fit, allowing him to explore a range of options for the new poster. (A similar shoot for Part III took place on a sound stage, a much less impressive setting.)

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Mill Creek Entertainment
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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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Ape Meets Girl
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Pop Culture
Epic Gremlins Poster Contains More Than 80 References to Classic Movies
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Ape Meets Girl

It’s easy to see why Gremlins (1984) appeals to movie nerds. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, the film has horror, humor, and awesome 1980s special effects that strike a balance between campy and creepy. Perhaps it’s the movie’s status as a pop culture treasure that inspired artist Kevin Wilson to make it the center of his epic hidden-image puzzle of movie references.

According to io9, Wilson, who works under the pseudonym Ape Meets Girl, has hidden 84 nods to different movies in this Gremlins poster. The scene is taken from the movie’s opening, when Randall enters a shop in Chinatown looking for a gift for his son and leaves with a mysterious creature. Like in the film, Mr. Wing’s shop in the poster is filled with mysterious artifacts, but look closely and you’ll find some objects that look familiar. Tucked onto the bottom shelf is a Chucky doll from Child’s Play (1988); above Randall’s head is a plank of wood from the Orca ship made famous by Jaws (1975); behind Mr. Wing’s counter, which is draped with a rug from The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel, is the painting of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II (1989). The poster was released by the Hero Complex Gallery at New York Comic Con earlier this month.

“Early on, myself and HCG had talked about having a few '80s Easter Eggs, but as we started making a list it got longer and longer,” Wilson told Mental Floss. “It soon expanded from '80s to any prop or McGuffin that would fit the curio shop setting. I had to stop somewhere so I stopped at 84, the year Gremlins was released. Since then I’ve thought of dozens more I wish I’d included.”

The ambitious artwork has already sold out, but fortunately cinema buffs can take as much time as they like scouring the poster from their computers. Once you think you’ve found all the references you can possibly find, you can check out Wilson’s key below to see what you missed (and yes, he already knows No. 1 should be Clash of the Titans [1981], not Jason and the Argonauts [1963]). For more pop culture-inspired art, follow Ape Meets Girl on Facebook and Instagram.

Key for hidden image puzzle.
Ape Meets Girl

[h/t io9]

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