ByManny MassGrave Serrano, writer at
I am an independent horror filmmaker in NYC. Co-owner of Mass Grave Pictures, and director of the slasher film, Blood Slaughter Massacre. I
Manny MassGrave Serrano

In this round, I’m going to tackle one of the films that taught me the nerds truly can get ahead in life, and have fun doing it!

The "Nerd Culture" something the younger generations will take for granted, seeing as it’s the age group of the over-30 Gen Y’s (I maintain vehemently that Gen Y and Millennials are two different groups, I don’t care what any social scientist says) who have created the current state that everyone is enjoying. We were picked on for being the nerds and geeks in school when we were young, and my how things have changed, because its true: the geeks shall inherit the earth.

On August 9th, Touchstone released ‘My Science Project’. Faring up against the other two films, stars Fisher Stephens, John Stockwell and Dennis Hopper were not enough to get this film the push it needed. And, while it wasn’t a total flop, it only turned in $4m at the box office.

The better known release, on August 2nd, was John Hughes puberty-laden, Kelly Le Brock fueled ‘Weird Science’. Based on the EC Comic of the same name, (EC Comics was also the inspiration for ‘Tales from the Crypt’, ‘Creepshow’ and ‘Tales from the Darkside’) it was a cultural hit. Critics panned it as silly and ridiculous, but audiences loved it.

“My Science Project…resembles a far less clever and less expensive Back to the Future...The decidedly unmagical production looks like a mediocre episode of ''Star Trek.'' - Stephen Holden, NY Times

Five days later on August 7th, another teen-science film came out; the less slapstick, and more intellectual based, Real Genius. I can’t help but think Universal pushed to release Weird Science first, just so it could have the jump in theaters.

Starring Val Kilmer in his second feature role, Real Genius has developed a cult following. I, being very young at the time, saw Real Genius upon its home video release, and I loved it. America has always had a predilection towards allowing kids to watch violence over sex, so Weird Science was a film I didn’t see until later in life. Along with Altered States (again, violence over sex), Real Genius sparked an interest in Science-Fiction for me. Yes they are two complete opposite ends of the spectrum, but in my young mind they fell into the same category.

Real Genius concerns the wunderkind Mitch (Gabe Jarret) who begins his collegiate career at 15, as he is given a mentor and roommate in the former child prodigy, Chris Knight (Kilmer), and assigned to work as part of the physics lab team at Pacific Tech University on laser technology. Professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) is secretly working on this laser for the CIA and has tasked his students with creating it, unbeknownst to them, with one of the other students, Kent, being Hathaway's man-on-the-inside who reports back to him on everything Chris and Mitch are up to.

Seeing a film about a young kid being that intelligent, and taken seriously by adults, resonated with me as I was put in advanced education classes when I was a child. So I was one of the smart kids (albeit not THAT advanced, but being only 7 years old, Mitch was close enough for me) and I felt a connection. As I grew up, I gained more of a kinship with Kilmer’s character, as I got tired of being the smart kid, and acted out, exercising my creative side instead. As a result, I spent my time learning art, music and photography, which I feel led me down the path of film making. Learning how it all works cultivated my interest in what goes on behind the scenes of a production, and how it all gets done.

1 – A Dedicated Production

Directed by Martha Coolidge, Real Genius is considered one of the most successful comedies directed by a woman. Earlier that year Lisa Gottleib directed the equally successful ‘Just One Of the Guys’ (another of my favorites) after Hollywood had come under fire for not hiring enough female directors. So, Coolidge stands in good company along with names like Amy Heckerling, Nora Ephron and Penny Marshall. Recently, the landscape is changing with the likes of Elizabeth Banks, Whitney Cummings and Lake Bell, but it’s important to remember these women paved the way, and did it at a time when it was tough to be a female director in Hollywood.

Because of Martha Coolidge’s awareness of her career, and the weight she carried on her shoulders being a leader in the world of comedic film, Real Genius was almost non-existent, or would have at least been completely different in other hands. Coolidge having directed Valley Girl recently, she initially turned down Real Genius, thinking of it as a Revenge of the Nerds rip-off. The script was loaded with “penis and scatological jokes”, as Coolidge puts it. They reworked the script, added the quirky, and adorably lovable, Jordan (Michelle Meyrink, who coincidentally was in Revenge of the Nerds as well as Anthony Edwards’ girlfriend), and made Chris Knight more of a fun character, as he was originally written more snobbish and egocentric.

To add to the film, Coolidge decided the film needed to be even smarter, and she spent months researching for the film. First, Pacific Tech is a thinly veiled reference to Caltech, and much of the dorm room life scenes were taken from real dorm life experiences at Cal Tech and MIT. The campus layout and dorm sets were designed based on the actual Dabney Hall at Caltech, even the graffiti seen on the walls were copied by the set designers from the actual graffiti found on the campuses, and even allowed real Caltech students to add their own!

Martha Coolidge’s’ research assistant on the film was also a Caltech grad student, and he eventually left science to pursue film making, and ended up doing both by producing Nova for PBS!

"The kiss you saw on film with Michelle [Meyrink] was just the second girl I had ever kissed...The first was earlier in the film with Patty D’Arbanville who was Don Johnson’s wife at the time. Not bad for your first two kisses!" - Gabriel Jarrett

2 - Referential Treatment

There are many more references in the film, and this is part of why I love film making so much: the ability to reference your own personal influences on screen. So, lets see what a few of these slyly hidden references are.

Lets start with one of the blink-and-you'll-miss-its. Near the end of the movie, there are cars lined up in the desert, which will act as the targets for the laser test. The cars and model passengers in them are arranged to resemble Kennedy’s fateful motorcade.

The Caltech students are well known for releasing their stress and playing elaborate pranks on each other, consistently. All of the pranks in the movie (minus the popcorn, which we’ll get to) are based on real incidents in campuses of higher education, including disassembling and reassembling Kent’s car in his dorm room, and the frozen hallway ice skating prank. The students at Caltech go further with it by bobsledding on the ice, then rafting through it when the ice melts.

Numerous external references, including Sonys Movie Channel and attribute Kent's last name (but not the script) as "Torokvei." Peter Torokvei was one of the screenwriters, and in 2001 underwent gender reassignment surgery, becoming PJ Torokvei. Given Kent's slightly feminine appearance and behavior in the film, rumor has it that Kent may have been the character she identified the most with. Having died in 2013, we'll never know, but the possibility that Sony renamed the character posthumously in honor of her is also a theory.

The coordinates for Hathaway's house in the film are sad to be 34D 10M 15.21S NORTH, 119D 7M. That makes the house approximately 60 miles west of Caltech. In the script, the original coordinates were "Thirty-four degrees, ten minutes, fifteen seconds North; one hundred eighteen degrees, nine minutes, three seconds West" which points to a Mortuary a few blocks north of Caltech. Either way, I think it was pretty on-the-nose locationing.

To move back to the release of the film for a moment, Coolidge has stated that the back-to-back release of Real Genius and Weird Science probably hurt both films, but she wasn't sore about it. Eventually, John Hughes even hired her to direct Some Kind Of Wonderful. But, a few days before they began filming, Coolidge was taken off the film, and Howard Deutch was given the directors chair. Apparently, Deutch and Hughes had a falling out during Pretty In Pink, then they squashed the issues, and Hughes gave him Some Kind Of Wonderful as a peace offering. Coolidge says Hughes himself never spoke to her about taking her off the film, she was told through some other means.

Kim Delaney, and Kyle MacLachlin were also taken off the film as leads when Deutch took over. Eric Stoltz was almost fired as well, but after having just been dropped from Back To The Future, the studio refused to let him go after that.

Later on, Coolidge was on a flight with John Hughes from Japan, and her trip had not been a pleasant one. She spoke with him during the flight, telling him about her arduous flight involving a diverted plane, a train collision, and a horrid bus ride.

"I wanted to make a film out of the experience. Before I knew it, he wrote Planes, Trains And Automobiles and it was in production. The moral of that story is to never tell a good writer your best stories. I was polite to him but felt good that I was returning from Japan with Rambling Rose and he had Curly Sue." - Martha Coolidge

3 - The Real Science

Beyond just researching student life, the director hit the books and studied laser development and CIA policy to make the film as close to realistic as they could make it. They hired consultants from military weapons development and physics experts to make the dialogue as scientifically accurate as they could get, while still maintaining the comedic elements.

In the film, they had to develop a laser that did not actually exist. Martin Gundersen did the math, and designed the ‘frozen gas laser’ for use in the film. The laser could not actually work in the form they built it for in the movie, but apparently the math for was so accurate that two years later, someone actually built a solid state laser.

Martin Gundersen, who was the professor of physics at USC, was on set often, and adjusted the technical dialogue to a point where it allowed the actors to understand the processes the characters were discussing. Gundersen also played the Math professor in the film!

Science is real, monsters are not.
Science is real, monsters are not.

4 - Sheldon Agrees

Following the trail left by Gundersen, we can move into another connection that I think is so cool. If you’re a geek, or just into nerd culture in general, The Big Bang Theory is probably one of your favorite shows on TV. Well, they loved Real Genius too, and Martin Gundersen was invited to visit the set one day, and they created a whiteboard in Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment just for him!

Gundersen on set of The Big Bang Theory
Gundersen on set of The Big Bang Theory

"I sent Prof. Gundersen a fan letter. He responded and eventually was able to visit the set of The Big Bang Theory during the taping of this episode." -

How cool is that?

5 - The Dabney House

Gundersen is not the only Caltech immortalization on film. Real Genius had many references to real people and events take place during its 108 minute runtime.

Clash Of The Titans
Clash Of The Titans

Besides the sets being made to resemble The Dabney House, many Caltech students were extras in the movie. As a result of speaking with so many of these students and professors from the University, a joke within the students on campus is the initials “D.E.I.” In the film, there are multiple references to this, including the truck that delivers the popcorn, and the company Chris is going to work at, who also provides funding for Hathaway’s’ TV show.

“It is commonly reported that Caltech foodservice once had a dish which was eaten only by residents of Dabney House, and that the phrase "Dabney Eats It'' (D.E.I.) was coined by foodservice workers.“ -

DEI has reportedly showed up everywhere from Mount Everest to Space Probes
DEI has reportedly showed up everywhere from Mount Everest to Space Probes

The mural of Saturn on the wall in Mitch and Chris’ room was also recreated from one on the wall in a room in the Dabney House.

6 - The Frito-Lay Scheme Was Real!

Apparently, multiple students at Caltech have cracked under the pressure, and have lived in the tunnels beneath the South Houses (there is no car track or elevator, unfortunately), and these students stories were only a sliver of the many that influenced the character of Hollyfeld.

In a famous incident called “The Caltech Sweepstakes Caper,” four students created a program on an IBM computer that printed out completed entry forms, and entered a sweepstakes run by McDonalds in 1975. They submitted 1.2 million entry forms in total with their names, and the names of 23 other complicit students, by stuffing all 1.2 million entries into entry boxes at nearly 100 different McDonald’s restaurants, on the last day of the contest.

McDonald's received hundreds of complaints from customers, and the students were lambasted in the press as “cheaters” even though they were complying by the rules. McDonald's decided to honor the entries to avoid a lawsuit, but held a second separate drawing in Southern California, excluding the student’s entries. Altogether, the students won 20% of the prizes, with one student, Becky Hartsfield (Hollyfeld? Coincidence?) winning a car and $3000 in groceries. But, they had promised to donate the car to charity, using some of the winnings to pay off the taxes owed. They had also suggested that they may have still been cheated, as with the amount of entries they sent in, statistically they should have won more. In the film, Hollyfeld comments that he only won 31.8% of the prizes, and has to recalculate to figure out the odds of that.

"Mathematically it's feasible, but it seems like a low figure." - Becky Hartsfield

McDonald’s was actually named in the original script, but it was changed to Frito-Lay. Coincidentally (or not..) there was a Frito-Lay contest in 1969 where Caltech students attempted the same thing. The 1975 students were inspired by this incident to attempt to win the McDonald's contest. Since then, every contest run by any company has made sure to never use the phrase "Enter as many times as you like." Adding insult to injury, Burger King execs thought the stunt was hilarious, and gave free french fries to anyone who came into their restaurants, and showed the cashier a computer punch card!

7 - So Much Ice and Popcorn!

In order to create the ‘Smart People on Ice’ scene, thousands of feet of tubes were connected to a huge refrigeration unit which pumped cold air under the floor of the hallway. The hall was then filled with ice, and watered constantly for weeks, so it would stay smooth as it froze and melted. The entire set was essentially a giant refrigerator, and the crew worked in jackets and sweaters because of the temperature.

Two weeks later, they filmed the "Tanning Invitational" scenes, which called for a few hundred pounds of sand, palm trees, two water slides with an indoor waterfall, and a pool built in the orchestra pit at a V.A. Hospital, inside the emergency chute of an airplane. Talk about rapid climate change!

Now for the really cool part! Seeing as this movie is over 30 years old, I would assume you have seen it, and a spoiler warning isn’t necessary, so I’ll continue.

In easily one of the coolest revenge schemes in a movie ever, after Mitch and Chris discover the laser they’ve been creating is for a weapons defense system, which could vaporize a human target from space, they devise a plan to sabotage the test, ruining Hathaway’s career and his home in the process. They plant, essentially, a giant Jiffy-Pop popper in his living room, redirecting the laser to fire through his living room window, subsequently filling his house with popcorn (which Hathaway made clear he hates).

CGI was nowhere near what it is today, and Coolidge decided it had to be done practically. The first attempt ended in disaster. Since it took so long to make the popcorn, it was shot in steps. First being the interiors. Now, apparently popcorn is extremely flammable. After the first days shoot, the oil in the popcorn got too hot from the machines running at 24-hours a day, things caught fire, and POOF! The machines overheated, exploded, and the company’s’ building burned down. So, they had to make the rest of the popcorn flame-retardant, making it inedible. The popcorn was now being made by production staff in a warehouse, having to be extremely careful, as the new popcorn was no longer edible.

40 Tons of popcorn was eventually made in total, and they bought another 100 tons from a popcorn company, then trucked it in via 40 tractor trailers. They were lined up down the road, and the popcorn was sucked out of the trucks through a system of conveyor belts, hydraulic lifts, and vacuum hoses which would move the popcorn into the house (the exterior shots of which was just the hollow frame of a house) and out through the windows. The popcorn had to be shot in sequences, as it would take an entire day to clean up and do a second take from one spot. So, they surrounded the house with five cameras, and got as much coverage as possible for each take. Since they built the frame of the house themselves, they created crack points in the framework which would separate via hydraulics to make the house look like it was cracking open at the seams.

The interiors were shot in a studio, where they built a two level set, with the top level being the house, and the lower level being the popcorn. They built six air popcorn poppers, ten feet high each, which could pop 2,400lbs of popcorn an hour. A conveyor belt kept the popcorn moving upwards into the house, so it could grow from beneath the floorboards, eventually getting almost 20 feet high.

In the final shots, the actors, extras and even neighborhood dogs are seen swimming through and eating the popcorn, which caused another small problem: keeping the edible popcorn separate.

its raining maize! hallelujah! its raining maize!
its raining maize! hallelujah! its raining maize!

Seeing as a majority of the popcorn was inedible, during production the popcorn had to be kept covered. First so it didn’t blow away over time, and also to keep the neighborhood birds and other animals from eating it! The popcorn was mostly switched out for the final scene, just in case anyone swallowed it. But, there was still a chance that some of it was still inedible, so the crew had to keep track of which popcorn they were throwing at the actors, so they were only able to actually eat the popcorn for the scene in handfuls at a time.

Did you ever think so much effort would be put into popcorn..? Well, it doesn’t end there!

Everyone’s favorite nerdy duo, The Mythbusters, took on this very scene, and put it to the test. A 5-megawatt laser doesn’t actually exist, so they started with a smaller laser and proved that popcorn can in fact be popped with a laser! But, the rest is unfortunately debunked. To start, the popcorn itself is not solid enough to burst through windows and break walls, and even if you had enough to stuff the house that well, the popping popcorn would burn while popping before it became dense enough to do so.

Thanks for ruining my childhood, Mythbusters!

8 - Jordan is a Rescue Ranger!

Yep, that’s right! Just to make up for that last one, I’ll help make another part of your childhood more awesome. According to Tad Stones, writer and producer of Chip & Dale: Rescue Rangers, Gadget Hackwrench, the awesome female inventor member of the team, was actually inspired by Jordan from Real Genius!

Just like Jordan, Gadget dressed extremely ‘boy-ish’ for the time, and had the ability to “make anything out of anything” as you see in the movie, Jordan has many inventions she shows to Mitch, including a suped-up floor buffer!

9 - The Birth of Internet Marketing

While this may be a given in our current time, in 1985, technology was quite different. Telephones had cords, TV sets had knobs, credit card receipts had carbon copies, and the internet was for the military and private servers. So, an inventive marketing plan was hatched and Real Genius became the first film to be marketed on the internet! How’s that for a geeky legacy?

While dial-up internet capabilities were created in the late 60's, it wasn't until the 80's that the technology really got up to speed and was capable of handling significant data transfer. So CompuServe, the first major online service, helped Coolidge set up a press conference in a computer store in California, where members of the press could ask questions via computers around the country, in CompuServe locations. The system they worked off of was called CB Simulator, which essentially was the framework for what is now known as a chat room. My how things have changed!

10 - More Real Genius Still to Come?

With the cult following of Real Genius, the studios recognize how popular it really is. So, the idea of a sequel has been swimming around for a while, and was finally picked up by Happy Madison and Sony in 2014. As of now, it's planned to be a workplace comedy sit-com, centered on a famous genius and his sheltered co-worker. So far development doesn’t seem to be moving very quickly, but Kilmer has said he is open to playing Chris Knight again, in the case of a possible sequel, or the show. So who knows, this could go anywhere!

Well, I think we’ve covered this pretty extensively, and I can now wrap this up! All in all, Real Genius is a very funny movie, and broke the molds of a teen-college comedy, and is obviously referenced to this day by many writers and loved by modern day scientists.

“To me a genius is someone who can do something magical, like solve a complex problem in his head while I'm still trying to figure out the question. I don't pretend to understand it, but the results are everywhere around us. We work, travel, amuse ourselves and enhance the quality of life through technology, all of which traces back to what was once an abstract idea in the mind of some genius." – Brian Grazer, Producer

And here's a bonus for you who really want to know everything: Hathaway's final exam questions!


Which is your favorite smart teen comedy?

Check out my other "Things You Didn't Know..." Articles, here on Moviepilot!

Things You Didn't Know About 'Creepshow'
10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About 'The Gate'
8 Incredible Things You (Probably) Didn't Know About 'The Shining'

Thanks for reading, and look for more articles like this, coming soon!


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