The 1985 comedy hit theaters three decades ago this week
On Aug. 7, 1985, the Val Kilmer comedy Real Genius hit theaters and defied the tropes of lowbrow teen comedies to deliver a movie with both brains and heart.
It’s a classic “kids vs. adults” story that has a team of smart but maladjusted students attending a thinly veiled version of the California Institute of Technology. They band together to take down a cabal of suits who would use their genius to create a weapon, and while the film is clearly a fantasy, it’s more rooted in reality than you might guess.
Here, then, are nine tidbits that Real Genius fans might not know about the 1985 film – and just might necessitate a screening in honor of its 30th anniversary.
Director Martha Coolidge didn’t want to make a dumb teen comedy, and consequently, before production began, she threw herself into research – about Caltech, about lasers and about the CIA. In a recent interview, Coolidge said she aimed for as much realism as one can get in a comedy.
“We brought in top-level consultants from the military, weapons development experts and universities,” Coolidge said. “We researched Caltech and MIT and based most of the stories, and the visual depiction of the school on Caltech, particularly on Dabney Hall.”
“I researched space-based laser development that was big at the time and came up with the black-money-funded research project. We met many wonderful scientists and science students, including the legendary Caltech mathematician grad who had supposedly lived in the steam tunnels,” she said. “The dorm graffiti was copied from the real graffiti in the dorm by scenic painters, and then the decorator brought in Caltech students to embellish and create more.”
William Atherton, who plays the film’s villainous Prof. Hathaway, gave an interview to the A.V. Club and explained what went into the scene in which his character’s home gets destroyed as a result of the world’s biggest serving of popcorn. It took three months’ worth of popcorn to film the scene, he said.
“[The crew] had to worry, because they had to be careful that the birds didn’t eat it, because the popcorn had to be treated so it wouldn’t combust. So there was fire retardant on it, so you didn’t want the birds to die or get high or something. So they were doing all this stuff, covering it, so the birds wouldn’t OD, and everything was going to be ecologically sound,” Atherton said. “Then they took it way out to canyon country and a subdivision that was just being built, threw it into this house that they pulled down. It was real old-fashioned stuff. Now they’d do it digitally, I guess, but in those days, you had to pop the dang popcorn and put it in a truck and schlep it out to the valley. ”
Not that it should flavor your opinion of the movie, of course, but a 2009 episode of MythBusters sought to determine whether rapidly popping popcorn could actually explode a house. It couldn’t, it turns out; however, a later experiment did verify that it is possible to pop popcorn using ordinary, consumer-grade lasers.
In the film, Hollyfield (Jon Gries) uses a Frito-Lay promotional contest’s “Enter as many times as you want” rule to his advantage by sending in more than a million entries. Ten years before Real Genius hit theaters, Caltech students tried to take advantage of a similar rule in a McDonald’s prize giveaway by creating a program to tilt the odds in their favor, ultimately printing out 1.2 million entry forms that they then submitted at McDonald’s locations around Southern California. In the end, $10,000 of the $50,000 in prizes went to Caltech entrants.
Controversy followed. McDonald’s allegedly changed the rules for future giveaways, and to this day, it’s rare that you’ll see the stipulation “Enter as many times as you want” in the rules for any prize giveaway.
Val Kilmer’s character coats the dorm’s floors in ice so the students can skate inside. According to this list of Caltech references in Real Genius, the prank was inspired by a real-life tradition, “alley-surfing,” wherein the cement floors of one of the dorms would be coated in a soapy film that would allow students to skid down the hallway.
The film contains references to Darlington Electronic Instruments and Drain Experts, Inc. In real life, the initials “D.E.I.” are associated with Caltech’s Dabney House, and there’s a long-running tradition to get those initials displayed as prominently as possible. According to this page, they’ve purportedly appeared in an episode of Mission: Impossible, in the names of businesses begun by Caltech alumni, at the summit of Mount Everest and on satellites and space probes manufactured at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managed by Caltech.
Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), the group’s sole female nerd, helped bring about a similarly technologically adept character on the Disney animated show Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers. Gadget, the mouse inventor and the only female member of that show’s main team, was inspired by Jordan, explained Rescue Rangers writer and producer Tad Stones in a 1991 interview.
According to Film School Rejects, Coolidge and other members of the film’s crew held a promotional press conference for Real Genius via CompuServe. Entertainment writers submitted questions digitally. This may not sound impressive in 2015, but when you consider that this happened in 1985, it must have seemed like the world of the future.
It’s rare for mainstream comedies to be directed by women, and by virtue of helming this film, Coolidge gets to be part of an exclusive club that includes Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Penny Marshall (Big), Penelope Spheeris (Wayne’s World) and more recently Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 2). Real Genius made $12 million at the box office and received good reviews, including a glowing critique by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.