“We decided to call it Hill Valley, which was kind of an oxymoron that nobody ever really gets,” jokes Back to the Future’s co-writer and producer, Bob Gale. Gale and co-writer/director Robert Zemeckis, both from the Midwest, wanted the film's setting to feel like an archetypal, middle-America town.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the film — released July 3, 1985 — that turned a DeLorean into the coolest car an '80s kid could ever want, L.A. Weekly revisited Back to the Future’s original shooting locations and spoke with Gale about how L.A. became Hill Valley.
In the movie: The clock tower
In real life: Courthouse Square, Universal Studios
Petaluma in Sonoma County was seriously considered for Hill Valley, but factors such as buying out businesses, replacing modern-day street lamps and shooting in town during the height of the holiday season were deterrents. As a result, the film’s production designer, Lawrence G. Paull, advocated for shooting on Universal’s backlot. Says Gale, “He was absolutely convinced that he would make Courthouse Square of Universal look like a real place.” The rest is history.
100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City
In the movie: the Burger King near Doc Brown's house in 1985
In real life: A Burger King in Burbank
When the film begins, Marty McFly visits Doc Brown's garage to plug his guitar into an enormous amplifier. When Doc's vast array of alarm clocks suddenly goes off — all set 25 minutes slow as part of an experiment — Marty, now late for school, rushes out of the garage, jumps on his skateboard in a Burger King parking lot and grabs onto the back of a pickup truck exiting the drive-thru. What we don't realize until Marty travels 30 years back in time is that in 1985, Doc, having spent his entire family fortune on building a time machine, has been reduced to living in the garage that was once on the grounds of his mansion estate, now the parking lot of a Burger King.
Although the fast food franchise is specifically mentioned in various incarnations of the screenplay, “The idea wasn’t necessarily that it had to be a Burger King, just the idea that strip mall stuff had arisen around Doc’s house,” says Gale. “At some point we ended up doing a deal with Pepsi and Burger King” for product placement. (Marty's brother, Dave, also works at Burger King.) The Burger King on Victory Boulevard, still in operation today, afforded the filmmakers a parking lot large enough to build an exact replica of the garage exterior from the Gamble House in Pasadena, the location of Doc's 1955 mansion.
545 N. Victory Blvd., Burbank
In the movie: the gym where Marty auditions for battle of the bands
In real life: McCambridge Recreation Center, Burbank
This writer had always imagined that Marty auditioned for the battle of the bands with his group, The Pinheads, in the gym at Hill Valley High School, the same place he would rock out to “Johnny B. Goode” in 1955. They are in fact two different locations and not necessarily supposed to be the same gym. “That may or may not be in Hill Valley High School,” says Gale of the McCambridge Rec Center. “[Mr.] Strickland isn’t running the audition. This could be the Hill Valley Community Center.”
1515 N. Glenoaks Blvd., Burbank
In the movie: Marty's family's house in 1985
In real life: A house in Arleta
Marty’s modest tract home within “Lyon Estates” is located in Arleta, a small neighborhood in the northeast San Fernando Valley that's vastly different from the lush green boulevards of the film’s Pasadena locations. “The main thing was the high-tension electrical tower in the background,” Gale says. “That was the key thing that Bob [Zemeckis] kept saying: ‘I want a shot where I see this house and I see this big electrical tower behind it.’” The power lines reinforced the idea that the McFlys didn't live in a glamorous section of town, but also were conceived as a tie-in for a scene later in the film.
Roslyndale Avenue, Arleta
In the movie: Twin Pines Mall / Lone Pine Mall parking lot
In real life: Puente Hills Mall, City of Industry
A series of critical events early in the film — including the shooting of Doc Brown, the Libyan's pursuit of the DeLorean and Marty's displacement to 1955 — had to happen again later in the film and be seen by Marty from a distinct vantage point. “The search for the mall location, that took a long time,” Gale says. “We had the specific notion in the script, and the visual, that when Marty comes back to 1985, he had to be standing in a position where he can look down on the parking lot and see Doc Brown get shot and see himself escape.” After looking at almost every mall in Southern California, the Puente Hills Mall was chosen because filmmakers had the ability to photograph Marty at a railing, looking down toward a basinlike parking lot. “It was a nasty commute, but it was perfect,” Gale says.
1600 S. Azusa Ave., City of Industry
In the movie: 1955 Lyon Estates
In real life: Chino
Early versions of the script called for Marty’s 1955 house to be under construction or even a model home when he went back in time. An electrical tower, like the one seen in Arleta, would have been incorporated into the location as a unifying element. “That was the visual tie-in so you’d be able to say, ‘Aha, that’s his house, and it’s still under construction, or it’s just brand new,’” Gale says. Doing that was costly, “so we decided to have him go out to this big, open farmland and the only thing that will be there that people will remember are the Lyons gates. Instead of having the house under construction, we’ll just have a painting of the house on a billboard.”
17545 Cucamonga Ave., Chino (approximate address)
In the movie: Houses of 1955 Hill Valley
In real life: Pasadena and South Pasadena
Zemeckis and Gale shot their first film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, in Pasadena and knew it had the classic Americana look they wanted for Back to the Future. “Everybody who knows Los Angeles knows that Pasadena has a particular kind of look that you don’t find in a lot of other towns in California,” Gale says.
The Gamble House, designed by Craftsman architects Greene & Greene, was the location for the exterior of Doc Brown’s 1955 mansion. “They wouldn’t let us shoot inside, and we didn’t expect that they would,” says Gale, as a film shoot can cause unintentional damage. The locations department found another Greene & Greene home, the Robert R. Blacker House, just three miles away, for the interiors. The owner, a recent widow who had been in dire financial straits and was planning to sell the house, agreed to let the filmmakers shoot inside.
“We shot the scenes there with Eric Stoltz in our first week of shooting,” Gale says, referring to the actor cast as Marty before Michael J. Fox. “When it was time to go back there [after Fox was cast], the house was in escrow. We were afraid that once the house was sold, the new owners wouldn’t let us shoot there.” With Fox working on hit sitcom Family Ties during the day, along with strict filming hours in Pasadena, it was imperative that the production get Fox for some daytime shoots or risk losing the location. Gale was able to work out Fox’s schedule and shoot inside the house before escrow closed.
The tree-lined street of Bushnell Avenue in South Pasadena was used for the 1955 homes of Marty’s parents, Lorraine and George.
The Gamble House, 4 Westmoreland Place, Pasadena; (626) 793-3334, gamblehouse.org. It offers architectural tours.
In the movie: Hill Valley High School
In real life: Whittier High School
Gale says that the film’s production designer, Paull, always maintained that when doing a period piece, the world you’re creating must include things that are older than the time you’re in. “If the story takes place in 1955, only a few people are going to actually have 1955 cars,” says Gale. Whittier High School, which was used for both interiors and exteriors of 1985 and 1955 Hill Valley High School, was built in the 1930s. “It had this classic Art Deco look to it,” Gale adds. “It just screamed, ‘This is an old town, this has been around a while, and we’re in the past.’”
12417 Philadelphia St., Whittier
In the movie: Enchantment Under the Sea Dance gym
In real life: Hollywood United Methodist Church gym
Filmmakers were able to shoot at Whittier High School during spring break. But when it came to shooting the film’s Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, students were back to school. Additionally, unlike the rest of the school, the Whittier gym had been remodeled.
So the dance and Marty’s iconic performance of “Johnny B. Goode” were filmed in the gym at the Hollywood United Methodist Church. “I can’t tell you how our location managers knew about that church, but, when that’s your business, you get a pretty good sense of what’s already out there,” Gale says.
6817 Franklin Ave., Hollywood
For more photos of Back to the Future's locations today, please see the complete slideshow here. Learn more about the Back to the Future trilogy in the official book coming out this October, Back to the Future: The Ultimate Visual History by Michael Klastorin. Stay tuned for our coverage of the five-day Back to the Future event We're Going Back in October, which will feature BTTF trilogy screenings at the original filming locations, hoverboard riding, cast and crew Q&As and much more. Please respect that some of these locations are on private property. Do not trespass or disturb the owners.