When Laslo Hollyfeld (Jon Gries) sends in a large number of entries to the Frito-Lay contest, he is mirroring the actions of Caltech students Steve Klein, Dave Novikoff and Barry Megdal, who, in 1974, used a similar strategy to win a McDonald's sweepstakes. Their entries came to roughly 1/5th of the total entries and won them a station wagon, $3,000 cash and $1,500 in food gift certificates.
The "liquid nitrogen" coins have baffled viewers for many years, and are considered by many to be a goof. However the very first draft of the script shows that it wasn't an error. The thermos contains liquid nitrogen, which in turn contains a column of super-cooled CO2 (dry ice), which is what Chris uses in the vending machine.
When Mitch rides the cart into the steam tunnels, the viewer briefly sees the quotation, "Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain" scrawled on the left wall. These are the original words of the German poet Friedrich Schiller. Relevant to the film, Isaac Asimov named three separate stories "Against Stupidity", "The Gods Themselves" and "Contend in Vain". He later combined them into a 1972 science fiction novel about a conspiracy by aliens who inhabit a parallel universe with different physical laws than ours, and who are trying to turn our Sun into a supernova in order to collect the resulting energy for their use.
During a crash course in laser technology, the cast and crew was dazzled by a demonstration of the dye laser as it darted through the colors of the spectrum. But cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was troubled. "The naked eye can see the beam coming toward it," he explains. "But it's almost invisible to the camera when it's going away. "We went through countless experiments before we learned to 'bounce' the beam and to fill the lab set with smoke, which 'scattered' the light and gave it definition. "Otherwise, we would have had a special effect so special, no one would have seen it."
The recurrence of the initials "DEI" in the movie is no accident. The truck that is used to transport the popcorn to Dr. Hathaway's new house has "Drain Experts Inc." emblazoned on its side. The company Chris interviews with at the beginning (and which funds Dr. Hathaway's show "Everything") is Darlington Electronic Instruments. The initials are rumored to have been inscribed by Caltech alumni at (among other places) the summit of Everest, on the moon and on many satellites and space probes manufactured at Jet Propulsion Labs (which sits just up the hill from Caltech in Pasadena). There has long been an unofficial contest to see who could place the letters DEI into the most prominent public view. Their placement in this film was with the full complicity of director Martha Coolidge and her Caltech advisor, David Marvit.
When Chris and Mitch enter the plane, a background technician speaks "Final check: latitude 65 degrees, 19 minutes, longitude 44 degrees, 09 minutes." These coordinates lie in Russia just below the Arctic Circle near the White Sea, which was a key Soviet, now Russian Federation, naval and submarine base.
The "Popcorn Trick" sequence began with the construction of a full-sized Victorian frame house on a plot in Sand Canyon, California, not far from Los Angeles. Within the house, special effects coordinator Phil Cory and his crew devised an elaborate network of conveyor belts, hydraulic lifts, air blowers and vacuum hoses which would, on cue, turn 190,000 pounds of popcorn into a hot buttered tornado, blowing out the windows, doors and roof of the structure. To film the caramel carnage, director Martha Coolidge positioned five cameras around the building, in classic "anytime you're ready, C.B." tradition, including one on a 300-foot crane. At the Hollywood Center Studios, a two-level set was constructed. On one level was built the interior of the mansion, decorated in the kind of eclectic, expensive kitsch a phony like Jerry Hathaway might fancy. The lower level contained a vast 20' x 20' x 20' storage tank to hold the popcorn until required. With Rube Goldberg ingenuity, the crew built six air-poppers, each ten-feet high, capable of popping 2,400 pounds of corn an hour. Made of sheet metal and heated by propane gas, the poppers "fed" the tank through the pressure of the popping corn itself and a system of air blowers. A conveyor belt and another set of blowers then swirled the popcorn up through the floor to inundate the set in confectionery debris to a height of twenty feet. Producer Brian Grazer explained: "To put it as simply as possible, the entire set was one enormous popcorn popper". That still, however, was not enough. When more popcorn was needed to complete the deluge, the Lapidus Popcorn Company of Los Angeles, California pitched in with an additional 90,000 cubic feet. Grazer added: "We eventually used enough popcorn to feed 720,000 moviegoers, each eating the largest tub sold at theaters. At retail, the cost would have been about $1,800,000. But since we were among the world's largest consumers of popcorn, if only for about five minutes, we received a substantial discount".
The coordinates for Hathaway's house are given in the film as "34D 10M 15.21S NORTH, 119D 7M ..." Assuming the longitude is in the western hemisphere, that's somewhere in an area of farmlands east of Oxnard, California. The script gave a slightly different set of coordinates: "Thirty-four degrees, ten minutes, fifteen seconds North; one hundred eighteen degrees, nine minutes, three seconds West." The building at that location is a mortuary in Pasadena, a few blocks north of Caltech.
"The 'dress code' at Tech varies from casual to sloppy", David Marvit, who portrays a student in the hall, told a filmmaker at one point. Marvit said: "When you've got so much else on your mind, you can't be concerned with appearance." One of the films costumers, touring the Cal Tech campus, put it her own way: "Good Heavens!", she exclaimed, "Do these people all dress in the dark?".
The writings on the walls in the steam tunnels ("light your way", etc) are references to the game "Wizardry" and its sequels, in which clues can be found scrawled on the walls of the dungeon. The ending credits contain: "Thank to Sir-Tech, for Wizardry". Alternatively, assuming that Real Genius is meant to represent Caltech, the writing on the walls of the steam tunnels could be representative of the real writing on the walls of the real steam tunnels at Caltech.
Director Martha Coolidge said of this movie: "The audience has a kind of sixth sense, they know when they're being lied to. I was taken by the story from the start; I'm fascinated by science. But I knew that to make the comedy work - and the characters worth caring about - we had to do our homework".
In their research for the movie, producer Brian Grazer and director Martha Coolidge were not surprised to discover that the term "genius" applies, as well, to a genius for mischief. Coolidge said: "Some of the most inspired practical jokers on college campuses are in the advanced science programs. They see a situation which seems perfectly normal and ask themselves, 'What's the funniest, most amazing thing I can do to turn this situation upside down?'. It's not just high spirits, but a release, a kind of safety valve, against the tremendous academic pressure they're under. It became the basis for a lot of the story's humor".
On one of the studio sound-stages, the Pacific Tech dorm was prepared in preparation for the "Smart People on Ice" sequence. To create the bobsled run and skating rink, thousands of feet of tubing, connected to a powerful refrigeration unit, were buried beneath the floor of a forty-foot corridor. The hallway was then covered with crushed ice and "watered" several times daily. Director Martha Coolidge said: "It looked great but with all that ice, we worked for two weeks in the equivalent of a meat locker. It isn't too often you find film crews, in the Fall in Hollywood, reporting to work in parkas and thermal underwear". Among the accessories for the winter carnival were "custom" ice skates made by the special effects department from implements including baking pans, auto parts and surfer sneakers.
When Chris Knight wakes and cuts the CO2 chips for the vending machine, he is wearing "Heckel and Jeckel" slippers. They were 2 magpies that played endless tricks and practical jokes on those that interfered with any of their schemes.
In earlier versions of the script the Potassium-Cyanide laser, not the Bromide-Argon laser, used frozen fuel. This is why Chris tells the laser to "stay cool" before he goes off to take Hatheway's exam.
The aircraft featured in the movie was a B-1B "Lancer". Today, a real-life analog exists in the United States Air Force's Airborne Laser (ABL) project, a collaboration with Boeing, involving a modified 747 cargo jet carrying a megawatt Oxygen-Iodine laser, whose purpose is to shoot down enemy ballistic missiles.
For the "Tanning Invitational", staged by Chris Knight (Val Kilmer) to introduce his sexually deprived classmates to the student body of the Wanda Trossler School of Beauty, the production unit moved to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Sepulveda. Producer Brian Grazer explained: "We needed an auditorium in which we could rig a swimming pool. And the theatre at the V.A. Hospital had an orchestra pit which was perfect for that purpose". Fresh from two weeks in cold storage, the production crew now proceeded to flood the orchestra pit and create a tropic atoll on the stage above it. Included in the effort were several hundred cubic yards of sand, an oasis of palm trees and lush foliage, a pump-operated waterfall, two small water slides, and a giant aquatic slalom fashioned from the emergency chute of a 747 jetliner.
With one notable exception, the antics in the film are based on stunts pulled off in higher educational institutions such as England's Cambridge University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Cal Tech (the California Institute of Technology). For example, the appearance in a student bedroom of an automobile with its motor still running is based on an actual incident as was the state-of-the-art seminar in which a tape recorder delivers a "lecture" to a roomful of other recording machines. Moreover, the event, dubbed "Smart People on Ice", featuring the conversion of a Pacific Tech dorm to a winter carnival complete with skating rink and bobsled course, by laying down a 'carpet' of frozen, volatile gas, is similar to a prank staged annually at Cal Tech. There, the students take it even further, using a circular stairway as a bobsled run, then white water rafting through the dormitory corridors when the ice melts.
According to The '80s Movie Rewind website, "in a trailer for the film there are several scenes not appearing in the final cut, among them one where Val Kilmer's character is floating outside a dorm window sitting in a deckchair carried by helium balloons".
The one prank which was totally new, both to solid state physics and filmmaking, was the transformation of a Victorian home into a giant popcorn popper. While even this screwball stunt was scientifically sound, there was an area in which director Martha Coolidge deliberately chose to be inaccurate. That assignment went to visual artist Ron Cobb, who conceived the Hathaway "death beam". Coolidge explained: "We had to be careful to create a laser weapon which wouldn't work the way it was described in the film.There's been a good deal of discussion recently about such weapons, including aspects of the 'Star Wars' defense system. We didn't want to inspire any lethal tinkering".
All of the laser technology in Real Genius (1985) was the real thing, sponsored by Professor Martin Gundersen of the University of Southern California (USC). Gundersen's credentials included a stint with the Los Alamos National Laboratory where he attempted to develop an infrared laser which would separate uranium without conventional problems of "nuclear waste". A laser, explains Gundersen, is a mechanism in which light waves are focused through gaseous or other matter, then emitted as a narrow, intense beam. Starting with the invention of the "maser" (an early microwave version) at Columbia University in the 1950s, for which Professor Charles Townes would win the Nobel Prize, "laser technology went off in several different directions," Gundersen added. At the time this film was made, lasers were being used in medicine to weld detached retinas; in communications, coupled with fibreoptics to carry information over telephone lines; in video recordings with laser discs (later to evolve into DVDs); in energy conservation, and in other fields. Their military application, anticipated by science fiction, as has often been the case, had recently become the subject of intense study, and controversy. The lab scenes in Real Genius (1985) employ two sophisticated lasers, a blue-green argon laser and a tuneable dye laser which work in tandem. "The dye is mixed with liquid and flowed in front of the Argon laser, which in technical terms, 'excites' it," said Gundersen. The dye laser then emits a beam of light which can be turned to virtually any color by turning a knob, like fine tuning a television set.
The California Institute of Technology, colloquially known as Cal Tech, became a role model for the mythical fictional Pacific Tech in this picture. This included in areas ranging from terminology to teaching methods to clothing styles.
Producer Brian Grazer said that this movie was about the "mystery" of genius which led him to conceive the project: "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."
While the mythical Tech task force was absorbed in laser science, for purposes of the script, the filmmakers were grappling with their own technological problems. That exercise began in Laslo Hollyfeld (Jon Gries)'s lair in the steam tunnels beneath the dorm. After several reconnaissance trips to the Cal Tech campus, production designer 'Josan Russo', special effects coordinator Phil Cory, and their respective staff, proceeded to create Hollyfeld's hideaway at the Hollywood Center Studios. Russo said: "The multi-directional elevator which takes him to his den was the first challenge". When completed, it consisted of a car, controlled by a rotating screw, which descended through an elevator shaft to a turntable. At that point, it met a horizontal track and a hidden drive-chain, like those used to operate roller coasters. At the end of the track, another rotating screw took over, plunging the car into the dorm's lower depths.There, the filmmakers created a slew of gadgets, mirroring the mind of a troubled genius who'd opted out of society, but had not rejected creature comforts. Typical was a toaster which not only browned the bread but sprayed on a stream of melted butter and jelly, and a quixotic coffee brewer, which operated on a microwave principle. The piece de resistance was the automated "scribbler" which enabled Hollyfeld to submit one-million, six-hundred- thousand separate entries to the Frito-Lay Sweepstakes, creating a mathematical probability of winning 32.6% of the prizes, including the car.
The background music playing during Chris' Darlington interview is an easy-jazz (or "elevator music") version of the 1972 pop song "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)", written by Elliot Lurie and recorded by Lurie's band, "Looking Glass", on their debut album named for the band.
According to the article "The Road to Hollywood: Director Martha Coolidge's Long Trek to Real Genius (1985)" published in the 7th August 1985 edition of The Washington Post, "To prepare for Real Genius (1985), [director] Martha Coolidge spent months researching laser technology and the policies of the CIA, and interviewed dozens of students at Caltech.
At around the 56 minute mark, just after Chris Knight feeds his fish and Lazlo peeks his head out the door, the newspaper clip on the wall appears to show a picture of Jim Morrison in the lower left corner. Val Kilmer, who plays Chris Knight in this movie, would later play Morrison in Oliver Stone's The Doors (1991).
According to the article "Fun With the Whiz Kids" by Paul Attanasio published in the 7th August 1985 edition of The Washington Post, according to website Wikipedia, "The screenplay was extensively rewritten, first by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, [and] later by Coolidge and Pj Torokvei".
Some movie posters for the film featured long text preambles that read: "MEET CHRIS KNIGHT, THE EINSTEIN OF THE '80's. When his professor steals his prize invention, he turns revenge into high comedy. When he gets mad, he doesn't get even . . . he gets creative. REAL GENIUS" and "MEET CHRIS KNIGHT, THE EINSTEIN OF THE '80's. He can turn lasers into light shows, armchairs into aircraft, and high tech into high jinks. But when his professor steals his prize invention, he turns revenge into high comedy. REAL GENIUS. When he gets mad, he doesn't get even . . . he gets creative".
In the scene where Laslo Hollyfeld (Jon Gries) walks in with his cartons of sweepstakes entries, the book Mitch is using as a pillow during his nightmare is "Gravitation" by Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler.
In 2010, actor William Atherton told "The A.V. Club" that the popcorn used in the final scenes was treated with a flame-retardant chemical and so the crew went to great lengths to guard it against being eaten by birds, which would have died from the contaminant. Atherton also said that even with a machine in the studio dedicated to doing nothing but popping the popcorn, it took three months to pop it all.
According to the American Film Institute, derived from a Hollywood Reporter article: "The film's final sequence was filmed in Canyon Country, CA, where filmmakers constructed a house and filled it with 190,000 pounds of popcorn kernels. Oversized hot air pumps were used to pop the corn, which literally raised the roof off the house.