Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie met for the first time on the set of this film. The first scene they had to shoot was the sex scene, as Nicolas Roeg wanted to "get it out of the way" and then move on to the "bone" of the matter. Christie was terrified.
When he appeared on Inside the Actors Studio (1994), Donald Sutherland recounted the story of how the (In)famous sex scene was actually shot and that it was anything but a sexy or erotic experience for those involved. He and Julie Christie were on the set at 7 a.m. in dressing gowns, waiting downstairs while the room was prepared and both had a glass of champagne to calm their nerves.Inside the room was Nicolas Roeg and cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond, each operating their own Mitchell 35mm camera. Sutherland and Chiststie disrobed and got onto the bed and Roeg and Richmond began filming. The huge Mitchell cameras were unblimped (unsilenced) and as the room was oak panelled the noise from the two cameras was amplified hugely. At the same time, Roeg began shouting directions (over the noise of the cameras)to the actors such as "Lick her nipples" "Put your hand between her legs" "Get on top" etc.The shoot lasted until well into the afternoon before Roeg was satisfied and wrapped.
The famous sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie was a last minute on-set idea from director Nicolas Roeg who felt that otherwise the film would have too many scenes of the couple arguing. Most of the scenes around it are improvised.
In order to avoid an X-certificate rating for the film's American release, 9 frames (less than half a second) had to be cut from the intimate love sequence between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.
In 2011, both co-star Donald Sutherland and producer Peter Katz issued denials to the longstanding rumor that Sutherland and Julie Christie had engaged in unsimulated intercourse during their characters' sex scene.
Filming the scene in which John almost falls to his death while restoring the mosaic in San Nicolò church was also beset by problems, and resulted in Donald Sutherland's life being put in danger. The scene entailed some of the scaffolding collapsing leaving John dangling by a rope, but the stuntman refused to perform the stunt because the insurance was not in order. Sutherland ended up doing it instead, and was attached to a kirby wire as a precaution in case he should fall. Some time after the film had come out, renowned stunt co-ordinator Vic Armstrong commented to Sutherland that the wire was not designed for that purpose, and the twirling around caused by holding on to the rope would have damaged the wire to the extent it would have snapped if Sutherland had let go.
Shooting the drowning sequence was particularly problematic: Sharon Williams, who played Christine, became hysterical when submersed in the pond, despite the rehearsals at the swimming pool going well. A farmer on the neighbouring land volunteered his daughter who was an accomplished swimmer, but who refused to be submersed when it came to filming. In the end, the scene was filmed in a water tank using three girls.
The scene set in the church where Laura lights a candle for Christine was mostly improvised. Originally intended to show the gulf between John's and Laura's mental states-John's denial and Laura's inability to let go-the script included two pages of dialogue to illustrate John's unease at Laura's marked display of grief. After a break in filming to allow the crew to set up the equipment, Donald Sutherland returned to the set and commented that he did not like the church, to which Julie Christie retorted that he was being "silly", and the church was "beautiful". Nicolas Roeg felt that the exchange was more true to life in terms of what the characters would actually say to each other, and that the scripted version was "overwritten", so opted to ditch the scripted dialogue and included the real-life exchange instead.
Both lead actors were initially busy with other projects, but unexpectedly became available. Julie Christie liked the script and was keen to work with Nicolas Roeg who had served as cinematographer on Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) and Petulia (1968) in which she had starred. Donald Sutherland also wanted to make the film but had some reservations about the depiction of clairvoyance in the script. He felt it was handled too negatively and believed that the film should be a more "educative film", and that the "characters should in some way benefit from ESP and not be destroyed by it". Roeg was resistant to any changes and issued Sutherland with an ultimatum.
Nicolas Roeg decided not to use traditional tourist locations to purposefully avoid a "travel documentary" look. Venice turned out to be a difficult place to film in, mainly due to the tides which caused problems with the continuity and transporting equipment.
Nicolas Roeg wanted Julie Christie to attend a séance prior to filming. Leslie Flint, a direct voice medium based in Notting Hill, invited them to attend a session which he was holding for some American parapsychologists, who were coming over to observe him. Roeg and Christie went along and sat in a circle in the pitch dark and joined hands. Flint instructed his guests to "uncross" their legs, which Roeg subsequently incorporated into the film.
Finding an appropriate church proved difficult: after visiting most of the churches in Venice, the Italian location manager suggested constructing one in a warehouse. The discovery of San Nicolò was particularly fortuitous since it was currently being renovated and the scaffolding was already in place, the circumstances lending themselves well to the plot of the film.
The only disagreement over the musical direction of the film was for the score accompanying the love scene. Pino Donaggio composed a grand orchestral piece, but Nicolas Roeg thought the effect was overkill, and wanted it toned down. In the end the scene just used a combination of the piano, the flute, an acoustic guitar and an acoustic bass guitar. The piano was played by Donaggio again, who also played the flute; in contrast to his skill as a pianist, Donaggio was a renowned flautist, famous for it at the conservatory. Donaggio conceded that the more low-key theme worked better in the sequence and ditched the high strings orchestral piece, reworking it for the funeral scene at the end of the film.
Clips from this film - along with others directed by Nicolas Roeg - appear in Big Audio Dynamite's 'E=MC2' video (1986). The song mentions several of Roeg films including this one, describing some of its moments (such as 'Met a dwarf that was no good, dressed like little Red Riding Hood' and 'Best sex I've ever seen as if each moment was the last'). See more in spoilers.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
The lyrics from Big Audio Dynamite's hit 'E=MC2' reveal many moments of the film. The complete segment from the song describing the movie goes: Met a dwarf that was no good/Dressed like little Red Riding Hood/Bad habit taking life/Calling card a six inch knife/Ran off really fast/Mumbled something 'bout the past/Best sex I've ever seen/As if each moment was the last/Drops of blood color slide/Funeral for his bride/But it's him who's really dead/Gets to take the funeral ride.