Whilst shooting in Jamaica, Dustin Hoffman met Paul McCartney who was vacationing in Montego Bay. One evening, Hoffman invited McCartney to dinner and challenged him to write a song "about anything." Since painter Pablo Picasso had just died, Hoffman requested that McCartney compose a song around Picasso's dying words ("Drink to me, drink to my health. You know I can't drink anymore"). McCartney created a demo on the spot and the song - "Picasso's Last Words (Drink to Me)" - appeared on Wings' 1973 album "Band On the Run".
The crew took advantage of the abundant marijuana that was readily available in Jamaica. Not content to merely smoke it, they boiled it down to mix in drinks at a party. Several people got sick from that, particularly Franklin J. Schaffner, causing a day's delay in shooting.
Dustin Hoffman based his character on the movie's screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, particularly his withdrawn and shy mannerisms which had inspired Hoffman when meeting Trumbo for the first time. Hoffman once said of Trumbo: "He's a real feisty man and he's got a combination of toughness and sophistication and integrity that I felt were right for Dega....So I said, why didn't he write the character of himself, so to speak?".
Reportedly, the producers began taking raw footage to backers in Paris and getting just enough cash to keep things rolling. For a period of three weeks, money ran out and nobody got paid, and it looked as though the production would be shut down altogether. When Steve McQueen found out, he told the producers, "Unless everyone gets paid, I don't work." The situation improved after that.
Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman did have some difficulties, despite their determination to behave professionally toward each other. When Hoffman began one speech at breakneck speed, McQueen stopped him and said, "Less, man, less. Toss that shit out, you don't need it. Keep it simple." Another time, Hoffman invited a few close friends to watch a day's filming. McQueen had them thrown off the set. Nevertheless, Hoffman called their relationship "friendly rivalry" and later said his co-star "was a wonderful guy. Off screen, he was the nicest, classiest man. On the set itself he became very intense." Another time, however, he referred to McQueen as "that son of a bitch."
Although billed as a true story, the French in French Guiana claim that much of the story of Henri Charrière (Papillon) is fabricated. Papillon was documented to have been incarcerated in Saint Laurent and may have escaped from there, but he never served any time on the Devil's Islands (now known as Iles du Salut or Salvation Islands). The book and movie both present Devil's Island as having rocky cliffs, when in fact, though the entire island is rocky, it gently slopes into the surrounding sea.
Dustin Hoffman became angry and uncooperative for a period of time after he discovered that although he and Steve McQueen would receive equal billing, he was actually making $750,000 less than his co-star. Although they didn't really speak to each other between takes or after principal photography was completed, they behaved professionally on the set for the most part.
Dalton Trumbo never grumbled about the demanding schedule, but illness forced him to leave the production before the script was completed. He was found to have lung cancer, scotching any possibility that he could return to the set after visiting his doctors in California. The script was completed, under a fortuitous arrangement with the Writers Guild, by Trumbo's son Christopher, who already had one movie and some TV credits by that time.
Theft and pillage by the locals were a constant problem. When the production ended, before properties could be packed and shipped, locals raided and stripped the set, making off with costumes (600 pairs of shoes alone), machinery, and lumber. In all, $30,000 was lost.
The film was made and released about four years after its source novel of the same name by 'Henri Charriere' was first published in 1969. A sequel to this book, "Banco", was first published in 1973, the same 1973 year that this picture was released, as well as the same 1973 year that Charrière died. The sequel has never been filmed.
Franklin J. Schaffner would get up at four in the morning and meet with Dalton Trumbo for an hour or so for a last look at the pages to be filmed that day. When the day's shooting was finished, the director returned to the hotel to meet with the writer until late in the night to see what he had written that day.
The meaning of the film and source novel's title "Papillon" is "Butterfly" from the French language. It is pronounced, "PAP-PEE-YONH". Papillon also refers to the butterfly tattoo that Henri Charrière (Steve McQueen) has. Papillon is also the nickname given to Charrière. The title of the film Butterfly (1982) also refers to a Butterfly tattoo.
Although many considered this Steve McQueen's best performance to date, he was overlooked by the Academy. Some say that was because McQueen had "stolen" Ali MacGraw (who became his second wife) from her husband Robert Evans, who was a powerful studio executive at the time. McQueen was also rumored to have slept with many other Hollywood wives. Others say McQueen's Oscar snub was because the actor, in rather coarse language, once told the Golden Globes committee he would accept an award if he won but would never consider going to the ceremony. He did, however, receive a Golden Globe Best Actor nomination.
Franklin J. Schaffner and editor Robert Swink had to cut the film under great pressure from the producers and backers in order to have it ready for simultaneous holiday-season openings in New York, Paris and Tokyo.
Both Franklin J. Schaffner and Jerry Goldsmith shared the belief that film music should be used economically; they wanted the music as commentary only in sequences where it can emphasize the psychological aspects of the film. Thus, the film is 2 1/2 hours long, but has 40 minutes with music.
The movie was originally given an R rating by the MPAA because of its violence, but Allied Artists argued for and won a PG rating. An Illinois father sued after taking his young son to see the movie. A judge threw the case out, reasoning that the "Parental Guidance" rating implies a warning to parents.
The song "Devil's Island" off the 1986 album "Peace Sells... But Who's Buying?" by the American Thrash/Heavy Metal band Megadeth, and written by band leader/singer/guitarist Dave Mustaine, was inspired by this film.
The movie's remake Papillon (2017) is scheduled to debut in 2017 and stars Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek in the Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman roles respectively. Principal photography was completed in December 2016. The remake will premiere about forty-four years after this original 1973 picture.