Contrary to legend, this film did use artificial lighting in some scenes (for example, when Brian learns he's getting a horse). However, it is true that no electronic lighting was used for the candle-lit scenes. A lens built by the Carl Zeiss company for N.A.S.A., a fifty millimetre Zeiss lens modified with the Kollmorgen adaptor used in still cameras, was used to shoot scenes lit only by candle. This lens had the largest aperture of any ever built for movie use (f/0.7).
Warner Bros. would only finance the film on the condition that Stanley Kubrick cast a Top 10 Box Office Star (from the annual Quigley Poll of Top Money-Making Stars) in the lead. Ryan O'Neal was the #2 Box Office Star of 1973, topped only by Clint Eastwood. Ironically, this was his only time in the top 10, as exhibitors - who voted the list - attributed the success of Love Story (1970) (one of the top grossers at the time) to O'Neal's co-star Ali MacGraw, and named her to the list in 1971. The other top 10 stars were 3. Steve McQueen, 4. Burt Reynolds, 5. Robert Redford, 6. Barbra Streisand, 7. Paul Newman, 8. Charles Bronson, 9. John Wayne, and 10. Marlon Brando. Thus, the only actors Kubrick could cast in the role and receive Warners' financial backing for his decidedly noncommercial project were O'Neal and Redford. The other Top 10 stars were too old or inappropriate for the role (particularly in the case of #6, who would not assay a "male" role until Yentl (1983) in 1983). Both O'Neal and Redford were Irish, both had box office appeal, and both were young enough to play the role, though Redford was five years older than the thirty-two-year old O'Neal in 1973. At the time, O'Neal was the bigger star, having also garnered a Best Actor Oscar nomination for "Love Story". However, Kubrick apparently offered the part to Redford first, but he turned it down, and thus O'Neal was cast. Redford's star would soon eclipse O'Neal's, as he would zoom to the top of the Box Office charts the next year after the successes of The Sting (1973) and The Way We Were (1973), clocking in at #1 in 1974, a position he also would anchor in 1975 and 1976. O'Neal dropped off the Top 10 list after 1973. His '73 appearance to this day, represents his sole appearance on that premier barometer of box office success for a thespian.
Stanley Kubrick based his original screenplay on "The Luck of Barry Lyndon" (republished as the novel "Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq."), a picaresque tale written in serial form in 1844 by William Makepeace Thackeray. The serial, which is told in the first person and "edited" by the fictional George Savage FitzBoodle, concerns a member of the Irish Irish gentry trying to become a member of the English aristocracy. Thackeray based the novel on the life and exploits of the Irish rakehell and fortunehunter Andrew Robinson Stoney, who married (and subsequently was divorced by) Mary Eleanor Bowes, the Countess of Strathmore, who became known as "The Unhappy Countess" due to the tempestuous liaison. The Countess of Strathmore is one of the ancestors of Queen Elizabeth II. The revised version, which is the novel that the world generally knows as "Barry Lyndon", was shorter and tighter than the original serialization, and dropped the FitzBoodle, Ed. device. It generally is considered the first "novel without a hero" or novel with an antihero in the English language. Upon its publication in 1856, it was entitled by Thackeray's publisher "The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. Of The Kingdom Of Ireland Containing An Account of His Extraordinary Adventures; Misfortunes; His Sufferings In The Service Of His Late Prussian Majesty; His Visits To Many Courts of Europe; His Marriage and Splendid Establishments in England And Ireland; And The Many Cruel Persecutions, Conspiracies And Slanders Of Which He Has Been A Victim."
A myth grew that the Academy Award-winning costumes used in the film were genuine antique clothes, but this is only partly correct. Some of the costumes were genuine antiques bought at auction by costume designer Milena Canonero, while others were custom-made specifically for the film and were based on clothing of the period and costumes seen in period paintings.
Filming took 300 days during a 2 year span, beginning around May or June of 1973. The production suffered two major shutdowns and resulted in a then bloated budget of $11 million. It was finally released in December of 1975.
When Barry inquires about a painting, he is told it was painted by a man named "Ludovico Corde". This is a misspelling in the DVD subtitles, probably due to the pronunciation; the artist's name was Ludovico Cardi AKA "il Cigoli" and he actually was a disciple of Alessandro Allori, as it said in the movie. Interestingly, Kubrick's previous film, A Clockwork Orange (1971), prominently features a Ludovico process.
Stanley Kubrick initially wanted to film William Makepeace Thackeray's most famous novel "Vanity Fair", but then decided that he couldn't do justice to its expansive plot within the limits of a three-hour film. He then decided to film "The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq." instead. The announcement of a TV miniseries production contributed to his decision.
In a scene where Patrick Magee was supposed to deal cards, he began to sweat, and the sweat on his palms made it nearly impossible to deal cards smoothly. Stanley Kubrick brought in a professional card dealer, and then realized that the card dealer's hands were smooth while Magee's were hairy. To prevent continuity problems, Magee's hands were shaved so the cuts would both look like him.
According to Marisa Berenson, actors involved in the candlelight sequences were not allowed to move freely because the focus range of the custom-built lens was too shallow. This justifies John Alcott's claim that camera movement during those sequences was minimal and thus required constant supervision on the lens' focus range.
Stanley Kubrick called director Ken Russell in the early 1970s to ask him where he had found the locations for his period films. Russell complied and Kubrick used the locations in this movie. Years later Russell said, "I felt quite chuffed."