According to Sidney Lumet the "Mad as Hell" speech was filmed in one and a half takes. Midway through the second take, Peter Finch abruptly stopped in exhaustion. Lumet was unaware of Finch's failing heart at the time, but in any case did not ask for a third take. What's in the completed film is the second take for the first half of the speech, and the second half from the first take.
Sidney Lumet recalled that Paddy Chayefsky was usually on the set overseeing his direction, and would give him advice on how certain scenes should be played. Lumet claims that Chayefsky had better comedic instinct than him, but when it came time to shoot the scene between Max and Louise, Lumet told Chayefsky, "Paddy, please, I know more about divorce than you".
Peter Finch died before the Academy Awards were to take place, where he was nominated for Best Actor. He won, making him the first performer ever to receive a posthumous award at the Oscars. The second winner was fellow Australian Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight (2008) in 2009.
To celebrate Faye Dunaway's first Oscar victory, husband-to-be photographer Terry O'Neill arranged to meet her at the Beverly Hills Hotel at 6:30 am the morning after the Academy Awards for a photo shoot. What transpired was the famous image of a listless Dunaway, reclining beside the tranquil hotel swimming pool with her Oscar statuette standing upright on the table beside her. Thrown in for good measure were various newspapers scattered on the ground and table, the headlines of which mostly echoed the previous night's festivities. Dunaway had not slept since her win and so appears totally fatigued, prompting O'Neill to title his photograph "The Morning After" shot.
Henry Fonda turned down the role of Howard Beale, saying that it was "too hysterical." Glenn Ford and George C. Scott did also. Although William Holden turned it down, he was cast in the other male lead and was nominated for Best Actor along with Peter Finch.
Director Sidney Lumet said that he shot the film using a specific lighting scheme. He said in the film's opening scenes, he shot with as little light as possible, shooting the film almost like a documentary. As the film progressed, he added more light and more camera moves and by the end of the film, it was as brightly lit and "slick" as he could make it.
Arthur Burghardt, the actor playing Great Ahmet Khan, was a vegetarian. For the scene where he was to munch on a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burghardt stuffed his cheeks with paper towels and smeared the grease on his face before the camera rolled, instead of actually eating meat.
Sidney Lumet claimed that he wanted to cast Vanessa Redgrave in the film, but Paddy Chayefsky didn't want her. Lumet argued that he thought she was the greatest English-speaking actress in the world, while Chayefsky, a proud Jew and supporter of Israel, objected on the basis of her support of the PLO. Lumet, himself a Jew, said "Paddy, that's blacklisting!" to which Chayefsky replied, "Not when a Jew does it to a Gentile." The year after this film swept the Oscars, Redgrave won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Julia (1977). The Jewish Defense League had protested her nomination and was picketing and burning her in effigy outside the Academy Awards ceremony. In her controversial acceptance speech, Redgrave decried intimidation by "Zionist hoodlums". Chayefsky was one of the scheduled presenters later in the evening, and he took a moment to express his contempt at Redgrave for "exploiting" the Academy Awards for "personal propaganda".
According to Shaun Considine, the author of "Mad As Hell: The Life and Work of Paddy Chayefsky", George C. Scott was offered the role of Howard Beale but declined without reading the script, apparently due to his having once been offended by director Sidney Lumet. Whatever happened, exactly, the hatchet must have been buried at some time, as Scott made his final feature film appearance in the Lumet-directed Gloria (1999).
United Artists agreed to make the film despite having recently settled a lawsuit brought on by producers Paddy Chayefsky and Howard Gottfried that challenged the company's right to lease their previous film, The Hospital (1971), to U.S. television network ABC in a package with less successful film. Later, UA backed out, fearing the subject matter was too controversial. Once MGM agreed to make the movie, UA suddenly did a reversal, choosing to co-produce the film with the competing studio that, six years later, would buy UA outright following the debacle of Heaven's Gate (1980), a financial and public relations nightmare that prompted UA's parent company, Transamerica, to bail out of the film business.
Faye Dunaway would later say that this was "the only film I ever did that you didn't touch the script because it was almost as if it were written in verse." She was as happy with Sidney Lumet as with the writing, describing him as "one of, if not the, most talented and professional men in the world. In the rehearsals, two weeks before shooting he blocks his scenes with his cameraman. Not a minute is wasted while he's shooting and that shows not only on the studio's budget but on the impetus of performance."
Faye Dunaway managed to put aside their earlier clashes and enjoy an apparently cordial relationship with William Holden. She claimed that during the shooting of the new film, "I found him a very sane, lovely man.
Upon its original release, the film was a co-production of MGM, which released the film in the US, and United Artists, which distributed internationally. Following the 1981 merger of the two studios, the newly-formed MGM/UA Entertainment Company held worldwide rights for five years. In 1986, the US rights were included in Turner Entertainment's purchase of the pre-1986 MGM library, but not the non-US rights, as MGM/UA retained UA's own post-1951 releases. MGM continued to hold US video rights for 13 more years, after which they reverted to Warner Bros., whose parent Time Warner purchased Turner in 1996. As of 2014, Warner/Turner still controls US rights to the film, and MGM still controls international rights.
The film was financed and distributed by United Artists and MGM, despite the fact that UA had recently settled with Paddy Chayefsky in a lawsuit over the company's right to lease his previous film, The Hospital (1971), to ABC-TV in a package with a less successful film. UA originally rejected Network as being too controversial but reconsidered after MGM agreed to make the film.
Sidney Lumet began a period of rehearsals in early 1976 in a ballroom of the Diplomat Hotel in New York City. Like most Lumet movies, the film was shot in New York, although control-room and news-studio scenes were filmed at CFTO-TV Studios in the Scarborough district of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Lumet said that he planned a very specific visual scheme for the film, shooting the early parts with available light and minimal camera movement, as in a documentary. As the movie progressed, he added more light and movement so that the final sequences were as brightly lighted and "slick" as possible.
In researching her role as the rare female in the mostly male world of television executives, Faye Dunaway met with NBC daytime programming vice president Lin Bolen. Bolen noted later that while she could see something of herself in Dunaway's mannerisms and speech patterns, she disavowed any further connection to the character and was appalled by her lack of moral standards.
Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet made it clear to Faye Dunaway that they wanted a cold-blooded, soulless characterization with no sympathetic shadings. "I know the first thing you're going to ask me," Lumet told her. "Where's her vulnerability? Don't ask it. She has none. If you try to sneak it in, I'll get rid of it in the editing room, so it'll be a wasted effort." Dunaway's then-husband Péter Wolf, warned her that she could risk typecasting in such a role, but Dunaway plunged ahead fearlessly.
William Holden had some reservations about the scene were he and Faye Dunaway are in bed making love and, in her excitement, she exclaims about the ratings of her successful TV show. At a climactic moment she cries out, "We're getting more publicity out of this than Watergate!" "Such scenes are not to my liking," Holden later said. "I believe lovemaking is a private thing and I don't enjoy depictions of it on the screen." He rationalized that, "If nobody had been in bed on the screen before, I might have hesitated." But he went with it, understanding that "The scene was not meant to be pornographic. It was meant to disclose a character flaw, the fact that Faye talks all the way through it tells more about her. It was Paddy's way of getting the dialogue out." Holden did allow, however, that he felt "the scene was meant to be more amusing than it came off."
According to Sidney Lumet, Paddy Chayefsky was usually on the set during filming, and sometimes offered advice about how certain scenes should be played. Lumet allowed that his old friend had the better comic instincts of the two, but when it came to the domestic confrontation between William Holden and Beatrice Straight, the four-times-married director had the upper hand: "Paddy, please, I know more about divorce than you!"
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Erroneously claimed to be the film debut of Tim Robbins as one of the assassins that kills Peter Finch's character. Robbins himself has stated publicly that he did not play the part and was in fact a senior in high school at the time.
Writer Paddy Chayefsky was eerily prescient in his screenplay in three significant ways. First, the screenplay pertains to the goings-on at UBS, the fictional fourth network existing alongside the non-fictional ABC, CBS and NBC. In 1987 Fox became the real fourth network. Second, in her speech to her employees about her goals for UBS, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) says, "I don't want conventional programming on this network. I want counterculture, I want anti-establishment," the type of programming delivered by Fox with its two debut series - Married with Children (1987) and The Tracey Ullman Show (1987). Third, Diana Christensen's creation of the show about the Ecumenical Liberation Army and its criminal activities is prescient of "reality TV" in that, as a result of the writers' strike of 1988 (which lasted 22 weeks), Fox started to run low on new content. To replace it, the network bought the show Cops (1989) (which featured police officers trying to thwart criminal activity). Despite very noteworthy predecessors, such as An American Family (1973), which depicted the experiences of the Loud family, and Scared Straight! (1978), some consider "Cops" the true progenitor of the long-running trend of "reality TV".