When meeting Gene Wilder after having seen Silver Streak (1976), Cary Grant asked him if the script had been in anyway inspired by North by Northwest (1959). As Wilder admitted it was correct, Grant then added, "I knew it! Have you noticed that each time you take ordinary people, say, like you and me, then take them in a situation way above their heads, it makes a great thriller?"
Originally meant to be filmed in the United States. However, the National Rail Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) was fearful of adverse publicity, and refused to cooperate. As a result, the producers were forced to work with the Canadian Pacific Railway, using thinly disguised CPRail equipment and shooting exteriors along the CP Rail right-of-way.
When the scene where Grover (Richard Pryor) puts the shoe polish on George's (Gene Wilder's) face to make him appear to be black was first filmed, a white man walked in and believed George was black. Richard Pryor was uncomfortable with the scene, and felt it would be funnier if a black man walked in and is not fooled at all. Pryor asked Arthur Hiller for a re-shoot, but Hiller refused. Pryor walked off the set and refused to return to filming until the scene was changed. Hiller relented and Pryor's idea was used for the final cut.
Seven foot two inch tall Richard Kiel revealed in his autobiography "Making It Big in the Movies" that his part as Reace the henchman was initially not written as a giant. Kiel replaced Lionel Stander, who left the project.
Robert Vaughn received the script in the mail, and loved it. He wanted to play Roger Devereau, but was dismayed to discover that Patrick McGoohan had already accepted the part. He contacted Arthur Hiller and discovered that it was sent by mistake. He was invited to watch the production, and became friends with Gene Wilder.
The film was the first movie made by Martin Ransohoff-Frank Yablans Productions. The producers were so impressed with Colin Higgins' script, that they made it the first film of their then new production company.
Exterior shots of the train set in the rural western U.S. were filmed on the Canadian Pacific line from the Crowsnest Pass to Lethbridge, Alberta. Interiors were shot in a studio, with the sets mounted on rubber tires so they could be rocked. To simulate the train passing through the shadow of a tree, a series of crew members would successively move obstructions in front of each of a row of lights shining into the windows.
The protagonist's first name is George, and the heroine's last name is Burns. This is a reference to George Burns. When Jerry Jarvis goes looking for his boss, he stops a janitor and says, "Jack, have you seen Benny?" This is a reference to Jack Benny.
The locomotive used as "AM ROAD"'s 4070, was CP Rail's (formerly Canadian Pacific) 4070. For the filming, the AM ROAD decal was placed over the CP markings, and "Multimark" Pac-Man logo. At the end on the shoot, the decals damaged the engines real paint job. The production company had to pay for the repainting of the engine, which took place in the CP Rail Transcona shops in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The locomotive was a FP7A built by GMD in 1952. In 1982, CP sold it to STCUM, where it was re-numbered to 1300 in 1983. As of 2002, she is now sitting in "non-operational" storage in Montreal, Quebec.
The type of twin open cockpit vintage plane was a de Havilland Tiger Moth model DH 82-C, which had been built in 1950. Its serial number was 1481, and its scenes were filmed in the Mojave Desert in California. Publicity for the film stated that the plane was owned by Cliff Robertson. The plane was painted with water soluble silver paint to camouflage its original colors, which were white with orange on a strip down the sides, and also on its leading edges.
The scene with a de Havilland Tiger Moth biplane being flown to catch up with the train, was shot in southern Alberta. The scene shows an old woman flying. It was actually the current owner of the plane, a man. The plane was painted with a water-soluble "silver" paint to cover its original colors-white overall, with an orange strip down the sides and orange leading edges.
Scenes of Midwestern U.S. landscapes appear behind train layouts and many action shots (as the protagonist and allies battle the villains on and off the train, and get thrown off or jump on and off the moving trains) to add narrative integrity to the fictional location. Most of the interior station scenes set in Kansas City and Chicago show different parts of Toronto's Union Station, except for a brief sequence immediately prior to the crash, where the train is rapidly approaching a bumper at the end of the line. That sequence was filmed from a Hi-Rail truck entering the Chicago and North Western Railway's downtown Chicago terminal.
The train set was so lightly disguised as the fictional "AMRoad" that the locomotives and cars still carried their original names and numbers, along with the easily identifiable CPR Action Red paint scheme, as well as the CP "Multimark" logo. At the start of the climactic shootout, a CPR EMD switcher is seen moving cars in the background. As the train enters the "Chicago" platform area, a Canadian National Turbotrain with a red nose and white body boarding passengers is clearly visible. Most of the cars are still in revenue service on Via Rail. CP 4070, the lead locomotive, is in Quebec, though long out of service, and the second unit, CP 4067, has been scrapped.
When George and Grover are driving in the stolen car to Kansas City, there is a long shot at night where you see the headlights and hear soft music by Jerry Goldsmith. This scene is similar to the opening of Hoosiers (1986), where a lone car at night is seen via its headlights, and the music is soft, and also by Jerry Goldsmith.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The climatic train crash at the end of the film was shot in an airplane hanger with a replica locomotive and a replica train station, both replicas were built especially for the movie. The engine crashing into the station was filmed in two adjoining hangars at the Lockeed Aircraft Plant in Burbank, California using a full-sized mock-up of the FP-7A locomotive. The replica of the Chicago train station spanned several acres. The train crash was filmed using nine cameras and amounted to just fourteen seconds of screentime. The cost of the set, its filming and equipment totalled five hundred thousand dollars, which averaged to about thirty-six thousand dollars for each second of the sequence.
The train crash at the end of the movie was inspired by a real train crash on the morning of January 15, 1953, when the Federal overran the end of the track into the concourse of Washington's Union Station. The locomotive and two passenger cars crashed through the Stationmaster's office and fell through the floor of Union Station into the baggage room below.
While the climactic ending of the movie was filmed in a California aircraft hangar, the final POV approach shot coming into "Central Station" was on Track 2 of what is now the Ogilvie Transportation Center (OTC) in Chicago. While Chief Donaldson describes the danger as "two hundred tons of locomotive smashing through Central Station on its way to Marshall Field's," it would have to turn left in order to do so, as Track 2 comes in due south, and Marshall Field's (now Macy's) is about a mile off to the east. The Silver Streak would shoot through the lobby of OTC, slide down the escalators, and land in a big heap in the middle of Madison Street.