Author Paddy Chayefsky disowned this movie. Even though the dialogue in the screenplay was almost verbatim from his novel he reportedly objected to the general tone of the film and the shouting of his precious words by the actors, this conflicting with Ken Russell's typical style of wanting heightened performances. Paddy Chayefsky had not seen the film before he took his name off the credits, the script being credited to "Sidney Aaron", a pseudonym for Chayefsky, the two names being Chayefsky's real first and middle names. Director Ken Russell and Chayefsky fought constantly during production, Russell maintaining that almost nothing was changed from Chayefsky's script and stating that he was "impossible to please."
In a 1981 interview with 'The New York Times', actress Blair Brown said many of the actors and crew tried out the isolation tank. William Hurt actually hallucinated, while Brown found it very peaceful.
This film was an early user of primitive CGI. The final transformation segments scanned in footage of William Hurt wearing Dick Smith's distorted bodysuits and added in the granular energy effect by computer. This film was also one of the first movies to use computer assistance to make rotoscope mattes (needed for both Hurt's and Blair Blown's transformation in the final sequence).
Paddy Chayefsky's novel was partially based on the work of neuroscientist and dolphin researcher John Cunningham Lilly, who invented the isolation tank, and first started taking drugs while "tanking". Lilly's work had inspired Mike Nichols' earlier dolphin movie The Day of the Dolphin (1973). Lilly was an uncredited scientific researcher on both pictures.
William Hurt says that he knew just a little about Ken Russell prior working with him, and just because he had seen his movies. About his first meeting with Russell, Hurt said in an interview: "We were in this little room and there was this radiator and a little desk and a chair and we didn't sit for a half an hour, neither one of us. Finally he (Russell) sat on a radiator and I sat on the floor. When he sat on the radiator his pants pulled up and I saw he had Betty Boop socks on. It was then I thought, I'll do it."
Ken Russell, objecting to Paddy Chayefsky's interference, had the writer banned from the set. Chayevsky reportedly tried to have Russell removed as director, but by then the film was already well under way.
Ken Russell hated Paddy Chayefsky's script, calling it ponderous, pretentious and laboured. However, he was in a situation where, if he changed so much as one word of the script, he would have been sued. He resolved this by having the actors mumble their lines, or give speeches in between mouthfuls of food or wine.
At one point, Eddie Jessup mentions the work of "Tart, Ornstein and Deikman." This is a reference to Charles Tart, Robert Ornstein and Arthur Deikman, all of whom wrote books about altered states of consciousness, and all of whom have been involved in modern esoteric spiritual movements, such as the Gurdjieff Work.
The film was made and released about two years after its source novel of the same name by Paddy Chayefsky was first published in 1978. The book was a best-seller and was Chayefsky's only ever novel. The story was the second medically related screenplay Chayefsky had done in recent times, he having recently won an Oscar for The Hospital (1971). Chayefsky spent two years in Boston doing research for the novel and had a lot of stress during this consequently suffering a heart attack in 1977. Moreover, according to the "Guide to the Paddy Chayefsky Papers, 1907 - 1998", Chayefsky was sued by one of the people assisting him with the research. Chayefsky died just over six months after the movie first launched at the end of 1980. "Altered States" was the final film that was written by Chayefsky.
One of the few films to be released theatrically with the "Megasound" sound system format, a surround sound system which was similar to "Sensurround". "Megasound" was a movie theater sound system created by Warner Bros in the early 1980s. It was used to enhance the premiere engagements of a handful of Warner features. Theaters equipped for "Megasound" had additional speakers mounted on the left, right and rear walls of the auditorium. Selected soundtrack events with lots of low-frequency content (thuds, crashes, explosions, etc) were directed to these speakers at very high volume, creating a visceral effect intended to thrill the audience.
The film's themes and meaning has oft been debated with many interpretations being put forward such that it's the Orpheus and Eurydice myth; that it's the Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde yarn; that it's really the story Mary and Jesus. The film's writer Paddy Chayefsky once revealed in an interview that "Altered States" was actually really a love story.
In a 2010 interview with The Arts Desk, William Hurt reports reading the script for the first time while in a Cuban coffee shop. By his own admission, after reading, he "couldn't stop weeping for about half an hour" and he "couldn't stand up for 45 minutes", because the script "was every idea that I had been thinking about. Everything was in this thing." He didn't want to star in the movie himself but really wanted to convince Chayefsky to make it anyway, because "the ideas had to get out". So he "took the script away for two weeks, memorized every word, worked on the entire structure of the entire thing, every scene" and went in after two weeks. Hurt says that "Fifty-nine minutes and 30 seconds later" he stood up and went like, "That's why I think you have to make it. And I'm going." But at that point, Arthur (Penn), Paddy Chayefsky and Howard Godfrey went in a corner and started talking; after they were done, they told him they would have made the movie only if he was in it.
Future watchers may be confused by the nuclear trefoils seen around the school. These don't indicate radiation, but designate the areas as fallout shelters in case of nuclear war. The signs fell into disuse in the later 1980's, when the government admitted that nuclear war was probably not survivable.
The film's "Altered States" title refers to "altered states of consciousness" which can also be called "altered states of awareness" or "altered states of mind". This is any state which is significantly medically different to a normal waking state i.e. a normal waking beta wave state. The term was first used around 1966 by Arnold M. Ludwig and entered the popular lexicon around 1969 when Charles Tart used the expression to describe induced changes in a person's mental state.
One of the film's main movie poster featured a long preamble that read: "In the basement of a university medical school Dr. Jessup floats naked in total darkness. The most terrifying experiment in the history of science is out of control... and the subject is himself."
Movie poster artwork featured an upside-down, tanked and medically wired-up William Hurt it being similar in design concept to that previously used by the medical thriller movie Coma (1978) released a couple of years earlier.