After the first day of shooting, when actor John Hurt was exposed for the first time to the inconveniences of having his make-up applied and walking around in it, he called his wife, saying, "I think they finally managed to make me hate acting."
When Paramount studio executives were shown a cut of the film, they wanted the film's opening and closing surrealist sequences to be cut. Executive producer Mel Brooks, according to producer Stuart Cornfeld, said to them: "We are involved in a business venture. We screened the film for you to bring you up to date as to the status of that venture. Do not misconstrue this as our soliciting the input of raging primitives."
Following the death of the real Joseph "John" Merrick, parts of his body were preserved for medical science to study. Some internal organs were kept in jars, and plaster casts were taken of his head, an arm, and a foot. Although the organs were destroyed by German air raids during the Second World War, the casts survived and are kept at the London Hospital. The makeup for John Hurt, who played Merrick in the film, was designed directly from those casts.
The Elephant Man makeup took seven to eight hours to apply each day and two hours to remove. John Hurt would arrive on set at 5.00am and shoot from noon until 10.00pm. Because of the strain on the actor, he worked alternate days.
Merrick's condition was undiagnosed at the time of his death. Later studies of his skeleton and the casts made of his body led researchers to suggest he suffered from neurofibromatosis (NF) type I, a genetic condition that 1 in 4,000 persons suffer from. The NF Foundation used the movie as a fund raising tool and credited it with making the disease more widely known. Later examination, including CT scans of the skeleton, lead researchers to believe he suffered from Proteus syndrome, a much rarer condition than NF. A scientist in 2001 speculated that Merrick may have suffered from a combination of neurofibromatosis type I and Proteus syndrome. In 2003, researchers used surviving DNA samples from Merrick in an attempt to determine his unique condition. However these tests were inconclusive and the cause of Joseph Merrick's medical condition remains unknown.
Due to the constrictive deformity of his mouth, Merrick never spoke as clearly in real life as he does in the film. Doctor Frederick Treves often had to act as Merrick's interpretor for visitors. Those who knew him well, such as hospital staff and friends, grew used to his impeded speech but it remained indistinct and worsened as Merrick's condition deteriorated.
Many of the events shown in the film never happened. Merrick was generally not ill-treated by his managers, and he certainly was never abducted from the hospital, as depicted in the film. The despicable night watchman (portrayed by the late Michael Elphick) never existed either. Merrick had a peaceful and generally uneventful, if short, life at the hospital.
When the nominees for the 53rd Annual Academy Awards were announced in February 1981, many in the industry were appalled that this movie was not going to be honored for its make-up effects. At the time there was not a regular make-up category and winners for make-up were cited with a special award. Feeling that the make-up technicians deserved to be rewarded for the film, a letter of protest was sent to the Academy's Board of Governors to ask them to change their minds and give the film a special award. The Academy refused, but in response to the outcry, they decided a year later to reward make-up artists with their own annual category, and thus the best make-up award was born. Because of earlier restrictions, some other notable films did not receive Oscars for their makeup, notably Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), The Wizard of Oz (1939), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).
The writers based this film on the memoirs of Dr. Frederick Treves as well as other true accounts, but avoided the play by Bernard Pomerance. The true name of the Elephant Man was not John Merrick as most believe, but Joseph Carey Merrick. Merrick was born in Leicester, England on August 5, 1862, and died in the Royal London Hospital on April 11, 1890, at the age of 27. When Dr. Treves wrote his memoir, he referred to him as John. His handwritten manuscript reveals that Treves knew that Merrick's name was Joseph, and deliberately crossed out Joseph and replaced it with John. Merrick's surviving correspondence shows he signed his name as Joseph, and contemporary newspaper articles about his case refer to him by his correct name. Why Treves changed his name to John is unknown, but this movie is partly responsible for that continuing misconception.
This film was executive produced by Mel Brooks, who was responsible for hiring director David Lynch and obtaining permission to film in black and white. He deliberately left his name off the credits, as he knew that people would get the wrong idea about the movie if they saw his name on the film, given his fame as a satirist.
Although critically acclaimed, there are some film critics (including Roger Ebert) who accuse the film of excessive sentiment. They tend to attribute it to David Lynch relying heavily on Frederick Treves' memoirs for source material.
David Lynch narrowed his choices for the film's cinematographer down to two names; Christopher Challis, who was considered a safe pair of hands, or Freddie Francis, who Lynch considered to be a much more talented cinematographer, but hadn't worked in that role since 1964. Lynch decided to go with his gut instinct and hire Francis after producer Stuart Cornfeld told him that "no-one ever made it big by being a pussy."
The opening scene of Merrick's mother being attacked by an elephant is not factual; his deformities were the result of disease, and he was called "The Elephant Man" because of his lumpy skin. However, the idea of an elephant attack comes from the melodramatic speech originally delivered by Tom Norman to those who paid to see Merrick exhibited.
The film was made and released around the time that another Elephant Man production was being performed, a stage play by Bernard Pomerance, which won the 1979 Tony Award for Best Play. This movie is not an adaptation of that play.
This film was based on two published works, "The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences" (1923) by Sir Frederick Treves (who was played by Anthony Hopkins) and "The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity" (1973) by Ashley Montagu, published fifty years after Treves' book. This movie was made and released about 57 years after the former, seven years after the latter, and ninety years after the death of The Elephant Man/Joseph Merrick who died in 1890.