According to the book "Cassavetes on Cassavetes" (2001) by Ray Carney, John Cassavetes originally only wanted to sell the screenplay to Columbia pictures, which he finished early in 1979. However, once Barbra Streisand turned down the offer to play the lead role, it was offered to Gena Rowlands, and then Columbia offered Cassavetes the chance to direct, it being also reported that the studio insisted Cassavetes direct it.
John Cassavetes rounded up actual gangsters and various criminals for the scene in Tony Tanzini (Basilio Franchina)'s apartment. Cassavetes solicited their opinions about the realism of the scene. One professional hit man got into an argument with Cassavetes about how the scene would have really taken place if he were in that situation.
Actress Gena Rowlands once said of her ex-gun moll character: "When I read the script, I knew I wanted a walk for her. I wanted something that, from the minute you saw me, you knew I could handle myself on the streets of New York. So I started thinking about when I lived in New York, how different I walked down the street when there was nobody but me. It was a walk that said, they'd better watch out".
John Cassavetes wrote a sequel in the late 1980s entitled "Gloria 2". It was briefly mentioned in a Chicago Tribune article published on 28th February 1989, twenty-five days after his death, that Gena Rowlands would appear in the film, but it never got made.
Ray Carney in "Cassavetes on Cassavetes" (2001) said this movie was "the film [writer-director John] Cassavetes believed in least of any of the work he had done" since directing the Stanley Kramer produced A Child Is Waiting (1963) where Cassavetes had hated being involved with Kramer, yet Gloria (1980) got "the most favorable reviews of any film [Cassavetes] ever made".
John Adames was discovered by the casting director's sister. While her brother was searching for a child actor to play Phil, she heard about a bright boy who lived in her neighborhood. She found Adames and the casting director went to his school and asked him to audition.
Gena Rowlands' mob-mom character of Gloria Swenson was a performance and characterization in the style and tradition of old Warner Brothers gangster movies and melodramas from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
The film was selected to screen in competition at the Venice Film Festival in 1980 where writer-director John Cassavetes received an Honorable Mention OCIC Award and the film tied to win the prestigious Golden Lion Award with Louis Malle's Atlantic City (1980). Both films were crime-dramas.
John Cassavetes employed an unusual and rather ingenious method to cast Juan Adames (aka John Adames) as the character of Phil Dawn. Cassavetes held a casting call in a New York disco with hundreds of children and their parents together in the same room. A lot of the parents complained, but Cassavetes wanted a child who was tough enough to stand out in such an intimidating situation.
The character of the boy was originally written by John Cassavetes for then-Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer child star Rick Schroder, who had just made a big impact in The Champ (1979) and the studio wanted another vehicle for him so Cassavetes wrote the original script for this picture then known as "One Summer Night". Schroder went on to do other films and was unavailable, MGM then lost interest in the project, and Cassavetes then took the property to the Columbia Pictures studio, and the character was altered to be Puerto Rican.
Described by executive producer Sam Shaw as "a poor man's Dakota", the filming location of an apartment at 800 Riverside Drive was an equally remarkable building that still retained traces of its former elegance and the charm of a more leisured era. Like the Concourse Plaza, it suffered a period of decline, then was taken over by the city, which recently sold it to the tenants. With the help of federal funds, the owners were working to restore it to its original glory. Even in its condition at the time, the apartments would turn the average city-dweller green with envy. They were large, airy and high ceilinged, most with two or more bathrooms, full-sized dining rooms and many closets. The kitchens were spacious and usually adjoined by pantries. Three different apartments in 800 Riverside Drive serve as Gloria's sister's pad (a temporary hideout for Phil and Gloria), mob leader Tony Tanzini's headquarters, and a hotel room. The imagination and taste of production designer Rene D'Auriac, assistant art director John Dapper, and set decorator John Godfrey, transformed the rooms in both the Concourse Plaza and 800 Riverside Drive into appropriate settings for the movie's characters. Writer-director John Cassavetes, who supervises every detail from make up to lighting on his films, chuckled: "In the beginning, I had to instruct them in bad taste, but now they're beginning to revel in it". Cassavetes wouldn't allow D' Auriac to touch the graffiti in the Concourse Plaza."You'll win an Academy Award", Cassavetes told D' Auriac.
A story about a woman on the lam does not suggest an extensive wardrobe, but director John Cassavetes' "Gloria" is a very special gun moll. Gloria loves clothes and has the money to buy the best; as well, she has an eye for cut and color. Costume designer Peggy Farrell, who had recently won an Emmy for the TV drama, Holocaust (1978), and most recently had worked on Night of the Juggler (1980), showed Cassavetes examples of the work of numerous top designers. Struck by the quality of his fabrics and his print patterns, Cassavetes decided on the boutique collection of Emanuel Ungaro, a disciple of Balenciaga, and recognized as one of the last of the "grand couturiers". Ungaro was also a man with a keen sense of humor. His designs, as worn by lead actress Gena Rowlands in Gloria (1980) are Ungaro a la Cassavetes. Skirts have been shortened drastically and shoulders have been given additional padding; in fact, at the final fitting session, Cassavetes was so carried away with the padded look, he wanted them in the pajamas. An outraged look from his long-suffering wife and star Gena Rowlands put an end to that fantasy, but if Cassavetes could have had his way, the look for 1981 would have been pads on pads.
The movie was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award at the first ever Awards Ceremony in 1980. John Adames received a nomination for Worst Supporting Actor and went on to win the Razzie in this category, tying with Laurence Olivier for The Jazz Singer (1980).
There was on-set conflict between writer-director John Cassavetes and production manager Stephen F. Kesten who constantly fought according to Assistant Director Mike Haley (Michael Haley) who has said the pair almost had a punch-up during filming in New Jersey.
The film's title sequence features the water colors of Romare Bearden, who was the internationally recognized dean of Black America artists. Bearden had shown his work in museums and galleries across the nation, including the Museum of Modern Art; the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Detroit Museum; and others. Bearden had also installed or was installing mosaics and murals in a county building in Atlanta, two New York schools, and a hospital, Lincoln Center, and Baltimore's new mass transit system.
Principal photography on the picture was marred by conflict between writer-director John Cassavetes and the Columbia Pictures studio. The film's cinematographer Fred Schuler has said: "If you'd talk about money, well, that was exactly what John didn't want to hear".
Once the social center of a thriving community, the elegant Concourse Plaza Hotel was the home of politicians, judges and baseball players. Babe Ruth had a luxurious suite in the hotel and held court at night in the fabled bar. During the 1930s and 1940s, the ballroom was the scene of countless wedding receptions and Bar Mitzvahs. But post-World War II, the neighborhood and its crown jewel began to deteriorate, and in the 1960s the occupants of the Concourse Plaza were mainly welfare families packed into crumbling apartments. Abandoned for four years, the hotel was a decaying hulk, dirt-crusted, graffiti-coated, with peeling walls and cracking plaster. It was home only to an army of scrawny, smelly cats. On seeing this dilapidated palace, director John Cassavetes was delighted and chose two suites on opposite ends of the fourth floor of the U-shaped building to serve as apartments for the Dawn family and Gloria Swenson (Gena Rowlands).
After three weeks of rehearsal, principal photography on Gloria (1980), began filming on the Grand Concourse in New York City. Most of the action takes place in two locations, at an apartment house at 800 Riverside Drive, and at the former Concourse Plaza Hotel on One Hundred & Sixty-First Street in the South Bronx.
Major New York locations the picture filmed at included 104th Street, 86th Street, Times Square, Corona, Flushing, an 800 Riverside Drive apartment, the former Concourse Plaza Hotel at 161st Street, and interstate in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Prior to the start of rehearsals on Gloria (1980), five weeks were spent searching for possible contenders for the role of Phil Dawn. Every acting agency in New York was contacted for spirited, intelligent youngsters ranging from age five to seven. In addition, eight talent scouts were hired and sent out to thoroughly scour the city's boroughs - visiting schools, after-hours programs, Saturday club groups, local playgrounds and, of course, the streets. After talking to likely candidates, they called their parents and explained what the movie was about and what working on it would entail. By the time they finished, there were four hundred candidates. On a Saturday morning in late June, the hopefuls were invited to the fashionable disco "New York, New York," to meet and be interviewed by John Cassavetes. A horde of children, some with just their parents, others with their entire family for support, jammed into the club. Not every candidate made it due to illness, previous engagements, or just plain stage fright caused no-shows. But over a period of five hours, Cassavetes personally interviewed over three hundred young boys. From that assembly, seven-year-old John Adames came out the champ.
The production notes for the picture state that the filmmaker John Cassavetes and eight talent scouts spent around five weeks searching for a child actor "ranging from age five to seven" to be cast as the seven year old boy character of Phil Dawn. The casting call was reduced to around four hundred possibilities after the casting process had contacted and visited streets, schools, playgrounds, Saturday club groups, talent and casting agencies, as well as after-hours child care facilities. During an open casting call, Cassavetes auditioned over "300 young boys" when finally John Adames was discovered and cast.