When Paul Schrader was working on the script, he put in numerous shocking moments such as Jake LaMotta masturbating and dipping his penis into a bucket of ice. Schrader later admitted that the film held less personal significance to him than it did for Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese and he added the shocking material just to see what he could get past the studio. Ultimately, the masturbation was cut and, instead of putting his penis into the ice, La Motta pours the ice down his underwear.
Mardik Martin wrote the most traditional, linear script for the film (more of a traditional Jake LaMotta biography), but backed off on the project due to exhaustion after months of research. Paul Schrader made several changes to the script, including making, Joey La Motta, Jake's brother, the second most prominent character (by combining his actions with that of Jake's friend, Peter Savage) and starting the story in the middle of La Motta's career rather than at the beginning. Although they kept Schrader's overall structure, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro spent 5 weeks rewriting his version of the script until they had exactly the film they wanted (Scorsese and De Niro are uncredited as screenwriters for the film).
To achieve the feeling of brotherhood between the two lead actors, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci actually lived and trained with each other for some time before filming began. Ever since then, the two have been very close friends.
Sound effects for punches landing were made by squashing melons and tomatoes. Sound effects for camera flashes going off were sounds of gunshots. The original tapes were deliberately destroyed by the sound technicians, to prevent then being used again.
Robert De Niro accidentally broke Joe Pesci's rib in a sparring scene. This shot appears in the film: De Niro hits Pesci in the side, Pesci groans, and there is a quick cut to another angle. See also Casino.
Jake (Robert De Niro) asks Joey (Joe Pesci) "Did you fuck my wife?". Director Martin Scorsese didn't think that Pesci's reaction was strong enough, so he asked De Niro to say "Did you fuck your mother?". Scorsese also did not tell Pesci that the script called for him to be attacked.
The original script was vetoed by producer Steven Bach after he told Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro that Jake LaMotta was "a cockroach". De Niro and Scorsese took a few weeks in Italy to do an uncredited rewrite of the script, during which time the two found some sympathetic aspects of La Motta, which eventually satisfied the producers.
While preparing to play Jake LaMotta, Robert De Niro actually met with La Motta and became very well acquainted with him. They spent the entire shoot together so De Niro could portray his character accurately. La Motta said that De Niro has the ability to be a contender, and that he would have been happy to be his manager and trainer.
Actor John Turturro makes his film debut as the man at table at Webster Hall. Both Turturro and Robert De Niro have played characters named Billy Sunday. De Niro as Master Chief Leslie W. 'Billy' Sunday in Men of Honour, and Turturro as Coach Billy Sunday in He Got Game.
Martin Scorsese claims that nothing should be read into his using the On the Waterfront quote. Jake LaMotta, in his declining years, used to appear on stage reciting dialogue from television plays and even reading William Shakespeare. According to Scorsese, he'd planned to use something from "Richard III" (because in the corresponding real-life event LaMotta used it), but director Michael Powell suggested that "Richard III" wouldn't work in the context of the film because the film in general and LaMotta in particular are inherently American. Scorsese picked the lines from "On the Waterfront", which was a favorite recital source for LaMotta in real life.
Martin Scorsese was worried about the On the Waterfront recitation because he knew he'd be inviting critical comparison between the scene in this film and the original film's scene. Robert De Niro read it in various ways. Scorsese chose the take in which the recitation is extremely flat specifically to mute the comparison, and to suggest that it is simply a recitation and not indicative of how Jake LaMotta felt about his brother.
No original music was composed for the film. All of the music was taken from the works of an Italian composer named Pietro Mascagni. Martin Scorsese selected it because it had a quality of sadness to it that he felt fit the mood of the film.
The biblical quote at the end of the film ("All that I know is that I was blind, and now I can see") was a reference to Martin Scorsese's film professor, to whom the film was dedicated. The man died just before the film was released. Scorsese credits his teacher with helping him "to see".
The home movie sequences were in color to make them stand out from the rest of the film. Another reason was the feeling of reality, because at the particular time represented by the home movies, 8mm color home movie cameras were very popular.
In 1978, when Martin Scorsese was at an all-time low due to a near overdose resulting from an addiction to cocaine, Robert De Niro visited him at the hospital and told him that he had to clean himself up and make this movie about a boxer. At first, Scorsese refused (he didn't like sports movies anyway), but due to De Niro's persistence, he eventually gave in. Many claim (including Scorsese) that De Niro saved Scorsese's life by getting him back into work.
When the real Jake LaMotta saw the movie, he said it made him realize for the first time what a terrible person he had been. He asked the real Vicki LaMotta "Was I really like that?". Vicki replied "You were worse."
Martin Scorsese had trouble figuring out how he would cut together the last fight between Jake LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson (in particular when he is up against the ropes getting beaten). He used the original shot-list from the shower sequence in Psycho to help him figure it out. Scorsese later commented that it helped most in that the scene was the most horrific to him.
Martin Scorsese shunned the idea of filming the boxing scenes with multiple cameras. Instead, he planned months of carefully choreographed movements with one camera. He wanted the single camera to be like "a third fighter".
Neither Director of Photography Michael Chapman nor Martin Scorsese could get the right look for the amateur LaMotta home movies that comprise the only color sequences in "Raging Bull". Both men gave in to their natural instincts for camera placement and framing, which was the antithesis of what they wanted to achieve. They solved the problem by asking Teamsters working on the set to handle the camera in order to give the 16mm film the appropriate feel of amateur home movies.
Jake LaMotta's autobiography, co-written with friend Peter Savage, omitted mention of his brother, as did Mardik Martin's original screenplay. Unhappy with the result, the producers hired Paul Schrader to restructure it, and in the course of doing research on La Motta, the writer came across an article on the relationship between Jake and his brother Joey LaMotta. Schrader incorporated the relationship into the revised screenplay, co-opting the Savage character and creating a composite of the two men in the person of Joey La Motta. That relationship became the central plot theme in the revised screenplay and one of the primary reasons for the film's success.
According to Martin Scorsese on the DVD, when first screening some test 8mm footage of Robert De Niro sparring in a ring, he felt that something was off about the image. Michael Powell, who at that time had become something of a mentor and good friend to Scorsese, suggested that it was the color of the gloves that was throwing them off. Realizing this was true, Scorsese then decided the movie had to be filmed in black and white.
Nicholas Colasanto's character, Tommy Como, is based on the real-life mobster Frank Carbo, who basically ran all boxing in New York City during the 1940s and '50s. He eventually was sent to prison for conspiracy and extortion after being prosecuted by U.S. Attorney General 'Robert Francis Kennedy'.
When Martin Scorsese visited some boxing matches he was immediately struck by two images: the blood-soaked sponge wiped across the fighter's back, and the pendulous drops of blood hanging off the ropes.
Executives at United Artists were very reluctant to finance the film as they were perturbed by the extreme profanity and violence in the screenplay. With some justification, as it transpired: at one point it was doubtful whether the film would be released in the UK at all due to its extreme nature.
The majority of the film with Jake LaMotta as a younger man - including the boxing scenes - were shot first. Then production shut down for several months, giving Robert De Niro enough time to bulk up for his role as the older and much fatter La Motta. In those months, De Niro gained 60 pounds. It was De Niro's idea to do it this way. These scenes were generally shot with the minimum of takes as De Niro would become exhausted much more quickly.
The reasons why the film was made in black and white were mainly to differentiate it from Rocky as well as for period authenticity. Another reason was that Martin Scorsese didn't want to depict all that blood in a color picture.
United Artists were very frustrated by the amount of time Martin Scorsese took during post-production, thinking he was unnecessarily slow. Scorsese took unusual care as he genuinely believed that Raging Bull would be his last film and so he didn't want to compromise his vision. Conversely, as he neared completion, he also felt that the film was a form of cinematic rebirth for him. For this reason, he dedicates the film to his film professor (from New York University) Haig Manoogian "with love and resolution". Manoogian had helped Scorsese get his first film produced.
Paul Schrader was directing The Hardcore Life when Robert De Niro talked to him about needing help with a script. The first thing Schrader did was drive down to Key West and check the archives of a local newspaper. It was there that he learned that there were two La Mottas, something which is not referenced in Jake LaMotta's autobiography. That was when Schrader knew he had found the hook for the screenplay.
On March 31, 1981, Robert De Niro's Best Actor Oscar win created a rarity in the Academy's history, in that the real-life Jake LaMotta was in the audience witnessing the victory. That same evening Sissy Spacek won her first Best Actress Oscar for playing singer Loretta Lynn (Coal Miner's Daughter) who was also in the pavilion audience, making the gala event unique.
Of all the great dramatic films in history, it was the great Buster Keaton's comedy Battling Butler that was one of Scorsese's biggest inspirations in getting the "feel" of the boxing scenes just right, particularly (and most likely) from Keaton's surprisingly realistic, climactic fight. As quoted in the book "Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull" edited by Kevin J. Hayes (Cambridge University Press. Copyright 2005), Scorsese called Keaton "the only person who had the right attitude about boxing in the movies" for him.
According to the book "The Academy Awards: The Complete Unofficial History" by J. Piazza & G. Kinn (2008), "All the action on the set of Raging Bull was shut down for four months so that 'Robert de Niro' could keep it going in his digestive system. He gained 56 pounds".