The movie was originally inspired by Peter Greenaway's attempts to draw a house he'd rented for a vacation and finding that the sun rising/falling changed the shadows and appearance too rapidly for a drawing to be completed in one sitting. He thus spent a specific period each day drawing the house from a specific angle (like the draughtsman in the movie).
The length of the film's original cut ran about three hours long. But Peter Greenaway's original cut ran over four hours. He has stated his intention to edit the cut footage, along with additional outtakes, into an entirely new feature entitled "The Hedgecutters".
The "contract" of the film's title required draughtsman Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins') to draw twelve landscape drawings of the Herbert Estate in twelve days for which he would be paid £8 each per drawing and be provided board and lodgings with hospitality for him and his servant, as well as Mrs Herbert (Janet Suzman), aka Virginia Herbert, will be contractually obliged, in the absence of Mr. Herbert, "to meet Mr. Neville in private and to comply with his requests concerning his pleasure".
The film is set in the 17th century in the year of 1694 at the end of the reign of the English co-regency monarchy of William and Mary who reigned during the period between the years of 1689 and 1694 until Mary died in the latter year.
Director Peter Greenaway has said: "I consider that 90% of my films one way or another refers to paintings. "Contract" [The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)] quite openly refers to Caravaggio, Georges de La Tour and other French and Italian artists" as well as Vermeer, Rembrandt, and other Baroque artists.
Director Peter Greenaway said of this film in publicity for this picture in the American 'Coming Attractions' magazine: "The camera retains, like the the draughtsman, a steady, uncommitted, observant eye as interested in the texture of fabric, the gloom of candlelight, the wind in the elm trees, as in the demeanor of a corpse or the discomfort of a victim of sexual coercion".
The moated manor house and estate including its maze and gardens featured in the film as the picture's central locale is known in real life as "Groombridge Place" and "Groombridge Place Garden". It is situated near Tunbridge Wells in the village of Groombridge in the English county of Kent in England. The film though is set not in Kent but in a rural region of the county of Wiltshire in England.