This is the first collaboration between composer Jerry Goldsmith and co-director Joe Dante which would last for another seven films - one of the longest director/composer relationships on record. These collaborations would also include several productions by Steven Spielberg's companies Amblin Entertainment and Dreamworks Pictures.
Steven Spielberg ended his friendship with John Landis as a result of the accident. He said that the crash had "made me grow up a little more" and had left everyone who worked on the movie "sick to the centre of our souls." With regard to how the crash had influenced people's attitudes towards safety, he said: "No movie is worth dying for. I think people are standing up much more now than ever before to producers and directors who ask too much. If something isn't safe, it's the right and responsibility of every actor or crew member to yell, 'Cut!'"
Known for his meticulous preparation, John Lithgow had worked out certain scenes in his airplane seat in conjunction with the manufactured lightning outside the window. However, during filming, the crew member in charge of the lightning flashes would activate it too soon or too late, throwing off Lithgow's timing. Although initially annoyed, he later came to value the experience after viewing the film, seeing that it added to his anxious, fearful character as he looked genuinely startled by the lightning.
Renee Chen and My-ca Dinh Le were being paid under the table to circumvent California's child labor laws, which did not permit children to work at night. John Landis opted not to seek a special waiver, either because he did not think he would get permission for such a late hour or because he knew he would never get approval to have young children as part of a scene with a large number of explosives. The casting agents were unaware that the children would be involved in such a dangerous scene. Associate producer George Folsey Jr. told the children's parents not to tell any firefighters on set that the children were part of the scene, and also hid them from a fire safety officer who also worked as a welfare worker. A fire safety officer was concerned the blasts would cause a crash, but did not tell Landis of his concerns.
Another story considered by Steven Spielberg for the film was one concerning a bully who has the tables turned on him during Halloween night, but problems with the story ensued, and it was eventually scrapped.
The accident led to civil and criminal action against the filmmakers which lasted nearly a decade. Le's father, psychologist Dr. Daniel Lee, testified that he heard Landis instructing the helicopter to fly lower. All four parents testified that they were never told that there would be helicopters or explosives on set, and were reassured that there would be no danger, only noise. Dr. Lee, who survived the Vietnam War and immigrated with his wife to the United States, was horrified when the explosions began on the Vietnamese village set, bringing back memories of the war.
William Shatner at one point was in consideration to reprise his lead role in the Nightmare at 20,000 Feet segment. He had to turn it down due to prior commitments. Ultimately John Lithgow was cast in the role.
Steven Spielberg briefly considered Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone: The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street (1960) about neighborhood paranoia that's set off by a force of invading aliens from the original Twilight Zone series as a potential segment which he canceled because it involved nighttime filming with children and special effects. This was mainly due to the tragedy that occurred on the "Time Out" segment. He finally chose "Kick the Can" from the original series.
Vic Morrow's last completed film was 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982). In an eerily prescient scene that foreshadows his tragic death in this film, Murrow's superior says to him, "If you don't get the girl by 11 o'clock tomorrow, I'll have your head!" Morrow's character replies, "We'll fly her in - in a helicopter."
As Vic Morrow was waiting to film what would turn out to be scene that killed him, he said to a production assistant, "I must be out of my mind to be doing this. I should've asked for a stunt double. What can they do but kill me, right?!" While he was filming "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" in 1974, he insisted on having a one million dollar life insurance policy before he would shoot any scenes involving the helicopter he was due to ride in. He was very insistent, and when asked why, Morrow replied "I have always had a premonition I was going to die in a helicopter crash!"
John Landis's segments were the first to be filmed, and Steven Spielberg considered canceling the entire project after the deadly helicopter crash. Ultimately the remaining segments were completed in this order: It's a Good Life, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, and Kick the Can (Spielberg's segment).
At the trial over the helicopter incident, the defense claimed that the explosions were detonated at the wrong time. Randall Robinson, an assistant cameraman on board the helicopter, testified that production manager Dan Allingham told pilot Dorcey Wingo, "That's too much. Let's get out of here," when the explosions were detonated, but John Landis shouted over the radio: "Get lower, lower! Get over!" Robinson said that Wingo tried to leave the area, but that "we lost our control and regained it and then I could feel something let go and we began spinning around in circles." Steve Lydecker, also a camera operator on board, testified that Landis had earlier "shrugged off" warnings about the stunt with the comment "We may lose the helicopter." While Lydecker acknowledged that Landis may have been joking when he made the remark, he said: "I learned not to take anything the man said as a joke. It was his attitude. He didn't have time for suggestions from anybody."
Before this movie became an anthology of four stories, Warner Bros. initially explored a single story film idea with the cooperation of Rod Serling's wife Carol Serling. One of these ideas was Miracle Mile (1988) written by Steve De Jarnatt, who went on to make that film in 1988.
The vehicles depicted in the Ku Klux Klan scene provide the dating. With the exception of a Chevrolet, most of them are part of the first generation of the Ford F-Series. This "generation" was in production from 1948 to 1952.
John Landis violated California's child labour laws by hiring 7-year-old Myca Dinh Le and 6-year-old Renee Shin-Yi Chen without the required permits. Landis and several other staff members were also responsible for a number of labor violations connected with other people involved in the accident, all of which came to light after the incident had occurred.
The segments "It's a Good Life" and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" are both parodied in two Treehouse of Horror specials of The Simpsons (1989) (II & IV), and in both of them, Bart Simpson is the main character. Nancy Cartwright is the voice of Bart, and, she has a small role in this movie.
Jerry Goldsmith's recording sessions for the score took place from February 28 to March 3, 1983, with each recording day devoted to each segment of the film. Steven Spielberg attended most of these sessions. However, it was Joe Dante who mainly supervised the entire session, filling in for George Miller and John Landis, who were not involved in the post-production of the film which included the music. Dante and Goldsmith would become good friends and begin a fruitful collaboration that would last over the next two decades (1983-2003).
Exterior footage of the airplane on which John Valentine (John Lithgow) believes that he sees someone trying to sabotage the wing is of the Global Airways Boeing 707, from Skyjacked (1972) with added storm effects.
Joseph Williams, who contributed the song "Anesthesia" for the film, is the son of legendary composer John Williams, who is Steven Spielberg's personal friend and collaborator for the last four decades. Also Jerry Williams, who is John's brother, was the percussionist on the score.
During the prologue (or opening scene), the duo begin to mark their favorite Twilight Zones, soon they reach Time Enough at Last starring Burgess Meredith, who starred in that show and supplied the voice of the narrator in the film.
For each of the four segments, each director (Steven Spielberg, John Landis, George Miller and Joe Dante), would use their regular production teams, with Spielberg and Landis acting as producers of the film as an independent production financed by Warner Bros. Richard Matheson was hired to adapt and expand the three stories from the original series.
When the time-traveling character Bill Connor finds himself targeted by the Ku Klux Klan, his first question is "Where Am I?". Nobody replies to him. A short while later, the license plate of a car provides a possible answer: Alabama.
Technically, this is the second collaboration between director Steven Spielberg and composer Jerry Goldsmith. Spielberg "allegedly" had a big hand in Poltergeist (1982) and oversaw the post-production on that film and this film. This film would be the only time that Goldsmith would work with director John Landis, who had worked with the late Elmer Bernstein during that time period and was his composer of choice. He would later work with George Miller on Babe (1995), and his score was ultimately replaced by Australian composer Nigel Westlake when the film's tone changed from its original dark overtones to family fare. Goldsmith and Joe Dante would work together frequently over seven films spanning two decades before Goldsmith's untimely death in 2004. Goldsmith and Spielberg would not work together again except in a producing capacity, as John Williams is his personal composer.
The spotting sessions for Jerry Goldsmith's landmark score began on December 22, 1982 and did not finish until January of 1983, as each segment was completed. Usually each music track has a slate number listed but in this case it was the initials of each director (Spielberg, Landis, Miller and Dante) for the music in their segment.
In the opening sequence Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks are discussing the "Twilight Zone" television series. Aykroyd mentions an episode of the series about a man who acquires a stopwatch that has the power to stop time. Brooks says that the episode he is talking about is actually an episode of another series titled "The Outer Limits". Aykroyd reaffirms that it is an episode of "The Twilight Zone". Aykroyd is, in fact, correct. The episode he is referring to is an actual episode of "The Twilight Zone". It is titled "A Kind of Stopwatch". It is from the third season and it aired October 18, 1963.
Boris Sagal was a prolific TV director and helmed the 1961 Twilight Zone episode 'The Arrival'. In it, a FAA man comes to believe that a mysterious passenger plane that has landed unmanned at an airport is actually imaginary. To prove this, the man walks into the running propeller of the plane, which promptly disappears. In 1981, Sagal was directing the TV movie World War III, and after filming some aerial shots the helicopter he was riding in landed in the parking lot of the Timberline Hotel in Oregon. Upon exiting, Sagal turned the wrong way and walked into the tail rotor of the chopper; he died after surgery in Portland. Sagal had also previously directed the pilot episode of Combat!, starring Vic Morrow... who, of course, died during this film after a helicopter crashed and decapitated him.
Carol Serling: as the woman who asks "Is there something wrong?" when the flight attendants knock on the airplane restroom door, holding a copy of the Twilight Zone magazine in her arms. She was the wife of The Twilight Zone (1959) creator Rod Serling.
Andy House: The Second Assistant Director. Second Assistant directors work primarily on action scenes or getting exterior filler shots, and the tragedy on Segment #1 might have had something to do with this "Smithee" credit.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Just prior to filming, Dan Aykroyd, who plays The Passenger in the film's prologue, married Donna Dixon, who is featured in the "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" segment, which ends with Aykroyd's appearance as an ambulance driver who comforts John Lithgow's character.
The original conception of the film ending was that, after the segments had been completed, each character would intersect with one another. This idea was mainly scrapped, but it briefly appears as an "epilogue", as Dan Aykroyd's character appears at the very end of the "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" segment and comforts John Lithgow's character from the segment by playing "The Midnight Special" by Creedence Clearwater Revival, which was also used in the prologue of the film.