To create authenticity, the production used actual lenses, cameras and sound equipment from the 1920s, and used the exact same lighting that would have been done. In addition, 'Gordon Willis' took the exposed negatives to the shower, and stomped on them.
In 2007, Italian psychologists discovered a rare form of brain damage which affects its victims much like Zelig's condition (without, of course, the accompanying physical transformations). Researcher Giovannina Conchiglia and associates have proposed the name "Zelig-like Syndrome" for the disorder, because of the parallels to the film.
In order to help create the look of genuine footage from the 1930s, DuArt, the lab that handled processing, called some of their experienced technicians (who were experienced with processing techniques of the 1930s) out of retirement.
Silent screen legend, Lillian Gish, was filmed for a scene in "Zelig". She scolded director of photography, Gordon Willis, on his lighting set-up and, while the crew watched aghast, gave Willis step by step instructions on how to re-light the scene. Willis complied. The scene did not make it into the final version of the film.
Cinematographer Gordon Willis has said of this film: ""There was a point when I thought we were never going to finish, a point when I thought I was going to go nuts. I have never worked so hard at making something difficult look so simple".
Famous people seen in the film by way of archive footage include (in alphabetical order) Max Amann, Josephine Baker, Clara Bow, Fanny Brice, Wilhelm Brückner, James Cagney, Al Capone, Charlie Chaplin, Calvin Coolidge, Marion Davies, Sepp Dietrich, Joe DiMaggio, Marie Dressler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lou Gehrig, Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, Harold 'Red' Grange, William Randolph Hearst, Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler, Bobby Jones, Robert Ley, Charles Lindbergh, Carole Lombard, Adolphe Menjou, Tom Mix, Pope Pius XI, Dolores del Río, Billy Rose, Babe Ruth, Julius Schaub, Gregor Strasser, Julius Streicher, Franz von Epp, Franz Pfeffer von Salomon, Jimmy Walker, and Claire Windsor.
Because it took so long to match Woody Allen to the old newsreel footage, Allen managed to film and complete A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982) and Broadway Danny Rose (1984), in the time it took to complete this. He later claimed that there is no mechanical way to 'age' film, so they would either scrunch the negative up, or stomp on it.
The names of the six original songs heard in the film, which were about Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen), all of which had humorous titles and were all composed by Dick Hyman for the film, were "Reptile Eyes", "Chameleon Days", "Leonard the Lizard", "Doin' the Chameleon", "The Changing Man Concerto" and "You May Be Six People, But I Love You".
At the time Woody Allen's friend Dick Cavett was hosting a series of Time-Life historical specials for HBO in which a process was used to insert Cavett into archival footage. The process so intrigued Allen it became the impetus for making this film.
Like the ever-changing chameleon Zelig character, the film had an ever-changing title. The movie's working titles were "The Changing Man", "The Cat's Pajamas", "The Chameleon Man" and "Identity Crisis and Its Relationship to Personality Disorder" before finally the film was called "Zelig". "The Changing Man" title was still used for the picture as it became the name of a fictional film within this film.
Patrick Horgan replaced John Gielgud as the narrator. Gielgud had recorded the entire narration for the film, but Woody Allen decided to recast the role after hearing it because he thought Gielgud sounded "too grand" for the part.
One of a number of pictures which were filmed in black-and-white by director Woody Allen during his immediate post-Annie Hall (1977) period between the late 1970s and early-mid 1980s. The films include Manhattan (1979), Stardust Memories (1980), Zelig (1983) (also in color) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) (mostly in color but also in B&W). After that movie, Allen would then not make another b&w film for about another six years, until Shadows and Fog (1991) in 1991.
The movie was nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Costume Design and Best Cinematography, but the film failed to win Oscars in either category. The losses were ironically to Fanny and Alexander (1982), an Ingmar Bergman film, Allen being a big fan of his work, with many of his films having been influenced and inspired by Bergman's work.
This was the first of two consecutive films shot in black-and-white by director Woody Allen whose next film was the completely b&w Broadway Danny Rose (1984). Allen's next film after that movie was The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), which was partially filmed in black-and-white, just as Zelig (1983) had been partially filmed in color.
One of only three Woody Allen movies to receive Academy Award nominations (which were for Costume Design and Cinematography) without Woody himself getting Oscar nominated. The other two Allen films are Sweet and Lowdown (1999) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).
Star Billing: Woody Allen was top first billed whilst Mia Farrow received second billing. This is the only ever Allen - Farrow film where the pair have sole name-above-the-title shared billing in the vein of the earlier famous Allen - Keaton star-teamings. All the other Allen - Farrow films had at least three names or ensemble billing, or Allen did not appear being a writer-director only having no actor-star billing.
The name of the 1935 Warner Bros. film which was based on the life of Leonard Zelig was "The Changing Man". The movie, supposedly depicting the life of Zelig, is fictitious, and was never actually made. Like the story of Zelig, it is something totally invented by Woody Allen.
In one of Leonard Zelig's guises, Woody Allen as Zelig appears in black-face in this film as a black jazz musician. The ever-changing Zelig is also seen portraying a number of other nationalities including Asian, Native-American indigenous Indian, Aryan, (Asian) Indian, Hasidic and Scottish.
Alice (1990), Scoop (2006) and Zelig (1983) form a three-way tie for the shortest Woody Allen film title for a picture that Allen has written and directed. Of the three, Allen appears in Zelig (1983) and Scoop (2006). Antz (1998) is the shortest for an Allen film where he performs only as an actor.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
The film's closing epilogue states: "Leonard Zelig and Eudora Fletcher lived full and happy years together. She continued practicing psychoanalysis while he gave occasional lectures about his experiences. Zelig's episodes of character change grew less and less frequent and eventually his malady disappeared completely. On his deathbed he told doctors that he had had a good life and the only annoying thing about dying was that he had just begun reading Moby Dick and wanted to see how it came out".