During the opening sequence when the Willem Dafoe character is shown printing money the film crew is actually creating counterfeit bills. They had a convicted counterfeiter on set showing them how it is done. They were filming out in the desert and Willem Dafoe said that every time a helicopter flew over the building they were sure it was the police coming to arrest them all.
Despite the crew's best efforts, some of the counterfeit bills made for the film did make it into circulation. The bills' quality was very, very good, but the Treasury seal on the funny money used the letter X, which is not a valid Federal Reserve Bank letter. The Secret Service picked up many of the X bills for quite a while after filming wrapped.
The car chase sequence took six weeks to shoot. It was the last thing shot - apparently so that, if anything happened to the principle actors, the filmmakers would at least have the bulk of their movie completed without having to replace anybody.
The freeway car chase was filmed with the traffic flowing backwards. While Chance and Vukovich appear to be driving against traffic, they are in fact going in the proper direction for the U.S.; it is the rest of traffic that's moving on the wrong side of the road (Chance drives on the right side of the road, but the traffic is driving on the left). This was done to increase tension for the audience.
A year after the film came out, John Pankow met an undercover NYPD cop in a coffee shop who told John that his panicking during the highway chase scene was a completely accurate and realistic response to such a situation.
Like Dennis Hopper's Colors (1988), the film was shot in gang territory: Temple Street and 18th Street, the Nickerson Gardens Project in Watts, MacArthur Park, Slauson Avenue in South Central and the Boyle Heights Section of East Los Angeles.
Friedkin filmed but did not include a scene in which Vukovich, nearing the breaking point prior to the final showdown with Masters, desperately tries to reconcile with his ex-wife. This deleted scene is found on the Special Edition DVD along with an interview with Friedkin, who says he doesn't remember why he cut it, and now regrets doing so.
1980s band Wang Chung provided much of the soundtrack for this movie. When Chance enters the topless bar for the first time, Wang Chung's first hit song, "Dance Hall Days", is playing in the background.
Chance's car in the chase is a 1985 Chevy Impala F41. It was rented from the LAPD. In addition, several other cars in the film were rented from neighboring California Law Enforcement agencies such as Orange County Sheriff's Office, California Highway Patrol, while some were used ex-police cruisers.
William Friedkin insisted that every activity depicted in the movie should be portrayed with extreme accuracy. Two ex-cons (convicted for money counterfeiting) were hired as technical consultants for the money printing scenes. And for the police procedures scenes, Friedkin hired real T-Men Gerald Petievich (also author of the book "To Live and Die in LA"), Rick Petievich (Gerald's brother) and LAPD living legend Jack Hoar.
One Hollywood legend holds that Michael Mann sued William Friedkin for plagiarism over 'To Live and Die in L.A.' He accused Friedkin of stealing the entire concept of Miami Vice (1984) and lost the lawsuit. However, William Friedkin himself has said, "Michael Mann and I have been good friends for 30 years.... nothing like this ever happened."
'William Friedken' had created one of the most recognised car chases ever filmed in The French Connection (1971). In this film, for the first time, the car chase has the police chasing the criminals as they both drive on the wrong side of the road, into oncoming traffic.
The chain of events that led to William Petersen and John Pankow's casting in the film began when director William Friedkin decided to not bother trying to cast established film stars due to the project's relatively low budget ($6 million). Friedkin was born and began his career in Chicago and was familiar with fellow Chicagoan Petersen's work, and with him in mind for the lead role of Chance, he called Petersen in for a reading of the script and immediately offered him the part. When Petersen came in to accept the role, he brought Pankow because the two men were longtime friends and had acted in many Chicago-area projects, and told Friedkin he thought Pankow would be perfect for the role of Vukovich. The director ran a scene with Pankow and then cast him on the spot.
William Friedkin specifically asked Wang Chung to NOT do a song titled "To Live and Die in LA," since he thought it would be too cheesy. Wang Chung went ahead and did the title track and played it for Friedkin, who changed his mind and loved the song.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
The script originally called for Vukovich to die in the locker-room shootout. At the last minute, William Friedkin and Gerald Petievich decided to change the story, having Chance die in the shootout, and later showing Vukovich taking on some of Chance's characteristics. Their reasoning was that no one would ever expect the hero, even an antihero, to die before the climactic showdown. MGM was nervous about this and asked Friedkin to shoot a different ending. Friedkin shot an alternate take of the locker-room shootout, in which Chance is hit in the belly instead of the head, and he shot an alternate ending which had Chance and Vukovich being transferred to a remote station outside Anchorage, Alaska. Although the crew went as far as adding credits to this alternate ending, Friedkin hated this ending and insisted on the original. The alternate ending is found on the Special Edition DVD.