Mikhail Baryshnikov reportedly was insistent with the film's producers that gramatically-correct Russian be spoken in the film instead of the often nonsensical hybrid often used in American motion pictures. Baryshinkov also did a scene in the film where he spoke French - in real life, it was his second language.
Director Taylor Hackford was widely ridiculed for using the same old Helsinki shots to stand in for Leningrad. In reality he had used actual shots of the Kirov Theater and other locations in Leningrad taken by a Finnish travel company on his behalf. Despite the unfair criticism, he kept the true story of these shots secret for years afterward to protect his Finnish partners.
Lionel Richie's song "Say You, Say Me" wasn't included on the soundtrack album to the film. This is because Motown Records did not want Richie's first single since the Can't Slow Down album to appear on another record label.
Actress Helen Mirren played her Russian part with great authenticity, which is not surprising as she is half-Russian. She was born Helen (or Yelena) Mironoff, and her father was an emigrant to England from Smolensk, Russia.
Mikhail Baryshnikov's birth name is Mikhail Nikolaevitch Baryshnikov. In Russia, children are given the name of their father as their middle name with a masculine or feminine suffix. Mikhail Baryshnikov's father's name is Nikolai, same as his character in this movie.
The plane crash sequence was filmed at Campbeltown Airport on the south west coast of Scotland. Mainly due to its remoteness and the runway is around 2.5 miles long. A number of local people were cast as extras for interior shots of the plane.
The opening theatre sequence was filmed at the Bristol Hippodrome and the gentleman paging the curtain for Baryshnikov is John Randall (sadly now deceased) who was the Theatre's technical director at the time.
The plane crash sequence was filmed at RAF Machrihanish near Campbeltown (now a civilian airfield), the survivors were shown filmed in the Gaydon Hangar and the hospital scenes were filmed in the Station Headquarters building.
When director Taylor Hackford began considering this project, Hackford reached back to his interest in music and dancers, searching for a story that would link them in a dramatic manner. His work has always focused on music, frequently making use of innovative contemporary vocal and instrumental music to underline action.
Of the casting of the film's two lead actors, director Taylor Hackford said: "Each knew and admired the work of the other but I knew that it would require a story of substance to attract them to a project. [Mikhail] Baryshnikov had turned down films time and again, and he had declined to film the story of his defection. As for [Gregory] Hines it called for him to play an American deserter. I was concerned that each might feel the story was too touchy, too close to sensitive areas; too near the edge for a black American to play, too close to reality for a Russian who has defected to the West to play".
In selecting shooting locations, director Taylor Hackford had an obvious problem: most of the action of White Nights (1985) was set in the U.S.S.R., in Siberia and Leningrad, where permission would not be given to film the movie's subject matter, and where Mikhail Baryshnikov could not safely visit. Nor could Siberian exteriors be built on sound stages because the quality of light of an Arctic summer night would be impossible to reproduce accurately in a studio situation. In an Arctic summer, there is virtually no night, only a lingering twilight. Faced with this challenge, the filmmakers made several reconnaissances in countries close to the Arctic Circle and eventually decided to shoot on the island of Reposaari, off the northwest coast of Finland, where in late summer they would experience the same unique quality of light required for the scenes set in Siberia. It required great diplomacy on the part of co-producer William S. Gilmore before this was allowed to happen, since most people in Reposaari, whose population at the time was 1017, were Communists. They had to be satisfied that White Nights (1985) was not a run-of-the-mill anti-Soviet movie offensive to their enigmatic neighbor. Finnish Communists, however, are pragmatists, according to the film's production notes: the movie would bring in a considerable investment of money and some temporary jobs. The mayor canvassed his people, many of whom were unemployed. The island's once-thriving port was in decline, as were a mutually destructive chemical plant and a fish processing factory. Only three residents objected to the village becoming for two weeks a make-believe Siberian town.
The far-flung locations used for the movie included Finland, the Hippodrome Theater in Bristol, England, the Royal Air Force Base in Scotland (which doubled for the Siberian Base), and the San Carlos Opera House in Lisbon (which doubled for the Kirov Theater in Leningrad). Other filming was done on sound stages at the Thorn-EMI Elstree Studios near London.
Co-producer William S. Gilmore discovered that in Helsinki, Finland's capital, there were sections that could double for Leningrad, backstreets and buildings that owed their "Russianesque" character to the fact that they were in a part of the city designed by 19th-century architects from St. Petersburg. An important Russian interior which remained to be found prior to filming was an auditorium to double for Lengingrad's Kirov Theater. Eventually, it was decided that the San Carlos Theater in Lisbon, Portugal was the closest match in western Europe to the Kirov Theater in terms of ambience and baroque elegance, a decision with which star Mikhail Baryshnikov agreed. The theater at the time had been in continuous use for almost two hundred years, and was a cherished symbol of Lisbon's rebirth after the catastrophic earthquake and tidal wave that destroyed the city in 1793. Over the years, it has been host to dance companies, but is primarily an opera house, where Callas, Gobbi, Scotti, Gigli, Scippa, Sutherland and other greats have sung.
While the interior of the Kirov Theater was filmed in a theater in Portugal, the exterior seen in the film is the actual Kirov theater in Leningrad in the then USSR. The filming location (Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg, Russia) differs, because the present name of the theater, the city and the country are used.
The movie's "White Nights" title is drawn from the film's opening moments, set in Siberia, of an eerie, prolonged Siberian twilight phenomenon known as the "Midnight Sun". Filmed on location on the remote Finnish island of Reposaari, this is where the same unique quality of light could be captured. In the Arctic Circle, day and night, of course, are theoretically six months long, producing one 24-hour period of daylight and one of night in each year. In reality, the actual periods of light and dark during the year are modified by a prolonged twilight.
As outlined in the film's production notes, writer James Goldman and director Taylor Hackford conceived the following premise that was to become the concept for this movie: "What would happen if a celebrated Russian, a ballet star who adopted the West after a much-publicized defection ten years previously, inadvertently were to be returned to Soviet soil when the airliner in which he is traveling crash-lands in Siberia? Would the Soviet authorities seize the opportunity to gain propaganda advantage by persuading him to perform again in Russia? What pressures would they employ? And what if a black American, who had expatriated to Russia in protest against Vietnam, were to be drawn by the KGB into a plot to coerce the Russian to dance again?".