Tracy's apartment was not a set. In order to get the desired view though the windows, it was specially constructed at the top of the famed Clocktower Building in New York. Cimino boasts in the commentary track how proud he is to be the first (and likely only) director to ever get that view of the New York skyline. "I can't stand going to a place and shooting it the way everyone's shot it before. People go to Paris, there's always the Eiffel Tower. They come to New York and it's The Plaza Hotel and Central Park. So I wanted a view of the city which would be unique and memorable."
The exterior shots of New York City were actually sets built in North Carolina. Said sets proved realistic enough to fool even Stanley Kubrick, who attended the movie's premiere. Co-writer/director Michael Cimino actually had to convince the Bronx-born Kubrick this film's exteriors were shot at a sound-stage and not on location.
For this movie, co-writer/director Michael Cimino drew considerably on star Mickey Rourke's real-life boxing prowess. But at first, Rourke didn't take his physical training seriously. So Cimino hired a real-life Hell's Angel to be Rourke's trainer, and the biker (according to Cimino) worked wonders with the once-reluctant Rourke.
The name of the main character in the movie, played by Mickey Rourke, is "Stanley White" (it is said he is of Polish descent and changed it from "Wizynski"). In the closing credits, there is a Stanley White credited as "Technical Police Consultant".
In his audio commentary, Cimino says, "The studio loved the movie. In fact, they begged the producer to make it their Christmas movie. And they were right, because they needed time to educate the audience on the subject. Like when Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was made, nobody in the heartland knew who Lawrence was. But they were educated by the studios so they'd be interested when the movie came out. While our movie was a big hit abroad, and it was very popular in New York and LA, it was a bit soft in the middle of the country. That's what the studio kept saying, 'we need time to work that,' and of course the producers were in such a hurry to make their money back that they shot themselves in the foot."
Michael Cimino was allowed final cut of the film, but was forced to make one change to the ending. "The only change they asked me to make, which to this day I still find inexplicable because I think it sums up the movie, was to the very last line. At the end of the movie, there's another fight that breaks out on Mott Street, during a funeral parade. Mickey is in the middle of the mêlée, Tracy runs in and picks him up off the ground, they both look like survivors of a war. The camera closes in. If you look closely, you can see that their not saying the line that you're hearing. The last line of the movie was, Stanley looks at her and says, 'Well, I guess if you fight a war long enough, you end up marrying the enemy.' 'Oliver Stone' himself is married to a Vietnamese girl right now. I'm sure you'll see American's with Iraqi women at some point. For reasons that I can't understand, that line was not acceptable, so I took a line from some other place in the movie and I slipped it in and it doesn't make any sense at all. But that line, that sums up the whole movie."
When it was released, most American critics gave the picture a negative review. Cimino notes in his commentary track, "Interestingly enough, one of the few positive reviews we got was from someone who generally hates all my work, Sheila Benson. Because she's married to a Chinese man. And she wrote a very interesting reaction to this, because she was stunned at seeing things that she knew were real. See the one thing Sheila Benson got was the exploitation of Asians, by Asians. Of Chinese by Chinese, and that, she said, was the first time she had seen something like this."
The role of Tracy was almost given to Joan Chen. "She would have been amazing, too. In a different way," Cimino says. "But Ariane just had something more American about her. And that's what I wanted. She had to be equally Chinese and American, whereas Joan was clearly Chinese-born. But we could have made it work if we had to."
Michael Cimino and Oliver Stone first met when Stone approached Cimino to direct Midnight Express. Cimino had to pass, as he was just about to start production on his passion project, The Deer Hunter (1978). Years later, while in pre-production on Year of the Dragon, Cimino remembered how much he loved the script for Midnight Express, and asked Stone to collaborate on the script.