The film was originally going to be entitled "Red Dragon", the same name as the novel. However, when Year of the Dragon (1985) became a box office failure, Dino De Laurentiis decided to avoid a "dragon" title.
In a featurette included with the DVD version of the film, Tom Noonan (Dollarhyde) said that he avoided all contact with cast members in order to heighten the isolation and tension between himself and other people, particularly William Petersen (Graham).
When the production could not get permission to film on board a commercial airplane, Mann booked his actors and crew onto a twilight flight from Chicago to Florida where the production was relocating anyway. A stripped-down camera, lighting and sound equipment were taken on board as carry-on luggage. Pilots and flight attendants were appeased with gifts of film crew jackets.
In the scenes where Will Graham is interviewing Lecktor in his cell, the director Michael Mann took care to set up the shots so that the position of the bars of the cell do not move when the point of view switches between Graham and Lecktor.
Tom Noonan (Dollarhyde) spent many hours in make-up so that artists could paint fake tattoos on his back and torso modeled after William Blake's "Great Red Dragon" paintings. Though Noonan appeared with the tattoos in publicity photographs (available in a Special Edition DVD), director Michael Mann concluded that the tattoos were too "over the top," and discarded the idea.
Curiously enough, Michael Mann had initially considered fellow filmmaker William Friedkin for the part of Hannibal Lecktor, but when Brian Dennehy - also a prospective Hannibal - insisted that Mann see Scotsman Brian Cox in the acclaimed 1984 off-Broadway production of "Rat in the Skull," Mann was instantly won over by Cox's award-winning performance. Cox's scenes as Lecktor were shot over a three-day period.
David Lynch, who was considered to direct, ended up having a major effect on the future interpretation of the Lecktor character: Anthony Hopkins has said that Jonathan Demme was inspired to cast him after seeing his performance as Dr. Treves in Lynch's film The Elephant Man (1980).
When Tom Noonan brings blind Reba to "see" (feel with her hands) the sedated tiger, that is also reference to William Blake, i.e. to his poem "The Tyger" (Tiger, tiger, burning bright; In the forests of the night).
Michael Mann's direction to Brian Cox about playing Hannibal Lecktor was to play him like a British public schoolboy. Cox based his performance on his then 15-year-old son who was attending public school at the time.
David Lynch was the first director attached to the movie, but he eventually left the project. During this time, screenwriter Walon Green wrote a draft of the script and it is unknown how much of his ideas were used in the final script.
During an interview with Terry Wogan in 2006, Brian Cox said he was asked to play Hannibal Lecktor, when the casting director Bonnie Timmermann saw his performance on the Broadway show Rat in the Skull. According to Cox, Timmermann asked him to the audition but asked if he could turn his back to the camera, to allow the director to hear his voice, before seeing him in person. In fact the first scene involving Lecktor in the film showed his back turned to the camera.
A native of Evanston, Illinois, a city just north of Chicago, William Petersen is so devoted to his hometown sports teams that he left the set in Georgia one day and flew to Washington, D.C. for a few hours to watch a Chicago Bears game on television.
Michael Mann: [repeated phrase] The phrase "Time is Luck" used by Molly when talking to Will Graham. This phrase also appears in the movie Heat (1995), where it is used by McCauley when talking to Eady about their relationship and having time for them. It is also used in Miami Vice (2006), when Isabella is talking to Sonny about their relationship.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
In shooting the final confrontation between Dollarhyde and Graham, actor Tom Noonan had to lie in a pool of stage blood for several hours as the crew worked on other shots. After all this time, the stage blood dried into a thick, cement-like adhesive that all but fused Noonan to the carpet.