The lead role was originally earmarked for Christopher Walken, who worked with Director Abel Ferrara on King of New York (1990). Walken worked with Ferrara on three more films during the 1990s. Walken pulled out at the last minute. Ferrara was shocked. "He (Walken) says, 'You know, I don't think I'm right for it.' Which is, you know, a fine thing to say, unless it's three weeks from when you're supposed to start shooting", Ferrara said. "It definitely caught me by surprise. It put me in terminal shock, actually."
The first time Harvey Keitel read the script, he threw it after fifteen pages, arguing it was "a piece of junk". When he started reading it again, he read the scenes with the nun's rape, and was so captivated by her story, that he understood the movie would be a unique experience.
The nun rape plot thread was inspired by a real rape of two nuns in a convent in New York City. Just like in the film, rumors circulated of a cash reward being put out for the rapists' capture. The detective who caught the rapists, Bo Dietl, played a detective in this film. He is now a best-selling author.
For its video release, the British Board of Film Classification insisted that one minute and forty-seven seconds of footage be excised. The cuts were largely made in the scene where Harvey Keitel takes drugs with Zoë Lund.
The song that plays through the credits, "The Bad Lieutenant" was written by Abel Ferrara, and performed by him and Paul Hipp, who portrayed Jesus in the film. Abel Ferrara based the screenplay on this song.
The baseball series and games portrayed are fictional. The Mets have battled the Dodgers for the National League championship once, in 1988. For the narrative, Ferrara wanted the Mets coming back from a 3-0 deficit to win the pennant. And footage from real Mets versus Dodgers games (including Darryl Strawberry's three-run homer from a game in July 1991), as well as added fictional play-by-play.
According to Abel Ferrara, the film was originally supposed to be funny. "It was always, in my mind, a comedy", Ferrara said. He cited the scene where the Lieutenant pulls the teenage girls over, as a specific example of how Christopher Walken would have played it, and how Harvey Keitel changed it. "The Lieutenant was going to end up dancing in the streets with the girls as the sun came up. They'd be wearing his gun belt and hat, and they'd have the radio on, you know what I mean? But oh my God, Harvey, he turned it into this whole other thing."
Much of the movie was filmed guerrilla style. Like many indie-minded directors of low-budget films, Abel Ferrara didn't bother with permits most of the time. "We weren't permitted on any of this stuff", Editor Anthony Redman admitted. "We just walked on and started shooting." For the scene where a strung-out Lieutenant walks through a nightclub, they sent Harvey Keitel through an actual, functioning club during peak operating hours.
Abel Ferrara said a scene that epitomized the movie for him, even though he never got around to filming it, was one where the Lieutenant robs an electronics store, leaves, then gets a call about a robbery at the electronics store. He responds in an official capacity (they don't recognize him), takes a statement, walks out, and throws the statement in the garbage. "And that to me is the Bad Lieutenant, you know?" Ferrara said.
A great deal of the dialogue and action were made up on the fly. The script was only about sixty-five pages at first, which would have made for about a sixty-five-minute movie. "It left a lot of room for improvisation", Producer Randy Sabusawa said, "but the ideas were pretty distilled. They were there." Script Supervisor Karen Kelsall said supervising the script was a challenge. "Abel didn't stick to a script", she said. "Abel used a script as a way to get the money to make a movie, and then the script was kind of-we called it 'the daily news'. It changed every day. It changed in the middle of scenes." Abel Ferrara was unapologetic about the script's brevity. "The idea of wanting ninety pages is ridiculous."
Zoë Lund admitted in an interview that she "co-directed" several scenes in the film. Lund also claimed that she wrote the screenplay alone, and believed that Abel Ferrara did not put much effort in his contributions in the film.
Editor Anthony Redman, comparing Christopher Walken to Harvey Keitel to play the Lieutenant in this movie, thought that Keitel was a better choice anyway. "Chris is too elegant for the part", he said. "Harvey is not elegant."
Because of its NC-17 rating, Blockbuster Video refused to stock the film. An R-rated cut was specially created so that the film could be rented from the chain. This version does not include the infamous masturbation scene.
The organ music playing during the scene depicting the rape of the nun, amongst others, was added at a later date.The score playing during the scene was originally supposed to be the rap track "Signifying Rapper" by Schooly D (featuring a famous Led Zeppelin guitar rift). However, due to legal disputes over copyrights, the other music was substituted, and all references to Schooly D were omitted. The version with the Schooly D music was, I believe, played during the Channel 4 forbidden season.
Such was Abel Ferrara's fury of when Werner Herzog directed Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), he said, "As far as remakes go, I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they're all in the same streetcar, and it blows up." Herzog's film was neither a remake nor a sequel to this movie.
According to Zoë Lund, "There was a lot of re-writing done on the set. Two other characters were cut, and my character modulated and took on more and more. A lot of things had to be changed and improvised. The vampire speech, which is crucial to the Lieutenant, was written two minutes before it was shot. I memorized it, and did it in one take. The speech is important, because she is acute in knowing the journey the Lieutenant makes. She shoots him up, sends him off, knowing of his passion, she lets him go."
The Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel) and Beat Cop (Victor Argo) have co-starred with Brad Pitt. Keitel in Thelma & Louise (1991), and Argo in True Romance (1993). Incidentally, the Scott brothers, Ridley and Tony, directed these films respectively.
As part of 13 Great Facts About "Bad Lieutenant", "Movie buffs were baffled in 2009, when Werner Herzog directed Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage. It sounds like a sequel (or a remake), but in fact had no connection at all to the earlier film, except that both were produced by Edward R. Pressman. Herzog said he'd never seen Ferrara's movie, and wanted to change the title (Pressman wouldn't let him). Ferrara, outspoken as always, initially wished fiery death on everyone involved. Ferrara and Herzog finally met at the 2013 Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, where Herzog initiated a conversation about the whole affair, and Ferrara expressed his frustration cordially."
What LT (Harvey Keitel) says as the angry, foul-mouthed approach to his sons (Brian McElroy and Frankie Acciarito) in the car on their way to school, when they missed the bus because of Aunt Wendy being in the bathroom is, "Hey, listen to me! I'm the boss, not Aunt Wendy! When it's your turn to use the bathroom, you tell Aunt Wendy to get the fuck out of the bathroom! What are you, men or mice? She's hogging the bathroom! Call me, I'll throw her the fuck out!"
ReelViews critic James Berardinelli seems to feel that there isn't enough character development to LT (Harvey Keitel), and that he doesn't have much of a backstory as illustrated in the following extract, "While the first two-thirds of the movie work sporadically as a lurid character study of the Lieutenant, they are incomplete. One of the most obvious unanswered is how he got where he is, what events ignited his moral disintegration, or has he always been like that? Not only does the film make no attempt to probe that issue, it's not concerned about it."
Editor Anthony Redman referred to Christopher Walken, the original choice to play LT, as "Chris", for short. According to the trivia for Walken, "He adopted the name 'Christopher' when a friend told him the name suited him better than 'Ronnie'. Has since stated that his adopted name sounds 'like a sneeze', and he prefers to be called 'Chris'."
An extract from 13 Great Facts About Bad Lieutenant is as follows: "Harvey Keitel's title character, whose name is never given, is indeed a bad, bad Lieutenant: corrupt, sleazy, drug-addled, irresponsible, and lascivious, all while he's on the job. (Imagine what his weekends must be like!)"
This movie is one of five films in a row directed by Abel Ferrara, with two words in the title. The others being Dangerous Game (1993), Body Snatchers (1993), The Addiction (1995), and The Funeral (1996).
When the Lieutenant's (Harvey Keitel) sons (played by Brian McElroy and Frankie Acciarito) are late for school, while in the car they explain that their Aunt Wendy was in the bathroom and they couldn't get in. The Lieutenant tells his sons how to deal with Aunt Wendy being in the bathroom, with an angry foul-mouthed approach.
Harvey Keitel was criticized in an extract from User Reviews for his extreme emotional outbursts at various points in this movie as follows: "In the scenes where Keitel is supposed to be "exploring the depths of this evil soul" and "wrestling with this man's self-hatred" (to quote some of the more overzealous reviewers), he scrunches up his face and makes a sort of howling/whining noise, akin to the noise an injured dog might make. Is this supposed to be a career defining performance? Looked more like someone who got kicked out of drama school to me."
Notice during the opening scene, the different tones of voice that the Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel), uses with his sons (Brian McElroy and Frankie Acciarito), when they joined him in the car. "How many times have you been late for school? Your sister always gets to school on time! Huh? What's the problem with you guys?" (Spoken clearly). "Why don't we turn around like you're a prisoner, like I'm your goddamn chauffeur?" (Mumbled).
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
Also contains spoilers for Reservoir Dogs (1992): After the Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel) has tried (and failed) to persuade the nun (Frankie Thorn) to identify her rapists so he can punish them, she leaves him alone in the church. When the Lieutenant hallucinates, seeing Jesus Christ (Paul Hipp), he howls in anguish, and begs for forgiveness. This is similar to a scene in Reservoir Dogs (1992), in which Mr. White (also played by Keitel) howls in anguish near the end of that film, when Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) owns up to being the rat, when the diamond heist went wrong.