Coca-Cola approved the use of the Polar Bear ads for its product in the movie without having a full idea of what the movie was about; when the Board of Directors saw the finished product, they were furious.
The prison riot was filmed at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois. Eighty percent of the prisoners there, are there for violent crimes. For the first two of four weeks on location, the extras were actual inmates with rubber weapons. For the other two weeks, over 200 extras had to be brought in, because the Stateville inmates had been placed on lockdown.
Quentin Tarantino claimed to hate the final version of the film, up until meeting Johnny Cash in an elevator once. Cash told Tarantino that both he and his wife June were fans of his and that they especially liked Natural Born Killers.
According to Oliver Stone, Rodney Dangerfield didn't understand the film during shooting, and didn't understand what Stone was trying to do by shooting such a dark subject, as a father molesting his daughter, in the style of a 1950s sitcom. As such, he found it very difficult to perform his part. However, Stone was delighted that when the film came out, Dangerfield's performance was hailed as one of the movie's strongest points.
Oliver Stone calls the frequent cuts to black and white, where dialogue is often repeated with a slightly different intonation, "vertical cutting". Stone explains that the idea behind the technique is to create an outer moment (the color footage) and an inner moment (the black and white footage) at the same time. For example, he explains this in relation to the waitress in the opening scene (O-Lan Jones), who while taking Mickey's order in the 'outer' scene, is actually flirting with him (or thinking about flirting with him) in the 'inner' scene. Also in the opening scene, when the cowboy (James Gammon) refers to Mallory as "pussy", there is a flash cut to Mickey covered in blood; this is Mickey's 'inner' moment.
The color green is used to indicate the sickness in Mickey's mind and shows up prominently several times during the film: the key lime pie at the diner, the green neon at the drugstore, the green room in the prison.
Over 150 rattlesnakes, both real and fake, were used for the scene when Mickey and Mallory tread through the snake field. Initially there were concerns that the actors would being working too close to so many venomous snakes. But since the scene was filmed at night (when temperatures in the desert are significantly cooler), and since snakes (like all cold-blooded animals) are very sluggish in colder temperatures, most of the rattlesnakes slept through the filming of the scene.
Michael Madsen was initially considered for the role of Mickey, but Warner Bros. wanted somebody less intimidating, and with a softer persona, as they felt this might alleviate the brutality of the character somewhat.
In the mess hall in the prison, a bald white man is staring at a black man, prompting the black man to try to attack him, before being intercepted by Warden McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones). The bald man was a real prisoner, who had been convicted of murdering his wife and children by beating them to death with a lead pipe. Oliver Stone gave him a featured role, because he said the man's stoicism terrified him.
In an infamous incident after the film had been released, Oliver Stone and Time Warner were sued by Patsy Byers, with the support of author and film producer John Grisham. In March 1995, 18-year-old Sarah Edmondson and her boyfriend Benjamin Darras (also 18) allegedly dropped acid and watched 'Natural Born Killers'. Later that night, Sarah shot and paralyzed Byers, a store clerk in Ponchatoula, and Benjamin killed cotton gin manager William Savage in Hernando, Mississippi. John Grisham was a personal friend of Savage's, and after the murder, Grisham publicly accused Oliver Stone of being irresponsible in making the film, arguing that filmmakers should be held accountable for their work when it incites violent behavior. Byers decided to take legal action against Stone and the studio, and supported by Grisham, she used a "product liability" claim in the lawsuit, which argued that Stone had incited the teenagers to commit the crime. Initially, the case was dismissed in January 1997, on the grounds that filmmakers and production companies are protected by the First Amendment. However, in May 1998, the Intermediate Louisiana Court of Appeals overturned the lower court's decision, and the case went ahead. The attorneys for Byers' attempted to prove that Stone and Warner were culpable in the murder and in Byers' injury because they had purposefully meant to incite violence by "distributing a film they knew, or should have known would cause and inspire people to commit crimes". All of Hollywood eagerly awaited the outcome of the trial, because if Stone was found guilty, it would mean a drastic reexamination of the industry practices and would carry all kinds of far reaching implications as regards the content of movies. However, in a landmark decision, Byers' action was thrown out of court in March 2001, and its dismissal was rubber-stamped by the Louisiana Court of Appeal in June 2002.
Oliver Stone says that his biggest regret about the film is the fact that he had to cut out most of Pruitt Taylor Vince's performance as the prison guard Kavanaugh. As filmed, Kavanaugh becomes a comic character, who Mickey uses as a shield while moving through the prison, and who ends up being shot sixteen times by the time Mickey meets Warden McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones) at the stairs. In the finished version of the film, you don't actually see Kavanaugh being shot at all, prior to the stairs. Stone says he was forced to cut much of this, because the studio insisted that the movie be under two hours. Strangely however, the footage of Kavanaugh was not restored by Stone for his Director's Cut, nor was it included as a deleted scene on the DVD.
Director of Photography Robert Richardson hated the script, and didn't want anything to do with the film, but Oliver Stone used their close friendship to persuade him to accept the job. For numerous reasons, Richardson called shooting the film a "nightmare" and one of the worst experiences of his life. The story brought up bad memories from his childhood, leading to insomnia, and a dependence on sleeping pills, throughout the entire shoot. During location scouting, his wife Monona Wali nearly died from an illness (and they later came close to divorcing because of the film). While filming a difficult scene, he broke his finger, and the replacement cameraman cut his eye. Near the end of shooting, his brother went into a coma. However, Richardson has said that all of these problems actually provided him with the creative energy he needed to shoot the film.
Robert Downey, Jr. spent time with Australian television shock-king Steve Dunleavy to prepare for the role of Wayne Gale, and when he came back with an Australian accent, the filmmakers decided to go with it, and Gale became an Australian.
Oliver Stone has always maintained that the film is a satire on how serial killers are adored by the media for their horrific actions, and that those who claim the violence in the movie itself is a cause of societal violence have missed the point of the movie entirely.
Woody Harrelson, in an interview, spoke about the rape scene between Mickey and the hostage he takes. He expressed his hope that Oliver Stone had not added any additional footage of the controversial part into the Director's Cut. He was promptly told on camera that Stone had indeed done so.
When putting together the music for the film, Oliver Stone and soundtrack producer Trent Reznor both wanted to get Snoop Dogg involved, but Warner wouldn't allow it, as Dogg was on trial for murder at the time.
According to Oliver Stone, the use of television commercials was an attempt to illustrate the comforting power such commercials have. Every commercial comes after a horrific moment or a flash cut of a demon, and Stone's idea was that commercials work to soothe people after they have been exposed to something extreme.
Oliver Stone wanted Juliette Lewis to bulk up for the role of Mallory so that she looked tougher, but Lewis refused, saying she wanted the character to look like a pushover, not like a female bodybuilder. In the end, Stone agreed, but he insisted she take kick-boxing lessons so that she looked credible when fighting.
The story told on "American Maniacs" about Mickey killing a cop after asking him for directions is taken almost verbatim from a story made up by J. Edgar Hoover in the 1930s about bank robbers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker to try to quash the public's growing favorable opinion of the pair. According to Hoover, Barrow approached an Oklahoma City officer, asked for directions and then blew his head off with a shotgun. The story fell apart, though, when questions were raised as to how, if the officer was alone when he was killed, Hoover could possibly have determined that it was Barrow who killed him, as there were no witnesses to the "murder."
After Quentin Tarantino had written the script, he promised his friend Rand Vossler, a fellow clerk at Video Archives, the director's chair. The pair couldn't find funding, and eventually decided to shoot it guerrilla-style (without permits) on the streets of Los Angeles, on black and white 16mm film stock. Shortly before production, Oliver Stone found the script and wanted to buy it. In exchange for giving up his directorial debut, Rand is credited as a co-producer.
Steve Buscemi and Tim Roth were both offered the role of Wayne Gale, and turned it down. Jane Hamsher claims in her book about the movie, that they did so because Quentin Tarantino told them he would never cast either of them in any of his movies again, if they took the role.
Tommy Lee Jones has said that his over-the-top performance was partly inspired by Molière's play 'Le Bourgeois gentilhomme'; a satirical look at social climbing and the bizarre things people will do to achieve fame.
For the numerous scenes involving rear projection, the projected footage was shot prior to principal photography, then edited together, and projected live onto the stage, behind the live actors. For example, when Mallory drives past a building and flames are projected onto the wall, this was shot live using footage projected onto the façade of a real building.
Oliver Stone met with singer Tori Amos and openly offered her the part of Mallory. Early in her career Amos had been pursing acting as well as singing. She was interested, until he explained he also wanted to have her song "Me and a Gun" play during each scene where Mallory kills someone. The song is an a capella account of Amos' real life rape. In response, Amos slapped him across the face and stormed out. Amos details this story in her autobiography "All These Years". She also references the incident in her hit song "A Sorta Fairytale", with the lyrics: "Feel better with Oliver Stone until I almost smacked him; it seemed right that night."
When Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) goes into Mallory's cell, and throughout this scene, you can read two different paragraphs above the door in the cell, and below Mallory, on the bedside. The one near the door reads: "Come let's away / to prison we two / alone will sing / like birds in a cage." This is from 'King Lear', a play written by William Shakespeare, as Lear and his daughter Cordelia are being taken away to prison. The other paragraph reads: "He is coming! He is coming! / Like a bridegroom from his room / Came the hero from his prison / To the scaffold and the doom." These lines are from the poem "The Execution Of Montrose" by William Edmondstoune Aytoun.
Owen (Arliss Howard), the inmate that helps Mickey and Mallory out of the prison, is shown in the first scene. He is at a table reading a newspaper that reads "666 death". He is only shown for a second. He is also seen in the prison as Wayne Gale (Robert Downey, Jr.) tells Warden McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones) how famous he could become; Owen is mopping the floor behind them as they walk past a cell.
The main characters are loosely based on Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, a young Nebraska couple, who in 1958, embarked on a mass murder spree across the Midwest, that horrified the country. The characters in Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973) are also loosely based on Starkweather and Fugate.
The drug store scene was filmed in an Albuquerque building, that was a real drug store, that had closed just prior to filming. The original fixtures and pharmacy area were still in the store, making set up very easy. The sign above the door was added for the movie, and was still there several months after filming ended. The building is now a Hobby Lobby. 1,000 green fluorescent bulbs were used to light the scene.
During the scene where Micky and Mallory take a hostage to a motel room, the films Midnight Express (1978) and Scarface (1983) are showing on television. Oliver Stone wrote the screenplays to both films.
Scagnetti's (Tom Sizemore) story about how his mother was killed, was based upon a real life incident involving one of America's first mass murderers, Charles Whitman, who did actually shoot people randomly from the University Tower in Austin, Texas, in 1966.
In late 1994, the film was banned from theatrical distribution in Ireland. The Irish Film Centre, which is a membership club, and not subject to the same rules as public theaters, booked the film and had it scheduled to screen for a month long run in early 1995. The film censorship board threatened legal action if the film was shown, and it was withdrawn.
In the UK, the film's video release was to be the same week that Thomas Hamilton walked into a primary school, in the Scottish town of Dunblane, and killed sixteen children and a teacher, before killing himself. Warner Brothers immediately went to the British Board of Film Classification to take another look at the certification granted the film. The BBFC however stood by their decision, so Warner Brothers took it upon themselves to withhold video release. Thus, when the film had its television premiere on the UK's channel 5 two years later, it became one of the few films to be broadcast on television, without having a video release beforehand.
The unique look of the film was based upon Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967), one of Oliver Stone's favorite movies. In particular, Stone was influenced by the famous death scene, which used innovative editing techniques provided by multiple cameras shooting from different angles at different speeds. Stone had used similar, although considerably more restrained, techniques in his previous two films, JFK (1991) and Heaven & Earth (1993), and would continue to employ these techniques for his next two films, Nixon (1995) and U Turn (1997).
The film was originally going to be shot in Panavision, as Oliver Stone's previous four films had been, but he decided that it should be framed in standard 1.85:1. The Panavision E-Series anamorphic lenses that had been reserved for the film were used to shoot The Pelican Brief (1993) instead.
Three years prior, Robert De Niro and Juliette Lewis had worked together on Cape Fear (1991). When De Niro praised her work in the film, Lewis explained that she improvised most of her lines, which De Niro did not like. He admonished the young actress for disrespecting the film's writers.
Whilst shooting the POV scene, wherein Mallory runs into the wire mesh, Robert Richardson broke his finger, and the replacement cameraman cut his eye. According to Oliver Stone, he wasn't too popular with the camera department that day.
According to Tom Sizemore, he got the part of Detective Jack Scagnetti after writing a monologue for the character, which he made Oliver Stone listen to in the parking lot of a bar. In addition to reading up on Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, he got clean for 97 days before filming. Unfortunately, the sobriety didn't last.
According to an early draft of the script, this movie was originally intended to be directed by Rand Vossler, until Oliver Stone came to the project and Vossler ended up being a co-producer. The story behind this change in directors was chronicled in the book "Killer Instinct" written by producer Jane Hamsher.
The song "Back in Baby's Arms" plays on the soundtrack at one point. That song also played in Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987), which also featured Edie McClurg in a brief role. She has a small role in this film as Mallory's mother.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
During Mickey's escape from prison during the tornado, there is a shot where a convict falls under a galloping horse. This was completely genuine, as the stuntman really did lose his footing and fall under the horse. Fortunately, he was uninjured.
Oliver Stone's least favorite scene in the film is when Mickey overpowers the prison guards after the interview with Wayne Gale is terminated. Stone feels that the device of having Mickey distract the guards by telling a joke is too unrealistic.
The Director's Cut of the film, actually shows the death of Warden McClusky. In the theatrical version, you can only guess that he dies in the huge riot of prisoners, but the Director's Cut shows his body parts and impaled head. This is one of many large differences between the theatrical and Director's Cut.