The movie was filmed in the deserts of Casa Grande, Arizona, California, and Mexico, with many of the extras played by actual Iraqi refugees. According to David O. Russell, two of the cast members had "personally defaced three hundred murals of Saddam." After one of the military advisers to the film died during production, Russell said the death was "perhaps due to chemicals he was exposed to in the Gulf."
David O. Russell never wanted George Clooney for the lead role, accepting him only after his first choices Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Nicolas Cage, Jack Nicholson, and Dustin Hoffman all turned down the part. As a result, his relationship with Clooney was tense during filming. Clooney noted that "there's an element of David that was in way over his head... he was vulnerable and selfish, and it would manifest itself in a lot of yelling." When Russell's frustration would lead to outbursts, Clooney would take it upon himself to defend crew members and extras, leading to increased tensions. When an extra had an epileptic seizure on set, Clooney ran to his aid, while Russell apparently remained indifferent to the matter. Afterward, Clooney criticized Russell for ignoring the incident, though Russell later stated that he was busy setting up a shot some yards away from the extra and was not aware that the extra had suffered a seizure. Another on-set conflict between the two arose while shooting footage on a Humvee with a camera mounted to it. Clooney recalls Russell yelling at the driver to drive faster. Clooney then approached the director, telling him to "knock it off". Russell remembers the incident differently: "The camera broke, we were losing the day and I was upset about that. So I jumped off the truck and I was like, 'Fuck!' I was just kicking the dirt and everything like that, and then George had this big thing about defending the driver, whom I hadn't really said anything to." During the shoot, Clooney was exhausted, as he was still shooting ER (1994) in Los Angeles three days a week, while working on the film the other four. Regardless, Clooney was determined to stay with the role. Loyal to the script, Clooney helped convince executives to support certain aspects of the film (such as the exploding cow scene) even after he was urged to drop out of production, as his contract called for his compensation with or without his decision to stay in the film. After several arguments, Clooney wrote Russell a letter that criticized Russell's behavior in a last attempt to make peace between the two, a few days before another fight would break out during the filming of the movie's finale. In it, the three lead characters attempt to escort Iraqi rebels across the border to Iran. There were numerous actors and extras in the scene, as well as other elements, such as helicopters flying overhead, and landing in the center of the location. The fight began after an extra was having difficulty throwing Ice Cube's character to the ground. After several takes, Russell came to the extra and put him through the motions of the action. Some individuals present on the set during the incident state that Russell was simply showing the extra how to convincingly act in the scene. However, Clooney and others thought that Russell had violently thrown the extra to the ground. Clooney recalls: "We were trying to get a shot and then he went berserk. He went nuts on an extra." Clooney approached Russell and began criticizing him again, coming to the extra's defense. The two began shouting at one another before entering a physical fight. Second Assistant Director Paul Bernard was so fed up with the experience when the fight broke out, that he put down his camera and walked off the set, effectively quitting. Clooney concludes, "Will I work with David ever again? Absolutely not. Never. Do I think he's tremendously talented and do I think he should be nominated for Oscars? Yeah." Russell offered a different view, saying "We're both passionate guys who are the two biggest authorities on the set," and maintaining that the two continue to be friends. Ice Cube felt the conflict helped the film, saying "It kind of kicked the set into a different gear, where everybody was focused and we finished strong. I wouldn't mind if the director and the star got into an argument on all of my movies." Though the fight was initially kept under wraps, both Russell and Clooney eventually gave official statements saying that the argument had blown over, and neither harbored any ill will towards the other. However, Clooney continued to describe the event in later interviews, as well as the cover story of the October 2003 issue of Vanity Fair, in which he states: "I would not stand for him humiliating and yelling and screaming at crew members, who weren't allowed to defend themselves. I don't believe in it, and it makes me crazy. So my job was then to humiliate the people who were doing the humiliating." Executive Producer and Production Manager Gregory Goodman later stated about Clooney's comments in the media, "It doesn't reflect well on Clooney. It's like some stupid sandbox quarrel." In early 2012, Clooney indicated that he and Russell had mended their relationship, saying "We made a really, really great film, and we had a really rough time together, but it's a case of both of us getting older. I really do appreciate the work he continues to do, and I think he appreciates what I'm trying to do."
One scene tracks a hypothetical bullet entering Mark Wahlberg, which came about from David O. Russell asking a doctor friend about what a bullet does to the body. "I said, 'What's the weirdest wound?' and he described that particular wound (used in the movie). You can get a wound that doesn't kill you. A bullet goes through your lung and you can walk around, but the air is leaking out of your lung every time you breathe, so your own breathing can kill you, because your own breathing will crush your organs. It will turn into a balloon in there, and they have to puncture it to let the air out. So he told me those two things, and I said, 'God, that's never been in a movie. I'd like to do that.'"
Sayed Moustafa Al-Qazwini, who plays an Iraqi defector, who sells Major Gates cars stolen from Kuwait, was in real-life, tortured and kicked in the eye by Saddam Hussein's security forces, blinding him in that eye. Like many advisors and extras in the film, he is an actual refugee from Iraq.
In the celebratory scene in the tent back at base camp, several soldiers drink what appears to be mouthwash. During the Gulf War, soldiers followed General Order number 1, which prohibits consumption of alcohol (and currently affects soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan). In this case, they asked loved ones to send them vodka, with blue food coloring, in mouthwash bottles. The same trick was used by the students in Toy Soldiers (1991).
During the editing stages, David O. Russell attended a fund raiser for George W. Bush at a Warner Brothers executive's house. Russell walked up to Bush and said, "Hi, I'm editing a film that will question your father's legacy in Iraq." Bush shot back, "Well I guess I'm going to have to go back there and finish the job."
George Clooney, a notorious prankster, played a prank on Nora Dunn by putting an apple on the antenna of a Humvee and catapulting it, hitting her on the forehead. The only cast member Clooney did not prank was Ice Cube, saying, "Cube's not gonna take it. He doesn't have to. He's from South Central."
The role of Major Archie Gates was offered to Nick Nolte, who turned it down, saying he was too old. Jeff Bridges wanted to play Gates, but was turned down as a result of the poor box-office run of The Big Lebowski (1998).
In the original posters for the film, David O. Russell gets full writing credit, although the story is based on a draft written by John Ridley. It wasn't until Ridley took legal action, that he received a "Story by" credit. Ridley blocked a novelization of the screenplay from being published. According to Ridley, he wrote the script as an experiment, to see how fast he could write and sell a script. It took him seven days to write it, and Warner Brothers bought it eighteen days later.
In the scene where the three soldiers enter the secret room in the bunker with the stolen stuff and television sets, you can see Captain Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) watching the Rodney King beating video, which would've taken place a few weeks before the period of time, in which the film is set, and perhaps intentionally or unintentionally highlights the underlying racial tensions between Vig and Elgin in the first half of the film.
At the beginning of the film, there's a disclaimer explaining that the strange look of the film was intended by David O. Russell. The vibrant color is due to the fact that they used "Ektachrome" slide transparency film, instead of standard film stock, and the "bleach bypass" process actually gave the prints a much deeper black. The silver halide is completely opaque, thus a "true" black. Leaving all of that silver on the prints, resulted in a much higher cost for distribution however.
Archie Gates' uniform indicates that he is a Special Forces-qualified, Ranger-qualified member of the Combat Applications Group (C.A.G.), formerly known as the Special Forces Operational Detachment "D", but more commonly known as "Delta Force." He is referred to as having been "with Delta." He also wears on his uniform, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Master Parachutist badge, the Pathfinder badge, and the S.C.U.B.A. Diver qualification badge.
The film's production process was particularly difficult for David O. Russell, who was taking a variety of risks with what was a 42 million dollar studio film. At the time it was made, Warner Brothers had not financed an auteur film in many years, and executives were hesitant to put such money in the hands of filmmakers who were used to working independently. The film's political overtones also worried the studio, especially with conflict still apparent in the Middle East. As a result, Warner Brothers gave Russell several limitations. The shooting schedule was reduced to only 68 days, instead of the 80, for which Russell had initially asked. The studio wanted the budget to be lowered to 35 million dollars. Executives were also asking for the removal of more violent scenes, such as the exploding cow, and the shooting of an Iraqi woman. Russell was also forced to sign a legal document requiring that scenes containing paedophilia accusations against Michael Jackson be removed from the film.
Although Spike Jonze had never acted in a film before, David O. Russell wrote the part of Conrad Vig specifically for him, and the two practiced Conrad's Southern accent over the phone, while Jonze directed Being John Malkovich (1999). Although Russell had to convince a wary Warner Brothers to cast an inexperienced actor in such a large role, he eventually won out. Russell said Jonze's lack of previous acting work was beneficial to the film, citing the "chaos that a nonactor brings to the set...he really shakes things up."
After a Newsweek reporter interrogated David O. Russell with aggressive questions he didn't want to answer, he decided to invent a story about using a real corpse in the bullet scene. "I said that we used an actual corpse ... and we had only one take using a high-speed camera to get that bullet going right through, and the toughest thing was getting a light in there," he told Creative Screenwriting. "So he writes the thing up, and the next thing, the morticians' association is calling Warner Brothers, and protesting the unethical use of a corpse. It was kind of fun. Harmless." Russell further explained to news outlets that the rumor was false. "The intention (of the shot) was to make it look like a bullet going through a corpse. It would be unethical to use a corpse like that. To achieve the effect, we had to build a prosthesis."
Though it's a war film, David O. Russell purposefully didn't want a lot of bullets used in the action sequences. "The whole approach I took to the bullets in the movie, was that I tried to make each bullet alive," Russell told Contact Music. "The audience has been numbed to bullets. So, number one, that means fewer bullets. If you have hundreds of bullets, like in other movies, you're going to be numbed."
Barlow, Vig, and Elgin are wearing the patch of the U.S. Civil Affairs/Psychological Operations Command, and indeed, Barlow identifies himself as being a Civil Affairs soldier. Barlow also makes reference to being a reservist, which rings true, given that two of the three Army Civil Affairs groups are Reserve Component.
All of the explosions in the movie were filmed in one shot, as opposed to a typical film where each would have been covered by multiple cameras. David O. Russell explained, "to me that's more real. The car's blowing up on this guy, and we just park the camera. Of course the producer says, 'we gotta run three cameras!' But if I cut three ways, then it just looks like an action picture."
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
In the scene when they torture Troy Barlow with electric shocks, they shocked Mark Wahlberg for real. He said he wanted to get into the role, and since they had all the equipment there, they hooked him up and gave him a shock.
Mark Wahlberg introduced Saïd Taghmaoui, the Iraqi soldier who tortured his character in the movie, to his brother Paul the chef, on an episode of Wahlburgers (2014), where he prepared an authentic French meal that impressed Saïd. Apparently, Mark and Saïd became friends during, or after filming of this movie.