Hanni Vogelweid (Sondheimer), who makes a "Special Appearance" as Elderly Woman at Interview, received a life-saving visa from Sugihara when she was 17 years old, which allowed her to escape Lithuania with her family in 1940. She helped with research for the film by sharing family photos and talking about her experience. She passed away in 2006.
Production designer Yuki Nakamura served as hand double for actor Chris Tashima for the close-up shot of Sugihara's hand, writing visas in Japanese. Nakamura was born and educated in Japan, and was able to write the kanji characters much more quickly (and efficiently), creating the proper urgency for the scene in the montage.
The company, Cedar Grove Productions, was founded in 1996 to produce the film, and takes its name from the literal translation of the name of the film's hero character, Sugihara. In Japanese, 'sugi' means cedar [tree], and 'hara' means field or grove.
Chris Tashima approached Lisa Onodera in 1996 about producing the film, but she was busy developing her own projects for the then newly formed Celestial Pictures, including The Debut (2000), which she would go on to produce shortly after.
During initial development, Tom Donaldson, who directed the original stage version, was slated to co-direct the film, with Chris Tashima. However, during the film's preparation, Donaldson, who is also an actor, got a theatre gig out of town, and stepped down. Tashima took over as sole director, but Donaldson, who was closely involved with the screenplay adaptation, remained as co-writer.
During pre-production in the summer of 1996, actor Chris Tashima thought it would be good to have a stand-in for himself, since he was also directing. He asked his friend, then unknown actor John Cho, who agreed to volunteer. However, by the time filming came around that fall, Cho was starting to get work, and was not available. Cho was available, however, to volunteer as bartender at the film's cast and crew premiere in Hollywood, the following spring (1997).
The train departure sequence near the end of the film was shot on location at Travel Town, a historic train museum in Los Angeles' Griffith Park. During World War II, this area served as a detention center where Japanese Americans were falsely imprisoned for being suspected as dangerous "Enemy Aliens," solely based on their ethnicity. No Japanese in America were ever charged, tried or convicted of espionage during World War II.