The scenes on the ice floes were not only very dangerous to film, but for Lillian Gish, they had lasting ill effects. Until the day she died, her right hand was somewhat impaired due to the extended filming where her hand was in the icy water.
The ice floes seen at the climax drifting above and going over the waterfall were actually wood constructions, as the scene was shot out of season. The waterfall itself was only a few feet high, going no further down than what is seen at the bottom of the film frame.
Robert Harron, a D.W. Griffith regular, shot himself under mysterious circumstances after the world premiere of this film in New York City. Harron, whom Griffith was grooming as a film director, was reportedly despondent over losing the leading man roles in both this film and Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) to Richard Barthelmess, formerly a juvenile lead in Dorothy Gish comedies. Although according to Lillian Gish, Harron on his deathbed denied that he had attempted suicide, it is still unclear whether the shooting was a deliberate suicide attempt or accidental.
No cast credits are on the print. Filmgoers were provided with a printed program in which all the key players were identified, in the order of their importance to the story, and this is the order in which they appear here.
Clarine Seymour, a regular player in D.W. Griffith's films at the time, was originally cast in the role of Kate, Squire Bartlett's niece and David Bartlett's fiancée. Seymour had actually completed most of her scenes when she fell ill from a strangulated intestine. She died on April 25, 1920, following emergency surgery. Griffith replaced her in the role with dancer Mary Hay, who resembled Seymour in long shots. Although David Bartlett does not marry Kate in "Way Down East", Richard Barthelmess, who played David, later married Mary Hay.
The scene with Anna lying unconscious on the ice floe, floating toward the waterfall, was developed solely for this film version. The scene appears in neither the venerable stage play credited to Lottie Blair Parker, nor the novel "elaboration" by Joseph R. Grismer, published in 1900. The scene in the film was apparently inspired by the success of the "Perils of Pauline" series of "cliffhanger" film shorts starring Pearl White, and was written and filmed to augment the film's box-office appeal.
Lillian Gish stated years later that in the climactic river scene, her hair froze and broke off after trailing in the icy water, and her hand (which also trailed in the water) ached for the rest of her life.
The ice floe rescue scenes were filmed in Farmington, Connecticut, during the summer. The ice was constructed of crates covered with cotton batten. The mill was owned by Winchell Smith, who suggested it be used in the film.