Charles Laughton reportedly worked well with the boy playing John, but did not get along with the girl playing Pearl and shouted at her on occasion. As Laughton had the camera continue to roll after the scenes were finished, the camera often caught her reacting to him. Some of these "out-takes" were used in the final editing process as reaction shots to the Preacher's character.
At their initial meeting, Lillian Gish asked Charles Laughton why he wanted her for the part; he replied, "When I first went to the movies, they sat in their seats straight and leaned forward. Now they slump down, with their heads back, and eat candy and popcorn. I want them to sit up straight again."
Robert Mitchum was very eager for the part of the preacher. When he auditioned, a moment that particularly impressed Charles Laughton was when Laughton described the character as "a diabolical shit." Mitchum promptly answered, "Present!"
Stanley Cortez, the film's cinematographer, had also worked on Orson Welles' masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). He remarked some years after the making of this film that only two directors he'd worked with had understood light, "that incredible thing that can't be described": Welles and Laughton.
Later on in life, Robert Mitchum, who was usually indifferent to such matters, said that Charles Laughton was his favorite director and indicated that this was his favorite of the movies in which he had acted.
Producer Paul Gregory and Charles Laughton presented key members of the crew, like cinematographer Stanley Cortez, each with a 1% interest in the film. This was given to them on top of their salaries and is something that is never done. Gregory and Laughton said it was not done to encourage the artists, but reward them for their artistry. This was done over the objections of United Artists.
Charles Laughton, who thought that Robert Mitchum was "one of the best actors in the world," wrote in Esquire of the private man he knew to be different than the public image: "All this tough talk is a blind, you know. He's a literate, gracious, kind man, with wonderful manners, and he speaks beautifully--when he wants to. He's a tender man and a very great gentleman. You know, he's really terribly shy." Laughton was usually ill at ease with very macho men yet very comfortable with his star.
While the poor critical reviews are often cited as the reason Charles Laughton never directed another feature, Laughton himself said that he much preferred directing in the theatre. In the theatre you could constantly change and amend the production--adding lines, changing lighting and sets--but with film once it was done it could never be changed.
The scene where the children get away in the rowboat leaving the frustrated, knife-wielding preacher chest deep in the water was actually filmed on a sound stage. Robert Mitchum was actually crouched down in the scene as the water level was fairly shallow.
Robert Mitchum's autobiography contains many spurious accounts of the making of the film; in one of them, Charles Laughton is said to have had no great love for children, and so despised directing them in this film that Robert Mitchum found himself directing the children in several scenes. In reality, Laughton obsessed over every facet of his first feature, including getting the performances of every actor (even the children) right; this would lead to him dismissing one actor, in particular, after all of his scenes had already been shot and starting again with another in the part.
Robert Mitchum originally suggested to Charles Laughton that they shoot the film in authentic Appalachian locations, but the director couldn't afford to do on-location shooting. Besides, he wanted to create the film's unique look on Hollywood sound stages and found what he was looking for at Pathe, Republic Studios and the Rowland V. Lee ranch in the San Fernando Valley.
Kitty White was an acquaintance of Davis Grubb, who wrote the novel upon which the film was based. Charles Laughton was looking for a vocalist to sing composer Walter Schumann's lullaby and Grubb suggested to Laughton that he go hear White sing in a nightclub. He did and White was chosen to sing the haunting lullaby,
Reports that screenwriter James Agee wrote an incoherent screenplay have been proved false by the 2004 discovery of his first draft. That document, although at 293 pages manifestly overwritten (as is common with first drafts), is, scene-for-scene, the film that Charles Laughton directed. Likewise false are the reports that Agee was fired, related most infamously in Robert Mitchum's autobiography. Laughton, however much he gnashed his teeth at such a behemoth of a text only five weeks before the start of principal photography, calmly renewed Agee's contract and directed him to cut it in half; after much persuasion, Agee did. In Laughton's stage work ("Galileo", "Caine Mutiny Court Martial", etc), the great actor demonstrated that he was a script editor of genius --nhe could induce the most stubborn and prideful writer to make necessary cuts, and so he did with Agee. Later, apparently at Mitchum's request, Agee visited the set to settle a dispute between the star and Laughton. Letters and documents located in the archive of Agee's agent Paul Kohner bear this out -- they were brought to light by Laughton biographer Simon Callow, whose BFI book about "Night of the Hunter" diligently sets this part of the record straight. The Agee first draft may eventually be published, but it has been read by scholars--most notably, Prof. Jeffrey Couchman of Columbia University, who published his findings in an essay, "Credit Where Credit Is Due". To assert Agee's moral right to his screen credit in no way disputes Laughton's greatness as a director -- clearly, he was as expert with writers as he was with actors -- but Agee has been belittled, and even slandered, over the years (especially in Mitchum's autobiography), when his contribution to "Night of the Hunter" was of primary and enduring importance.
Robert Mitchum's autobiography contains many spurious accounts of the making of the film; one, for example, concerns director Charles Laughton, and how he supposedly found the script by James Agee totally unacceptable, rewriting it himself. This has been disproved by the discovery of Agee's 293-page first draft, back in 2004, which is, scene-for-scene, the film that Laughton directed.
One day Robert Mitchum arrived on set drunk and producer Paul Gregory told him that he was in no condition to work that day. Mitchum took umbrage to this and walked over to the producer's Cadillac, opened the front door and urinated on the front seat.
So disappointed was he by the poor reception of this film on its initial release both critically and commercially, Charles Laughton vowed never to direct a film again, and he never did. The film he was planning to direct next was going to be a screen adaptation of "The Naked and the Dead."
According to Lee Server in his biography, "Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care", Robert Mitchum's "devotion to Charles Laughton and the project had begun to fade by the final week of the 36-day shoot. Producer Paul Gregory said that "Laughton had a keen thing for Mitchum, and Mitchum said all this shit about how he loved Charles, but he was on drugs, drunk, and what have you, and there were times when Charles couldn't get him in front of the camera. He put us through a lot of hell on that. The picture went two hundred thousand dollars over budget." To Gregory, Mitchum at times seemed uncomfortably like the character he was playing. "He was a charmer. An evil son of a bitch with a lot of charm. Mitch sort of scared me, to tell you the truth. I was always on guard. He was often in a state, and you never knew what he would do next. He would be drunk or in a fight with this flunky he kept around, and kicking him all over the place. I came from the world of the theatre and I had never seen anyone quite like this."
According to Philippe Garnier's book included in the Blu-Ray package, United Artists did not show much consideration to director Charles Laughton and producer Paul Gregory. Although "Hunter" had a 36-day filming schedule, UA allowed Stanley Kramer's film Not as a Stranger (1955), in which Robert Mitchum was cast, to begin shooting before "Hunter" was finished. Some scenes with Mitchum, such as his arrest by police, had not been shot when Mitchum had to leave to start the Kramer film, and these scenes had to be shot when Mitchum had some time off, which contributed to "Hunter"'s going over budget.
To promote the movie, Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters did a guest shot on The Ed Sullivan Show (1948) in the spring of 1955. Winters recounted in her autobiography how the stress of doing live television caused Mitchum to drink and caused her to become "shrill and numb." The two got into costume - with Mitchum displaying the words "love" and "hate" on his hands - and performed their scene quite badly. Winters said she stuttered and lapsed into "Brooklynese," while Mitchum spoke so quietly their microphones had to be cranked up so loud "millions of viewers across the U.S. could hear our stomachs rumble." During the scene, according to Winters, Mitchum held up the wrong hand to illustrate a point about love and hate, and the audience laughed.
According to novelist Davis Grubb, Charles Laughton wanted the film to closely resemble the mental pictures the author had in mind while writing the book. In the Lee Server biography, Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care, the author stated that Laughton "learned that Grubb was an amateur sketch artist who liked to draw scenes and caricatures of the people he created in his fiction. Seeing the value in such visualizations by the hand of the author himself, Laughton had him send them to Hollywood and phoned him up begging for new ones throughout the production, sometimes specifying that Grubb draw in the exact expression on a character's face that he'd had in mind while writing a particular scene. The writer produced over a hundred of these pen-and-ink drawings for the film. "I declare, perhaps immodestly," Grubb said, "that I was not only the author of the novel from which the screenplay was adapted but was the actual scene designer as well."
Robert Mitchum tried explaining to Billy Chapin that he needed to better understand his character and his relationship to the preacher. Chapin, who had a reputation for brattiness, replied, "That's probably why I just won the New York Critics Circle prize." Charles Laughton bellowed, "Get that child away from me!" and from then on Mitchum patiently directed the boy in their scenes together.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The underwater shot of Shelley Winters' corpse in the Ford was the last one filmed. It was so convincing to actor Don Beddoe when he saw the finished film that he thought it was Winters holding her breath, not a dummy.
The studio tank at Republic Pictures, where John Wayne shot Wake of the Red Witch (1948), was where the dummy of Shelley Winters in the underwater sequence was shot. The eerie shots were filmed by an underwater cameraman in a scuba outfit and a camera that had to be held by him on a hook. Initially the tank at Fox was used but the paint inside the tank was flaking, and the water was not clear.
Lillian Gish feared that Charles Laughton and Robert Mitchum might be undercutting Powell's evil. Laughton explained to her, half joking, that he didn't want to ruin Mitchum's future career by pushing him to play total evil, although the touches of humor in the character actually serve to play up the preacher's essentially ludicrous and haywire psychology. And Mitchum's borderline buffoonery makes the children's escape and eventual triumph over him more plausible.
According to Robert Mitchum's autobiography, Mitchum himself was openly contemptuous of Shelley Winters throughout the shooting of the film, and later claimed to have wished Charles Laughton had actually used Winters in the scene when her character's body is seen dead underwater.
When Robert Mitchum first learned that Shelley Winters had won the part of Willa Harper, he said, "She looks and sounds as much like a wasted West Virginia girl as I do. The only bit she'll do convincingly is to float in the water with her throat cut."