Martin Scorsese shunned the idea of filming the boxing scenes with multiple cameras. Instead, he planned months of carefully choreographed movements with one camera. He wanted the single camera to be like "a third fighter".
When the real Jake LaMotta saw the movie, he said it made him realize for the first time what a terrible person he had been. He asked the real Vicki LaMotta "Was I really like that?". Vicki replied "You were worse."
In 1978, when Martin Scorsese was at an all-time low due to a near overdose resulting from an addiction to cocaine, Robert De Niro visited him at the hospital, and told him that he had to clean himself up and make this movie about a boxer. At first, Scorsese refused (he didn't like sports movies anyway), but due to De Niro's persistence, he eventually gave in. Many claim (including Scorsese) that De Niro saved Scorsese's life by getting him back into work.
The reasons why the film was made in black and white were mainly to differentiate it from Rocky (1976), as well as for period authenticity. Another reason was that Martin Scorsese didn't want to depict all that blood in a color picture. Also, in the book, Jake LaMotta says "Now, sometimes, at night, when I think back, I feel like I'm looking at an old black and white movie of myself. Why it should be black and white I don't know, but it is."
To achieve the feeling of brotherhood between the two lead actors, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci lived and trained with each other for some time before filming began. Ever since then, the two have been very close friends.
When Martin Scorsese visited some boxing matches, he was immediately struck by two images: the blood-soaked sponge wiped across the fighter's back, and the pendulous drops of blood hanging off the ropes.
Sound effects for punches landing were made by squashing melons and tomatoes. Sound effects for camera flashes going off were sounds of gunshots. The original tapes were deliberately destroyed by the sound technician Frank E. Warner, to prevent them being used again.
The real Jake LaMotta was partially deaf for most of his life, so most of his anger came out of not understanding what people were saying. He had a thirty percent use in his right ear, and seventy percent in the left.
Martin Scorsese had trouble figuring out how he would cut together the last fight between Jake LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson (in particular when he is up against the ropes getting beaten). He used the original shot-list from the shower sequence in Psycho (1960) to help him figure it out. Scorsese later commented that it helped most in that the scene was the most horrific to him.
The Biblical quote at the end of the film ("All that I know is that I was blind, and now I can see") was a reference to Martin Scorsese's film professor, to whom the film was dedicated. The man died just before the film was released. Scorsese credits his teacher with helping him "to see".
Jake (Robert De Niro) asks Joey (Joe Pesci) "Did you fuck my wife?" Martin Scorsese didn't think that Pesci's reaction was strong enough, so he asked De Niro to say "Did you fuck your mother?" Scorsese also did not tell Pesci that the script called for him to be attacked.
On March 31, 1981, Robert De Niro's Best Actor Oscar win created a rarity in the Academy's history, in that the real-life Jake LaMotta was in the audience witnessing the victory. That same evening, Sissy Spacek won her first Best Actress Oscar for playing singer Loretta Lynn (Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)) who was also in the pavilion audience, making the gala event unique.
No original music was composed for the film. All of the music was taken from the works of an Italian composer named Pietro Mascagni. Martin Scorsese selected it because it had a quality of sadness to it that he felt fit the mood of the film.
United Artists was very frustrated by the amount of time Martin Scorsese took during post-production, thinking he was unnecessarily slow. Scorsese took unusual care, as he genuinely believed that Raging Bull (1980) would be his last film, and so he didn't want to compromise his vision. Conversely, as he neared completion, he also felt that the film was a form of cinematic rebirth for him. For this reason, he dedicated the film to his film professor (from New York University) Haig Manoogian "with love and resolution". Manoogian had helped Scorsese get his first film produced.
Thelma Schoonmaker's husband, Director Michael Powell, was consulted about the weight gain scenes. In Powell's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), the lead character gets significantly bigger during the course of the movie. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro were curious how Roger Livesey had achieved that effect. Powell informed them that Livesay had gotten bigger through careful use of camera angles, shaving his hair to make his head appear larger, and judicious use of padding. Scorsese and De Niro felt that the film was too realistic to get away with that kind of effect, so the decision was made for De Niro to physically bulk up through overeating.
The majority of the film, with Jake LaMotta as a younger man, including the boxing scenes, were shot first. Then production shut down for several months, giving Robert De Niro enough time to bulk up for his role as the older, and much fatter LaMotta. In those months, De Niro gained sixty pounds, practically eating his way through Europe with big meals. De Niro, at one point, would eat a dinner heavy in pasta, and drink it down with a vanilla milkshake before going to bed. It was his idea to do it this way. These scenes were generally shot with the minimum of takes, as De Niro would become exhausted much more quickly.
When Paul Schrader was working on the script, he put in numerous shocking moments, such as Jake LaMotta masturbating and dipping his penis into a bucket of ice. Schrader later admitted that the film held less personal significance to him than it did for Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese and he added the shocking material just to see what he could get past the studio. Ultimately, the masturbation was cut and, instead of putting his penis into the ice, LaMotta poured the ice down his underwear.
The original script was vetoed by Producer Steven Bach after he told Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro that Jake LaMotta was "a cockroach". De Niro and Scorsese took a few weeks in Italy to do an uncredited re-write of the script, during which time, the two found some sympathetic aspects of LaMotta, which eventually satisfied the producers.
Paul Schrader was directing Hardcore (1979), when Robert De Niro talked to him about needing help with a script. The first thing Schrader did was drive down to Key West and check the archives of a local newspaper. It was there that he learned that there were two LaMottas, something which is not referenced in Jake LaMotta's autobiography. That was when Schrader knew he had found the hook for the screenplay.
While preparing to play Jake LaMotta, Robert De Niro met with LaMotta and became very well acquainted with him. They spent the entire shoot together, so De Niro could portray his character accurately. LaMotta said that De Niro has the ability to be a contender, and that he would have been happy to be his manager and trainer.
According to Martin Scorsese on the DVD, when first screening some test 8mm footage of Robert De Niro sparring in a ring, he felt that something was off about the image. Michael Powell, who at that time had become something of a mentor and good friend to Scorsese, suggested that it was the color of the gloves that was throwing them off. Realizing this was true, Scorsese then decided the movie had to be filmed in black and white.
Mardik Martin wrote the most traditional, linear script for the film (more of a traditional Jake LaMotta biography), but backed off on the project, due to exhaustion after several months of research. Paul Schrader made several changes to the script, including making, Joey LaMotta, Jake's brother, the second most prominent character (by combining his actions with that of Jake's friend, Peter Savage) and starting the story in the middle of LaMotta's career, rather than at the beginning. Although they kept Schrader's overall structure, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro spent five weeks re-writing his version of the script until they had exactly the film they wanted (Scorsese and De Niro are uncredited as screenwriters for the film).
Neither Director of Photography Michael Chapman nor Martin Scorsese could get the right look for the amateur LaMotta home movies that comprise the only color sequences in this movie. Both men gave in to their natural instincts for camera placement and framing, which was the antithesis of what they wanted to achieve. They solved the problem by asking Teamsters working on the set to handle the camera, in order to give the 16mm film the appropriate feel of amateur home movies.
Jodie Foster didn't audition for this movie. Producers didn't find her suitable for the character of Vickie, and considered her as too young and tomboyish. Despite that, she still wanted to get the role. Most likely because of her admiration for Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese's work. Her mom thought about a way to convince the producers that Jodie was no longer the girl from Freaky Friday (1976) or Taxi Driver (1976) anymore, but a young woman. The result was a session with photographer Emilio Lari at a rented estate in Los Angeles in the Summer of 1978, when Jodie Foster was fifteen-years-old. The pictures taken here later found their (unauthorized) way to adult magazines during the John Hinckley aftermath.
This marked the first time since his first film I Call First (1967) that Martin Scorsese was able to work with his film school friend Thelma Schoonmaker, due to her having been denied membership in the then all-male Motion Picture Editors Guild.
Of all of the great dramatic films in history, it was the great Buster Keaton's comedy Battling Butler (1926) that was one of Martin Scorsese's biggest inspirations in getting the "feel" of the boxing scenes just right, particularly (and most likely) from Keaton's surprisingly realistic, climactic fight. As quoted in the book "Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull" edited by Kevin J. Hayes (Cambridge University Press. Copyright 2005), Scorsese called Keaton "the only person who had the right attitude about boxing in the movies" for him.
According to Producer Irwin Winkler, he and Robert De Niro didn't have many creative disagreements on the film, save for when De Niro wanted to gain the weight to look like the older Jake LaMotta. Winkler, fearing for the actor's health, had objected and suggested the use of prosthetics and make-up, as they had money in the budget. But as a method actor who wanted to stay true to the real-life subject, De Niro opted to gain the weight required.
The opening sequence, in which Jake prances around a ring in slow motion, featured the lighting from photographers' flashes. There was only person setting off the flash bulbs, and that was Director of Photography Michael Chapman running around in the ring in a black velor tracksuit.
According to Director of Photography Michael Chapman, the actual fight scenes were filmed at the normal rate of twenty-four frames per second. For scenes where Jake retires to his corner between rounds, Chapman gradually overcranked his camera by "ear", from twenty-four up to forty-eight frames per second as Jake walked away (simultaneously adjusting the diaphragm to maintain exposure consistency), and then reversed procedure as Jake emerged from his corner to resume fighting, all in one shot. For the scene where Jake is doused with water in his corner, Chapman overcranked anywhere from ninety-six to one hundred twenty frames per second.
DIRECTOR TRADEMARK (Martin Scorsese): (beating): In each Scorsese movie featuring both of them, Frank Vincent and Joe Pesci beat one another. In this movie and Goodfellas (1990), Pesci's character beats Vincent. Vincent finally gets revenge by beating Pesci in Casino (1995).
Martin Scorsese was worried about the On the Waterfront (1954) recitation because he knew he'd be inviting critical comparison between the scene in this film and the original film's scene. Robert De Niro read it in various ways. Scorsese chose the take in which the recitation is extremely flat, specifically to mute the comparison, and to suggest that it is simply a recitation, and not indicative of how Jake LaMotta felt about his brother.
The home movie sequences were in color, to make them stand out from the rest of the film. Another reason was the feeling of reality, because at that particular time, represented by the home movies, 8mm color home movie cameras were very popular.
Martin Scorsese claims that nothing should be read into his using the On the Waterfront (1954) quote. Jake LaMotta, in his declining years, used to appear on stage reciting dialogue from television plays, and even reading William Shakespeare. According to Scorsese, he'd planned to use something from "Richard III" (because in the corresponding real-life event, LaMotta used it), but Michael Powell suggested that "Richard III" wouldn't work in the context of the film, because the film in general, and LaMotta in particular, are inherently American. Scorsese picked the lines from "On the Waterfront", which was a favorite recital source for LaMotta in real-life.
Jake LaMotta's autobiography, co-written with friend Peter Savage, omitted mention of his brother, as did Mardik Martin's original screenplay. Unhappy with the result, the producers hired Paul Schrader to restructure it, and in the course of doing research on LaMotta, the writer came across an article on the relationship between Jake and his brother Joey. Schrader incorporated the relationship into the revised screenplay, co-opting the Savage character, and creating a composite of the two men in the person of Joey LaMotta. That relationship became the central plot theme in the revised screenplay, and one of the primary reasons for the film's success.
Nicholas Colasanto's character, Tommy Como, is based on the real-life mobster Frank Carbo, who basically ran all boxing in New York City during the 1940s and 1950s. He eventually was sent to prison for conspiracy and extortion after being prosecuted by U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
As of October 2015, Cathy Moriarty has still never seen the film in its entirety. According to an interview in the Guardian, she has only seen parts of it. It's not just this film, she's never seen most of the films she's been in.
John Turturro makes his film debut as the man at table at Webster Hall. Turturro and Robert De Niro have played characters named Billy Sunday. De Niro as Master Chief Leslie W. "Billy" Sunday in Men of Honor (2000), and Turturro as Coach Billy Sunday in He Got Game (1998).
Executives at United Artists were very reluctant to finance the film, as they were perturbed by the extreme profanity and violence in the screenplay. With some justification, as it transpired: at one point, it was doubtful whether the film would be released in the UK at all, due to its extreme nature.
According to the book "The Academy Awards: The Complete Unofficial History" by J. Piazza and G. Kinn (2008), "All the action on the set of Raging Bull (1980) was shut down for four months so that Robert de Niro could keep it going in his digestive system. He gained fifty-six pounds."
Another well-known film to feature "Cavalleria Rusticana - Intermezzo" on the soundtrack, was The Godfather: Part III (1990). Although Robert De Niro didn't appear in that film, he did win his first of two Oscars for its predecessor in that saga, The Godfather: Part II (1974). The second Oscar he won was for his performance in this film.
Martin Scorsese taught Spike Lee film directing at New York University. Spike's first movie, She's Gotta Have It (1986), was filmed entirely in black and white, except for one scene in color. This film was also filmed entirely in black and white, except for one scene in color.
The boxing scenes were originally scheduled to be filmed over a period of five weeks. However, because of the way that Martin Scorsese designed to film them shot by shot, the filming of the fight scenes went over twice the length to ten weeks.