When the film was in development in the 1970s, Roman Polanski envisioned Jack Nicholson as Captain Thomas Bartholemew Red, Isabelle Adjani as Maria-Dolores, and himself as Jean-Baptiste/The Frog. However, Nicholson, who had previously worked with Polanski on Chinatown (1974), drove the director crazy with outrageous salary demands. At one point, when Polanski asked him, out of desperation, "What exactly do you want?", Nicholson replied, "I want more!" In the end, Walter Matthau replaced Nicholson when the film was finally made in the 1980's.
The movie was the Opening Night Film at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival (where it was screened out of competition). To promote the film, Roman Polanski had the ship "Neptune" sail into the Cannes harbor on the festival's opening day, with all the movie's stars on deck in their pirate costumes. But after Pirates (1986) died at the box office, the "Neptune" remained in Cannes for 16 years, anchored next to a stone jetty in the harbor, because no one was sure what to do with it. In 2002, it was finally moved to Genoa, Italy, where it is now a floating museum in the city's port, near the "Molo Veccio" ("Old Pier").
Over a quarter of the picture's $30 million budget was spent on the construction of the pirate ship "Neptune." According to the DVD extras, the "Neptune" was "a full scale, functioning replica of a 17th Century Spanish Galleon, with intricate wood carving and working cannons. It still holds the record for the largest single prop ever constructed for motion pictures." The "Neptune" was constructed in Malta, and took about 12 months to build, utilizing the craft skills of over two-thousand Italian sculptors and Maltese shipbuilders. Although it is a replica of a Spanish Galleon above the waterline, it has a steel hull and a 400 HP engine underneath. In 2011, the "Neptune" made a brief return to show business, serving as the "Jolly Roger," Captain Hook's ship, in the TV mini-series, Neverland (2011).
Roman Polanski first wrote the screenplay for this picture in 1974, but couldn't get financing for about a dozen years. While in development at Paramount Pictures, the original budget for the film had been $15 million. Over the 12 years it was stuck in "development hell," the budget ballooned in excess of $30 million, which was a very large movie budget in the 1980's. It was finally made as a French-Tunisian co-production, financed by wealthy Tunisian Tarak Ben Ammar. Beginning in 1984, the movie was filmed in Tunisia, Malta and the Seychelles (which are a set of remote islands off the coast of East Africa).
Ironically, the song which Captain Red asks the Frog to sing in the last scene ("You know, that French ditty that I'm fond of") is the traditional song "Il était un petit navire", which is about a group of shipwrecked sailors who are debating how they should cook and eat the cabin boy.
The full character name of Captain Red (Walter Matthau) was Captain Thomas Bartholomew Red. Charlotte Lewis's full character name is María-Dolores de la Jenya de la Calde. The nick-name of Jean-Baptiste (Cris Campion) is "The Frog," which is a disdainful term for French people often used by the English.
The film was nominated for three French Cesar Awards including Cris Campion for Most Promising Young Male Actor (Meilleur Jeune Espoir Masculin) and won two - for Anthony Powell for Best Costume Design (Meilleurs Costumes) and for Pierre Guffroy for Best Production Design (Meilleurs Décors).