Director Sidney Lumet writes in his book "Making Movies" about an argument between River Phoenix and writer Naomi Foner. A scene in the movie concerns the character played by Phoenix being interrupted while practicing a classical piano solo. In the script, when he is caught, he breaks into a jazz riff to cover his "embarrassment" at being caught doing something serious. Phoenix fought hard against this, feeling that his character would never be embarrassed about working at the piano. Lumet was so impressed by the point Phoenix made, he shot the scene the way Phoenix wanted it.
The bombing that the Popes had carried out is loosely based on the August 24, 1970 bombing of Sterling Hall on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison, Wisconsin during the height of the Vietnam protest era in which a physics post-doctoral researcher named Robert Fassnacht was killed. Coincidentally, River Phoenix (Danny Pope) was born on August 23, 1970.
During a 2016 Q and A session at Austin's South by Southwest Film Festival, the actor Jake Gyllenhaal (whose mother, Naomi Foner, wrote the screenplay for Running on Empty) recalled that he was allowed to sit in on two weeks of rehearsals before filming started. The rehearsals made a profound impression on Gyllenhaal, who would have been about five or six years old at the time; he recounted what he could remember about Lumet's process: "I do remember the process of exploration, kind of that feeling...that there were no rules in that space....I remember River Phoenix asking questions about things that he wasn't sure about, that he didn't really know, and then it would resolve something in the screenplay where, you know, it 'read well,' but then it wouldn't be playable, and he would ask the question and all of a sudden it would become playable and emotional....you could see the actor's instinct kind of open up in their scene. I remember also Sidney Lumet finishing the day really early...because he got what he wanted in six hours. I remember all these really weird things and had no idea who I was around....It's not until now that I realize what an extraordinary privilege and amazing time t was to be amongst that." Gyllenhaal also recalled having a crush on Martha Plimpton at the time. Source: www.youtube.com/watch?v=TSTFdWFVoFg
The plot and conflicts are nearly identical in Christian Petzold's acclaimed German feature Die innere Sicherheit (2000), only the setting, political context and some characters are different. The original screenplay by Naomi Foner is not credited in the German version.
This film, which stars Judd Hirsch, was inspired by the 1970 bombing of Sterling Hall at the University of Wisconsin. In the TV episode Numb3rs: Protest (2006), Hirsch's character Alan Eppes is revealed to have a history of protesting (albeit peacefully) the Vietnam war, and a bombing suspect in that episode is named Matt Stirling.
River Phoenix starred in two films that year with similar plots, this one and Little Nikita (1988). The difference is that in this film his character's parents were Sixties radicals in hiding and in "Little Nikita" his character's parents were Soviet spies.
The plot is similar to Quantum Leap: Animal Frat - October 19, 1967 (1990) where in the original history a woman blows up a building at a university that she thought was unoccupied, so the person inside was killed as a result, and the woman spent the rest of her life on the run.