The film's star, Jack Nance never knew, nor cared, exactly what Eraserhead meant. In an interview with the Twin Peaks (1990) fanzine Wrapped in Plastic, Nance said: "You guys get way too deep over this business. I don't take it all that seriously. It's only a movie."
David Lynch had a lot of trouble getting financial assistance from the AFI, because the script was only 20 pages long. He received a grant from AFI but after about 3 years of production, ran out of money. At one point Terrence Malick screened the film for a potential financial backer, who walked out, calling the movie "bullshit".
The script was influenced by David Lynch's reading as a film student. Franz Kafka's 1915 novella The Metamorphosis and Nikolay Gogol's 1836 short story "The Nose" were strong influences on the screenplay.
The mutant baby was apparently created from the embalmed fetus of a calf, although David Lynch has never confirmed this or described how he articulated it. During filming when he watched rushes, he even had the projectionist cover his eyes when takes with the baby were playing, so that no one would know how it was made. After completing the film, Lynch reportedly buried the "Embalmed Calf" in an undisclosed location. At the wrap party, they had a mock wake for it.
The film was created in a piecemeal fashion over 5 years, with many sets rebuilt after being torn down to make way for other work. Through all 5 years, Jack Nance's only request as far as comfort or entertainment went was "a room and a chair," and he kept his hair in the same frizzy style the whole time. The sparse, drawn-out shooting schedule is revealed when at one point, Henry opens a door, and Nance ages 18 months between cuts. 2 years in, cinematographer Herbert Cardwell, 35, died in his sleep. After 4 weeks of searching, Frederick Elmes was chosen to take his place.
The film's tone was also shaped by David Lynch's time living in a troubled neighbourhood in Philadelphia. Lynch and his family spent five years living in an atmosphere of "violence, hate and filth". The area was rife with crime, inspiring the bleak urban backdrop of the film. Describing this period of his life, Lynch said "I saw so many things in Philadelphia I couldn't believe ... I saw a grown woman grab her breasts and speak like a baby, complaining her nipples hurt. This kind of thing will set you back".
Production funds were donated by David Lynch's childhood friend Jack Fisk and his wife Sissy Spacek. Additional funds were provided by Jack Nance's wife Catherine E. Coulson, who worked as a waitress and donated her income, and by Lynch himself, who delivered newspapers throughout the film's principal photography.
The script is thought to have been inspired by David Lynch's fear of fatherhood. His daughter Jennifer Lynch had been born with "severely clubbed feet", requiring extensive corrective surgery as a child. Jennifer has claimed that her own unexpected conception and birth defects were the basis for the film's themes.
During production, David Lynch began experimenting with a technique of recording dialogue that had been spoken phonetically backwards and reversing the resulting audio. Although the technique was not used in the film, Lynch returned to it for Twin Peaks: Episode #1.3 (1990).
The film premièred at the Filmex film festival in Los Angeles, on March 19, 1977. On its opening night, the film was attended by twenty-five people; twenty-four viewed it the following evening. However, Ben Barenholtz, head of distributor Libra Films International, persuaded local theater Cinema Village to run the film as a midnight feature, where it continued for a year. After this, it ran for ninety-nine weeks at New York's Waverly Cinema, had a year-long midnight run at San Francisco's Roxie Theater from 1978 to 1979, and achieved a three-year tenure at Los Angeles' Nuart Theatre between 1978 and 1981.
The soundtrack album was dedicated "...to The Man In the Planet's Sister". The Man In the Planet was played by Jack Fisk, brother of Lynch's then-wife, Mary Fisk. Jack brought his future wife Sissy Spacek to the set to hold the slate during his scenes.
Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger cited this as "one of the greatest films [he had] ever seen", and said that it came closer to realizing his vision than even his own films. According to Giger, David Lynch declined to collaborate with him on Dune (1984) because he felt Giger had "stolen his ideas".
After a poorly received test screening, in which David Lynch believes he had mixed the soundtrack at too high a volume, the director cut twenty minutes of footage from the film, bringing its length to 89 minutes. Among the cut footage is a scene featuring Coulson as the infant's midwife, another of a man torturing two women-one again played by Catherine E. Coulson -with a car battery, and one of Henry toying with a dead cat.
The film started life as a script called Gardenback, based on David Lynch's painting of a hunched figure with vegetation growing from its back. Gardenback was a surrealist script about adultery, which featured a continually growing insect representing one man's lust for his neighbor. The script would have resulted in a roughly 45-minute-long film, which the AFI felt was too long for such a figurative, nonlinear script.
Though "Lady in the Radiator" Laurel Near was an accomplished singer who had performed folk music with her sisters Holly and Timi, when she is seen singing "In Heaven (Everything Is Fine)" she is actually lip-syncing a vocal track of musician Peter Ivers, who composed the song at David Lynch's request.
Poet/short story writer/novelist Charles Bukowski's favorite film. The great outsider was not a notable fan of cinema. In his roman a clef "Hollywood" about the making of Barfly (1987), he talks about meeting a famous director and his consort, based on David Lynch and Isabella Rossellini. His character, Henry Chinaski, finds them condescending.
It is often erroneously stated that David Lynch's wife at the time, Peggy Lynch was pregnant with Jennifer Lynch during the making of Eraserhead. In actual fact, Jennifer was three years old when the film was first being prepped, and would be eight by the time it was finished.
During one of the many lulls in filming, David Lynch was able to produce the short film The Amputee (1974), taking advantage of the AFI's wish to test new film stock before committing to bulk purchases. The short piece starred Catherine E. Coulson, who continued working with Lynch as a technician on this film.
During Henry's visit to Mary's parents house, it is mentioned that he is a printer at "LaPelle's factory". This is a name check of Rodger Lapelle, a Philadelphia gallery owner that employed David Lynch as a printer and engraver in the early seventies.
The large concrete structure that Henry walks into at the start of the film is the lower portion of the East 4th Street overpass in Los Angeles, where it crosses Sante Fe Avenue to fly over railroad tracks.
The floor seen in the lobby in Henry's appartment is a smaller version of the exact same used in the red room in Twin Peaks (1990). David Lynch often borrowed from his previous films with this series, mostly Eraserhead (1977) and Blue Velvet (1986).