Reportedly, Warren Beatty re-shot some scenes up to thirty-five times. Paul Sorvino said he did as many as seventy takes for one scene, and Maureen Stapleton said she did as many as eighty takes for another. Reportedly, of this, she famously once said to Warren Beatty, "Are you out of your fucking mind?" This earned her a round of applause from the crew.
The scene where Pete Van Wherry (Gene Hackman) tells John Reed (Warren Beatty) that Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) has lost her job, took exactly one hundred takes to shoot. Hackman vowed that he would not shoot a one hundred first take, and he did not.
Gene Hackman agreed to appear in the film in a small role, and appearing in just two scenes, as a favor to friend Warren Beatty, for his gratitude to him helping Hackman with his career, when Beatty got him cast in Lilith (1964) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
With this film, Warren Beatty became the third person to be nominated for Academy Awards in the three categories of Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay in a film which was also nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Earlier people to do this had been Woody Allen for Annie Hall (1977), and Orson Welles for Citizen Kane (1941).
John Lithgow was considered by Warren Beatty for the lead role of John Reed for a short time. This was because Lithgow physically resembled Reed. Beatty eventually decided that he would play the part of Reed.
Warren Beatty took time out to explain to the extras what the film was about. After a lecture on the rights of the working man during filming in Spain, the extras took the message to heart and refused to return to work, saying that they felt exploited. Beatty, appreciating the irony, increased their wages.
Publicity for the film noted that John Reed was the only American to have ever been buried in the Kremlin. In actuality, he is one of three Americans to be buried there, the other two being the socialist revolutionary labor organizer Big Bill Haywood, and the founder of the Communist Party, USA Charles Ruthenburg.
The picture utilized two and a half million feet (762,000 meters) of film. Some estimates put it at three million feet (914,400 meters). This equates to about two-and-a-half weeks of screentime. One million feet are said to have been printed. The weight of the film stock shipped from England to the U.S. is believed to have weighed about five tons (four and a half metric tons).
According to a 2006 interview with Warren Beatty, this was the final Hollywood production to be released with an "intermission". However, the last Hollywood production to be released with an intermission is Hamlet (1996), clocking in at just over four hours in length.
According to Editor and Executive Producer Dede Allen, Warren Beatty first conceived making a movie about the life of John Reed around 1966. Reportedly, Beatty was vacationing in Russia during the 1960s, when he met a woman who had been a lover of John Reed, and who told Beatty of Reed's story. Later, it was around 1969 to 1970 that Beatty started learning Russian, allegedly so he could court the then married forty-four year old Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, with whom he had reportedly become completely obsessed.
While filming on-location in Finland, Warren Beatty encountered several problems with the local authorities. It turned out that Finnish authorities had been asked by the Soviet Union to make shooting this film as difficult as possible, which, in order to keep good relations with their much larger neighbor, they agreed to do.
The film was nominated for an Academy Award in each of the four acting categories. It took more than three decades for another movie (Silver Linings Playbook (2012)) to accomplish this again, with it happening twice in two years, the feat also occurring in the next year's American Hustle (2013), from the same writer and director.
In 2011, Warren Beatty still recalled the practical jokes that his friend Jerzy Kosinski played during the production. On one occasion, eating at a restaurant the night before a big shoot, Beatty realized his feet were "sweating profusely". He soon realized Kozinski had been sneaking under the table to pour small amounts of hot tea into Beatty's shoes.
Warren Beatty demanded that he use an Italian film crew, even though British Film industry union reviews decreed that a British crew must be used. Reportedly, as such, a British crew was standing around doing nothing being paid full pay.
Warren Beatty spent ten days in the U.S.S.R. during development, only to find out that he would be declined filming in Leningrad. Finland ended up doubling for Russia in the movie, with Beatty benefiting from spending this time in the Soviet heartland when coming in later to shoot the picture.
This movie was the second consecutive picture where Warren Beatty was Oscar nominated in four Academy Award categories for the one film. In Heaven Can Wait (1978), Beatty had been nominated for Best Actor, Best Director (co-director with Buck Henry), Best Adapted Screenplay (with Elaine May) and Best Picture (Producer). For this movie, Beatty was nominated for Best Actor, Best Director (sole director), Best Original Screenplay (with Trevor Griffiths) and Best Picture (Producer). Of these eight nominations, Beatty only won just the one Oscar statuette, which was for directing this movie.
At one point, Director of Photography Vittorio Storaro nearly quit the project when he and Warren Beatty clashed over the use of the camera. Storaro wanted a dynamic fluid movement, while Beatty wanted static shots. Finally, a compromise was made between the two men. The film would open with static shots, and as it progressed, more camera moves are added. This style had similarly been applied to another film, that being Network (1976). Yet by 2011, Beatty described the process with Storaro this way: "There's no greater cinematographer. We were in total agreement and had continual conversations."
After this film, Warren Beatty did not act in another movie until Ishtar (1987) with Dustin Hoffman, a critical and commercial failure. Moreover, Beatty did not direct another movie until Dick Tracy (1990), which coincidentally ended up winning the same number of Academy Awards as Reds (1981).
Sixty-five people worked on the film's editing and post-production, which itself ran for around six months. This was completed in November 1981, being more than two years since the start of principal photography.
The number of people interviewed and featured in interviews interspersed within the film's narrative was thirty-two. Several interviewees seen in the film, some shot during the 1970s, had died by the time the film eventually completed filming, went through six months of post-production, and then finally released.
Soviet Director Sergey Bondarchuk wanted to make a film about John Reed just after he had made his epic War and Peace (1966). Reportedly, Bondarchuk asked Warren Beatty to star in it, but Beatty turned down the offer, as he apparently didn't like the screenplay.
Warren Beatty required one hundred takes of Gene Hackman of one of his scenes. Because of this experience, he declined to be directed by Beatty again in Dick Tracy (1990), saying "I love you, Warren, but I just can't do it."
Over one hundred and thirty hours of footage were shot, about forty times more than the final cut of the film. It took two days for everyday shooting dailies (shot in Europe except for London scenes) to reach Editors Dede Allen and Craig McKay. This was accomplished by having a courier on standby around the clock. The courier would take the dailies to the Technicolor Lab in Rome for the special processing, and would reach Los Angeles (where post-production was done) at the end of next day.
During principal photography, reportedly, Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton were in a personal relationship, which witnesses to the production said disintegrated throughout the course of the production. By the time Keaton went to work on her next film, Shoot the Moon (1982), the personal relationship between Beatty and Keaton had ended.
While filming a crowd scene in Spain, where John Reed's makes a speech to the Revolutionary Congress of the Peoples of the East in Spain, Warren Beatty explained to the Spanish extras John Reed's philosophy of the rights of workers to assist them with their character motivations. Ironically, then during the lunch break, having "educated" them, a spokesperson representing the extras, protested to Beatty saying that they felt they were being exploited. Re-negotiations had to be conducted for the rest of the lunch hour in order for filming to be able to re-commence, with the worker extras achieving a twenty dollars per day pay settlement.
Joke movie titles that the crew labelled the picture during the high stress of the production, included "The Longest Day" (ref: The Longest Day (1962)) and "The 39 Takes" (ref: The Thirty Nine Steps (1978)).
Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton's romantic relationship began to deteriorate during the filming. Peter Biskind wrote about the production, "Beatty's relationship with Keaton barely survived the shoot. It is always a dicey proposition when an actress works with a star or director, both in this case, with whom she has an off-screen relationship. Keaton appeared in more scenes than any other actor, save Beatty, and many of them were difficult ones, where she had to assay a wide range of feelings, from romantic passion to anger, and deliver several lengthy, complex, emotional speeches." George Plimpton once observed, "Diane almost got broken. I thought Beatty was trying to break her into what Louise Bryant had been like with John Reed." Executive Producer Simon Relph adds, "It must have been a strain on their relationship, because he was completely obsessive, relentless."
Warren Beatty lost thirty pounds and suffered laryngitis after completion of the movie. This partially explains why he did not make any press interviews for the film. At that time, he was recovering at his friend Jerzy Kosinski's house, which he was sharing.
Identifiable character actors were cast in bit and supporting parts so as to assist the American public to identify with the movie, which was using English locations to double for American settings, a concern of Warren Beatty. The actors being R.G. Armstrong, Jack Kehoe, M. Emmet Walsh, and Ian Wolfe.
Maureen Stapleton had a morbid fear of flying, and frequently turned down roles that required her to fly. As no passenger ships sail to Britain in the winter, she had to take a freighter to get to London for filming.
This is the film that was showing on British National television the night Princess Diana was killed in Paris. As the final credits rolled, an announcement was broadcast that she had been seriously injured in a car crash.
Warren Beatty came across the story of John Reed in the mid 1960s, and Executive Producer and Film Editor Dede Allen remembers Beatty mentioning making a film about Reed's life as early as 1966. The first script was written by Beatty in 1969.
Dino De Laurentiis introduced Beatty to Russian Director Sergei Bondarchuk when he was planning to star him in Three Days of the Condor (1975). Bondarchuk had directed De Laurentiis' Napoleonic epic Waterloo (1970) and the massive six-hour Soviet War and Peace (1966) and was keen to film the John Reed story, but Beatty and him did not get on.
President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan arranged to view the film at a special screening at the White House in Washington, D.C. During his period in office, Reagan described the Soviet Union as the "evil empire". (Reagan was acquainted with Beatty from his career in Hollywood).
Warren Beatty originally had no intention of acting in the film or even directing it, because he had learned on various projects such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Heaven Can Wait (1978) that producing a film alone is a difficult task.
When principal photography began in August 1979, the original intention was for a fifteen to sixteen week filming shoot, but it ultimately took two hundred forty days to just shoot the film. The process was slow because it was shot in five different countries, and at various points, the crew had to wait for snow to fall in Helsinki (and other parts of Finland), and for the rain to stop in Spain.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
Filming Warren Beatty's death scene required multiple takes. Vittorio Storaro went home to his family one day and his kids asked him, "Pa! Pa! Is he dead yet?" Storaro replied, "Not yet, but he's very sick."