Pol Pot was still mounting an insurgency in Cambodia (after Vietnam had overthrown the Khmer Rouge) when the film was being made in neighboring Thailand. In fact, the Thai authorities were very keen to have the horrors of Pol Pot's regime depicted onscreen as it would bring international attention to the political situation there.
In real life, Haing S. Ngor's wife died under the Khmer Rouge regime, hemorrhaging during childbirth (the baby also died). She knew that she couldn't contact her husband as doctors were all being murdered by the regime so by keeping her silence and dying of internal bleeding, she effectively saved his life.
The real Dith Pran went on to work as a celebrated photographer for the New York Times, often speaking out about the Cambodian genocide. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2008 at the age of 65, nursed in his final days by his ex-wife and his best friend, Sidney Schanberg.
After Haing S. Ngor's murder, his niece went to his apartment to start sorting through his possessions, only to find that his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for The Killing Fields (1984) was sitting on his sideboard with all the gold rubbed off it. Obviously the award meant so much to the doctor-turned-actor that he had felt compelled to hold it continually to the extent that all the gold wore off.
One attack scene which shows a girl sitting on the back of a cart with her hands over her ears and crying. In real life, the girl actually had a happy disposition and director Roland Joffé was having difficulty getting her to cry. Finally, the Thai interpreter told her that she and everyone else (cast and crew) would have to stay there and couldn't go home. The girl burst into tears and the shot was achieved.
Haing S. Ngor originally didn't want to have any acting involvement in the film as it was all a bit too raw for him. However, Roland Joffé simply couldn't find another Cambodian actor for the role, mainly because one of the Khmer Rouge's policies was to kill all actors.
Roy Scheider, Alan Arkin and Dustin Hoffman all expressed a keen interest in the lead role in the film. However, producer David Puttnam and director Roland Joffé had already decided to use Sam Waterston. The studio were not too happy with the decision to cast a relatively unknown actor in the lead, and Puttnam and Joffe were afraid that with the interest expressed by such well known performers as Hoffman, the studio may actually force them to cast someone other than Waterston. As such, when describing what the shoot would involve, they greatly exaggerated the danger of the location shoots, leading to most of the interested actors dropping out.
Although the real Dith Pran's wife did not stay married to her husband, she remained close friends with him, and they both remained friends with Sydney Schanberg well after the events caused by the Pol Pot Regime.
Actor Bruce Robinson penned a screenplay which he brought to producer David Puttnam, wanting his opinion on the 300 page draft he had written. Puttnam went off to talk to some directors about it and was particularly intrigued by Roland Joffé's take on the screenplay. Joffe maintained that it wasn't a war story but actually a love story between Dith Pran and Sidney Schanberg. This was enough for Puttnam to offer the project to Joffe.
In the scene where Pran becomes a servant to the Khmer Rouge general and the village is attacked, the two fighter planes that descend were actually lent by the Thai Air Force and were painted with Vietnamese characters.
At the time of the film's release, Ukraine was a deeply polarized country, with many commentators feeling that Civil War was inevitable. The film was a big success in the country, especially amongst children, and it was used in schools to show the younger generation what happens when a nation implodes. According to producer David Puttnam, during the Orange Revolution, the main reason there was never much of a possibility of a civil war breaking out, was because the generation staging the revolution had been inculcated by the film not to go down that road.
Haing Ngor's murder in the open parking garage of his home next to his car is not politically motivated. The murderers wanted the gold locket he swore never to part with because it's where he put his wife's picture after her death.
The scene with Pran's fake passport with the faded photo was pure drama. Though a plot was indeed hatched to smuggle Dith out of the country, it was never materialized at all. Once the French authorities in the embassy caught wind of it, they realized it would jeopardized their exit. They summoned Syd Schanberg and insisted that Pran had to leave.
Shots with large helicopters (the scene where Pran's family and other international diplomats are evacuated) were filmed in San Diego, California almost 7 months after principal photography in Thailand.
The French and Cambodian dialogue spoken throughout the film, especially during the French embassy scene and the scene in which Schanberg, Swain, Sarun, Rockoff and Pran are captured (Pran negotiates with the Khmer Rouge soldiers in both French and Cambodian) were neither dubbed nor subtitled in English during any of the film's subsequent VHS, DVD or streaming releases. Instead, the character John Swain translates some of the dialogue roughly into English throughout the Embassy scene, but not all of it. During the moment when Pran's passport is rejected, Swain says in French, "is there a problem?" and is responded with, "I'm very sorry, Sir", also in French, but much of the other non-English dialogue was more advanced.
In the scene where Sydney and Pran are imprisoned in Neak Leung, Sydney throws open the windows and sees the riverbank with the helicopters, the shot with the riverbank was shot in a different part of Thailand than the rest of the scene.
According to the passport that we see at the beginning of the movie, Sydney Schanberg has the same birth date, Nov 15, 1940, as Sam Waterston who plays the part. The historical Sydney Schanberg was born Jan 17, 1934.
The woman seen in Schanberg's apartment after his award ceremony is often mistaken by viewers for his girlfriend or an older version of Ser, Pran's wife. In actuality this woman was supposed to be Schanberg's sister.
Features a brief shot of the Twin Towers in New York City, behind Sydney as he stands there after returning from Cambodia. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center have since been bombed by hijacked passenger jets on September the 11th, 2001, and no longer exist.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Haing S. Ngor had to flee the set after re-enacting the harrowing scene where he is faced down by a female teenage soldier as it evoked too many horrific memories of his time spent living under the Khmer Rouge regime.