When a critic commented that it seemed unrealistic that the daughter's high school record was almost perfect when she was taking drugs, screenwriter Stephen Gaghan pointed out that the high school record in the movie was his and that he had been abusing drugs at the time.
After filming one day, actor James Brolin returned to his car to find two youths attempting to break in. Still in his general's uniform, he frightened away the would-be thieves, who mistook him for a real military officer.
Benicio Del Toro is one of only six actors to have won an Academy Award for a part spoken mainly in a foreign language (most of Del Toro's dialog is in Spanish). Sophia Loren, Robert De Niro, Marion Cotillard, Christoph Waltz and Roberto Benigni are the other five.
The scene where Michael Douglas takes his trip to the California border crossing to discuss drug interdiction was actually shot at the Tijuana crossing. The video and sound quality is so low in part because it was never supposed to be part of the movie. Douglas started asking, out of character, Rudy M. Camacho about drug trafficking on the border. Camacho was, at the time, the actual Customs chief in charge of the California border crossings. Steven Soderbergh began filming it with a hand-held camera, praying that Camacho wouldn't address the actor as "Mr. Douglas".
The film has 135 speaking parts and was shot in over 110 locations in eight different cities.
Michael Douglas originally declined the role of Robert Wakefield, and it was offered to Harrison Ford, who accepted. Ford worked with director Steven Soderbergh to improve the character, but then decided not to do the movie. Douglas liked the change in the character so much, he accepted the revamped part.
The only two story arcs to ever come close are Catherine Zeta-Jones and Benicio Del Toro's when their characters pass each other on the street in Mexico, and when Judge Wakefield (Michael Douglas) has a meeting with General Salazar and Javier Rodriguez (Del Toro) is sitting in the room.
To prepare for the scenes in which they were high, the teens had to have peppermint dust blown into their face to make their eyes and noses red.
Director Steven Soderbergh is known as being first camera on many of his films, as a result, he was operating the camera for most of the shooting.
To achieve a distinctive look for each different vignette in the story, Steven Soderbergh used three different film stocks (and post-production techniques), each with their own color treatment and grain for the print. The "Wakefield" story features a colder, bluer tone to match the sad, depressive emotion. The "Ayala" story is bright, shiny, and saturated in primary colors, especially red, to match the glitzy surface of Helena's life. The "Mexican" story appears grainy, rough, and hot to go with the rugged Mexican landscape and congested cities.
Catherine Zeta-Jones was pregnant during filming, and the role was adjusted to suit her condition. Originally, her character was already a mother of two instead of six months pregnant.
During filming in Cincinnati, Michael Douglas chased down a purse snatcher and held him until police officers got there to arrest him.
The scenes that take place in the White House were shot on the set of the television series The West Wing (1999), which is a near-exact replica (albeit wider, to allow for free movement of the cameras) of the actual interiors of the White House's West Wing.
On the first day of production of Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) - Steven Soderbergh's first film - the producers of that movie sent a telegram to Soderbergh. They teased him good-naturedly, telling him they'd heard reports he "couldn't direct traffic". Twelve years later, Soderbergh won an Oscar - for directing "Traffic".
Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas were engaged before filming began; they married soon after. They do not appear in any scenes together.
During the party scene where Bowman ODs, the teens were snorting dried milk. Corey Spears (Bowman) snorted so much that he became ill.
Writer Stephen Gaghan originally planned to set the Wakefield family storylines in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. During his research, he determined that Cincinnati's bad neighborhoods looked worse than Louisville's, and would serve the finished film better, so he moved the Wakefields' stories to Ohio.
Al Pacino was also asked to play Judge Wakefield but couldn't fit it into his schedule and Richard Gere was considered before Michael Douglas came on board. This would have been a role reversal for Pacino, as he was the title character in Scarface (1983).
Benicio Del Toro would later give another acclaimed performance in Sicario (2015), which also focuses on the Mexican drug war.
Theatrical film debut for Topher Grace, who had previously been well known for his work on television.
When director Steven Soderbergh turned in his second and final cut for theatrical release, USA Films was concerned that the graphic drug content would earn the film an NC-17, and Soderberg was prepared to release it with that rating. Fortunately, the MPAA approved the film with an R.
In the original theatrical release it was mentioned that Caroline and her friends went to a school called Cincinnati Country Day, a small prep school in Cincinnati. When CCD protested being associated with drug addiction, references to the name of the school were removed from the video version.
Senator Harry Reid is shown speaking with Michael Douglas's character at the beginning of the movie. A script was written for the senator, but he didn't like it. Instead, he had the actor ask him the question and he responded as he would normally.
Benicio Del Toro became the third Puerto Rican, and the second Puerto Rican male, to win an Oscar in his part. The first was José Ferrer, father of cast member Miguel Ferrer.
This is a remake of the British mini-series Traffik (1989), produced and shown by Channel Four.
For realism purposes, Steven Soderbergh insisted that all the Mexican sequences be in Spanish. This caused a slight problem for Benicio Del Toro, who didn't actually speak the language. While born in Puerto Rico, the actor was actually raised in the USA and had to learn Spanish specially for his role.
Four people won Oscars for this film. Their names were Steven, Stephen, Stephen and Benicio.
The same cartoon character makes appearances in all of the sub-plots: [12:47]At the fun-house where Ruiz runs and is captured at the start. [59:55]On a truck driving down the inner city street where Seth and Caroline are walking on their way to get drugs. [1:52:43]As the doll made of cocaine that Helena shows the dealers in Tijuana.
In the original big screen release, Caroline (Erika Christensen) states that she attends Cincinatti Country Day. Stephen Gaghan, (screenplay), attended a private school in Louisville, KY called Kentucky Country Day and was expelled the week before his graduation for driving a go-cart down the halls of the school.
Helena Ayala's license plate is 2GAT123. The same California license plate also appears in Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), L.A. Story (1991), Go (1999), Pay It Forward (2000), Mulholland Drive (2001), Crazy/Beautiful (2001), Two and a Half Men (2003), and S.W.A.T. (2003).
Benicio Del Toro became the second Puerto Rican male actor to win an Academy Award. The first was José Ferrer for Cyrano de Bergerac (1950). His son, Miguel Ferrer also appears in this film.
In the movie, Michael Douglas's character lived in the suburb Indian Hill, which is a real neighborhood ten miles outside of Cincinnati. The scenes were actually filmed at a house in Hyde Park, an affluent suburb within city limits.
The hotel that Eduardo Ruiz was being kept at, The Hotel San Diego, was imploded in 2006 to make way for the expansion of the Federal Courthouse in San Diego.
Francisco "Frankie Flowers" Flores is the only character to have a significant presence in more than one storyline. He appears in both Mexico and Ayala.
On the audio commentary by composer Cliff Martinez for the Criterion Collection DVD/Blu-ray release, Martinez introduces an unused, 3 minute alternate end cue during the credits.
As his own cinematographer, Steven Soderbergh employed only natural light throughout the movie.
The film cast includes four Oscar winners: Viola Davis, Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones; and four Oscar nominees: Amy Irving, Don Cheadle, Salma Hayek and Albert Finney.
Included among the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die", edited by Steven Schneider.
The characters from Wakefield never meet any characters from Ayala. The only central link is Mexico.
Michael Douglas's wife in the film, Amy Irving, played a young girl with psychic abilities in The Fury (1978), in which his father Kirk Douglas starred.
After Out of Sight (1998), Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney became regular collaborators. This film features Clooney's cousin, Miguel Ferrer.
The line "My parents are these people, I live with them" is the exact same line that's also used in _Cube_.
Michael Douglas starred in Fatal Attraction (1987). Erika Christensen, who plays his daughter in this film, later starred in Swimfan (2002), a loose remake of Fatal Attraction.
Michael Douglas appeared with Miguel Ferrer's former wife Leilani Sarelle in Basic Instinct (1992). Also, Dennis Quaid (Arnie) later starred with Sharon Stone in Cold Creek Manor (2003).
For the most part the film alternates from Mexico to Wakefield to Ayala in that order, although there are occasional variations.
The town of Nogales, Arizona doubled up for Tijuana as it was safer to shoot there.
The second time Steven Bauer plays a drug dealer. He did so before in Scarface (1983).
Albert Finney, Don Cheadle and Catherine Zeta-Jones later appeared together in another Steven Soderbergh film, Ocean's Twelve (2004).
Six of the actors in this film would eventually appear in films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Michael Douglas would play Dr. Hank Pym in Ant-Man (2015). Benicio Del Toro would play The Collector in Thor: The Dark World (2013) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Don Cheadle would play Col. James Rhodes in multiple films starting with Iron Man 2 (2010). John Slattery would play an older version of Howard Stark in Iron Man 2 (2010), Ant-Man (2015), and Captain America: Civil War (2016). Miguel Ferrer would play the vice president in Iron Man 3 (2013). Benjamin Bratt would play Jonathan Pangborn in Doctor Strange (2016).
Of the five categories it was nominated for at the Academy Awards, it lost only one: Best Picture, which went to Gladiator (2000).
During the 2018 Live from the TCM Film Festival special, Douglas revealed that Steven Soderbergh first brought up that Douglas should play pianist Liberace while they were filming the movie Traffic (2000) together. Dougkas later played the real life person in a 2013 HBO telefilm.
Helena Ayala approaches two DEA agents who are staking out her and her husband. Shee catches on and offers them a glass of lemonade to taunt them. This is nearly identical to a scene in Monk: Mr. Monk and the Genius (2008) where Patrick Kloster does the same thing to Natalie Teeger and Adrian Monk.
Jacob Vargas (Manolo) previously appeared with Jennifer Lopez in Selena (1997). Steven Soderbergh directed Lopez in Out of Sight (1998).
Miguel Ferrer and Michael Douglas both appeared in movies directed by Paul Verhoeven. Miguel Ferrer starred in Robocop and Michael Douglas starred in Basic Instinct.
[1:31:06]One of the agents says, "if you don't like it call 1-800-CRIMINAL. This is an actual telephone number of a referral service for criminal defense lawyers.