Saul Zaentz was interested in working with Anthony Minghella after he saw the director's film Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990); Minghella brought this project to the producer's attention. Michael Ondaatje, the Sri Lankan-born Canadian author of the novel, worked closely with the filmmakers. During the development of the project with 20th Century Fox, according to Minghella, the "studio wanted the insurance policy of so-called bigger" actors. Zaentz recalled, "they’d look at you and say, ‘Could we cast Demi Moore in the role?" Not until Miramax Films took over was the director's preference for Scott Thomas accepted.
The film was shot on location in Tunisia and Italy. with a production budget of $31 million.
The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (2002) by Michael Ondaatje is based on the conversations between the author and film editor. Murch, with a career that already included complex works like the Godfather trilogy, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now, dreaded the task of editing the film with multiple flashbacks and time frames. Once he began, the possibilities became apparent, some of which took him away from the order of the original script. A reel without sound was made so scene change visuals would be consistent with the quality of the aural aspect between the two. The final cut features over 40 temporal transitions. It was during this time that Murch met Ondaatje and they were able to exchange thoughts about editing the film.
Two types of aircraft are used in the film, a De Havilland D.H.82 Tiger Moth and a Boeing-Stearman Model 75. Both are biplanes. The camp crash scene was made with a ½-size scale model.