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The studio saw the pairing of Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman as can’t-fail feature. In fact, the budget for the film was a whopping $15 million. Their confidence paid off, and the film made more than $60 million.
They filmed in sequence, which is atypical for a movie. However, the unfinished script and the nature of the story made the approach more practical.
Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman had a friendly rivalry on set. Hoffman relied on Method acting, while McQueen preferred to get his job done in one take. McQueen got $2 million, and Hoffman got $1.25 million.
The film was based on the bestselling novel by Henri Charrière, who was the only person to escape from Devil’s Island. He was sentenced to prison after being found guilty of murder, a crime he maintained he was innocent of.
While the role was a challenge, Hoffman called it one of his favorites. He actually lost 20 pounds. McQueen, on the other hand, gained weight from eating his favorite food in Jamaica. His outfits were made baggier to hide the gain.
McQueen identified with Henri saying, “I kept being driven by this restless feeling. I seemed always to be looking for something – never knowing what it was – but always there was the sense that I couldn’t be confined. And that’s exactly what I felt in common with Charrierre’s Papillon.”
McQueen also joked that he took the part for a different reason – taxes. “I owe the government a little bit of money, so I’ll have to work a little,” he said in an interview.
Hoffman, overall, enjoyed working with McQueen and said, “[He] was a wonderful guy. Off-screen, he was the nicest classiest man… On the set itself he became very intense.”
McQueen performed the cliff-jump stunt himself and later said it was “one of the most exhilarating experiences in my life.”