It was first reported in December 2010 that Anderson wanted to adapt Inherent Vice and at the time he had been writing a treatment and started on a script after The Master had been shelved indefinitely months prior. Anderson originally adapted the entire 384 page novel sentence by sentence which made it easier for him to cut down the script than the novel. By February 2011, Anderson had written a first draft and was more than halfway done with a second draft. The first draft was written without a narrator but the character of Sortilège was later added as the narrator. In September 2012, Anderson stated that he was still writing the script but was hoping he could get Inherent Vice into production and have a few years of being more productive.
This is the first film adaptation from a Thomas Pynchon novel with Anderson describing it “like a Cheech & Chong movie”. Years prior, Anderson considered adapting Pynchon’s 1990s novel Vineland but could not figure out how but when Inherent Vice came out he was drawn to it and wrote the film concurrently with The Master. Anderson significantly changed the ending from the novel and described the film as “deeply written and beautifully profound stuff mixed in with just the best fart jokes and poop jokes that you can imagine.” Anderson drew inspiration from Kiss Me Deadly, The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, and Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke. Anderson has said he tried to cram as many jokes onto the screen as Pynchon squeezed onto the page and that the visual gags and gimmicks were inspired by Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker-style slapstick spoofs like Police Squad!, Top Secret!, and Airplane!. Anderson also used the underground comic strip Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers as what he described as an invaluable “research bible” for the writing process.
Robert Downey, Jr. was reportedly said to be interested in the role of Larry “Doc” Sportello and was making plans to start shooting in the fall of 2011 since he had dropped out of Oz the Great and Powerful. Downey, Jr. stated in December 2011 that the planned collaboration was “probably true”. In January 2013, it was reported that Joaquin Phoenix was in talks for the lead and that Downey, Jr. had ultimately passed on the role. Downey, Jr. later said that Anderson wanted to make the movie with Phoenix because he was too old.
In May 2013, it was reported that Benicio del Toro, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, and Jena Malone were in talks to join the film. In May 2013, it was reported that Josh Brolin joined the cast and that Katherine Waterston joined as the lead female role. In June 2013, it was reported that Peter McRobbie and Sasha Pieterse joined the cast. In July 2013, it was reported that Timothy Simons joined the cast. In October 2013, it was reported that Michael K. Williams joined the cast.
In September 2014, it was reported that Pynchon may have a cameo in the film which Anderson would not confirm, citing Pynchon’s choice to stay out of the public spotlight. Brolin went as far as to confirm the cameo and claimed that Pynchon was on set but that nobody knew it was him as he stayed in the corner.
Principal photography began in May 2013, and it was reported that shooting was to take place until August 2, 2013. Shooting permits in California covered San Fernando Valley warehouse, a storefront on Slauson Boulevard, driving shots in the Canoga Park area, driving shots in canyon roads above Malibu and a warehouse in Chinatown. In June 2014, filming also took place in Pasadena, and aboard the tall ship American Pride located in Long Beach.
The set has been described as organized chaos but the cast felt protected when they took big risks. Short stated that “If you’re working with a great director, you feel very, very, very safe because you know that all the decisions will be made months later in the editing room.” Malone stated that “it was a very structured process” and that the “chaos can only come from a grounded, logical base because you have to know where you’re going to be spinning from. The logic becomes the chaos and the chaos becomes the logic.”
According to Waterston, Anderson did not have a clear goal while on set but it did not feel chaotic. Brolin expressed similar feelings saying that “It was crazy, chaotic but really, really gratifying.” Brolin also stated that there was “a really strange lack of pretense” but that Anderson would work with the actors when they felt something was not working. Pieterse stated that Anderson allowed “freedom and flexibility to really dive into your character and shape the scene”.Wilson said “Sometimes I wouldn’t necessarily know what I was doing. We were encouraged to kind of do anything.”
On February 6, 2014, The Film Music Reporter confirmed that Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood would compose the music for the film. His score was recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. This is the third time Greenwood has scored an Anderson film, the first two being There Will Be Blood and The Master. An unreleased Radiohead song called “Spooks” appears on the soundtrack, as do recordings from the late 1960s by Neil Young, Can, and The Marketts, among others. The film soundtrack will be released by Nonesuch Records on December 16.