Director Robert Altman called the film an "anti-western" because the film turns a number of Western conventions on their sides, including male dominance and the heroic standoff; gunplay is a solution only after reputation, wit, and nonviolent coercion fail; and law and order do not always prevail.
The screenplay is by Robert Altman, Warren Beatty, and Brian McKay from the novel McCabe by Edmund Naughton. The cinematography is by Vilmos Zsigmond and the soundtrack is by Leonard Cohen. Julie Christie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role.
The film was shot in Vancouver almost entirely in sequential order--a rarity for films. The crew found a suitable location for the filming and, as filming progressed, built up the "set" as McCabe built up the town in the film. In the film, Mrs. Miller is brought into town on a steam engine from the late 1800s; the steam engine is genuine and functioning and the crew used it to power the lumbermill after its arrival. Carpenters for the film were locals and young men from the United States, fleeing conscription into the Viet Nam War; they were dressed in period costume and used tools of the period so that they could go about their business in the background while the plot advanced in the foreground. The crew ran buried hoses throughout the town, placed so they could create the appearance of rain if necessary.
It began snowing near the end of the film's shooting, when the church fire and the standoff were the only scenes left to shoot. Beatty didn't want to start shooting in the snow, as it was in a sense dangerous to do so: to preserve continuity, the entire rest of the film would have to be shot in snow. Altman countered that since those were the only scenes left to film, it was best to start since there was nothing else to do. The "standoff" scene--which is in fact more a "cat and mouse" scene involving shooting one's enemy in the back--and its concurrent church fire scene were shot over a period of nine days. The heavy snow, with the exception of a few "fill-in" patches on the ground, was all genuine; the crew members built snowmen and had snowball fights between takes.
The music for the film was largely by Leonard Cohen. Altman had liked one of Coen's albums immensely, buying additional copies of it after wearing each one out. Then he had forgotten about the LP. Years later he visited Paris, just after finishing shooting on McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and rediscovered the album; he had it transfered and started the music to maintain a rhythm for the film. He didn't expect to be able to procure rights for the music since it was a Warner Brothers film and Cohen's album was released through Columbia Records. However, he called Cohen, expecting to trade off his recent success with M*A*S*H, but found that Cohen did not much like the film. Instead, he had loved Altman's previous film Brewster McCloud, and arranged for his record company to license the music cheaply, even writing into the contract that sales of that album after the release of McCabe would turn some of the royalties to Altman (an arrangement which at the time was quite unusual). Later, on watching McCabe to come up with a guitar riff for one scene, Cohen decided he didn't like the film, but honored his contract. A year later he called Altman to apologize, saying he had seen the film again and loved it.
For the film's distinctive cinematography, Vilmos Zsigmond chose to use a number of filters on the cameras instead of changing the film's look in post-production; in this way the studio couldn't force him to change the film's look to something less distinctive. While the film's cinematography is generally praised, and the film and Altman were both nominated for Academy Awards; Zsigmond was not a member of the cinematographers' union and so not eligible for an Oscar nomination for his work on the film.
Altman was introduced to the story by David Foster, one of the film's producers, who had himself been introduced to the story by Richard Wright's widow, an agent for Edmund Naughton, who was then living in Paris and working for the International Herald Tribune. Altman was in post-production on M.A.S.H and snuck Foster into the screening; Foster liked the film and agreed to have Altman direct McCabe; the two of them agreed to wait until MASH became popular to take the pitch for McCabe to a studio for funding. Meanwhile, Foster called Warren Beatty, then in England, about the film; Beatty flew to New York to see MASH and then flew to Los Angeles, California to sign for McCabe.
The film was originally called The Presbyterian Church Wager, after a bet placed among the church's few attendees about whether McCabe would survive his refusal of the offer to sell his property. Altman reports that an official in the Presbyterian Church called Warner Brothers to complain about having their church mentioned in context of a film about brothels and gambling; and that the complaint instigated the name change.