‘Far and Away’: Wild-West bravery needed for land-run

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Montana Film Office

Ron Howard, far right, works on the set of “Far and Away.”

Director Ron Howard remembers seeing Ireland for the first time at age 4. His plane stopped at Shannon Airport for refueling en route to Austria, and the verdant greens of the Emerald Isle were instilled in his memory. Howard also remembers being on the set of “The Music Man” (1962), shot in the wide-screen Technorama format.

“I recall huge, oversized cameras that took five or six people to lug around, and all day to set up,” he said.

And Howard recalls visiting his great-grandmother in Kansas and being shown a yellowish newspaper clipping, with a hazy photo of Oklahoma Territory’s Cherokee Strip Land Run–a late-19th-century lottery offering deeds to land–taken as a cannon was fired to start the run.

“It was an incredible picture–all these horses and wagons,” Howard recounted. Pointing to a blur in the lead, his 96-year-old great-grandmother said, “That was your great-grandpa Tomlin,” who happened to also be an Irish emigrant.

Three of Howard’s great-grandfathers rode in the race. None got any land.

All these experiences influenced Howard’s 1992 production, “Far and Away,” a Universal Pictures release starring Tom Cruise as a 19th-century Irish tenant farmer named Joseph Donnelly who finds love and land in America.

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Phillip Caruso/Imagine Films Entertainment

Tom Cruise tries out a boxing career in an early scene of “Far and Away.” The scene was shot in the Billings Depot.

“Far and Away” was sold as a big, old-fashioned movie event, an epic shot on giant-sized 70-millimeter film, sweeping across two continents. Large formats have come and gone through the years, going all the way back to the silent era. Though never challenging 35mm as the industry standard, the various wide film formats enhanced event pictures.

Since the 1970s, 70mm release prints (65mm is the camera negative size, prints are 70mm to accommodate sound) have actually been blowups from 35mm negative film. The use of 65mm production had been largely dormant since the 1960s, save for select non-theatrical, amusement park presentations and some visual effects.

The widest release of a 70mm film since “Far and Away” was Quentin Tarantino’s most recent movie, “The Hateful Eight.”

Howard credited Mikael Salomon with the idea of shooting in 65mm for “Far and Away.”

“I wouldn’t have thought of this one myself,” said Howard. “I hadn’t seen the tests.” And then he had the memory of those daunting cameras used for “The Music Man.” “I like to operate with a fair degree of momentum. I like all the shortcuts that camera packages have provided over the last 10 to 15 years, and I’d hate to give those things up.”

“Far and Away” has three distinct appearances: pastoral Ireland, the congested Boston of the Industrial Revolution and the spacious American Midwest. Late 19th-century Boston exteriors were re-created on the streets of Dublin, while the interiors were shot in Ireland on Ardmore Studio’s stages and a Montana warehouse used as the cover set for “Far and Away.”

Joseph falls in love with Shannon Christie (Nicole Kidman), a wealthy landowner’s daughter, and they masquerade as and live like brother and sister. The couple travel from their rural homeland to Boston and to the western plains in search of land and freedom. In the climactic final scene, set in the Oklahoma Territory in 1893, the pair face off against hundreds of other settlers–and each other–in a tumultuous land race. They hope to stake a claim to a small share of the millions of acres that the U.S. government is giving away.

Howard, anxious about the safety of his cast and crew, had trouble getting to sleep the night before shooting began on a 12,000-acre ranch outside Billings. His fears turned out to be groundless–almost. “We had some broken bones,” said producer Brian Grazer. “But nothing horribly serious. No deaths.”

Production of the Montana portion of “Far and Away” began in Billings on May 28, 1991. In July 1991, after weeks of careful planning, the rush was re-created on a ranch outside the city.

Though even Paramount’s own official numbers vary, approximately 800 riders and extras, 900 horses, mule and oxen, and 200 wagons were filmed on a quarter-mile-wide set. Horses were wrangled, ruts were smoothed over, and a self-contained city (called Tent City) was built.  Swarms of people lined up in covered wagons, buggies, hay carts, on horses and mules and on foot for the race that would open up the land to settlement.

For the culminating free-for-all action sequence, riders and extras were given little more than these simple instructions: “Get on those horses and just go in that direction. Don’t hit anybody and don’t get hit. And go as fast as you can.”

“There were so many different cameras running for that scene,” recalled Dillon resident Stan Smith, a member of the core stunt crew. “It was all going at 35 miles per hour and one wagon rolled over and sent some extras to the hospital with some broken ribs. Extras. Animals. My job was to stay with Tom Cruise and the 20 extras on the first camera. Cruise was the center of my attention and I stayed with him. It’s one of the most detailed singular shots ever filmed on 70 millimeter.”

Ten cameras were set up to film the maneuvers, including the two new Panaflex 65 sync-sound cameras, two new Arriflex 765 cameras, three hand-held Panavision 65mm cameras, two Eyemos (35mm with anamorphic lens) on the ground, and a VistaVision camera for the helicopter.

Two helicopters with cameras, plus four cameras on a car carrying Howard and several others, cruised in front of the horse-mounted Tom Cruise. All told, 12 cameras filmed the scene.

“The scene was awesome,” said J.P Gabriel, video assist operator, owner of Filmlites of Montana, a company that provided equipment–lights, generators, ladders, even director’s chairs and dust pans–to the production of “Far and Away.” “It had over 1,000 extras out there in costumes, re-enacting the Oklahoma land race. When the race started, the ground shook. That was a great job.”

Production designer Jack Collis discussed how he helped construct Tent City, a town of shanties and tents that complemented the land rush.

“The director of photography, Mikael Salomon, wanted to shoot the race in backlight, which became a major consideration in determining the exact location of the town,” he said. “I felt it was important, once the line of the race was established, that Tent City should be visible in the background to give a visual continuity to the sequence. As for the town itself, the research of the period showed the temporary nature of these structures, and I used a variety of buildings and tents to create a town that would meet the requirements of the script, and one which we would call Tent City.”

“Far and Away” has a number of crowd scenes and wide shots of scenery. In several scenes, Montana picturesquely duplicates the lush green landscape of Ireland. “My assignment on ‘Far and Away,’” recalled scout and Helena resident Bill Kuney, “was to locate settings that duplicated the greenery of Ireland and the flat rolling hill of look of Oklahoma, in areas generally void of civilization and power lines. And, believe it or not, find an abandoned railroad tunnel and a railway roadbed without rails.”

To assist in the search, Howard’s Image Production Co. dispatched two of its representatives to Montana for a week to tour potential location sites. “We visited and revisited literally hundreds of location sites, crisscrossing western and central Montana several times by automobile, helicopter and airplane, before the Billings area was finally selected as the location for the shooting of Howard’s movie.’”

Much of the movie is a buildup to the land rush scene filmed in Montana, as noted in the Denver Post, which found Howard’s story contrived:

“Ron Howard, who directed ‘Far and Away’ and conceived the story with its screenwriter, Bob Dolman, is faithful to every cliché lurking beneath Joseph’s promise. The camera rises over the dead man’s body as his soul escapes, then swoops across the green hills and out to sea, trying to look grand for no particular purpose. … Shannon plucks chickens, Joseph becomes a boxer, they chastely share a room in a whorehouse and consort with stock characters like the ward boss. They are a likable enough pair, but their predictable adventures are a snooze. Of course nothing will stop them from their dream of Oklahoma, not even a mawkish Christmas scene that ends with blood on the blatantly fake snow and that causes their temporary separation.”

The Los Angeles Times enjoyed the land rush scene–and apparently not much else:

“Joseph and Shannon’s episodic journey from Ireland to Boston to Oklahoma offers fewer surprises than a mediocre mini-series. And though the film turns into a rousing western during its Oklahoma scenes, it feels so familiar that Pa and Hoss and Little Joe might come galloping into sight any minute. Despite the movie’s ambitious scope, there are small-sized imaginations at work here.”

Tom Cruise’s fight scene for “Far and Away” was filmed at the Billings Depot. The movie included local residents as extras. Another scene moviegoers are sure to remember was shot in Montana during the golden hour, at the tail end of daylight, when the air itself is painted with a reddish-golden hue. The scene was impossible to shoot in one day and had to be pieced together from matched footage shot over a number of days.

Cruise and Kidman stayed in a home on the West End during filming. Howard also stayed in Billings during filming.

“Ron Howard was so good with the historical detail of the film,” recalled Smith. “He made sure all the right details were put into the set that stood as the town, which was constructed outside of Roundup. There was nothing out there, no electricity. Yet, they made a little town out there for the movie. And it was a very family-oriented set. Howard had his family there.”

And despite unflattering reviews, “Far and Away” did a big business, grossing approximately $58 million.

“We came there (to Montana) because the script dictated it,” said Larry DeWaay, co-producer of “Far and Away.” DeWaay said the movie company spent between $6 million and $6.5 million while on location for two months in Billings.

“Montana is the easiest and most comfortable place to make a movie that I’ve ever worked,” said Mike Malone, location manager for “Far and Away,” who previously worked on “War Party” and “Amazing Grace and Chuck” in the state.

Overall, the Billings experience was reasonably free of hassles. “Ron said that it had been the best location experience that he’s had,” said DeWaay.

Brian D’Ambrosio is the author of “Shot in Montana: A History of Cinema in Big Sky,” available this fall from Riverbend Publishing.

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