Epic Picture, Epic Dreams : Ron Howard & Co. go all-out in making 'Far and Away,' a $60-million historical romance, and then marketing it against action sequels

Three men sat on a hillside in Doolin, Ireland, on a late spring afternoon in 1988, watching the sea surge and break against the coastline below. Two were worried and one was skeptical. They were far away from Century City, one of the nerve centers of the movie industry, where they were treated as familiars and felt at home.

The anxious ones were film director Ron Howard and screenwriter Bob Dolman. Howard had been carrying around an idea in his head for five years and had enlisted Dolman to help him make it into a movie, but they couldn't figure out how to do it. They had a beginning, sort of, and an end, but the middle was a bog that soaked up all their energies and gave them back confusion.

And in the case of Howard, real fear. The idea was preceded by a kind of genetic memory that he worried was pulling him-- at this point in a career of competent and popular moviemaking--out of his depth.

The result is "Far and Away," Imagine's 70-millimeter transcontinental-historical-romantic epic that begins with a sweeping overflight of the Emerald Isle and ends with a massive hell-bent-for-leather charge of pioneer horsemen and wagoners into the last golden vista of the American frontier, before it was declared officially closed.

Tom Cruise plays a poor tenant farmer with only a donkey to his name, driven to his wit's end and near-homicidal anger by the brutal conditions around him. Nicole Kidman plays the high-spirited and rather petulant daughter of the powerful local landowner. The movie deals with how they fall in together in spite of themselves, and how their far-from-idyllic American adventure, where he becomes a prizefighter, changes them.

"The genesis began in 1958," Howard said (he was 4 at the time). "My dad was in 'The Journey,' with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, which was shot in Europe. Everybody was nervous on the transAtlantic flight. When I woke up, everybody was looking out the window. 'Is that a map?' I said. 'No, it's Ireland.' We landed at Shannon Airport. When I got out, one of the guys who was refueling the plane tousled my hair and said, 'You shouldn't get back on. You look like you belong here.' "

This was the inspiration for the first part of Howard's movie.

"A few years later I visited my dad in Oklahoma and met my great-grandmother, Carrie Tomlin, who was in a wheelchair. She grabbed me over and pulled out this scrapbook. There was a folded-up paper from 1893. It was the starting line shot of the Oklahoma Land Rush. She pointed to one figure and said, 'That was your grandpa Ralph. He got a racehorse so he could get out faster than the others.' Other people dismissed her, but I believed her."

This was the inspiration for the last part. He still wasn't sure about the middle, except that it had to be a romantic love story.

Brian Grazer was the skeptic on that hillside in Doolin. As CEO and co-chairman (with Howard) of Imagine Films, he was still flush from the heady atmosphere of the Cannes Film Festival, where their newest movie "Willow" had just closed out the international party.

Doolin was definitely out of the Hollywood-Monte Carlo loop. This was Barry Fitzgerald country. No limo services. What had these guys been yammering about for three days, wandering around Galway Bay? A 19th-Century romantic love story, where poor Irish boy flees to America with rich Irish girl? When the previous year the long knives of sexual combat in America had been irreversibly drawn in "Fatal Attraction"? This isn't big screen, fellas. This is "Masterpiece Theatre." Lighten up on the Guinness.

But Grazer listened. "It was very helpful that we got him out of the 20th Century," Dolman said, in retrospect.

"I'm kind of a pop producer," Grazer said. "I like to make movies that do well. Concept movies. 'Kindergarten Cop' made $210 million, even if it's formulaic. I'm proud of 'Parenthood' and 'My Girl.' I was the last cynic about this movie. I couldn't see it.

"Then, after our 72 hours together in Ireland, I was able to figure out the theme: the quest of a man's character. For me, the love story is the visual aspect of the movie you want to make work. Every man needs his own sense of purpose and identity. Here, the land became a metaphor. The land was his provider. He has spiritual integrity, but no place to hang his hat. The land defined everything." And Grazer came around.

There are reasons to expect big things of "Far and Away," not only in terms of box office, but as the kind of work that makes people think differently about movie possibilities in the short-term. These expectations exist, despite a certain puzzlement about how to market it against the field of what Tom Pollock calls "the boys' action sequels," such as "Lethal Weapon 3," "Batman Returns," "Patriot Games" and "Alien 3"--all due for early summer release ("Far and Away" opens Friday).

Pollock is president of motion pictures at Universal Studios, Imagine's distribution partner. "Those pictures are all similar in the audiences they are attacking," he said. "We have a movie that at heart is a love story. You don't always know that it is, just like you don't know how it's pointing to a land rush.

"A historical piece is not the most automatically salable genre," Pollock said. "To say it's a historical movie, or an immigrant movie, or a romantic comedy about lovers who like each other but can't stand each other--to say it's one thing diminishes it. It's all these things."

First, there're its texture and size. "Far and Away" is only the second 70-millimeter film since David Lean's "Ryan's Daughter," made 22 years ago (the other is Disney's 1982 "Tron")--and is a throwback to an era in which, whether or not they were any good, big movies were gorgeous to look at. Then there's John Williams' score (with the Irish folk ensemble, the Chieftains, at its lush orchestral center), which echoes Sir Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughn-Williams. (Says John Williams, "The 70-millimeter scale suits this film; Ireland's magnificent topography is an inspiration in itself. A root source is Irish poetry that set the themes. Irish scales are older, modal. I put myself under their influence and listened with my soul's memory to feel these characters and their time.")

Then there's Cruise and Kidman. Once a popular boy-toy ("Endless Love," "Losin' It") and despite a superfluous pit stop in 1990's "Days of Thunder," Cruise's range and technical assurance have been growing ever since Paul Newman took him downtown in 1986's "The Color of Money." (Cruise won a Golden Globe for "Born on the Fourth of July," and a lot of people feel he more than held his own against Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man.")

"I've wanted to work with Ron for years," Cruise said at a "Far and Away" scoring session. "He's got a unique point of view on life. He's an actor's director. I go through insecurities all the time when I'm approaching a role. I was nervous here too. The thing about making a movie is that you never know what it's gonna be. You never set out to make just an OK movie, but halfway through this one, I didn't want it to end. You fell in love with that world. You feel the mystical, majestic beauty, the unspoken, the superstitions."

Kidman was a radiant F. Scott Fitzgerald vision in "Billy Bathgate," and at 25 is a seasoned Australian stage, movie and TV actress. Like Howard, she has something more than sense-memory to guide her through the period. "Whatever film I do I read fiction of the time, and look at paintings and photographs," she said. "Sometimes just seeing how people dress gives you ideas. As soon as you put on a corset it changes the whole way of how you breathe and move. I discovered that women fainting really was a common thing and not an affectation. You literally couldn't breathe."

More important, however, "My ancestry was Irish--from the Dingle peninsula. The Finns. They had 10 children. My God, what courage it took to leave Ireland and go to America. I had a real emotional attachment to this movie."

That Kidman and Cruise are married can only bring a whole subtext of references and attitudes that build up between two people who live together, an unspoken complicity that fills out their roles.

Then there's the question of historic moment. "Far and Away" comes along at a time when the multicultural debate has been one of the hottest themes in America's public discourse since the beginning of the '90s. That so many ethnic groups now hyphenate themselves, such as Mexican-Americans or Korean-Americans or Cuban-Americans, implies that the old idea of an American center no longer holds; our new arrivals leap to the shore on one foot firmly planted.

Without sentimentality, "Far and Away" reminds us of when America was an irresistible lure for anyone passionately in search of freedom and a new life, and the land rush sequence shows the rolling plains as futurity itself, dangerous but tractable, as open as the sea.

Still, no one knows whether the $60-million "Far and Away" will fizzle on its launch pad, uncover a latent public desire for feisty romance set in a rich cinematic backdrop, or slip into an obscure holding pattern before dropping into the elephant graveyard of premature video release.

In the meantime, Ron Howard's anxieties have only heightened since the Doolin mini-summit. In "Far and Away," he's reaching for a level he's never attempted before.

Howard occupies an unusual place in American entertainment inasmuch as he's one of the few movie and television artists--along with Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor--whose entire chronological life has been lived in public. He was little Opie Taylor in "The Andy Griffith Show" before he grew up to play Fonzie's teen pal Richie in "Happy Days" and a number of adult TV and movie roles ("American Graffiti," "The Shootist") and then make a successful transition into producing and directing.

"Far and Away" is not only his biggest, most expensive film, it's his most personal.

"The reason it took so long to make this movie was that we had a hard time coming up with a second act, to dramatize the reversal of fortunes between Joseph and Shannon," he said of Cruise and Kidman's characters. "The other thing, quite frankly, is that I've been building my career carefully. I've taken very little personal risk before this. I was hired to do 'Cocoon,' but I didn't think it'd do well. Then there was 'Willow.' 'Parenthood' was the first time I'd worked on my own ideas, with Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. That gave me a lot of confidence in believing in my own ideas.

"Also, I wanted to build Imagine with Brian." (The company was formed in 1986.) " 'Far and Away' is not something you could start out with. People would never know what I'm talking about at the corporate level."

Howard was sitting on a couch in his Century City office. Though he's held on to a couple of young Opie's characteristics, such as sliding rubberboned down the sofa back while he's speaking until he's nearly supine, then pushing himself up again, he's articulate and smoothly politic.

"When interviewers would ask, 'What's your dream project?' this is the one I thought of," he said. "This was kind of a secret hope that one day I'd have the credibility to make this movie. It's very difficult to pitch at a story meeting. Friends of mine would get this perplexed look when I'd tell them about it--'It doesn't sound contemporary' they'd say.

"I always loved movies about the immigrant experience, like Jan Troell's 'The Immigrants' or 'Godfather II.' They're kind of bleak, super-realistic dramas. But I didn't want to do that. When I heard the Chieftains' songs, ideas ran through my head. And when I discovered Bob Dolman was interested in the Irish people, and Irish literature, the notion stared to fall into place." (Dolman, who is Canadian, has a degree in English literature from the University of Toronto and was a writer for SCTV and "WKRP in Cincinnati.")

"I thought it'd be great to do a very romantic, very human look at the immigrant experience and deal with it tonally with the stories that'd been told me," Howard said. "When I hear stories of my grandparents' childhood, they were rich with danger and excitement and exploration, but also with a great sense of humor and irony. Underneath it was a sense that everything was gonna work out all right.

"By then 'Night Shift' had been well-received. Bob wrote the story on spec. It was just one of those ideas that would not go away. We worked on 'Willow,' which I directed for (George) Lucas. After it premiered at Cannes the three of us went up to Ireland. We started pitching and pitching, drinking Guinness and wandering around from village to village. Brian began to see what Bob and I were so passionate about. In the next year, Bob turned the script around. 'Parenthood' was a hit. 'Backdraft' had been made. Brian called and said, 'If you wanna make a movie, do it now. Don't treat it like a pet."

The idea for shooting in 70 millimeter wasn't Howard's. It came from Danish cinematographer Mikhail Solomon, who includes "Backdraft," "Arachnaphobia" and "The Abyss" among his credits, and who saw in the new camera technology developed by Panavision and Arriflex a mobility denied moviemakers until now. "They were just waiting for someone to come along and take the first step," Solomon said.

As for casting, Howard said, "I'd known Tom Cruise for a long time. After 'Days of Thunder' he didn't want to do another troubled young man. Even before he became as big as he has, I had him in mind for 'Far and Away,' and gave the script to his agent. He liked it.

"I never thought I'd be able to get a movie star. He totally embraced the idea of Don Quixote on a mule, where he begins in the movie, and he also brought some ideas of his own. The idea of becoming an arrogant star pugilist was his. He said, 'I'd like to see this character getting carried away with himself, forgetting himself and what he wanted to do with his money.' He's very focused and intense, very opinionated. But he's a good listener. It didn't happen often, but when it came down to it, he could take no for an answer."

To get up to speed, Cruise studied Smithsonian material, not only for factual information, but to learn the body language of the period. He worked with a dialogue coach for his accent and traveled to Ireland to scout the territory--and work with someone who could teach him bare-knuckle boxing.

"I've tried to make myself as true to the character as possible, to try and discover at every level what it would be like to be this person, right down to hairstyle and makeup," he said. Off-camera, Cruise carries his charge with him. At 29, he cuts a neat, quick figure who's never at rest, even when he isn't moving. "The whole thing about Joseph is that he will not look up to a rich person. He will not look up. "

As a footnote to that interview: Shortly afterward, Spy magazine came out with a report that Cruise, unhappy with his voice, had become intrigued with the use of an electronic voice-enhancer pressed upon him by friends from the Church of Scientology, of which he is a member. Spy reported that Cruise insisted on trying it for "Far and Away," and that Imagine footed the $100,000 bill for its use.

Howard fielded that one. "Tom said he had some sound equipment that was experimental, and we listened to it," he said. "The thing that Spy got wrong is that Tom has something wrong with his voice. He never said this would lower his voice. He's an audiophile. He likes to have the latest sound gadgets--even in his car.

"The system is a combination of simple ideas, but basically it's a double-miking system. You run two mikes at the same time, which isn't new. What's new is the Dolby recording system used here. There are some things that don't work about it, like limiters that do better in recording studios. When we did the looping I didn't think it would work, but when we mixed, it sounded really good. I think I'd like to use this system again."

And as far as the bill is concerned? "He gave us the equipment," Howard said.

Added to the attendant anxieties mentioned so far is this: In late April, Howard and Grazer announced they would leave Imagine, which is a public company, with the expectation that they could raise a reported $24 million to buy it back and go private. Imagine's domestic grosses through its Universal releases are estimated at $442 million, in addition to $96 million from releases outside Universal.

If they can raise the money to purchase the 54% they want in order to gain controlling interest in Imagine remains to be seen (their expected $9 per share tender offer has been called too low by financial analysts). So does the possibility of getting a better deal from Universal, though the studio is not likely to disregard the fact that Imagine reportedly generates a third of its revenues. (They were reportedly close to signing a deal as of the end of last week.)

Does this latest development make it more imperative for "Far and Away" to have, as they say in the horse-racing game, a good trip? In one respect, Imagine has its enviable track record. In another, the old Hollywood adage, "You're only as good as your last movie," could hound Howard and Grazer like bad news.

Chances are, however, that right now the money speculation pales next to what Howard personally wants from "Far and Away." At the scoring session, he and Grazer and Dolman and Cruise and Kidman stared past Williams' orchestra at the screen above, where a rough black-and-white cut of the land rush sequence played out like a dusty old D. W. Griffith depiction of comic mayhem. They seemed hypnotized, even though they'd watched the scene before.

Onscreen, Cruise charged through the thunderous mass of wagons and horses on a half-tame mustang whose crazy cuts and angles only heightened the exhilaration of the lunatic charge. He was barely hanging on, terrified and exalted at the same time, not knowing where he was going, only that he was getting there twice as fast as everyone else.

Howard recalled that moment when they had all sat in the scoring studio, transfixed. "We worked so much harder," He said. "We wanted it more. We loved it more."

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