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A look inside Hollywood and the movies. : JUST FAR AWAY : An Adventure in Adventureland

It never hurts to have Steven Spielberg in your corner.

When production executives saw the initial dailies for “A Far-off Place,” now shooting in Zimbabwe for distribution by Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista and executive produced by Spielberg associate Kathleen Kennedy, they decided two weeks into production to replace French director Rene Manzor with cinematographer Mikael Salomon--whose most recent film was “Far and Away.” Salomon worked with Spielberg on “Always” and for the Amblin production of “Arachnophobia.”

Originally, Salomon was being considered to replace the fired cinematographer, but it was quickly decided, with Spielberg’s prodding, that he should direct as well. “Within the same day of offering him the job as the cinematographer, they decided that he should direct the film,” says another source.

Although a Disney spokesman would only say that the firing of Mazor was over that common Hollywood affliction--"creative differences"--sources close to the film insist there’s much more to the story. “Everybody involved, including the Disney executives, were really unsatisfied with what they were seeing in dailies. They were appalled at the work being done,” a source said. “Things were out of focus and nothing was making any sense. They knew they had to get rid of him quickly.”

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The film, which stars Reese Witherspoon (“The Man in the Moon”), Ethan Randall (“Dutch”) and Maximilian Schell, has been troubled from the start. Based on two works by South African novelist and travel writer Laurens Van der Post, “A Story Like the Wind” and “A Far Off Place,” the script has had multiple screenwriters--Robert Caswell, Jonathan Hensleigh and Sally Robinson.

The story involves an American boy living in Africa during the Boer War whose parents, along with a visiting friend, are murdered by elephant poachers. The friend’s daughter also survives, and the two must make their way across the desert, accompanied by an African bushman but pursued by the poachers, to find help.

Although the novel focuses on the young boy, it was decided, says another source, by Kennedy and Manzor to change the story so that the young girl would become the main character and lead the boy on the journey. Why? “They couldn’t find any boy actors who could act as well as Reese Witherspoon could,” she says. “They tested a lot of boys and girls for that role and decided that Reese was the best actor, so they just rewrote the script for her.”

Says screenwriter Hensleigh (“The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles”), who wrote an early version of the script: “My draft involved the boy as the main character, as in the book. The next writer (Sally Robinson) was then asked to completely switch the characters. It’s a little controversial, because it completely changes the concept of the story.”

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When Manzor left “A Far-off Place,” executives also fired cinematographer Paul Gyulay, formerly a gaffer who had previously worked with Manzor. “He was completely out of his league,” the source said. Others followed. (Juan Ruiz-Anchia replaced Gyulay.)

Although officially Spielberg has nothing to do with the comings and goings on “A Far Off Place,” another source says that it was Spielberg who lobbied for Salomon to take over as director. According to the source, Salomon has wanted to make the leap into directing for some time and Spielberg was more than happy to help.


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