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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

May 17, 1992|LAWRENCE CHRISTON | Lawrence Christon is a Times staff writer. and

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).

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