Expert Advice from Epitome's Production Safety & Risk Management Specialists


Reassessing “Far and Away” in the Age of Coronavirus

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

Ron Howard is the type of director that keeps the lights on in Hollywood. Not necessarily the most admired, but a director who gets the job done. You’ve likely seen many Ron Howard films but might not have realized they are Ron Howard films.

His best film is “Apollo 13.” His biggest blockbuster is “The Da Vinci Code.” His most personal film is 1992’s “Far and Away.”

Written by Bob Dolman from a story by Dolman and Howard, “Far and Away” gave Howard the chance to pay homage to his Irish ancestors. The story begins in Ireland and ends in Oklahoma, where Howard was born.

“Far and Away” stars then real-life married couple, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, as two opposite-side-of-the-tracks Irish immigrants in the late 19th century. Kidman’s Shannon is a rebellious upper-classer and Cruise’s Joseph is a tough, head-strong peasant. Over the course of the film their paths cross and uncross, their stations in society ping pong past each other, and it all comes to a massive crescendo in plains of Oklahoma on September 16, 1893.

The Oklahoma Land Run scene in “Far and Away” is a sight to see. Shot on 70mm film stock with nine cameras rolling, this giant scene is unlike anything Hollywood movies today contain. An enormous spectacle, with crowds of people, hordes of animals, and no computer generated effects. It is also unlike any scene we have looked at in this series so far.

So today, as we celebrate St. Paddy’s Day, dust off your brogue and let’s examine the climactic scene from “Far and Away” with an eye toward COVID-19 safety. We will break it down into four sections:

  • Elements that are COVID-19 safe
  • Elements that are COVID-19 risks
  • Tweaks to increase safety
  • Final thoughts

This article is designed to help you better understand COVID-19 safety by illustrating how pandemic guidelines would have affected a massive, outdoor scene like the land rush at the end of “Far and Away.”

Elements That Are COVID-19 Safe

Despite Howard’s personal connections to Oklahoma and the fact that the scene is set in that state, this giant scene was actually shot in Montana. Specifically, production rolled film on this monumental scene on July 7, 1991 just outside Billings.

The scene involved over 200 wagons, 400 horses, and 800 extras. Helping to keep things as authentic as possible, The Oklahoma Historical Society was on hand to assist production and the majority of those 800 extras came from a special re-enactments troupe called The Re-Enactors.

Without a doubt this is the largest scene we have looked at in this series so far. Surprisingly, there are several elements that are COVID-19 safe. We would like to highlight three.

  • Proper planning
  • Multiple cameras
  • Outdoor setting

Proper Planning

As we have said before, one of the best ways to make our scenes pandemic safe is to plan ahead. COVID-19 has ballooned our production budgets and lengthened our shooting schedules, but to increase safety we must take the time to plan our productions, our days, and our shots.

Ron Howard and company planned for several weeks to make sure they were ready to shoot this giant scene. They even went so far as to hire professional re-enactors to get the details right.

While much of this planning was most likely done for maximum historical accuracy, the added preparation helped to increase safety as well. When we set out to film a movie in a pandemic we must schedule in extra time for planning. This is why we advocate for onboarding risk management personnel during pre-production. It gives everyone enough time to plan ahead and maximizes safety.

Multiple Cameras

With a budget of $60 million ($124 million in 2022 dollars), “Far and Away” might just be one of the most expensive personal projects in Hollywood history. That budget allowed them to shoot on 70mm film and to have nine cameras rolling on this epic scene.

The reason a production like this has nine cameras shooting one scene is because they know that they only have one of two chances to get it right. When filming with this many extras and animals, getting everyone back to one can take hours.

Multiple cameras can also make things safer by cutting down on the number of set-ups, which shortens the shot list. A shorter shot list usually means fewer chances of contamination.

In the case of the Oklahoma Land Rush scene, the cameras cut down the number of shots, set-ups, and takes. This made for a faster shoot. Which saved money, time, and reduced the pandemic risks.

Outdoor Setting

Outside is the safest place to be during COVID-19. It is also the safest places to shoot a scene, especially a large scene like this one.

COVID-19 spreads most easily in cramped indoor spaces with poor ventilation. By moving a scene outside, we immediately increase the safety of the production. Outdoors allows us access to better air flow and much better spacing between people.

The land run scene has everyone go at full speed and that creates great spacing. The spacing is made even safer because the production is shooting on long lenses which keeps the cast and crew farther apart.

By planning ahead, shooting with multiple cameras on long lenses, and filming outdoors, the production team on “Far and Away” created a remarkably safe set for a movie shot thirty years ago. It is however, not completely safe.

Elements That Are COVID-19 Risks

There are several aspects to this scene that give us pause when we look at it through the COVID lens. Three big ones are:

  • Pre-Run Spacing: The spacing before the cannon fires and the mob takes off is less than ideal. We understand the need to crowd the frame with extras. It helps to  increase the perception of the size of the crowd, but the spacing is still a little too tight.
  • Distance Between Leads and Extras: Our lead actors are right there in the scrum of the crowd, especially during the pre-run waiting. This jeopardizes the health of our stars and puts the production at risk.
  • Scheduling: “Far and Away” was shot first in Montana and then in Ireland. This scene was filmed during the first part of production. An infection or outbreak during this scene could have easily derailed the rest of the shoot.

To maximize safety we would need to address these issues.

Tweak to Maximize Safety

It is important to remember that safety during a pandemic is not just about avoiding a cough. COVID-19 has a massive death toll. What if Tom Cruise got infected and died? What if Nicole Kidman did? When filming during a pandemic we must always be aware of the stakes.

We are still learning about the long-term effects of infection as well but the data so far does not look good. We must prioritize safety and that means doing whatever we can to eliminate the potential for infections, contaminations, and outbreaks on set.

A scene like the land run climax of “Far and Away” is massive on the page. Pre-production planning should include risk managers to assist the creative team in navigating the potential dangers of the film.

In the case of “Far and Away,” we would focus on the three issues we identified above and see if we can find ways to mitigate those risks. To do so, we might ask questions like:

  • Can we increase the pre-run spacing? If we can get people to be at least six-feet apart we can dramatically increase the safety of this part of the scene. Perhaps with a combination of creative spacing and different lens we can populate the frame while still keeping our cast safe.
  • Can we separate our leads from the crowd a little more? Tom Cruise’s Joseph is already lagging behind most of the people but Nicole Kidman’s Shannon is far more in the thick of things. Maybe we can film them in close-up during the waiting period and then wait to film them in the crowd until everyone is galloping across the plains. This one tweak can keep our leads safer and our production on schedule.
  • Can we schedule this shot at the end of the shoot? We would highly recommend filming this scene as close to the end of production as possible. Given the number of people in it, this scene is a good candidate for contamination, despite its outdoor setting. By moving it to the end of the shoot, we can minimize the effect that a COVID-19 outbreak would have on the production as a whole.
  • Can we use CGI to augment the size of the crowd? In the thirty years since this movie was released, computer generated effects have come a long way. By using modern CGI we could reduce the number of people on set and therefore increase pandemic safety.

When we combine the safety gained by better spacing with the added safety of filming this scene near the end of production with the use of CGI, we can make “Far and Away” an even safer film.

Final Thoughts

“Far and Away” is a movie held together by the mega-watt charisma of its two leads. It is likely remembered most for its questionable Irish accents. A close second, however, is the Oklahoma Land Rush scene. The gorgeous 70mm cinematography from Mikael Salomon gives this scene grandeur and beauty that still look amazing today.

Two closing notes:

  1. Tom Cruise is known for his daredevil stunts but few talk about the skill on display in this scene. To ride a horse at full speed while pretending to not know how to ride requires every bit as much skill as climbing the tallest building in the world.
  2. Despite all the planning, four people broke bones during the filming of the land rush scene. Hollywood Humane gave the production an “acceptable” rating despite the fact that a horse died during an accident before this scene was shot.

By shooting outdoors with multiple cameras, Howard and company started off on a rather safe foot. If we had to shoot this scene today in the middle of a pandemic, we would advise the production to move the shoot to the end of the schedule, increase distancing, and rely on some CGI.

The Oklahoma Land Run is a real historical event. Much of what is depicted in this scene actually happened, including the bicycle and the people who snuck across the line early (a.k.a. Sooners). It is, however, a far more complex moment in American history than is depicted in this film. “Far and Away” is an adventurous romp through a thin slice of Irish-American History and was not made to capture the full story of American westward expansion.

From everyone here at Epitome, “Happy St. Patrick’s Day.” Join us next month as we celebrate the start of baseball season and look through the COVID lens at the classic “Bull Durham.”

Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.

DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.