“I guess every form of refuge has its price.”
Written by Don Henley and Glenn Frey
“This idea of possession seemed to be organic to both the foreground story, and all of Karen’s relationships, and this background story of Colonialism.”
Director Sydney Pollack on the spine of Out of Africa
There are movies like Erin Brockovich and An Officer and a Gentleman that in the hands of different filmmakers would be soap operas and not films that receive Academy Award nominations. Out of Africa belongs in the same category. A woman is attracted to a man, but since the feeling is not mutual, she settles for marrying the brother of the man she loves. As an older single woman (for the times) it was a form of refuge. And from there the story unfolds.
The line between a classic tragic love story and a melodramatic soap opera is often very thin. But in the hands of director Sydney Pollack and his talented team the 1985 movie Out of Africa was nominated for eleven Oscars and won a total of seven. On the DVD director’s commentary Pollack explains the difficulties of bringing the story to the screen;
“I’d known about this book Out of Africa for years, as almost everyone in Hollywood had, and I was not the first director to try make it. Several directors had attempted it and there were several screenplays. When I first went and looked into the vaults at the studio there were at least five other screenplays that had been attempted. The difference we had was we had Judith Thurman’s extraordinary biography, Isak Dinesen The Life of a Storyteller to work with. And that gave us something that none of the other filmmakers had the use of.
Kurt Luedtke who wrote the screenplay had written Absence of Malice, a film the two of us did earlier, and he always wanted to try this and I warned him that it had been attempted before. I think part of what helped him to lick it was the fact that he was new to the form and absolutely not intimidated by the fact that it had been tried so many times before.
And the combination of his grasp of the material and his perceptions and then the insights into her life that Judith Thurman gave us at least allowed us to get a screenplay out of it.
The big problem in getting this book to the screen was the fact that there was no conventional narrative in her book. It’s really a pastoral.* A beautiful formed memoir that relies on her prose style and her sense of poetry and her ability to discover large truths in very small, specific details. So it’s very difficult and illusive material to base a screenplay on.”
To keep track of all of the writers and literary influences on Out of Africa here is an overview:
1) Karen Blixen, Lived the story and wrote the books (as Isak Dinesen) Out of Africa, Shadow’s on the Grass and Letters from Africa
2) Judith Thurman spent seven years writing and researching her book, Isak Dinesen The Life of a Storyteller
3) Erol Trzebinski, Silence Will Speak
4) Kurt Luedtke, Out of Africa script (working with Pollack), several screenplay drafts over several years
5) David Rayfiel, Who did credited screenwriting on Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, and uncredited work on Pollack’s The Electric Horseman and Absence of Malice, also did uncredited writing on Out of Africa
There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but the solo screenplay title card and the Oscar (Best Writing, Screenplay Based from Another Medium) went to Luedtke.
“We spent about two years trying to find what I always call a spine or an armature** of this piece. Sort of trying to distill the idea down to one or two clear sentences that could be a guidepost. What is it really about? And we finally settled on possession. Freedom versus obligation. If I say I love you, what price am I expected to pay?… How much of myself do I have to give up? It’s always important for me to be able describe the heart of a film in some simple and evocative way so that I can sort of test each scene and character and development against that idea.”
Director Sydney Pollack
* Pastoral; Of, relating to, or being a literary or other artistic work that portrays or evokes rural life, usually in an idealized way
** Armature; framework