One of the biggest issues that comes from developing a project is having to make sacrifices. Especially when you have a limited amount of time, and dozens of other projects and work unrelated to your goal. When developing my manuscript, the worst aspect of the development process came from getting rid of some movies. Whether it be a lack of available research, a lack of interest in the film itself, or just time constraints, I had to make some big sacrifices.
Many of them were considered unimportant nor all that compelling, so sacrificing films like Trading Places and National Treasure was easy. But films that had interesting backgrounds like Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman or considered high-quality like Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys had to be removed. It’s frustrating, but it is bound to happen, and I think it’s understandable that every writer goes through that issue when making a project.
Of course, with all that said, I have considered my manuscript to be a work in progress, a proof of concept, instead of a complete project. That’s of course not to say that I was lazy with my work, but I had to sacrifice items due to time constraints. I want to be able to sell my work and develop it further in the coming years, and I think what I have put in is a great example of something that could develop into something greater.
The one aspect that makes this 1985 neo-noir thriller so unique is that outside of being shot in Philadelphia, it was also shot in Pennsylvania’s Amish communities. The film details a young Amish boy named Samuel Lapp, played by Lukas Haas, traveling into the city with his mother Rachel, played by Kelly McGillis, for the first time. Samuel then witnesses a murder at 30th Street Station, and is now forced into protection by detective John Book, played by Harrison Ford. And due to the corrupt police force, Book is then forced to hide in the boy’s Amish community, discovering his own inner self, learning about the stark contrast between the modern world and the world the Amish have avoided, and falling in love with Rachel all at the same time.
The project was first conceived by its writers, William Kelley and Earl W. Wallace. The two had worked in television, on western series like Gunsmoke and How the West Was Won. The project soon came into the hands of producer Edward S. Feldman in 1983. Initially titled Called Home, the script was initially 182 pages long and was sent to Fox, who rejected it off the studio not being interested in “rural movies”. And after several rewrites and pitches to other studios, Called Home saw a name change, a tightened screenplay, and distribution by Paramount Pictures.
The film also saw several directors getting pitched the project. Feldman’s first choice was Peter Weir, an Australian director who was part of a New Wave of directors in the country, which also included the likes of George Miller (Mad Max) and Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy). He rejected it due to his commitment to the film The Mosquito Coast. John Badham of Saturday Night Fever fame rejected the film dude to seeming like a generic cop film, and Lynne Littman, known for the 1983 film Testament, was almost on board, but soon dropped out. However, she did manage to recommend Lukas Haas, who appeared in Testament, to perform the young boy Samuel. But in the end, Weir did manage to direct this after financial backing for The Mosquito Coast fell through.
Meanwhile, Weir, Kelly McGillis, and Harrison Ford used Philadelphia to their advantage. Weeks before filming, Weir and cinematographer John Seale visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art and visited an exhibit focusing on Dutch painters, with Johannes Vemeer being a major influence in the lighting and composition. McGillis lived with an Amish widow to help familiarize herself with the setting and learned how to perfect the accent and milk a cow. Ford meanwhile visited the homicide department of the Philadelphia Police Department to help understand how homicide detectives act and think out situations.
That understanding really helped create one of the most ingenious and intriguing looks at the stark contrasts between both the Western and Amish lifestyle. Weir shows how both cultures differ, almost night and day. The film opens with the vast Amish Pennsylvania landscape. Lush agriculture and a clear sky, seemingly harmonious, as cinematographer John Seale showcases the glory and beauty of a world isolated from technology. This creates greater contrast when the film goes into the dark, seedy underbelly of Philadelphia, with darkness and shadows and neon lights ablaze.
This contrast shows how the Western world many live in and the Amish world few live in are so different, they just cannot be compatible. However, Wallace and Kelley’s screenplay does recognize the qualities and flaws that come from both lifestyles. They are both very different, but the screenplay emphasizes the necessity to take the qualities of both to make one’s life better. Whether it be the simplicity of the Amish, or the freedom of the city. And, clever enough, this is detailed with John Book and Samuel witnessing such new worlds for the very first time.
John Book’s time hiding in the Pennsylvania Dutch village changes him. He grows happier, more thankful for the life he is given. He garners hesitance and disdain from some of the community, which is known for gossip due to its small size. Yet as the film progresses, his work and skills as a carpenter garner him more appreciation and respect than his time as a detective for the Philadelphia Police Department. John Book finds himself in a world that truly appreciates one another. A community that holds one another up, that avoids competing or getting ahead of another. Everybody has a role to play in the community and hard work is adulated. It’s best shown during a barn raising ceremony Book attends. Little dialogue is said, but the community and collaboration are shown and feels important and special. This also results in a blooming relationship between John Book and Rachel Lapp, which is developed expertly.
And yet, it is that love that explains why Book can’t stay there long. He still has a love for technology and media, best shown when Book sneaks a radio into a barn and dances away with Rachel. He’s still a man of the Western world, and he can’t stay confined to a world that avoids electricity and limits contact. But in the end, as John Book, rides back home and leaves this new world behind, the lessons he learned feel earned, thanks to the screenplay’s deliberate pace and Ford’s wonderful performance.
This is paralleled by young Samuel, as the film’s first act features him going into the big city for the first time. The sequence where he and his mother wait at the train station is quite possibly the most profound sequence in the entire film. While waiting, Samuel is stared at by many, treated as if he is a mythical creature, solely for his attire. Yet Samuel sees no concern, and finds himself staring, arguably enamored by the new world he finds himself in. To Samuel, the random bronze statues in the station are as if they were depicting Gods. Technology we take for granted are mind-blowing, almost otherworldly. Others who wear similar clothing to him follow other religions or cultures. After breaking free from the tight-knit yet small community, Samuel discovers there are multiple followings, multiple pieces of art, ways of communication and transportation that seemed impossible to him only a few hours ago. Helped also by his own innocence, being a child, Samuel shows how the developed urban world has created so many benefits: its growth, its technology, its diversity. All of it is in great display.
However, Samuel’s innocence is shattered when he witnesses murder for the first time. As much as the world may be vast, wonderful and diverse, it can be cold, scary, and dangerous all the same. Like Book, Samuel returns to the life he is content and familiar with, but still found great wisdom just the same. The outside world has so much to offer and to delight, but one should not wander too far.
In the end, while both cultures have their ups and downs, Witness argues for a sense of balance. It may seem that both the Amish and Western lifestyle cannot work together. However, the peace, tranquility, and values of hard work and community found in the Amish lifestyle and the wonder of differences found in the Western lifestyle can be combined, and that is where true happiness can be achieved. It’s mature and subtly laid out in the feature, resulting in a layered and poignant look at life, its evolutions, and its needed improvements.
Alas, the actual Lancaster Amish community, where much of the film was shot, was not happy over the film. Not only did they find their depiction to be inaccurate but would potentially lead to tourists invasively entering their homeland. The National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom called for a boycott against the film, believing that it would lead towards invading America’s Amish communities and their privacy, through “the crowding, souvenir-hunting, photographing and trespassing on Amish farmsteads”. It’s cruelly ironic, as the film calls out the stares and ogling of Rachel and her community from bystanders and tourists. This boycott pressured Pennsylvania governor Dick Thornburgh to remove Amish communities as potential film sites for any more upcoming productions.
However, such boycotts did not stop the film from achieving acclaim and popularity. When released, it managed to be a solid success, grossing $68.7 million at the domestic box office. This box office, as well as rave reviews, including 4 out of 4 stars from Roger Ebert, helped the film land eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor, becoming Harrison Ford’s only acting nomination as of this writing. It would later win Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing.
With such success, Weir was able to convince Ford to star in The Mosquito Coast, giving the film financial security and was fully produced and distributed by Warner Bros. Unfortunately, it was a critical and commercial failure at the time. But despite that, Peter Weir did find continued success, with films like Dead Poets Society, Green Card, The Truman Show, and Master & Commander: Far Side of the World. And while Witness has had its controversy in how it depicts the Amish and its ramifications on their communities, it is still a popular and interesting look at the Pennsylvania Dutch communities and is still well-liked to this day.