Harrison Ford is one of the world’s most famous actors, so it will probably come as something of a shock to learn that the Star Wars star has only ever been nominated for one Academy Award, that being Best Actor. And it wasn’t for his turn as the troubled Deckard in Blade Runner – it was for John Book in 1985’s Witness.
Directed by Peter Weir, who went on to helm the 80s classic Dead Poets Society, Witness tells the story of a detective protecting a young Amish boy who becomes witness to a murder. Let’s dive into some facts about the film that are electrifying in every way but one – after all, they’re Amish.
20. It was inspired by an episode of Gunsmoke
Witness was inspired by an episode of the TV show Gunsmoke, a western drama that originally aired for 20 years from 1955.
That episode could be Quaker Girl, which aired in 1966. Starring Roger Ewing as Deputy Marshal Clayton Thaddeus “Thad” Greenwood, it sees the Deputy Marshal investigate a murder in a Quaker village, a crime perpetrated by none other than William Shatner (in character, disappointingly, as ‘Fred Bateman’).
The episode was directed by Bernard L Kowalski, who is perhaps best known for directing Krakatoa, East of Java in 1969, a film re-released in the 70s simply as Volcano.
Screenwriters Earl Wallace, Pamela Wallace and William Kelley were intrigued by the concept of a rural murder in an isolated community, and set about adapting the episode into a full-length screenplay.
Initially, the script that would become Witness was nearly three hours long and went into great detail about Amish traditions. Producer Edward S Feldman demanded a rewrite before showing it off to studios, incentivising the writers with a $25,000 fee. The rewrite was completed in less than six weeks.
19. It was very nearly given the title Called Home
Owing to the screenwriters’ obsession with Amish culture, the screenplay for Witness was initially titled Called Home, that being the phrase used by the Amish as a euphemism for death.
However, the film’s tempestuous road to being financed led to this name going the way of the dodo. According to producer Edward Feldman’s 2005 memoir, Tell Me How You Love the Picture, he was initially rebuffed after approaching Fox, with the studio saying that they didn’t make “rural movies.”
Despite Harrison Ford signing up for the film on the recommendation of his agent, studios remained recalcitrant because of the film’s heavy emphasis on Amish culture.
The studio that eventually took on the film, Paramount, expressed reservations about the film’s title, and were unsure how to market the film under what they considered a vague title.
As a result, the name of the film was changed to the more prosaic Witness, shifting the film’s focus to the young boy who witnesses the crime, while also positioning Book as a witness to Amish culture.
18. Sylvester Stallone turned the film down
When Harrison Ford was shown the script for Witness by his agent, Phil Gersch, it only took him four days to sign up for the film. However, producers had someone else in mind: the Italian Stallion himself, Sylvester Stallone.
Unfortunately for Stallone, he turned it down, missing out on some serious awards buzz and acting cred. The Rocky actor had previously been slated to star in Beverly Hills Cop around the time of his offer.
Stallone then left the project due to creative differences, instead making 1986’s Cobra. Unlike Witness, neither are especially subtle action movies.
Sly allegedly rejected Witness due to a dislike for the director who was attached at the time. At this point in his career, Stallone was branching out into behind the scenes work. He’d co-written 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, and it’s thought he might even have directed in place of the movie’s official head honcho, George P Cosmatos.
It’s also rumoured that Jack Nicholson was offered the role of John Book. Nicholson would instead star in Prizzi’s Honor, for which his then-girlfriend Anjelica Huston would win an Academy Award.
17. Weir demanded only Italian women audition to play Rachel
When someone with the star power of Harrison Ford signs on to your film, you might imagine that the rest of the casting process would be easy. In fact, Weir and others struggled to cast Rachel, Book’s love interest, more than any other part.
After several unsuccessful auditions, Weir made a strange demand: he asked his team to bring him Italian actors – and, more precisely, actors who still lived in Italy – because he believed they’d be more “womanly.”
This is according to Between Two Worlds: The Making of Witness, a behind-the-scenes doc included with a DVD release of Witness in 2005.
This isn’t the only time that Peter Weir has made strange demands or comments as a director. He would later be hired to direct The Truman Show, a dystopian comedy-drama about a man whose life is the focus of a TV show.
Weir reportedly suggested that the film was partially inspired by the disgraced pop star Michael Jackson. “The connection between Michael and Truman is simple,” Weir is thought to have said. “Both have a heart and are treated by people as objects in the world of entertainment.”
16. Weir was convinced Kelly McGillis should play Rachel only moments into her audition
While Weir was reviewing the tapes that had been shipped in from Italy, Kelly McGillis auditioned. Within moments of her putting on a bonnet and delivering lines, the director knew he’d found his Rachel.
As much as it must have disappointed dozens of Italian women, it’s easy to see why McGillis made such an impression at her audition. With her intense presence, she’s perfectly cast in this thriller.
On the basis of Witness, McGillis would go on to star as Charlie in 1986’s Top Gun and opposite Jodie Foster in 1988’s The Accused.
Interestingly, McGillis would again be cast as an Amish woman in 1994’s North and Love Finds You in Sugarcreek, Ohio in 2014.
On the latter, McGillis told Smashing Interviews that “I laughed when they asked me to do this Amish role. I giggled. But, I thought it was fun because she’s an older lady, and she’s very different.”
15. It was Viggo Mortensen’s very first film
Rewatching Witness today, you might see a strikingly familiar face in the crowd. That’s because it marks the feature film debut of the future High King of Gondor and Arnor, Viggo Mortensen.
The first film Mortensen shot any scenes for was The Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody Allen’s 1985 comedy about a movie character who enters the real world. Unfortunately for Mortensen, all of his scenes were cut.
The actor was then cast in Witness because, according to Peter Weir, he had the right face to play an Amish man. We’re not sure what that means, but it’s nice to see Mortensen looking fresh-faced regardless.
Taking the part was something of a gamble for Mortensen, who had to pull out of playing a soldier in Shakespeare in the Park’s Henry V.
Thankfully, Mortensen was inspired to continue with his Hollywood career after having such a positive experience on set, and went on to prove his face could do more than simply look Amish.
14. Harrison Ford took part in real police raids to prepare for the film
By 1985, you might have thought that Harrison Ford would have had enough experience as a police officer that he’d have his own gun and badge.
Still, having previously starred as the hand cannon-wielding Deckard in 1982’s Blade Runner (and Officer Bob Falfa in 1979’s More American Graffiti!), Ford went the extra mile and took part in real police raids to prepare for Witness.
Ford wasn’t the only one to undergo intense preparation for the film. Kelly McGillis moved in with an Amish widow and her seven children.
Becoming part of the community, McGillis learned how to milk cows and practiced the accents of her Amish brethren.
It’s unclear what preparation Ford is undertaking for Indiana Jones 5, which is set to release in 2021.
13. Witness was Danny Glover’s big break
We know him best as Lethal Weapon’s Murtaugh – a role which we’ll see him play again soon – but Danny Glover’s breakthrough role was actually as someone on the wrong side of the law.
In Witness, Glover plays one of the corrupt cops who commits the murder, and who then tries to stop Book from uncovering their drug trafficking operation.
1985 was a big year for Glover, as he’d also star in the landmark period drama The Color Purple alongside the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg.
“Whoopi was so phenomenal,” Glover told Yahoo in 2016. “I felt she was destined to go on and do something special. And Oprah was already on her path. I think she would have been who we know her as even without The Color Purple.”
Critical attention for Glover has focused more on the Spielberg-directed race relations drama, but now you know: Witness came first!
12. The Amish community called for a boycott of the film after it was released
The National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom (NCARF) called for a boycott of Witness, claiming that the way the Amish community was portrayed in the film was not accurate.
Even though Witness attempts to portray its Amish characters sympathetically (it even includes a line from Rachel decrying the kind of tourism NCARF was rallying against), the boycott still gained significant media attention.
According to a contemporary report in the Pittsburgh Press, NCARF notes of tourists that “their voyeurism will be greatly stimulated by national circulation of Witness, and the crowding, souvenir-hunting, photographing and trespassing on Amish farmsteads will increase.”
Despite the boycott seemingly not having any effect on Witness’ box office performance, it still gained concessions: then-Governor Dick Thornburgh pledged not to promote the Lancaster community as a film site.
In fact, the media attention garnered by the boycott might have bolstered the film’s ticket sales; after all, there’s no such thing as bad publicity!
11. Paramount regretted releasing Witness at the same time as Beverly Hills Cop was blowing up
Contrary to concerns that the film would be “too rural” for a mainstream audience, Witness made a respectable haul at the box office, earning $68.7 million from a tight initial budget of $12 million. But it might have been even better.
That’s because, while these numbers shot Witness straight to number 2 in the rankings, the film was swamped by the long-reigning box office top dog: Beverly Hills Cop.
The Eddie Murphy film had an only slightly inflated budget of $13 million, yet made $15 million in its first five days. Its run was then expanded to several thousand theatres nationwide, ultimately pulling in a colossal $316.4 million.
As a result, Beverly Hills Cop cast a long shadow. It’s perhaps more impressive that Witness posted solid numbers in such an oxygen-starved environment, especially given that both films have action leanings (if in very different flavours).
It’s rumoured that David Kirkpatrick, then an executive at Paramount, regretted releasing Witness into these Beverly Hills Cop-infested waters; had they had more confidence in Harrison Ford’s film, they might have delayed its release.
10. Peter Weir was supposed to direct The Mosquito Coast instead
When Peter Weir was approached to direct Witness, he turned it down. That’s because he was involved with another project at the time, one with the enigmatic title The Mosquito Coast.
The Mosquito Coast is a novel by Paul Theroux that was published to acclaim in 1981, at which point the film rights were immediately purchased and Weir was attached to direct.
While pre-production work for the film was taking place, Weir received and rejected the offer for Witness, citing his prior commitments.
Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – funding for Mosquito Coast suddenly fell through, meaning Weir suddenly became available to direct.
Luckily for Weir, Harrison Ford so much enjoyed working with the director that he immediately signed on to Mosquito Coast later that year, with it releasing in 1986.
9. The lighting is based on the paintings of Johannes Vermeer
You wouldn’t expect a 1980s Harrison Ford thriller to have any sort of connection to a Dutch Baroque Period painter. And yet here we are.
That’s because Witness cinematographer John Seale was directly inspired by the work of Johannes Vermeer, a renowned Dutch artist perhaps best known for Girl with a Pearl Earring.
For inspiration, Seale and Weir even took a day off filming to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where several of Vermeer’s paintings were then being exhibited.
The cinematographer took particular inspiration from Vermeer’s use of colour and lighting. Vermeer is famous for having used expensive pigments and making the playfulness of light his life’s work.
These elements particularly inspired the scenes in which Book convalesces with the Amish, the soft lighting intended to emphasise the Amish’s natural and peaceful way of life.
8. The Amish extras are actually Mennonites
Witness was filmed on-site at an Amish settlement in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. So you’d be forgiven for assuming that, amongst all this authenticity, you were actually seeing real Amish people in the background.
In fact, these figures aren’t Amish at all – though they aren’t actors either. They’re Mennonites, a similar but notably distinct Orthodox Christian community.
We won’t delve too deeply into the theology, but the important difference between the two groups is that the Amish shun technology in its entirety, where Mennonites make exceptions.
For example, while the Amish insist on horse-drawn farming, Mennonites are happy to use tractors as long as they maintain a basic way of life.
This also, critically, includes appearing on camera, which the Amish forbid but the Mennonites do not. The Amish did, however, stand by and politely watch as filming on Witness took place.
7. They really did drown an actor in corn
In a credit to its genre, Witness really does have a thrilling conclusion, and one you might not expect given its setting in an Amish community.
When the corrupt cops arrive at the village to snuff Book out, the detective manages to trick one into falling into a grain silo – where he promptly suffocates. Known as grain entrapment or grain engulfment, this deadly scenario really happens – not that it stopped producers on Witness re-enacting it with a live actor.
When shooting the scene, Weir really did drown an actor in corn, but the man survived due to some ingenious stunt planning.
Concealed in the floor was scuba gear hitched to an oxygen tank, meaning the actor was able to breathe while submerged in the grain.
Thankfully, in real life, entrapments are less deadly than ever. While there were 27 recorded cases in 2011, only eight resulted in fatalities due to improved rescue equipment. Think about that when you’re chomping on your porridge!
6. The ending was nearly very different
It’s one of the inexplicable riches of film: that actors, even without dialogue, can convey so much meaning.
Originally, at the end of Witness Book and Rachel were going to matter-of-factly discuss their feelings about each other. Book, as a hard-done-by detective, and Rachel, as a widowed Amish mother, would have some complications to work through.
In the initial screenplay, this was to be laid out in ten pages, but Peter Weir insisted that the dialogue be cut, confident that the meaning could come across without words.
Given how important the ending is to the entire film, it’s perhaps understandable that this made the studio anxious. In an effort for clarity, they pushed for the dialogue, but Weir was stubborn and had it cut.
Still, there’s no ambiguity. “He left, man,” Harrison Ford told the New York Times in 2013. “No, no. I don’t think [he married Rachel].”
5. Harrison Ford really is a carpenter
Harrison Ford is best known for breaking through in the 70s, most notably with Star Wars, and then becoming one of the biggest box office draws of the 80s and beyond. Yet he actually began his career in the 60s, albeit with a woodworking angle.
Ford received his first credited acting role on a Roger Corman western, 1967’s A Time for Killing, but Ford quickly grew unhappy with the bit-parts he was being offered. As a result, he retrained as a professional carpenter.
As such, when in Witness Rachel notices Book’s skill with a knife and says “You know some carpentry?” she’s not wrong. Ford even worked as a carpenter for essayist Joan Didion.
“I spent a couple of months there in their house, every day,” Ford recounts in a documentary, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, “…explaining why we hadn’t made more progress and how it was going to cost even more money.”
“I think I became their carpenter for the same reason I became their friend,” Ford continues. “It’s that I was out of my depth, kind of. I didn’t know where I was going, how I got there.”
4. The little boy has since become a big star
To star as the titular witness to a murder is a big ask, but child actor Lukas Haas pulls off his role in Witness with aplomb. Happily – and unlike many child actors past and future – the story of Haas’ career didn’t end there.
Haas would go on to star in Solarbabies and Music Box, as well as Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!. More recently, he’s starred in Inception, The Revenant and Widows.
Multitalented, Haas is also a pianist and drummer with The Rogues and composed part of the score for Gus Van Sant’s 2005 drama Last Days.
“Witness was [a] truly amazing experience,” Haas told The Morton Report in 2013. “The director, Peter Weir, was incredible, the writing was terrific, it was a great role; everything about it was fantastic and you got a sense of that just being on set.”
“I think everyone knew that there was something special about Witness while we were making it,” he continues, “and I felt that, too.”
3. The nighttime dance scene was filmed during the day
Who knew that movie magic could be so sweaty? Happily for all the deodorant companies out there, and unhappily for the film’s stars, the set of Witness became one of the wettest and smelliest places on Earth for the filming of one scene.
That’s because the dance scene in the barn was filmed during the day, even thought it’s set at night. This entailed blacking out the windows and sealing the barn to simulate darkness.
Add a few dozen people dancing, and it’s easy to see why Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis might begin to perspire a little more than normal. It must have been like a sauna in there!
This must only have been compounded by the fact that the actors really did build the barn in which the scene takes place.
Unfortunately for tourists, the barn was torn down after filming concluded – likely because it was built in part by mechanical means, and it’s not particularly respectful to a dump a barn on the Amish community when they never asked for it.
2. Lynne Littman was going to direct
Before Peter Weir became Witness’ director, in his first movie outside of Australia, a very different figure was lined up to helm the film: Lynne Littman.
Despite having been a modestly successful filmmaker during the 70s, Littman remains best known for her 1983 film Testament, a drama that played into the fear of nuclear annihilation that surged in the early 80s.
Testament tells the story of a town that falls apart after nuclear war devastates the surrounding area. The sense of isolation would likely have carried over into Witness.
It’s unknown why Littman was replaced by Weir, though some believe Weir was the studio’s preferred choice all along. Nonetheless, Littman made at least one significant contribution to the final film: the casting of Lukas Haas.
Haas, then a child actor, had starred in Testament, and was recommended by Littman for Witness, the role that truly launched his career.
1. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two
As we’ve noted, Witness was – and remains – Harrison Ford’s only Academy Award nomination, though he was awarded the lifetime achievement Cecil B DeMille Award in 2002.
However, while Ford lost out to William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman at the 1986 Academy Awards, Witness was also nominated in seven other categories.
These nominations include the other ‘big-hitters’ of the Oscars, such as a Best Director nod for Peter Weir and a Best Picture nomination.
Of its eight total nominations, however, Witness had only two wins: for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing.
The latter was awarded to Thom Noble, a film editor who would find later success with Thelma & Louise and The Mask of Zorro.