Out of Africa’s Cinematic Landscape

Meryl Streep, Robert Redford
Tuesday, January 5, 2016 - 10:45

In 1985, director Sydney Pollack entered his third decade as a feature film director with a dramatic change of pace from his previous Oscar-winning film, Tootsie. A seasoned filmmaker able to leap from one style of film to another ranging from The Way We Were to Three Days of the Condor, Pollack faced a unique challenge with what would become a popular success and a respected literary adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. 

Danish author Karen Blixen (1885-1962), who wrote under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen, was a baroness who owned and managed a coffee farm in British East Africa, now known as Kenya, from 1914 to 1931. In the original manuscript for Out of Africa, Blixen’s memoir of colonial life, she distilled her impressions of her beloved adopted country:

“The geographical position and the height of the land combined to create a landscape, which had not got its like in all the world.… Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequalled nobility.”

Nearly 50 years after the book’s publication, Sydney Pollack sought to capture the magnificence of the landscape Blixen so vividly characterizes in her memoir as he prepared to bring Out of Africa to the silver screen. Pollack made multiple voyages to the African continent before production began on the film in January 1985, and he recorded some of his impressions in personal diaries during his visits.

On a trip in January 1984, Pollack surveyed the land with field consultant John Sutton, location scout Eva Monley, production designer Stephen Grimes and screenwriter Kurt Luedtke, in search of the ideal locations to bring Blixen’s story to life. In this page from his notes, Pollack recounts their journey, describing the wildlife and scenery they encountered along the way.

Sydney Pollack production diary

Grimes captured the stunning vistas in his production designs for the film, including this drawing for the scene in which Blixen flies above the mountainous landscape with Denys Finch Hatton.

production design drawing

Later the same year, Pollack returned to Kenya for further pre-production activities. As he worked with the crew to finalize the film’s locations, he admonished himself in a May 17 journal entry from Nairobi:

“…When we go out – we must really go out. I can’t have it look like Southern California – or Mexico – which it reminds me of. On the other hand, I don’t want it to look like a travelogue. The landscape and the culture have to be made organic.”

Two days later, he seemed pleased to have discovered an idyllic setting for some of the film’s scenes:

“Pay dirt for real. Amboseli – a really unique Africa – not like anything else. Right on the Tanzania border – in the shadow of Kilimanjaro. It’s very special.”

By the time filming began the next year, the production had arranged to shoot at various locations throughout Kenya, as the official filming license indicates.

Kenya filming license

The Ngong Dairy served as one of the film’s primary locations, with the production team creating replicas of Blixen’s home and the Muthaiga Club there. Pictured below are the cast and crew on location in Karen, Nairobi (named for the author).

Behind the Scenes

The efforts of Pollack and his team to capture the majesty of Blixen’s Africa did not go unnoticed, as the film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and awarded seven statuettes, including those for Art Direction, Cinematography, Directing and Best Picture. The production of Out of Africa is well documented in the Sydney Pollack papers at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library.

Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack

Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes