Behind the scenes: ‘Witness’

Once upon a time, I worked with Harrison Ford’s future daughter-in-law at a TV station on the Paramount Studios lot in Hollywood.

Now I’m boarding a tourist van to find out how Paramount made the box-office smash Witness, which cemented Ford’s stardom and put Pennsylvania Dutch Country even more on the map.

More than a quarter-century after its release, people are still flocking to Lancaster County, PA, about an hour from Philadelphia, to see the farm where the movie took place.

My fellow tourists were psyched to be there. One woman from New Jersey told me she’d seen the movie six times. If you haven’t, here’s the basics:

Lukas Haas/Witness/Paramount Pictures

An Amish boy witnesses a murder in Philadelphia. A cop played by Ford investigates, resulting in a huge culture clash, forbidden love between the boy’s Amish mom (McGillis) and Englisher (Amish term for non-Amish) Ford; and good (in the form of the Amish) versus evil (corrupt, big-city police). With Lancaster County as a gorgeous backdrop.

Harrison Ford & Kelly McGillis/Paramount Pictures

The Amish disapproved of the movie’s sex and violence and discounted the romance, saying an Amish woman would never get involved with an outsider. But I totally bought it. How could anyone resist young Indiana Jones? Seriously, I thought Ford and McGillis, both perfect physical and cultural specimens,  had fabulous chemistry. (Word is the role was first offered to Sylvester Stallone.)

And if you’re telling a moral tale, who better personifies decency than the Amish? That’s why that real-life Amish school massacre (a few miles away) left the world gasping.

Amtrak's Philadelphia station

While the movie is about corrupt Philadelphia police, most of it wasn’t filmed there. The massive Amtrak train station, also used for Blow Out  and Trading Places, was featured in a few scenes. (Having seen all three movies, I was always creeped out when I had to use the restroom before the place was renovated. It was so isolated, it was scary.)

Director Peter Weir on location

But other Philly locations were filmed in the city of Lancaster, the county seat and gateway to Amish County. The men’s room used for the murder witnessed by the Amish boy (Lukas Haas) was actually built in a Lancaster warehouse because Amtrak wouldn’t allow the real one to be used.

The Philadelphia police commissioner’s house was also in Lancaster. And Paramount rented part of a Lancaster office building and turned it into a police station. The parking garage where Ford was wounded in a shootout was underneath the Lancaster County Courthouse.

The rest of the film was shot in parts of the county that haven’t changed much in almost 30 years ago. Including the farm.

Director Peter Weir searched everywhere for a farmhouse in Lancaster County that was secluded. When nothing fit the bill, he considered looking on the West Coast.

Then some Amish told him about a place owned by an Englisher who didn’t do much farming. He was more interested in farm preservation.

It had just what Weir needed: privacy. Away from the road. Good for filming and a great place for the movie good guys to hide out. (The farm owners continued to live there during the filming, and some family members appeared as extras. The farm was later sold to an Amish family and is now open to the public on a limited basis.)

Getting back to the movie: If someone got wind of it — like the bad guys did — this birdhouse would be the first thing they’d see approaching from the main road. This birdhouse replaced the one in the movie, hit by a car driven by Ford’s character.

Bad cops/Paramount Pictures

And then the bad guys would discover the farm.

This is the same barn …

Paramount Pictures

… where the sparks really started flying between Ford and McGillis; and where Ford hid from the bad guys. It’s since been expanded and is now used for dairy farming.

Paramount Pictures

That silo with all the corn that came crashing down and smothered one of the baddies? Didn’t happen here. Filmed in a Lancaster warehouse.

This is the same house and grape arbor where the Amish grandfather was attacked by the meanies.

This building, known as the summer kitchen, is where many key scenes featuring Ford, McGillis and Haas were shot. This is the only building on the property open to the public.

And this is the same bell that figured so prominently in the movie’s ending.

Paramount Pictures

The barn-raising took place elsewhere in the county. The barn was torn down as quickly as it went up because it was only for show. Ford said he liked being able to use his real-life skills as a carpenter in the film.

Paramount Pictures

The scene where Ford bloodied a bully’s nose was shot in nearby Intercourse. Spare me the snickers please.

The farm is under a clause that will forever keep it a farm. That means it will never be developed — as Mitch put it, “Harrison Ford at Witness Manor. ”

Ford,  who was nominated for an Academy award, contributed money to the farm’s preservation.

Kelly McGillis lived in nearby Berks County for a while.

Lukas Haas, the little boy, is now a 35-year-old musician and actor. He’s guest-starred on 24 and Entourage.

Lord of the Rings actor Viggo Mortensen also got his start in the film.

And this footnote: No real Amish appeared, because they shun being photographed.

For more information about the tour, click here.

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5 Responses to Behind the scenes: ‘Witness’

  1. Nick Cotsarelis says:

    You mentioned that Lancaster county was the “gorgeous” backdrop for the movie, “Witness.” Watching the movie, I saw nothing that I would describe as gorgeous in the background. In almost every scene there is a barren, almost sterile landscape in the background that is devoid of trees or even bushes. That is because the Amish have ruthlessly exploited the land for agricultural production. There are few places in the world where Nature has been decimated so completely as in Lancaster county.Anyone who visits the Amish lands will see miles and miles of farmland without even a line of trees at the edges of the properties.

    • planetlippstone says:

      Thanks for the comment. I do recall seeing some trees …

      Some might think the landscape is gorgeous in its simplicity, but your point explains why it’s merely simplistic.

      I never said the Amish were good stewards of the land. Or animals.

    • Richard C. says:

      Nick, I live in Lancaster County south of Strasburg and what I see out of my living room window is far from being devoid of vegetation, It is the most productive, non irrigated farm land in the United States with the many ridgetops completely wooded and used for state game lands and nature preserves along with the east bank of the Susquehanna River. The Amish have been excellent stewards of this land since before the Revolutionary War. You might get a true education if you get you head out of the TV set, and spend some time in this area and learn about it first hand.

      • Nick Cotsarelis says:

        The wooded areas you are talking about are not owned by the Amish. I was referring to what the Amish have done to the land that belongs to them. I live in Cumberland County and frequently drive to or through Lancaster County both for work and pleasure. The streams that are on Amish farms are not bounded by any trees or bushes and as a result the runoff from their cultivated land and the cow manure goes directly into the water and ends up polluting the Chesapeake Bay. The government and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have approached 4000 Amish farmers with various offers and incentives to plant trees along their streams but only a couple hundred agreed to do so.

  2. Gary turner says:

    Witness is my favourite film ,did Harrison ford as a carpenter ,repair the birdhouse in the film .gary jersey Channel Islands chairman .of dukes leopards medieval company , swordsman ,archer and jerseys only knight Templar

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