Early in the film, Baroness Karen Blixen is introduced to her servants. Although the scene is inter-cut with close-ups and other inserts in the film, the first take was filmed as one long shot that required Streep to meet and exchange dialogue with several other characters. As soon as director Sydney Pollack yelled "Cut," Streep, wearing a high-collared shirt and snug jacket, yelled "get this thing off of me!" and ripped open her jacket. A large beetle had crawled down the front of the jacket moments after the camera rolled, yet she continued filming the scene, Much of it remains in the final film.
In one scene, Karen Blixen, travels across dangerous terrain to bring supply wagons to her husband's regiment. During the night, a lion attacks one of the oxen and Karen tries to fight it off with a whip. Meryl Streep was assured that the lion would be tethered by one of its back legs so he couldn't get too close. When the scene was shot, the lion had no restraint, and it got closer than Streep anticipated. The fear on her face is real.
Actual descendants of the Kikuyu tribe who were described in the book appeared in the film. The man who played chief Kinyanjui was his grandson. Much of it was filmed near the Ngong Hills outside Nairobi, Kenya.
Robert Redford initially intended to play Denys Finch Hatton as an Englishman. Director Sydney Pollack felt it would be too distracting for audiences. Redford had to overdub some of his lines from early takes, when he used a trace of English accent.
When Denys washes Karen's hair, he quotes from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. One line, "He prayeth well, who loveth well both man and bird and beast," is inscribed on the real Denys Finch Hatton's gravestone.
Production designer Stephen B. Grimes spent a months building a replica of 1913 Nairobi. The film's exterior sets were built not far from where Blixen had once lived, in the area known as Karengata (an amalgam name for the township of Karen and the neighboring Langata area). Karen Blixen's home was not available for shooting as at that time it was part of a nursing school. The interiors were shot in a nearly home belonging to the Scott family.
Sydney Pollack initially never considered Meryl Streep for the role of Karen Blixen as he figured she wasn't sexy enough. Streep landed the part by showing up for her meeting with the director wearing a low-cut blouse and a push-up bra.
Felicity is modeled on Beryl Markham, another writer who lived in East Africa and was supposed to be another of Denys Finch Hatton lovers. Markham was also one of the first women to fly across the Atlantic. Sydney Pollack was fortunate enough to meet the elderly Markham early in pre-production.
While he was editing the picture, director Sydney Pollack used musical selections from John Barry to act as his temp track. When it came the time to actually score the film, Barry seemed like the perfect choice.
When on the expedition Karen hears the roaring of a lion. To this day, this roaring - repeated several times in a series of five or six roars - is heard from the direction of the Nairobi National Game Reserve a few miles from Karen's house every morning before sunrise and every evening just after sunset.
When Karen thanks Chief Kinyanjui, she says that reading is a valuable thing and that his children will remember him for this. What Farah actually says when he translates is that this is good and she thanks the chief. This intentional mistranslation in dealings non-speakers is common in ordinary situations here in Kenya, as the translators often edit things to be more palatable for the hearer.
It took director Sydney Pollack and writer Kurt Luedtke two years to put together the script. The elements of the plot included Blixen's Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass. Much local color was drawn from Elsbeth Huxley's The Flame Trees of Thika.
Lake Natron, where Delamere's party was on patrol, is extremely alkaline and unsuited for animals and birds that are not acclimatized to it. Its salts are similar to those used in ancient Egyptian mummification and the assorted birds and bats that die there become calcified and preserved in an almost lifelike state. The lake is located 65 miles southwest of Karen's home.
It is illegal to own a firearm in Kenya unless one goes through an extremely difficult process and then only if it is after a violent attack, in which case a license for a shotgun can be obtained. No handguns are allowed in private hands. The handgun that was shown in the film was an amazingly accurate reproduction in papier mache. As the law also forbids the ownership of toy or fake guns, this prop, along with all the other prop guns, had to be turned over to the government. An exception to this law was seen when the local Phoenix Players repertory group rented the Finch Hatton prop pistol for their stage production of Viva Mexico.
When the expedition to Lake Natron encounters the party of Maasai, a number of the warriors are wearing traditional headgear. In Blixen's time they were made from the manes of lions. By the time of filming, such headdresses had been illegal for decades. With the exception of one headdress, the others are of a later design that used ostrich feathers instead.
The private passenger rail car used in the film was from the 19th century and was the actual car used by a young engineer when the railway was being built. While the rail construction crew was in the Tsavo area a marauding lion leapt in through the screen window, carried off the engineer and ate him. The marauding lions, which killed many railway workers, was the inspiration of the highly fictionalized film The Ghost and the Darkness (1996). Before filming, this car was in the Nairobi Railway Museum, bearing the 19th century color scheme. Repainted for Out of Africa, the car can be viewed today bearing the period colors of Blixen's time. The engine was too old to function so they concealed a working engine in the boxcar directly behind it. The stretch of railroad seen in the film had been abandoned more than a decade before, so the filmmakers did not have to worry about other rail traffic. The original railway between Nairobi and Mombasa was replaced, starting in 2017 with a modern gauge railroad.
The yellow biplane in which Denys and Karen fly over the savanna is a de Havilland D.H.60 Gipsy Moth, a forerunner to the famous Tiger Moth. The film implies that he had the airplane earlier than he did, but it was a Gipsy Moth.
The German troops Bror goes to fight were commanded by General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. He had traveled to Africa on the same ship as Karen Blixen, and according to some sources the two had an affair during the voyage.
When the lions attack the oxen, the oxen are enclosed within a kraal made of acacia ("thorn tree") branches. Some small villages in areas where lions and hyenas live are similarly enclosed. The more established villages start out this way, with the acacia branches being gradually replaced by a ring of dagger bushes, which are similar to agave in appearance but tougher and with thorny serrated leaves. In many villages the rondavels (thatch-roofed, mud and wattle homes) include a small fenced area inside to keep the goats out of the reach of predators. Acacia thorns are the chief food of giraffes.
The place where Denys would land his plane is never mentioned in the movie. It was in an undeveloped patch of land to the east of the farmhouse which is now called Ndege Road. Being named after Finchatton's plane, ndege is the Swahili word for bird or airplane.
Decades after Karen left, her lands were eventually developed into a rural neighborhood of shady lanes and charming little cottages. A crossroads to the northwest of the farmhouse became the location of a duka (general store), a post office, an outdoor vegetable market, and a few other small businesses, and was named Karen's first name - the name by which she was known by the locals. By the time the film was made the farmhouse was part of a local nursing school. Afterwards it was decorated with period furnishings and was opened to visitors.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The production designers used a few pieces of Karen Blixen's furniture, which she never sent back to Denmark after leaving Kenya. Most of the furniture was randomly sourced from local estates. The large sideboard (which was not Blixen's) was a 17th century piece sourced from local antiques restorer Frank Daykin. It had had inlaid wood scenes of people and it had a secret hiding place accessed by sliding wooden pieces like a Chinese puzzle. The value of the piece was approximately $200,000.
In real life, Karen and Denys' romance was slightly different. They met at a hunting club, not out on the plains. He disappeared for two years on military assignment in Egypt. He started flying and taking tourists on safaris after he moved in with Karen, not before. Karen learned of his death from some friends in Nairobi. The film never mentions that Karen miscarried their baby.
Karen Blixen remains the only woman who has ever been invited to drink in the men's bar at the Muthaiga Country Club. Certain rules have been relaxed over the years, men are even allowed in certain parts of the club without jacket and tie, but the "men only" rule remains. Another bar allows women.
Nicolas Roeg planned to direct the film in the early 70s, using a screenplay written by Judith Rascoe. The scene where Bror informs Karen Blixen of Finch Hatton's death is a leftover from that treatment.
The fatal crash took place when Denys was en route from Mombasa to Nairobi. He stopped to rest in the Tsavo area near Voi, paying a visit to his friend the game warden. As he was about to depart, he invited the ranger's wife up for a quick ride but she was afraid and said no. This was lucky. After taking off, Denys circled once and waved, but his engine cut out and he crashed. In the wreckage they found a large number of burned oranges that he was bringing back from the coast.
The book Out of Africa was published six years after Karen returned to Denmark. The publisher was the celebrity Bennett Cerf who, along with Donald Klopfer, had purchased the Modern Library publishing house and renamed it Random House. He chose the name because he and his partner wanted to go beyond the established genres of the Modern Library and publish random manuscripts that caught his fancy. This "random" element is why he chose to publish Out of Africa.
The scene in which Kamante prefers to use a fork to beat egg whites rather than an egg beater actually happened. Karen later wrote that he could whip them into white clouds, so she didn't insist on using the beater. Under Karen's direction, Kamante became an excellent cook and she would often host gatherings in which her visitors would comment on the excellence of the meals. After she left, no one would hire him as a cook, so he returned to herding.
While the film makes it appear that Denys died just a few days before Karen left Kenya, his actual date of death was May 14, 1931. Karen Blixen left Africa in August of 1931, She passed away in Denmark on September 7, 1962 at the age of 77.
Karen's relationship with Denys ended before his death. He had asked Beryl Markham ("Felicity" in the film) to join him on his flight to Mombasa but, acting on a premonition of one of her servants, she did not accompany him.
Karen did not find out about Denys from Bror but from when she was in Nairobi and discovered that everyone was avoiding her. She finally had to stop someone and ask what was going on. This took place during the early days of the "Happy Valley" crowd, where the hedonistic behavior of a number of the aristocrats was a source of scandal among the more upstanding of the colonists. The undignified lifestyle of Bror, along with the relationship between Karen and Denys were considered scandalous, hence the behavior of the people in avoiding Karen when the news of Finch Hatton reached Nairobi.
As Karen gives instructions to Farah about the land for the Kikuyu, she mentions that she would not be there to speak for them in case they should fight over the land. In actual fact, the Kikuyu on her farm would have private hearings among the elders in case of internal strife, sometimes taking days to thrash out every detail and possible permutation. Karen would be asked to contribute to these sessions. An example of this was when one of the children was playing with a gun and accidentally killed another child. Karen's input was valuable as the Kikuyu did not differentiate between accidental and intentional crimes. In that specific case, the family of the shooter (who had run away and stayed with the Maasai for five years) should give the victim's family a specific number of goats. Were it not for Karen, the shooter might have been turned over to the authorities and hung. It should be noted that it was at one of the famous millstone tables on her back patio where she would sit when serving in her capacity of arbiter of issues between the Kikuyu.
The film shows raw, dried coffee beans being put in sacks. In reality, Karen had the beans roasted on site before bagging, using a roaster similar to that shown in the film. While Karen is shown talking about falling prices as the coffee is being sent to the railway, the price drop for coffee was a rumor that would have taken months to get to her. She wasn't paid for the coffee locally but from London. Her concerns were more about the coffee auctions in London, which would take place nearly two months after they left Mombasa.
The man who is giving the eulogy at Berkeley Cole's funeral is an actual preacher. Mike Harries, known as the Flying Preacher, is from an old family of pioneers that, among other things, brought sisal to Kenya. Mike had been hired to assist the English actor originally hired for the part. Bad weather that delayed filming, and the actor's fondness for food and drink paid for by Sydney Pollack, prompted Pollack to send him back to England and hire Mike for the small, but very important, role.
When Kamante wakes Karen to warn her about the fire, the actual real-life event was not about the fire at the coffee factory, but a long, thin, winding rivulet of fire that Kamante had seen in the blackness of night as the Maasai performed their burning of the grass on the Athi plain, which was done to promote new growth grass for their cattle. They would do this not long before the long and short rains would come in October and March.