Frank Darabont is an artist known in many circles. As a screenwriter in his early career, he penned 1980s horror classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and The Blob. As a film director, he’s turned in a slate of cinema’s best-regarded Stephen King adaptations, including The Green Mile and The Mist. As a producer, he was the original guiding light behind AMC’s ultra-successful The Walking Dead, and also directed its landmark pilot episode. He’s a man of many talents … not least of which is also being the man who directed one of the 1990s finest feature films, The Shawshank Redemption.
Now, as Shawshank celebrates its 25th anniversary with a series of three national theatrical screenings via Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events on Sept. 22-25, Darabont is understandably feeling a little nostalgic about the enduring legacy of his most famous creation. We caught up with the director for a conversation on the beloved film, which has held the #1 spot on IMDb’s top 250 for so long that it has unofficially enshrined itself as perhaps the most generally well-liked film in cinema history.
Paste: I’ve read that when you first approached Stephen King about adapting this particular short story, he didn’t see how it could be made into a feature film. Do you recall that?
Frank Darabont: I remember it. In fact, I asked him once, “Why did you let me have the rights to that?” I think he was just sort of treating it like a science experiment, like “let’s see what grows in this petri dish.” Of course, the majority of the adaptations of his work before this were sort of more obvious horror stories, with more marketable aspects to them. The Shawshank Redemption was a much less marketable idea, but I just saw this beautiful story about a friendship, and I wanted to make that movie. I thought if I could give an audience the same feeling that the story gave me, it would be a movie worth making.
Paste: It was certainly a risk for you, given that it was your feature film debut.
Darabont: Perhaps so, but it felt so right, simply because the story was so solid.
Paste: I read the King story (in 1982’s Different Seasons) years after seeing the film, and was struck by how much more likable and sympathetic Andy Dufresne is on screen than on the page. How did you go about crafting the story’s character for the screen?
Darabont: Well, I wanted to maintain a certain level of mystery with that character. It’s like he says to Red in the movie: “My wife used to say I’m a hard man to know.” There’s an enigmatic quality to the character—we don’t really know what’s going on with him, which is what is so fascinating about him. That’s the reason I really wanted Tim Robbins to play the role; he nailed that particular aspect to perfection. His work is the thing that strikes me whenever I revisit the movie, the subtlety of his performance. Yeah, you like him, and you want to know more about what’s going on in his head, but you never really know if he’s a killer for most of the film.
Paste: How would you describe the nature of the relationship between Andy and Red?
Darabont: I think Morgan has described it the best, saying that it’s basically a very pure love story. It’s two people who connect, and in a sense complete each other. It’s what the best friendships will give you in life, a person you can count on, who is your rock. I think that’s one of the things about the film that people find so reassuring. It’s a very comforting thought, to think that we could make a friend like that.
If you go beyond that, and take a step back to the concept of the story, Andy is basically the Joseph Campbell hero of a thousand faces. He’s the guy, the mysterious western hero who rides into town, cleans up the place and rides off in the end. He enters an enclosed society, fundamentally changes it, and leaves.
Paste: Do you have any favorite lines of dialog? Mine is when Hadley is bitching about inheriting his brother’s money—I just like that he’s so pissed off about receiving an unexpected windfall of cash.
Darabont: He’s the classic glass-half-empty character, that’s Hadley right there.
My favorite line? Oh god, there’s so much of it that just washes over me now when we talk about it. The experience of making the film was so long ago that whenever I revisit it I’m mostly just struck by how good the acting is. I’m so grateful for that cast we had.
My favorite little exchange of dialog, though, is when Warden Norton shows up at Andy’s cell and takes the Bible from him—he’s unaware that it contains a rock hammer of course—and they exchange verses, and each know each other’s verse. I think that’s an important moment because it shows that Andy’s not just a facile guy; he’s as knowledgeable about that subject as the Warden is. The difference is that he’s not a hypocrite.
Paste: The public obviously thinks of the film as a classic today, but most people probably aren’t even aware that the initial box office was pretty poor. Did you find that very discouraging at the time?
Darabont: Oh heavens, yes. You can’t spend a year and a half of your life devoted to one thing, not have the audience show up, and not be discouraged by it. I was pretty upset.
Paste: Did you feel like that was some fault of your own?
Darabont: No, because I knew we had a really good movie. The test screenings had proven that with an empirical result—we had the kind of test scores that you dream of having. So I knew that viewers loved the film; the trouble was convincing them to give it a chance in the first place. A failure of marketing? Maybe. But it was probably a steep hill to climb to convince people that this prison movie, one that wasn’t obviously an action movie behind bars, wasn’t going to be a bummer. I really think people just assumed it was going to be a downer. It took a while for people to come around to the fact that it’s actually quite the opposite; it’s a very uplifting story.
Where it really began to turn around, and when discouragement became encouragement, was when we received the seven Oscar nominations. The Academy sort of galloped to our rescue—thankfully they were doing screeners by that point. That following year, Shawshank was the most rented movie of 1995.
Paste: How do you feel about its IMDb prominence? It’s been holding down that #1 spot for a long, long time. What’s it like to be told by the public that you directed the “#1 film of all time”?
Darabont: That is a very surreal thing for me. I look at that list and of course I see The Godfather, and Citizen Kane, and you can’t help but think “Is Shawshank really better than The Godfather?” I find that a little hard to believe. But it’s the audience that is the ultimate judge of these things. It’s tremendously gratifying.
Paste: You might say that the IMDb ranking ultimately is less “What is the greatest film of all time?” and more “What is the most universally liked film of all time?”
Darabont: Yes, I think that’s much more fair to say. “Best” is a difficult concept for me.
Paste: Were you aware that The Green Mile is #28 on the same IMDb ranking? Shawshank gets all the attention, but that’s also extremely high.
Darabont: Oh really! I was not aware of that at all, but that’s awesome. That’s great to hear; I’m very proud of that movie as well.
Paste: Is there anything else of Stephen King’s that you ever wanted to get your hands on for an adaptation?
Darabont: Well, he wrote a short novel once called The Long Walk, and I kind of had my hands on that for a few years, but when it came time to either throw down or get off the pot, I was so burned out after decades of working that I decided to let it go, hoping it would land in someone else’s hands who would do a good job with it. I just wasn’t up for it. I needed a few years off, which I’ve taken. I haven’t regretted that; it’s been a tremendous blessing.
So, I wish them well in making it, whoever’s doing that. I read the script for it, and it was a very faithful adaptation, so I hope it’s going to turn out great.
Paste: This is totally off topic, but before I let you go I wanted to say that the thing that made me happiest while doing research was seeing that you had the screenwriting credit for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. That’s a movie that a lot of horror geeks like myself love.
Darabont: Yeah! That was my very first professional credit. It’s the movie that got me into the writer’s guild. I remember Chuck Russell—he’s a very dear friend—he called me up saying he had the opportunity to do Nightmare 3. But they needed a pretty substantial rewrite, so we locked ourselves in a cabin and wrote like madmen for 11 days. Within a month he was on the set, shooting it. I think very well of Freddy Krueger; in fact I have this marvelous figure of him here in my office at home. Sometimes I look at him and go, “Gee, thanks pal.”
The Shawshank Redemption returns to theaters with three screenings from Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies on Sept. 22, 24 and 25. You can find local showtimes at the official site here.