The year was 1994. Tom Hanks was fighting in Vietnam and running across the country on a fantastical odyssey
through American history. Quentin Tarantino was redefining storytelling with his darkly comic ode to hardboiled crime films. And Frank
Darabont, an unknown director of television movies and a writer of horror
sequels, was making his feature film debut with a prison movie based on an
obscure novella by Stephen King, the literary horror master who wasn’t exactly well known for his dramatic fare. While “Forrest Gump,” “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption” have all since become legendary staples of American cinema, it was only “Shawshank” that went home empty handed at the 67th Academy Awards despite seven nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay.
20 years later, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences finally gave “The Shawshank Redemption” its proper due with a star-studded anniversary screening and a lively discussion featuring moderator and bestselling author Max Brooks (“World War Z”), director Darabont and stars Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins. To say these three were full of gratitude over the film’s beloved legacy would be a massive understatement. Sporting big smiles and even bigger hearts, the three were clearly still in awe over the film’s never-ending cinematic appreciation. “It’s a feeling that just sneaks up on you,” said Darabont on realizing just how much the film has affected people over the years. “I still can’t believe it.”
Released on September 23, 1994 and adapted from King’s short story “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” from his novel “Different Seasons,” the drama was initially a box office disappointment, barely making back its $25 million production cost with a lifetime domestic gross of $28 million. Critical feedback, on the other hand, was unanimously positive for the most part. As Academy Governor Jeffrey Kurland noted before the discussion, Variety called “Shawshank” a “testament to the human spirit and haunting entertainment,” while the late Gene Siskel raved, “the movie is simply marvelous.”
“I can’t think of a movie that has more successfully bridged the gender gap,” said Brooks during his introduction to the evening. “My wife and I can’t watch the same movie. I
like movies about giant ants that come out of the swamp that you have to hit
with a flame thrower. My wife likes wonderful Czech movies about bookstores. And yet we can both sit down and watch ‘Shawshank’ together and
it never gets old.”
Brooks’ words were directly reflected by the sold-out crowd, which was made up of equal parts adults and teenagers, parents and children, and diehard fans and first time viewers. Crew members such as composer Thomas Newman, production designer Terence Marsh, Castle Rock Entertainment founder Martin Shafer and supporting cast members like Clancy Brown (the sadistic Capt. Byron Hadley), Gil Bellows (Tommy Williams), and Mark Rolston (Boggs Diamond, prison rapist and leader of “The Sisters”) were also in attendance, among many others.
So what is it about “Shawshank” that makes it such a widely accessible story? All three agree the film’s success is attributed entirely to Stephen King. “People laugh and cry
and are heartbroken in every culture. You
write a timeless story like Stephen did and it’s not an application of nationality or culture. It’s for everyone,” expressed Darabont. The director originally made a name for himself as a horror screenwriter (“Nightmare On Elm Street 3,” “The Blob”), and although he wanted an adaptation of King’s “The Mist” to be his feature film debut, the prospect of being typecast as a horror filmmaker took him in the opposite direction. “I never wanted to compete with the George A.
Romeros, or the Wes Cravens or the David Cronenbergs. Those guys were
remarkable at what they did. I thought I would try to go for something that was
a little off the track and go back to the ‘The Mist’ later if ‘Shawshank’ worked out,” Darabont confessed. As fans of the director know, he would finally get to tackle “The Mist” in 2007, years after “Shawshank” solidified his place as a dramatic director just as he had intended.
While Darabont was a first time filmmaker with nothing to lose, stars Freeman and Robbins were already well-respected actors with the next phase of their careers riding on the success or failure of “Shawshank.” Robbins, cast as the unjustly convicted everyman Andy Dufresne, was coming off hits “Bull Durham” and Robert Altman’s “The Player,” in which he took on the surprising role of a psychopathic studio director. Darabont’s script was the definitive selling point for Robbins and calmed all nerves he may have had about taking on the lead character. “Frank wrote a
beautiful, truly extraordinary script,” said an appreciative Robbins. “I suggest anyone who is trying to write screenplays to read that script. It’s so beautifully constructed.” Freeman adamantly nodded in agreement.
Freeman, on the other hand, was already an Oscar-nominee for his work as viscous pimp Fast Black in “Street Smart” and congenial chauffeur Hoke Colburn in “Driving Miss Daisy.” Looking for an emotionally rich part after the blockbuster success of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” Freeman came into contact with Darabont’s script and instantly knew he would join the film despite not having a clue about which part he was being asked to play. “Nobody told me which character to read for! But after I read the script, I called my agent and I said, ‘Whatever.’ It didn’t really matter to me which part,” the Oscar-winner revealed to a stunned audience. “But then my agent told me they wanted me to play Red,” Freeman added with a confident giggle, “and what I did know after finding that out was
that I was going to own it.”
While clearly in debt to his mega-talented cast, Darabont also expressed a warm appreciation for production company Castle Rock Entertainment. In an age where development currently means taking your script to hundreds of executives who want to make changes from top to bottom, Darabont could not have been more grateful for Castle Rock since they “created this wonderful, almost mythical place where a filmmaker could go and get his or her movie made with limited amounts of grief and fighting.” Darabont even revealed how helpful Castle Rock was in shaping the end of the film.
“The movie ended in my original script with Red
on the bus going off to this uncertain and hopeful future, which is how the
novella ends,” he revealed. “But the folks at Castle Rock thought after putting the audience through 2+ hours of
hell, we might owe them a union at the end.” Castle Rock asked Darabont if he would consider shooting a reunion finale to complete the catharsis of the film’s joinery, so fans can thank the production company for one of the most heartfelt final scenes in movie history.
As for the actual shoot, the three recalled the extreme heat and humidity on their Ohio-set production. “I remember thinking my brains were leaking out
of my ears,” said Darabont. But while weather related troubles such as tornados and hail plagued the production, for Robbins it was cow poop that proved most unforgettable. The actor, who prepared for the role by studying caged zoo animals and by spending time in solitary confinement, cited the famous prison escape scene as the single hardest day of shooting. “We were shooting in cow country you see. It wasn’t actually human shit I fell in, it was cow shit. It was
pretty toxic, but I had a nice shower,” Robbins explained to audience howls.
One thing that wasn’t challenging for the actors was getting in character and creating natural chemistry. “We did talk to prisoners and guards, but imagination ended up being key,” Robbins explained. “You have to imagine whatever
you experience at 300x worse to be in for such a long time and what that does
to your spirit and what you end up having to hold on to.” The actors had a two week on-set rehearsal period prior to filming, which Darabont credits as helping to build the easy chemistry among the cast. “These guys had already developed a friendship and an effortless chemistry by the time we had started shooting,” admitted Darabont. “I was always on the outside
of that, and I was content to be, because the bonding really had to happen
within the cast. I just needed to
let that happen and to be smart enough to point the camera at them. A smart director gets out of the way of that
and keeps the train going.”
Robbins appreciated Darabont’s trustful direction on set, stating, “The spirit of creative work is that you’re on
the same team. You need to trust each other. If someone hits a triple, you have
to get them in. Even if it’s a ground out, you need to get them in. Over the course of
the filming, we knew the script was getting shot and we knew that we were
bringing a life to these characters in a way that was contributing to something
that was making Frank’s script elevate off the page.”
When it came time for post-production, Darabont put his trust in audience test screenings to see what was working and what wasn’t. “The most constructive night of your life is the
test screening. Test screenings are awful and miserable, but they will always
teach you something about your movie that you really need to know,” claimed the director. As revealed by Darabont and Freeman, the initial test screening of “Shawshank” resulted in one particularly difficult decision: removing a scene with Freeman’s character having a nervous breakdown in the middle of a market.
The idea was for Freeman to have a massive panic attack as a parolee, but this kind of post-prison emotional destruction had already been presented in the film thanks to James Whitmore’s integral role as Brooks. “We had already laid that groundwork with James,” Darabont explained, “so what I ended up seeing at the test screening was how this five minute scene was really making the audience impatient because they already knew this, and all they wanted after Red got paroled was to see him go to the tree so the film could reveal was was buried there.” The first thing Darabont and Oscar-nominated editor Richard Francis-Bruce did after the test screening was delete the scene. “The test screening showed us what was and what wasn’t getting in the way,” the director summarized.
And while the box office numbers weren’t anything to brag about upon the film’s theatrical release, the enthusiastic response that would continue to grow for decades certainly was. Freeman remembered the film’s inclusion on the United Kingdom’s 10 Best Films of All Time list to be particularly overwhelming. Robbins added how another towering moment was meeting a national leader like Nelson Mandela and hearing how much of a huge fan of the movie he was, to which Brooks joked that it actually could’ve been Freeman in disguise.
All three even shared similar experiences of receiving uplifting fan mail from over the years. “I really cling to the letters from people for whom the movie really meant something. It
stopped somebody from committing suicide, or at least they credit it for it having saved their lives that day,” said a blown away Darabont. “Whatever someone needed to hear that day
to reinforce them as a human being, the movie gave it to them. It’s only then you realize you’ve made something more than just a two-hour movie.”
Reaction wasn’t entirely positive, however, and Darabont recalled reading a scathing review from The Los Angeles Times to be particularly upsetting considering it was his hometown paper. The director also credited the internet age for bringing more harsh reviews to his attention than ever before, claiming “All you have to do is go online and you’ll see all the hate
mail. The internet is a clearing house for the
mentally ill.” And while Darabont was a bit concerned his words here would be taken out of context, it’s hard to disagree with the director after he revealed some viewers go as far to tell him, “I hope you commit a violent crime and get sent to prison
so you never make another movie again.”
Freeman also spoke about being somewhat upset over the film’s lackluster initial reception. In the discussion’s most hilarious moment, the Oscar-winner remembered how many people couldn’t even say the name of the film when it was released, prompting both actors to go on a mini-rant of butchered “Shawshank” titles. Some of the best mispronunciations included “The Scrimshaw Reduction,” “The Hudsucker Reduction,” “The Himshank Redemption,” “The Shimshawnk Redemption” and other titles that were merely garbles of syllables.
Although people may have had trouble with the film’s title in 1994, you would be hard pressed to find anybody these days who not only is unfamiliar with Darabont’s classic, but who also has never seen it. “Shawshank” is more than just beloved, it is fully integrated into the consciousness of American cinema. Unsurprisingly, the anniversary screening played like gangbusters to the packed crowd. Deakins’ introspective cinematography was haunting and mesmerizing as presented on 35mm film, and nearly all of the drama’s most iconic moments, from Brooks’ suicide to the introduction of the Rita Hayworth poster to the climactic tunnel escape, were met with an overwhelming emotional response. Seeing “Shawshank” in this setting proved why the classics are exactly that: they force the audience into becoming a community of believers. What an unforgettable experience that was to see that power of “Shawshank” firsthand.
Happy 20th “Shawshank”, here’s to the next two decades and beyond!