Frank Darabont: A Man of Convictions

Frank Darabont, whose last film, the prison saga The Shawshank Redemption, became a time-release hit with the masses, goes behind bars again, this time with Tom Hanks for The Green Mile.


Some movies take their sweet time ripening into classics. Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, It's a Wonderful Life and Vertigo were all rescued by audiences and critics from relative obscurity decades after their disappointing theatrical releases. The Shawshank Redemption, released in 1994, was only a modest box-office success at theaters. But with the help of seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, and a grassroots groundswell of word of mouth, the film achieved an astounding reincarnation as a mighty video rental. In fact, it amassed such enormous movie-buff popularity that on the Internet Movie Database, a definitive online resource for film information, its ranked as one of the greatest American movies ever made.

Frank Darabont, the man who adapted Shawshank from Stephen King's novella and directed the movie, is currently giving a final spit and polish to his follow-up, The Green Mile, another prison-set parable he adapted from a Stephen King story. The film, set in the '30s, details the extraordinary relationship between a Louisiana prison warden (played by Tom Hanks) and a black inmate (Michael Duncan) blessed with healing powers who is on death row for the killing of two little girls. The movie has generated the sort of Oscar buzz most moviemakers can only dream about.

You pretty much expect someone who's managed this sort of success in Hollywood to swim with the Industry's shark-infested tide. Even if he started out a guppy, he'd have to develop into a great white. But Frank Darabont, though no guppy, hardly displays the killer instinct so prevalent in Hollywood. He rose up through the ranks in the early '80s as a production assistant on Hell Night and as a set dresser for Ken Russell on Crimes of Passion. He earned his first screenwriting credit on A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and later received a Writers Guild of America Award nomination for an episode of HBO's Tales From the Crypt called "The Ventriloquist's Dummy," after which he wrote episodes for ABC's The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

Having developed a reputation for writing finesse, Darabont contacted Stephen King about the possibility of adapting the suspense maestro's novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. King graciously agreed, giving the rights for a pittance. When Darabont showed the finished screenplay to Castle Rock Entertainment and told them he wanted to direct, they offered him $2.4 million for it--so long as he didn't direct it. Darabont exchanged the high fee for the directing gig, taking far less than $2.4 million. While Darabont clearly has no trouble standing up against the powers that be, the kind of hardball savvy he displays when he needs to doesn't spill into his everyday dealings with people. Actors and coworkers unabashedly adore him. Virtually everyone in Hollywood wants to work with him. Hell, even the guard at the studio gate, when I tell him I'm there to see Frank Darabont, says, "Have a great time. He's a terrific, really regular guy."

STEPHEN REBELLO: How do you account for the extraordinary outpouring of admiration The Shawshank Redemption keeps generating years after its release?

FRANK DARABONT: The movie speaks to people on a level you don't get enough of in movies anymore. It says something positive about human nature. People seem to use the movie to help them get through bad patches in their lives. I think that's why Titanic, aside from its value as an incredible spectacle, was so popular. Field of Dreams, which is a magical piece of filmmaking, comes from a similar spiritual place. In an increasingly nihilistic world, with movies that are increasingly nihilistic, these films give people something to believe in.

Q: Whose love for the movie has most surprised you?

A: Ladies are always telling me how much the film moves them, and I think that has to do with the fact that it's about friendship, about relationships. They find it as fascinating as if the characters were female. Housewives having a really bad time in their marriages or going through a difficult divorce write letters saying things like, "It was your movie that allowed me to swim through that river of shit I was in." That's lovely. The most moving response came from a Newsweek article written by a man named Jeff Kaufman, who, in an essay about his medical condition, ALS--Lou Gehrig's disease--talked about the movie as a metaphor for being imprisoned inside his own body, and said it renewed his sense of hope to continue on despite difficult circumstances. Mind you, he can't speak or type anymore, so this essay was written with his knees, which he pressed together to manipulate a computer. Steve King called me on my car phone as I was riding home from a meeting and brought Jeff's column to my attention. I was blown away by it. As a result of that, I've become involved in helping with a yearly ALS fund-raiser.

Q: How does it feel knowing that, despite good reviews and all those Oscar nominations, Shawshank never found a big audience among ticket buyers?

A: Ironic. Strange. We scored 96 with test audiences, meaning a huge majority of people who were shown the movie rated it "Good" to "Excellent." Do you know how rare that is? Most people who score in the 80s are ecstatic. We still couldn't talk people into coming to the movie when it was released. We knew we had a hard sell, but, jeez, with those numbers, you'd have thought we'd have had better luck with it. It was frustrating. Certain critics jumped on its having a "weird" title, but that didn't have as much to do with it as the fact that it was a prison movie that wasn't some kick-boxing action flick. The audience figured, "It's got Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins and prison--it's going to depress us." Also, we chose a limited release, which sounded like a good idea even to me, but then most of the audience that would have turned out opening weekend because of the great reviews couldn't find it in a theater near them.

Q: You were a theater usher as a kid. Can you see from that viewpoint what hurt Shawshank?

A: I remember that there were a lot of phonetically challenged people, who if they couldn't pronounce the title, were very intimidated about asking for a ticket. That may have played a role, sure.

Q: People seem to have a tough time with your name, too.

A: [Laughs] I've gotten everything from Duradont to Garibaldi. I used to look forward to going to meetings and finding out at the guard gate what the hell they'd done with my name.

Q: As an usher who could watch movies over and over, did you see any movies that changed your life?

A: I had some seminal experiences, definitely. One of the most formative was watching THX 1138, the first film George Lucas directed--and a terribly underrated one. It made me consciously realize that there was a storyteller at work, someone whose mind, heart and world view were imprinted on every frame. I remember thinking, at 12 years old, that if I could walk up to the screen and stick my head magically through it, into the world of that film, I could see who that guy actually was.

Q: Are you aware that thousands of movie fans surveyed on the Internet Movie Database rated Shawshank higher than films like Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia?

A: That is so great. [Laughs] A pat on the back from the very people you want to please most--the audience. When I was making the movie, I was just operating from the gut and hoping that what pleased me would do the same for others.

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