Twenty-five years ago, The Shawshank Redemption finished as a first-run failure that seemed sentenced to obscurity. But then Frank Darabont’s stirring cellblock epic found an unlikely reprieve and followed an unexpected escape route that led to cinema glory.
Today, Shawshank is widely hailed as a classic. The Library of Congress has added the film to the National Registry, and it’s entrenched at No. 1 on IMDb’s ranking of its users’ favorite films of all time, topping The Godfather. That wasn’t the case, however, in the waning days of 1994, when the film finished 51st in the year-end box office results, an anemic showing that put it behind Richie Rich, Blank Check and A Low Down Dirty Shame.
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The Castle Rock Entertainment/Columbia Pictures release from first-time director Darabont had opened wide in mid-October with dismal numbers (it finished the weekend in ninth place despite 944 screens) and finished its original theatrical run the Monday after Thanksgiving. The final box office verdict was a grim one: $16 million, a good $9 million shy of its production budget.
The failure of Shawshank was blamed on the film’s timing (the indie sensation Pulp Fiction opened the same day in October), its ungainly title, its 142-minute running time, and its bleaker-than-bleak marketing materials.
The turnaround for the penitentiary epic arrived in early 1995 in the form of seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture and another for Darabont’s script about the unlikely friendship between two inmates in a Maine prison. Morgan Freeman was also nominated for best actor for his work opposite Tim Robbins.
The trophies went to Forrest Gump, but the nominations got the film back in theaters (it added another $12 million in box office). The film’s heavy rotation on cable television and its home video success then turned Shawshank into a second-life hit and, eventually, a cultural touchstone. The prison used in the filming has become a tourist destination with annual revenue of around $16 million — roughly the same as the movie’s total box office haul in its original release.
“It’s not the path that anyone would have expected,” Darabont says now. “It is unique.”
Deadline talked recently to Darabont about the curious path and burnished legacy of The Shawshank Redemption.
DEADLINE: With the celebration of the 25th anniversary of The Shawshank Redemption you revisited the movie, which got a re-release from Fathom Events and TCM Big Screen Classic. Was it the same movie you remember making?
FRANK DARABONT: It’s interesting seeing it at this point because it’s really so long ago now that, in a sense, it happened to somebody else. It feels like something from a different life or a different lifetime. So now I can watch the movie and just appreciate it as, I think as just an audience member now, and it’s not like every shot brings a rush of memories back, I actually have to dig for those memories if I’m so inclined. But every time I watch it I do think, “That’s a pretty good movie.” And I do have an appreciation for that, but at the same time it really doesn’t feel like my movie anymore. And, indeed, it’s not my movie, in truth it now belongs to everybody who likes it. It belongs to whoever has an open heart for it. It really belongs to the audience now.
DEADLINE: There’s a description of art perception as a triangle that’s always changing shape, with the three points of the triangle being the art, the artist, and the audience…
DARABONT: Yeah. I have to agree with that. That’s very smart.
DEADLINE: There aren’t many movies that shift in the public’s perception as dramatically as Shawshank, which was a box office disappointment in its original theatrical release but now is routinely ranked among cinema’s all-time favorites. Your interactions with fans must be intense…
DARABONT: I’m just exceptionally gratified by all of it. Grateful that the movie has hung in the way it has but also grateful for the fact that it keeps finding a new generation of viewers because the older generation wants to share it with their younger generations. It just kind of keeps hanging in there and that’s remarkably gratifying, you know? The fact that it’s still even noticed on IMDb is amazing, let alone the fact that it’s listed number one. It’s surreal to me. It’s mind-blowing. But it’s a testament to the power of a good story that speaks to people. It speaks those people who are willing to open their hearts to a story that wears its own heart on its sleeve. If those things line up, then you’ve got something that might stick around awhile. I would take a moment to shift the focus back to Stephen King for having having written this fantastic story in the first place, and how grateful am I that I was able to co-opt his story and turn it into this movie that everybody loves so much.
DEADLINE: The Shawshank Redemption marked your feature-film directorial debut, which makes the achievement of it all the more impressive. When you were first getting underway with production, what was the specific challenge or issue that had you most concerned?
DARABONT: Well, I think with Shawshank, I knew it was a very open-hearted story and something that was, you know, this fine line between honest sentiment and being overly sentimental. I knew that there was always that fine line and you don’t cross the line where it becomes corny sentiment. Certainly, having Tim and Morgan as my key actors, helped because they always played things so honestly. But, yeah, there are little moments where you think, “Ooh, if I take this beat a little too far, it’s going to be cringy.” And certainly, for some people, it’s already that. Some people don’t really care for anything that wants to try to honestly elicit your emotional response. To some people that’s just not savvy on the face of it. But, for most people, if you get that balance right, then there’s gratitude on the part of an audience. I feel that, too, when a filmmaker does that for me. It’s like, “Oh, you really make me care about what’s going on and care about these people.” I just didn’t want to cross that line. I really think that was probably the key thing in my thinking going in. I wanted it delivered honestly, you know? Deliver a story with honest sentiment in it without it becoming overly sentimental. I didn’t want it to turn into a Hallmark Card version of a prison movie.
DEADLINE: Tone is the trickiest thing in many ways.
DARABONT: Yes. So, I think it was that. I think it was tone more than anything, and of course, you know, those moments you hunt them down in the editing room, as well. Working with Richard Francis-Bruce was such a gift. A brilliant editor and a great partner in the editing room as well. We were very conscience of that. I wouldn’t say worried, I would say we were just aware that there’s that fine line that we don’t want to cross. If we got too close to that line we would try to side-step and do a little dance around it.
DEADLINE: It’s not easy making an earnest film in an ironic age. Some people are going to have the knives out for you no matter what…
DARABONT: Yeah, absolutely, and they tend to be big-city critics. I’m not mentioning any names, but you know, it’s funny how Shawshank was — in our hometown, in L.A. — was not perceived as being a particularly well-reviewed movie. That’s because the only four reviews that anybody ever read were from L.A. and New York sources. For us, between L.A. and New York, we got just hundreds of wonderful, glowing reviews. That’s why we focused on all of that in the Academy campaign when we were running the “For your consideration ads.” The idea was, “Let’s put as many of these review quotes as we can to counteract that narrow L.A. and New York perception.”
DEADLINE: There are so many memorable performances in the film. Can you talk about one that you find yourself appreciating even more as you look back on it from today?
DARABONT: Well, the thing that strikes me — and this is kind of tying back to your earlier question about viewing of the movie now — the one thing that strikes me when I revisit the film is just how great, and how subtle, and how pitch-perfect the work of Tim Robbins is throughout the movie. I mean, it’s really Red’s movie, so it’s Morgan Freeman who is interacting with the audience at all times while Andy remains a bit of an enigma. His emotional journey through the thing had to be very, very subtle and right on the money to work. And Tim really delivers. I’m struck by it again and again because you think of Shawshank and Morgan is the person that you think about. “Wow, how great is Morgan Freeman?” And he is great, but it’s easy to maybe overlook Tim and just how, again, pitch-perfect his work is in this movie. He’s just so damn good. I think it’s his career-best performance. That’s just my opinion. The more I revisit the film the more I find that I’m really focusing on him and noticing the work he’s doing there.
DEADLINE: You shot the film in Ohio over the span of three months: June, July and August of 1993. Is there a snapshot memory you can share that conveys something about the personality or energy of the shoot?
DARABONT: The most revisited day of filming for me was the simplest day of directing, which was having Tim and Morgan sitting in the shadow of the prison against the wall and they’re talking about Mexico. It’s just this five- or six-minute dialogue sequence between these two friends. It was just such a pleasure to shoot that. I think we did three takes and then we were done. These guys just delivered the movie in that scene. There was nothing complicated about those set-ups. You pointed the camera and let the actors do what they do. I remember sitting on my apple box and just, you know, letting that moment wash over me because both of them were just so damn good. I sat there and I thought, “OK, I think we have the movie.” This is the key scene of the film, really, where all the truth is out between them. It’s just the honesty and the friendship that’s flowing between them, except Andy’s got a little secret. He’s got this hole in the wall of the cell and he’s going to take off. But as far as the emotional level of the communication, it’s just a very honest and very beautiful scene. I’m so proud of both those guys.
DEADLINE: Why are there so many great prison films? It’s a long list: Cool Hand Luke, Escape from Alcatraz, The Longest Yard, Papillon, Dead Man Walking, and, if you count wartime prison camps, there’s The Great Escape and Stalag 17… and you yourself went back to Stephen King’s cellblock to direct The Green Mile. And that’s just off the top of my head…
DARABONT: At the top of the list, don’t forget John Frankenheimer and his Birdman of Alcatraz. Oh my gosh, he was such a very gifted director. He was quite an inspiration to me the Shawshank project. And not just conceptually, either, he was also directly inspirational. When we were scouting prisons to use, we were down to really two choices. I kind of knew in my heart of hearts that the Ohio State Reformatory was going to wind up being the one — I just really had a feeling about that — but, for due diligence, we decided to also go down to Nashville because there was a big prison there as well and we wanted to check out. And, as an aside, some years later I wound up using the Nashville facility for all the exteriors in The Green Mile. But back on that first visit, we were there and touring this very old, inactive prison and walking across the prison yard when I look over and I see what looks like another scouting crew…
DEADLINE: What gave them away?
DARABONT: It was obvious because the group was following this one guy like baby ducks trailing their mother. That’s what a scouting crew always looks like! Anyway, I look over and see the guy leading the way and I thought to myself: “Gee, that guy looks an awful lot like John Frankenheimer.” He looked over and saw me, and I thought: “Oh my God, that is John Frankenheimer!” He totally stopped and changed gears and came in my direction. He came striding up with this big smile on his face and shook my hand and said, “Hey, I’m John Frankenheimer.” And I said, “Yes I know! And what a crazy thing to meet you here.”
DEADLINE: That’s amazing. What was he scouting?
DARABONT: Beyond amazing! He was so kind and so encouraging. He was scouting for Against the Wall, that HBO movie he did about Attica, and he actually wound up shooting it right there at that Nashville prison while we were up in Ohio shooting Shawshank. He was really warm and asked me, you know, who are you and what’s your project and can you tell me about yourself, etc.. I couldn’t believe it. I told him, well, this is the first movie that I’m directing, and you know, it’s this prison thing, etc. I’ll never forget how encouraging and kind he was and how much it meant to me. It was one of those surreal moments in life because, I mean, let’s face it, Birdman at Alcatraz is in the very DNA of Shawshank. It was definitely an inspiration for what I was doing, and for him to be there and to walk up to me with such a big heart and a big spirit, and for him to take 15 minutes out of his schedule to encourage a young filmmaker prepping his first movie? It impressed me so much at the time and it continues to impress me. He was a real mensch.
DEADLINE: It’s a cosmic-level coincidence. Especially when you stop and think about all of the dots that can be connected between Birdman of Alacatraz and The Shawshank Redemption.
DARABONT: Oh, yeah. Absolutely! The character of Brooks, the James Whitmore character in Shawshank, is really a bit of a, it’s a branch philosophy off the tree of Birdman of Alcatraz. Obviously he’s got the crow that he’s nursing along and raising, etcetera, and that’s got to have come, I’ve never asked Stephen where that idea came from, but I’m sure that somewhere in his subconscious Frankenheimer’s film is lurking because it just seems like such a direct connection doesn’t it?
DEADLINE: With your interest in the genre, you must have talked to Morgan Freeman about Brubaker.
DARABONT: Oh, gosh yes! Right when I first met him, in fact, I said, “I love Brubaker, it’s such a great movie.” He has a very small but also very memorable role in that. I remember complimenting him on that. I think he was impressed that I knew the movie, but it’s definitely one of my favorites of that genre. That’s definitely way high up there for me.
DEADLINE: And, if I’m not mistaken, I think Brubaker might have been his first movie? Of course it was preceded by his stint on The Electric Company, which was very meaningful for me as a child. He played Easy Reader, which I only later realized was probably a name inspired by Easy Rider.
DARABONT: Yeah, Brubaker was actually his first film, that’s right. And you sound like Tim Robbins with The Electric Company [reference]. That’s what Tim kept saying on the set. For him, working with Morgan was a big deal and it was all about The Electric Company. Morgan obviously made a huge impression on a certain generation by doing that because people bring that up to him all the time. Some things just stick with people. And, you know, I’m proud to say Shawshank looks like one of those things.