Phil on Film Index

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Commentary Tracks - The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) with director/writer Frank Darabont

Comments on the Film

On the title
I've been asked on occasion why there was a title change. This is based on a Stephen King story called Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, and obviously the movie was renamed The Shawshank Redemption. We wound up dropping the Rita Hayworth bit because we discovered as we were prepping the movie that there was a certain amount of confusion sewing in people's minds. There was the impression that we were preparing to do a Rita Hayworth biopic. In fact, we started getting resumés from a lot of different people to play the role of Rita Hayworth, including one from a very amusing and very tall transvestite...I can't quite remember her/his name but he was desperate to come in and audition for that role. I remember another amusing sideline to this whole thing, which is that we got a phone call from the agent representing a supermodel who at that time was trying to break into acting. This agent swore up and down it was the best script she had ever read, she felt her client would be perfect darling to play the role of Rita Hayworth. That told us how carefully that agent had read the script, and how much hot air floats around Hollywood from time to time.

On Stephen King
When I was in high school I got a book from the book club once, purely by accident. I opened up the box and realised I had forgotten to send the card back. The book that I pulled out was something called The Shining by some guy named Stephen King. I remember thinking that I had to send the book back because I couldn't afford it, and as I crossed the room to stick it back in the box I idly opened the pages and the paragraph my eyes landed on was when the dead woman stands up in the tub. I froze and decided I wasn't going to send it back, I'd just have to find the money to pay for it. From that point I have been a lifelong reader of Steve King, I've been a huge fan, and this story is one of the stories from his book Different Seasons. From the moment I read it I had the ambition to try and make it as a film, it seemed like such a natural and great story to tell on film. When I was in my early 20s I got the rights from Stephen, out of his kindness, to do a short film called The Woman in the Room, so by the time I approached him for the rights to The Shawshank Redemption he was very amenable. He has always been very helpful and I feel I owe him my directing career. Once I had the spec. script written I took it to Castle Rock, and the reason I took it to them was because of Rob Reiner. I had been so taken with the work he had done in adapting another Stephen King story called The Body into this excellent movie called Stand by Me, and that movie is the source of Castle Rock's initial success and the reason the company came about. I thought that if anybody in town would get this movie and understand the delicacy of this material, it would have to be Castle Rock, because a lot of studios wouldn't have gotten this. Very happily, Castle Rock were extraordinarily supportive, and when people ask if I'm ever going to put out a director's cut I tell them I already did. Contractually I owed them a movie that was two hours long and after that I'd lose control of the cut. Well, this movie is two hours twenty-two minutes and frankly Castle Rock didn't care.

On production design
One tiny little secret disappointment. We got nominated for seven Academy Awards for this and I was just a tiny bit disappointed that Terence Marsh didn't get recognised. I think most people just assumed that we walked into an empty prison and that's exactly what it looked like, but it's not the case. They did an amazing amount of work and created the illusion so well that people just took it for granted. This, for example, is our big hero set and it was not in the prison, it had nothing to do with the prison. This was in a warehouse about half a mile from the prison which had a high enough ceiling, and Terry and his crew built this set from the floor up. It's a four-tier, 200-cell block and every little scrap of it is fabricated, every frayed cord, the years of chipping paint on the walls, it's all created by them. This shot shows off the set to very good advantage. Look what these guys built, it blows my mind. Look at the detail, the fact that every door was tied into an air pressure system so we could open or close 200 doors at once. If I walked you into this set blindfolded you would think you're on a real cell block, it was that convincing to the eye.

On collaboration
I think it's just as important for a director to be able to recognise a good idea when it is suggested as it is to have a good idea himself. It's very important for directors to keep their ears open and their minds open to the suggestions of those around them. When I was crewing I saw a lot of directors who seemed a little reluctant to do that and I thought it was much to their own detriment. I think it stems from a certain insecurity. I am not at all shy about saying "Wow, what a great idea. We're using that" and I'm also not shy about saying, "Gosh, I'm at a bit of a loss here. I'm not the be-all and end-all expert." The creative process is one of using your instincts day-to-day and moment-by-moment, and you can't have all the answers predetermined.

On using voiceover
Coming up here I think we have a really fantastic example, probably the best example, of the technical use of voiceover narration in the movie. I don't know how other people have done it and I don't know that I've particularly invented this, I'm sure somebody else did it, but watch this shot here. What we have here is voiceover narration that is matching the duration of the shot perfectly. There's even going to be a gap in the narration when Clancy walks in and has a line of dialogue, then the narration picks up again, and at the end of the narration Morgan Freeman is going to glance off at Tim Robbins. The reason this worked is that we pre-recorded every line of voiceover narration in the entire movie before we started shooting, and I would play back these bits of narration while we were shooting, almost like playing back music in a music video. So much of what we were shooting had to be designed specifically to be in time with the voiceover, I couldn't have a shot that was longer or shorter than we needed. I knew I had taken a chance with all this narration in the movie because it was popular at that time to slam films with narration. I don't think narration in itself is a bad thing, it's pointless narration that sucks. For example, Blade Runner is one of my all-time favourite movies but boy did it not need that narration and boy am I glad they eventually eliminated it. But when narration winds up being a legitimate tool for storytelling, then why not? It was Goodfellas that taught me that. When I was writing the script I thought I was really screwing it up by telling rather than showing, so I froze halfway through and felt pretty insecure about it. I turned on cable and, as if it was a sign from above, they were playing Goodfellas, which I hadn't seen in about a year. Watching Goodfellas again really gave me the confidence to press on because that's nothing but wall-to-wall voiceover narration and the brilliantly executed passage of time with years passing in a few shots. It was really nice to see that and sometimes drawing inspiration from unexpected places can help you get through a script.

On working with animals
Here's an odd anecdote. This was a waxworm my prop guys purchased a local bait store. We had the ASPCA lady come on this day because we had that little baby crow in Jim Whitmore's vest pocket, and I figured they were there to make sure nobody mistreated the baby crow, right? No. This woman was also there to protect the rights of the "maggot" in the scene, and was insistent that we do not feed a live maggot to the baby crow. I was trying to reason with this lady by pointing out that it was from a bait shop and anyone in the country could walk in, buy a box of worms, ram a hook through them and drop them in a river to be eaten by bass, but for some reason a filmmaker with $100,000+ a day pouring out the door is not allowed to feed a live waxworm to a baby crow? I laud the ASPCA because there were a lot of filmmaking abuses back in the day, when filmmakers used to trip horses with wires and do a lot of very cruel things, and the ASPCA has put a stop to that. However, when you can't kill bait because of the bureaucracy I think it has gotten a little bit silly. It had to be a dead worm and it had to have died of natural causes, according to her. I said, "Do we have the autopsy to determine cause of death? Can we be sure there was no foul play?" I'll get off my soapbox now because it was supposed to be a funny anecdote but I find myself being annoyed by it because I just couldn't reason with this woman.

On writing
I wrote the script for The Shawshank Redemption in eight weeks. It's certainly a script I had thought about for a number of years, and I had gotten the rights from Stephen King some years prior to that, but the actual process took eight weeks. I tend to write very intensively, I tend to spend 10-12 hours a day at the computer when I'm really going at it and I am willing to be a prisoner of the process and not leave the house. I remember going three days straight with a lot of coffee and a few naps on one deadline. Not necessarily the most mentally healthy way to go about it but it's certainly the way that works for me. It's very much an all or nothing, I was never one of these writers who could go out for lunch or play tennis and then come home to write a few more pages. It's a complete commitment. I had the same situation on The Green Mile, which was also an eight-week job from beginning to end after an intense writing experience.

On the death of Tommy
One of the interesting differences between the movie and the original material is this aspect of the Tommy plot. In Steve's story, the warden basically has the kid transferred out to a minimum security facility in exchange for his silence, which didn't strike me as that satisfying, at least for the purposes of the movie, because you really want to turn this warden character into an absolutely reprehensible villain, and this was my opportunity to do that. My solution was to sucker the kid in and kill him, this is the warden's way of plugging the holes he wants to plug. I think what it did was to turn up the heat on the narrative, it made the villain a more despicable villain, it made Tommy as a character more of a sacrificial lamb, and the net result is that Andy's revenge is all the more satisfying to a movie audience.

On Thomas Newman's score
You'll notice at a certain point the music cue that Tom Newman wrote comes in, but it comes in incredibly subtly. When we were doing the sound mix on the movie I said, "Guys, don't bring it in so we even notice it. Sneak it in there so softly that by the time we realise there's music it has been playing for 20 seconds." The last thing you want to do with a music cue is hammer the audience over the head with it. If they're aware that the music is starting they're aware that the storyteller is saying, "OK, you're supposed to be feeling something now," and that's when the audience pulls away. If they feel like they're being manipulated and sense the strings being pulled I think they resent it, but if you pull the strings skilfully then they appreciate the manipulation. Everybody enjoys being affected by a story, and this was a great example of it. I always want to enhance the emotions and bring out the emotions as much as possible, hopefully without being ham-fisted about it, so there was a great deal of collaboration between Tom and me about what any given music cue was trying to do. Even on a technical level, he's such a skilled composer I could tell him an emotion, or tell him what the scene is trying to accomplish, and he would come to the table with something that would answer that need. It's wonderful to have a collaborator who can talk in story terms, acting terms and theme terms, rather than just how many cymbals you need on the day.

On the film's reception
When the movie was first released back in 1994 it was not a tremendous success, in fact on our budget of $28m we had grossed $28m domestically, and that was even with seven Academy Award nominations. For some reason we just couldn't get people to come to the theatre when this thing was first released. I think the general perception might have been that it was just a depressing downer movie. I suppose folks started checking it out on video and we wound up being the most rented video of 1995. Folks started opening their hearts to the film and really finding things in it to love, and it has had a very slow but profound build over the years. People have discovered it and embraced it in a way that I find very satisfying and very moving, and I'm very grateful for. It's amazing to me, the effect the film has had on some people. Some people have taken this as a metaphor for their own lives, however it applies. It's almost like a Rorschach test, this movie, and people kind of project their own trials and tribulations into it and then draw strength from it. I've had letters from people who have gotten through illnesses or the breakup of their marriage or losing their jobs, just the bad stuff that happens to us in life and makes us feel like we're imprisoned. I've gotten letters from some of these folks who say, 'Your movie gave me hope, your movie helped me get through a bad patch and move on,' and wow, what an amazing result that is for having made a film. I take great personal satisfaction from it and I'm very grateful.

Bits and Pieces

The mugshot you saw on that parole form is actually Alfonso Freeman, Morgan's son. He looks so much like Morgan as a young man I had a picture taken of him to use as a prop.

I had directed a movie prior to this. It was a cable movie for the USA Network titled Buried Alive. It was a 20-day shoot, $2.5m budget, and I viewed that as a way to get my feet wet, to prepare me for directing Shawshank. I wanted to have the experience of having done it once before showing up here and trying to create a cohesive film. I didn't want to go into it inexperienced.

James Whitmore! What an awesome experience it was working with him. I had been such a fan of his as a child, since I saw fighting giant ants in Them! For me he's just an absolute icon. He also did one of my favourite Twilight Zone episodes, a rare hour-episode called Thursday We Leave for Home, in which he absolutely broke my heart, and it breaks my heart every time I see it. The fact that he came and did this movie was a little geek moment for me, and by the way I did have him sign my poster of Them!

The original story that Steve King wrote had them watching The Lost Weekend in the prison theatre and at some point we realised how expensive The Lost Weekend would be. My producer suggested that we look at the movies that our studio had, because The Lost Weekend was some other studio and we'd have to pay through the nose for it. The list came back and there were some Rita Hayworth movies on it, including Gilda, which is where this idea came from. It seems like such the right creative choice, but again it's one of those things you arrive at because of practical necessity. If you have a movie based on Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption and it's all about the Rita Hayworth poster on the wall, the clip you show damn well ought to be a Rita Hayworth movie, don't you think?

Another view of Terry Marsh's amazing set. By the way, Terry won the Academy Award for Production Design on Doctor Zhivago and won another for Oliver! When I interviewed Terry the first job on his resumé was art director on Lawrence of Arabia, and I thought, "Why does this guy want to work with a young knucklehead making his first movie?" But what a consummate pro, what a friend and ally he is. Another gentleman I learned a lot from.

This prison was in the flight path of a National Guard airbase so we were always having trouble with planes going overhead. Sometimes they were doing manoeuvres and circling the area, which is terrible for sound as you can imagine. That was a bit of a disadvantage, although there's one moment here that worked in to be part of the scene. Tim is talking about being outside the prison walls and being down in Mexico, and as this plane went overhead he worked it into the scene. Another bit of technical inspiration from an actor who's really willing to go with the flow of what's happening.

This reminds me of something Morgan said to me, that one of the skills an actor needs is to learn to eat appropriately on screen because you never know how many takes you'll have to do. It's important to not be shovelling it down every take because you might have to do it twenty times, and the illusion of eating is more important than the fact that you're eating. It's not an aspect of acting I'd ever really considered before.

Steve King's criticism of the movie when he first saw it, he gave me crap about this tunnel. He said it was too round and too much like a Wile E. Coyote tunnel. I have had some people ask, "Well, if you crawl down the tunnel head-first how do you stick the poster back up on the wall?" and I always say, "It's a movie cheat! Live with it!"

Final Thoughts

The credit In Memory of Allen Greene, I've had a lot of people ask me about that through the years. Allen Greene was my very first agent and the very first guy who took a chance on representing me. I was a set dresser on low-budget movies who wanted to be a writer and it's very hard to get an agent to believe in you on that level, and not just believe in you but work for you. Allen was a great friend and ally to me, and he takes the lion's share of credit for the fact that I have a career now. He had died just before we started shooting Shawshank, he died of AIDS, and I wanted to acknowledge not just his significance to my career but also that he was an incredibly decent, much-loved and much-missed person in the lives of those who knew him.