Frank Darabont on The Green Mile


By Daniel Argent and Erik Bauer.

Frank Darabont

Frank Darabont

Today, Frank Darabont is perhaps best-known as the creator of hit television series The Walking Dead. However, for many people, he will always be remembered most for his Oscar-nominated adaptations of two Stephen King novels, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.

Darabont is a friendly, laughing man, a Hollywood veteran who talks energetically about his work and craft. Part film buff, part film professor, he punctuates his answers with a knowing wink or laugh as he leans over his desk. Creative Screenwriting spoke with him about his early television career, and his work on The Green Mile.

This article first appeared in The Best of Creative Screenwriting, 2006.

Michael Clarke Duncan as  John Coffey in The Green Mile

Michael Clarke Duncan as John Coffey in The Green Mile

What did you bring to the adaptation The Green Mile?

Oh, golly—this is going to be a very unsatisfying answer. The normal set of changes one usually brings to something.

In that sense, it was no different from Shawshank. You’re trying to exploit or heighten the dramatic turns as much as possible; you either pull out or circumvent or reinvent narrative that can be more concisely presented. You’re trying to tie up any loose ends that might be there. But for the most part, trying to mimic King’s voice; trying to speak in his patois—not just in terms of dialogue, but in terms of the characters. You’re trying to be very true to the author of the original material, as much as possible—at least I do.

And that does involve a certain amount of texture and a certain amount of poetry. It’s not just, “Let’s put the simplest version of the narrative on screen that we possibly can,” because often that winds up being unsatisfying. If an adapted story tells you the story but you feel it’s not quite the same—well, we’ve all had that experience of seeing a book we loved turned into a so-so movie. It’s the same story but it’s missing the soul; it’s missing the blood in the veins, somehow.

And that’s because often times, writers who adapt are focused on narrative and they toss out a lot of that in-between-the-lines stuff, which is another thing that makes King such a compelling writer. There’s a lot of between-the-lines stuff with his characters, and with his texture, that’s important.

So even when I invent new material, I try to keep it organic to the story that I’m telling. For example, there’s a scene in Shawshank where Andy locks himself in the warden’s office and plays his Mozart over the prison speakers—that doesn’t exist in the book. That was invented by me, out of whole cloth, because I love that aria. I was listening to “The Marriage of Figaro” quite a lot while I was writing. And I thought, “What if Andy locked himself in…”? That thought took me into a different place, but it worked very seamlessly with the story that King was telling. So I try to do that as much as I can. Speak in the author’s voice, even if you’re using your own.

Sam Rockwell as 'Wild Bill' Wharton in The Green Mile

Sam Rockwell as ‘Wild Bill’ Wharton in The Green Mile

How long did it take you to write the adaptation for The Green Mile?

Two months. To the day.

Some reports implied it was an ongoing process, over years.

You’ve been looking at the Internet, I bet [laughs]. The wellspring of misinformation and speculation. I promise you, the adaptation took two months. With one exception, I have never spent longer than two months writing any script. Shawshank was the same thing. That tends to be my rhythm. I lock myself in; two months later, I come out, like a groundhog, see if my shadow’s there, and then I move on.

When you go into a new script, are you confident that it’s going be a two-month hike, and that you’ll have a great piece when you’re done? Or is there still that “What the hell am I doing?” aspect to it?

A little of both. The “What the hell am I doing?” aspect doesn’t ever go away—nor should it. It keeps you on your toes; it keeps you trying. But I’ve noticed that in recent years, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m at least relaxed about my uncertainty. I feel like I’ve done it enough times—and it’s worked out well enough—that whatever the problems that arise, I’ll manage to figure it out somehow. And that’s a nice place to arrive at, because I never thought that I would.

David Morse as Brutus 'Brutal' Howell in The Green Mile

David Morse as Brutus ‘Brutal’ Howell in The Green Mile

You open The Green Mile script with a one-page scene of the manhunt. What is the function of that scene?

I’m not sure how obvious it is on the page, but the way it works in the film is that it’s a very provocative shot. Because you don’t know what the hell’s going on. Obviously, something horrible and heated is happening. But in a subtle way, it also serves to introduce us to the old man [the old Paul Edgecomb] in the nursing home, because the scene functions almost as a dream he is having. It’s the past torturing him in his head, even in his dreams, even after sixty years. And when he wakes up, all of these events are very much on his mind. As the story continues and we see how those events unfold, we wind up understanding exactly what that shot meant at the opening of the film. It’s pretty cool.

It sets up certain questions.

I love setting up questions about the movie that the audience is seeing. I love people not getting it until later. Because that makes for a much more satisfying storytelling experience for the viewer.

If you know everything that’s happening every inch of the way, that’s boring. You’re not involved in the story so much as you are watching it. If the filmmaker poses questions, and you have to be patient to see what those questions mean, it makes for a much more engrossing experience. It’s the more cerebral version of the set-up and pay-off. And those questions are wonderful.

There’s a scene in the first five minutes of the movie with old Paul in the nursing home. He’s in the TV room, and the channel is being changed on the television set and he sees Top Hat playing. And it’s the moment in Top Hat when Fred Astaire starts singing “Cheek to Cheek” to Ginger Rogers and they begin to dance. And this huge emotional train wreck occurs in the character of old Paul watching what is an innocuous and lovely moment from an old movie. It prompts him to tell his story to his friend, Elaine. It’s the past catching up with him.

The audience hasn’t a clue what it means. It’s unexplained, until later in the movie. Very late in the movie, you find out how Top Hat figures into all this. That is pretty satisfying, when filmmakers can work those kinds of threads into a film.

Ginger Rogers as Dale Tremont and Fred Astaire as Jerry Travers in Top Hat

Ginger Rogers as Dale Tremont and Fred Astaire as Jerry Travers in Top Hat

In The Green Mile, you set up the question about John Coffey much like Andy Dufresne in Shawshank—is he guilty or not?

But those are red herrings. What’s fun about working with such material is ultimately, the question of their innocence takes a back seat to the story. It’s not a huge gasp to reveal that Andy Dufresne is innocent. It’s not a huge gasp to reveal that John Coffey is innocent. They’re amazing in other ways. And it’s how they effect those around them that is significant. That’s the character-based, character-driven story that I’m interested in telling. Are they innocent, are they guilty? It’s not the big plot point of the movie. So I love those red herrings.

Could there have been a middle ground between innocent and guilty? Could the story have functioned if Dufresne was not shown to be a victim of circumstance, or if John Coffey may not have committed that particular crime but may have had a record. Dirtied their souls a little bit.

A story can work in that fashion, but I think these stories could not have worked in that fashion. It’s more than a question of a sympathetic main character for the audience. Both characters have a purity of soul that drives what they do and what they are, and if either of them was guilty of their crimes, it would so fundamentally change those characters that the stories wouldn’t be the same.

But I can see a story being compelling about a man who is guilty, who finds a redemption through the process of incarceration. In fact we’ve seen that story told very well. Frankenheimer’s great movie Birdman of Alcatraz leaps to mind.

Burt Lancaster as Robert Stroud in Birdman of Alcatraz

Burt Lancaster as Robert Stroud in Birdman of Alcatraz

And in some ways that’s a more easily told story, because the path is from dark to light. It’s always hard to write a hero, and it’s hard to write a hero who stays a hero.

Is it? I don’t know, I have no basis of comparison necessarily. Although most of the characters I’ve known as a writer have traveled something of a path from darkness to lightness. Those are the characters that I love: those who seek some kind of enlightenment or betterment, a nobler sense of themselves. Those are the characters I tend to write. It’s a recurring theme in my work. I love that.

I want more movies showing us the potential of ourselves. People seeking what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” rather than necessarily being mired in all the ways in which we can fail— spiritually or emotionally. I want to see more movies about working through those pitfalls and coming to a better place.

Hey, I just described Frank Capra, didn’t I? [Laughs] That’s another thing I’ve always admired so much about Steven Spielberg’s work, and George Lucas’s work.

Not to say that there isn’t room in this world for nihilism, but we seem to be nihilistic at the exclusion of all else in our movies of late. And that’s very disheartening to me.

I don’t want to get into a big debate about Hollywood’s responsibility, but it’s all too easy to tell a stupid story about a guy who solves his problems by picking up a gun. We’re better than that. Not that I don’t like the original Die Hard, because it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen [laughs]. I love that film! But even there, there was something greater going on. There was more to it than just body count. I’ve always described Die Hard as a guy who spends the entire movie [laughs] trying to make up with his wife.

Bruce Willis as John McClane in Die Hard

Bruce Willis as John McClane in Die Hard

What is the meaning of Coffey’s inevitable end?

I haven’t the foggiest clue. And that’s the truth of it. The exciting thing about The Green Mile to me is that I can’t sum it up. I don’t know how many times that’s going to happen in my life. But it’s for the audience to define this one, not for me. Shawshank, I can tell you what that’s about. It’s about hope and resilience and the redemptive essence of the human spirit. Boom, I just told you. I’m not sure what The Green Mile is about. All I know is that it’s a hell of a story.

At the end of the story, when Paul explains his situation, he has his theories as to why he is where he is. But even in the context of the story, these sound more like theories than answers. It seems that an answer might be that this was Coffey’s gift.

But Coffey doesn’t quite understand the downside of that gift. That’s a perfectly good answer. And on that level, it would be my answer. But there’s also the “because it feels right” answer. There is a poetic irony that—as compassionate, as well-intentioned as Paul is (and he is, very much so)—a man who makes his living from death winds up having to live. There’s a monkey’s paw beauty and clarity to that, poetically, that I can’t resist. It feels right.

Michael Clarke Duncan as  John Coffey in The Green Mile

Michael Clarke Duncan as John Coffey in The Green Mile

In the script, Bitterbuck asks Paul: “You think if a man sincerely repents on what he’s done wrong, he might go back to that time that was happiest for him, and live there forever? Could that be what heaven is like?” And then at the end of the story, when we find out the fate that Paul has been given, it seems to be almost the antithesis, that Paul won’t reach heaven, that his earthly existence from that point on, all that he’s learned, has given him a ticket to a bad place, at least temporarily. Is there any connection between those two aspects?

I’ve never considered it, but there might be. It’s a provocative question. If Steve King were here, I’d ask him [laughs]. Because the words you quote are virtually verbatim King, and a very interesting notion to me. I don’t know. How’s that for a lousy answer? [laughs]

The Green Mile plays with the idea of the denouement where the hero rides off into the sunset. That doesn’t happen for Paul and that’s a little disturbing for an audience member.

Paul is in an unfortunate position. He is an honorable man, yet if he were any less honorable, he wouldn’t have gotten himself in the position of being the one to pick up the karmic baggage of events, whether it’s fair or not. What I find fascinating about the character is that he’s one of the few people involved in the situation who had the strength of character to shoulder that burden. If you’d given him a choice in the matter perhaps he wouldn’t have, but there he is. Again, it’s a wonderful storytelling irony, to me.

Ironic if not necessarily pleasant.

In the context of the fantasy that’s occurring, it is a very realistic thing, a very melancholy thing. Not that it’s complete hell; you can still see his light shining. He hasn’t been beaten down by what’s occurred to him, completely, as many people would.

Tom Hanks as Paul Edgecomb in The Green Mile

Tom Hanks as Paul Edgecomb in The Green Mile

Green Mile comparisons to Shawshank are, unfortunately, inescapable. While Shawshank is about hope, Green Mile seems to be—well, the easy pitch is the anti-Shawshank. It’s not, but it is a very grim story.

I don’t agree because everybody’s humanity rises to the surface. That’s the measure of a great story. There’s a very haunting and melancholy quality to this story. Save for those who don’t know any better (i.e., the villains of the piece) the people in it are all very human and they’re trying very much to do the best they know how. They’re trying to do right by the situation they find themselves in. And they’re wrestling with issues of compassion and morality, all the things I love to see in a story.

They’re trying to make things work for themselves.

And for one another, as well. There’s a lovely sense of camaraderie among these characters, that I particularly relish, which came out in the ensemble that I was lucky enough to put together. The actors in this are the top grade. They’re an amazing group.

Tom Hanks as Paul Edgecomb, Michael Clarke Duncan as  John Coffey and David Morse as Brutus 'Brutal' Howell in The Green Mile

Tom Hanks as Paul Edgecomb, Michael Clarke Duncan as John Coffey and David Morse as Brutus ‘Brutal’ Howell in The Green Mile

The interesting thing about the script—as in the novel—is that you don’t give any background as to what these inmates have done to deserve death row. They’re portrayed as average people; we’re not tainted by knowledge of their crimes. Was that a conscious decision?

It was, for a number of reasons. Number one, that kind of conversation tends to be expository: the “Gee, what are you in for?” dialogue. I like it that, tonally and conceptually, you’re meeting these guys for the first time, objectively and in this place, and you’re seeing how they behave and how they react, and not being loaded down with baggage about what they did to get there.

The same thing was true in Shawshank. The only thing that you ever know about anybody, why they’re there, is the Morgan Freeman character. Interestingly enough, he’s one of those characters we were talking about before, a man who is guilty, and who has found a peace and a redemption in his incarceration. He goes from darkness to light. He’s the only one who cops to what he did. And it was important there for us to know that about him. I didn’t go into any specifics or particulars or detail, he just said, “I’m in for murder, and yes, I’m guilty.”

“I’m the only guilty man in this prison.”

Exactly. And I love that about him. He’s obviously been in that place long enough that he’s cut through the bull and is perfectly willing to admit his responsibility for things. I think when Red first got to Shawshank he was like everybody else: “I’m innocent, I’m innocent.” So that was very important. It was important that Red be guilty of his crime and that he cop to it. The real power at the end of the movie is the final parole scene, where—in a manner that doesn’t beg sympathy—he basically unloads his soul on the parole board. Here’s who I am, take it or leave it. That’s his walk, that’s his trajectory, that’s his arc as a person. And boy, how lucky am I that Morgan Freeman was the actor to say that speech [laughs].

Why did you use the framing device of old Paul?

Because without it, there was no beginning and no end to the movie; there was no context for the movie to exist in. The Green Mile has now proved to be the world’s longest Twilight Zone episode. But without the character of Paul Edgecomb as an old man in the retirement home, there’s no story to tell.

There’s a lot of narrative, but it needs context; it needs the point that it’s making. In the same way that I couldn’t see an alternative to using Morgan’s voice-over narration in Shawshank, because that was the narrative voice of the story that King told—I couldn’t imagine the story any other way but hearing it from Morgan’s perspective, with his observations and his point of view.

The same thing with The Green Mile. I took the framing device from Steve’s framing devices. He had that framing device operating in every volume of The Green Mile. I pulled that out and focused on the most straightforward narrative version that I possibly could, so that the movie itself would have a framing device; in other words, a beginning and an end.

Steve went back in [on every book in the series] and had a lot more to say about the old man. But then he also was functioning in a serialized form, as Dickens did. So the old man in the nursing home device was a handy literary way for Steve to bring the reader into each new volume, re-introduce the world to the reader, especially if somebody came to a later volume without having read the first ones. Steve could ease them into the story. It was a very clever device for him, but certainly not something that the screenplay required.

[In the film adaptation] we set up a question at the beginning and we answer it at the end, using that device. And that was the enormous value of it. Plus we found an actor to play old Tom Hanks who kicks ass. Man, Dabbs Greer is great. Wait’ll you see it. He’s awesome. I shouldn’t admit that. We should try to convince everybody it’s Tom Hanks in old age make-up.

Dabbs Greer as Old Paul Edgecomb in The Green Mile

Dabbs Greer as Old Paul Edgecomb in The Green Mile

What other changes occurred from page to screen?

Brad Dolan [the vicious orderly in old Paul’s nursing home] is history. Brad wound up being a burr in my side in that script. It took me a while, but before we shot the bookends I removed him from the script. And indeed, I believe when we publish the screenplay, I probably will not include him in the published screenplay.

I’m pretty much a believer in publishing the script you went to the set with, even if stuff changes. But it’s such a fundamental change, and I’m so happy to have him gone that I’ll probably omit his appearance in the published screenplay.

Steve needed to go back to this old folks’ home at least six times, and Brad was a very clever invention in order to do that. Otherwise all you’re left with is old Paul reminiscing. Steve needed a device to keep the reader in that old folks’ home. In my loyalty toward the original author, Brad Dolan was an unnecessary hangover from the book.

The end of the movie in my first draft was very much like the end of the books, where Brad Dolan shows up at the end in the shack when Paul is explaining everything to Elaine. And, man, he felt like a bump in the carpet to me. Brad was beside the point. He has an interesting echo of Percy Whetmore. The interesting thematic point that King made is that there’s always going to be a Percy, somebody in some position of power, even minimal power, who lacks the reason and compassion to be a person. But the bookends for the film didn’t need Brad.

When it came time to shoot the bookends, I thought, I have got to get rid of this guy [laughs]. ’Cause if I don’t I’m going to be in the editing room trying to cut him out. Brad Dolan was a red herring in a bad way, something that never paid off for the movie.

Doug Hutchison as Percy Wetmore in The Green Mile

Doug Hutchison as Percy Wetmore in The Green Mile

When it came down to translating The Green Mile into a screenplay, how did you put it together? Did you work with paradigms, three-act structures, reverse structures?

I don’t think I’d know a paradigm if it came up and bit me. I don’t think in terms of three-act structures. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen in the third act, ‘cause I ain’t there yet. For me, writing is a much more organic process.

You sit down from page one and you try to experience the story as you go, and you try to make the most of the dramatic potential of the story. I generally have an idea where a story begins and I generally have an idea where a story ends.

Believe me, there are plenty of screenplays I never wrote because I could never figure out where the damn thing was going. Why bother starting then? I tend to know certain signposts along the way, and I start working toward the first signpost. And once I’m there I know that off in the distance is the next signpost, and I have to get to that.

All the structural elements flow from walking down that path, and from what the characters are telling me. That’s not to say the more organized method is wrong. Whatever works for the writer is what the writer ought to do. Left to my own devices, it’s an organic process.

In adaptation you have a leg up, because if the material is good at least you know what those signposts are. The method with which I approached The Green Mile was to go through all six books and type out a list of scenes. I had a page for each book: “Number one, here’s what happens in the first scene in King’s book. Number two, here’s what happens in the second scene.” And so on.

And that gave me, at a glance, the structure of the whole damn thing. Beyond that I jumped in, and I would obviously refer to the book for the content of the scenes. That was the first time that I ever typed out the structure that way. But I needed to, because the thing was so sprawling. It was a real pleasure to go down that list and say, “Well, I won’t need this scene and I won’t need that scene,” and cross them off.

What you’re left with is what winds up being molded into the screenplay. So that’s my lazy method. Well, I’m not sure if it’s lazy or not, but that’s my method. It’s only paper and time. If you go down a blind alley you can always backtrack.

The Green Mile series, by Stephen King

The Green Mile series, by Stephen King

How do you see the relationship between your writing and directing? Is one an extension of the other?

Ideally, yes. But I could never be Joel Schumacher because he apparently thrives on the process of directing a movie. He goes from one film to another to another. I admire that so much. I don’t know how he does it. I’m not sure I want to do it all that often. I’d like to have some time off in between, because I do find the job hard. I’m going to be cautious about what I choose to do.

Luckily, I do have a pretty good career as a screenwriter to fall back on if I have to. So, I don’t think everything I write I’m going to want to direct. Although, that has been the ultimate goal, hasn’t it. Being able to protect what you do.

There are some screenwriters who just luck out, they get great directors who vibe with their material, and actors who understand the subtext and make marvelous films. Part of me wants to go across town and slap the shit out of Eric Roth [Forrest Gump]. It’s like, “How’d you get so lucky, you bastard?”

He writes a good script and they make a good movie. Why can’t I do that? Usually, it’s been the opposite experience for me. And after a while, you can only weather so many disappointments.

I’m proud of the movies Chuck and I made, even though those are early works and, creatively speaking, not high on the ambition scale. The Blob and Nightmare On Elm Street III are not works of art and weren’t meant to be. But at least the director got it right.

But most of my other experiences have been very poor. Dick Donner directed one of my Tales From The Crypt that I’m very happy with, a western titled “Showdown.” There was an episode of Young Indiana Jones that I’m as proud of as anything that’s hit the screen. It’s an hour of TV that made me cry, and I knew what was going to happen. Simon Wincer really nailed it.

Sean Patrick Flanery as Indiana Jones and Jeffrey Wright as Sidney Bechet in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles

Sean Patrick Flanery as Indiana Jones and Jeffrey Wright as Sidney Bechet in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles

You’ve always written for both TV and the movies.

Features were always my focus, although television did come along and seduce me here and there. Not with big paychecks. “I’m being paid what for this? Oh, my God, can I afford this?” I just got seduced by virtue of it allowing me to have a little bit of fun.

The first thing I did for TV was Tales From The Crypt. I grew up reading Tales From The Crypt. Obviously not in its initial incarnation, but the reprints. EC Comics were always one of those magic little things that only I and a few other fans really knew about. Now, of course, everybody knows about them because of the series.

When I was given the opportunity to write something for them, I grabbed “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” because it was always my favorite of the stories. I adapted that and was nominated for a Writers Guild award. One of my two. Then George Lucas came along and asked me to be one of the writers on Young Indiana Jones, which was one of the best, most satisfying, thrilling, creative experiences of my life.

How did you get that gig?

George Lucas

George Lucas

George was looking for writers. He had apparently interviewed a great number of writers and had picked six of the seven writers he wanted for the show.

A woman named Sara Boman recommended me to him. She was working at Amblin at that point, but when I first got to know her she’d been at TriStar as an assistant to the executive I was dealing with. She remembered the script I’d written there and recommended George read it. He read it and was interested enough to want to meet with me. So I went and met George Lucas, who is one of my gods.

That was really a fun meeting because he’s so down-to-earth, so unimpressed with himself, and soft-spoken. So I went in and we talked for about an hour about everything but my TV credits, because I really didn’t have many. We talked about education, socio-political issues, we talked history. He was pleased I knew my history, which apparently many TV writers don’t.

I asked him once, “George, what was it that recommended me—why me?” And he said he’d had one meeting with a very, very popular writer, a guy with a list of television credits as long as your arm. He came in, he’s Mr. Hollywood, Mr. Powerhouse TV writer. And he proceeded to get George into an argument about when World War I took place.

One of those debatable issues.

Yeah, exactly. Apparently, this guy didn’t realize it took place in the teens. He thought it took place in the thirties. So George was looking for someone with a basic knowledge beyond television.

How did you develop the stories for that series?

They were very much a group effort that sprang from George. We would go up to Skywalker Ranch, flying in from all points of the planet, because at least half the group was British.

George would come incredibly well prepared. He’d have historical events or historical figures he wanted Indy to meet or become involved in. Along with those, he’d figure out a way to get Indy to whatever part of the world he had to be, and would often have at least the thumbnail of a story. Many times it was very fleshed out. And, on occasion, he hadn’t a clue. It was just, “I want him to meet Tolstoy. And obviously if he’s going to meet Tolstoy he’s going to be here in Russia at this year and he’s going to be nine years old.”

And we’d sit and have our story session. We’d do our homework, we’d read through the material, and George would say, “Well, my idea is this. Anybody have anything to add?” And we’d spend an entire day just brainstorming and then in the afternoon George would start, “Okay, in our first scene this happens and in our second scene this happens.” And we’d go, “In the third scene this should happen.” And he’d go, “Okay, fine.” Or, “No, but what if that happened.”

So it was George and the seven dwarfs. We’d sit there in the room and hash out a storyline every day. And this would go on for a couple of weeks. Then we’d get our screenplay assignments—we’d vie for the scripts we had the most desire to write individually.

Oftentimes, it worked out pretty well. If there was a tie breaker, George would decide who got what, and we’d go off and do our first drafts. We’d send those in, they were disseminated, and we’d all fly back for the second draft sessions where we’d go over everyone’s first draft as a group and do second draft notes. It was amazingly creative.

Skywalker Ranch. Image by Mike McCune

Skywalker Ranch. Image by Mike McCune

It really sounds like a wonderful environment.

It was a great environment. It was a great way to work. We knew even at the time what a special situation it was, but you’re always too busy to really appreciate it.

Now I look back on it and I think, aw man. George really is the Wizard of Oz, he’s the man behind the curtain. He’s so busy. My God, I’ve never seen a busier human being in my life. Nor one with a more focused work ethic. This is not a guy who sits around and takes it easy, which is one of the reasons he’s George Lucas. One of the reasons he’s the mogul that he is.

He’s really a throwback, I think, to an earlier brand of visionary. As far as inspiring people, every time I turn around I’m meeting another Star Wars baby. My assistant Dave’s the same way. He saw Star Wars when he was seven and his life hasn’t been the same.

I’m the same way. Exactly. It had that effect.

I was a senior in high school when I saw Star Wars. At eighteen, it still had a major impact. It was really one of those remarkable experiences sitting in a theater where everybody is seized by the filmmaker and possessed by the movie. And knowing what you’re watching is changing all the rules. Which you pretty much knew from the first shot of the movie. For better or worse it has had an effect which is still being felt more and more every summer. It’s got to be a blockbuster, it’s got to be the BIG thing.

David Prowse as Darth Vader in Star Wars IV: A New Hope

David Prowse as Darth Vader in Star Wars IV: A New Hope

Are there more opportunities for beginning writers in the entertainment industry now?

Sure. I think so. Just in the sense alone that the market is constantly expanding. We’re making more and more movies every year. The foreign markets are expanding. They need more movies, they need more product. Obviously, that’s going to make more opportunities for everybody.

Sometimes there’s too much emphasis on youth, on young writers. What’s the hottest, what’s the latest? There are some serious Academy Award winning dudes who have written some of the best movies in history who can’t get a gig. It’s nuts.

A lot of the product of the last so many years has been aimed at twenty and eighteen-year-olds. They figure the writer’s got to talk on the same level. It’s lowering the curve—their life experience is formed by movies and television, so we’re getting less sophisticated insights into life in our movies.

And a lot more references to other films.

Yeah. Which is really starting to be a drag, as far as I’m concerned. Having made references to other films myself, hey, I’m as guilty as anybody.

It’s also tough on the very real level that everything has been done before. No matter what you try to come up with, somebody else has done it. So where do you get a really good original notion or good original idea? They’re as rare as diamonds in your garden.

You can’t completely blame Hollywood, it’s us as well. Sometimes you go to bed at night praying for a good idea to come along. So having absorbed some of the blame, let’s now turn to Hollywood and blame them too. ‘Cause even if you do come up with one, chances are they won’t want it.

This is where I love Castle Rock. They’re into trying different things. Miramax seems to be blazing some trails too. But most of the big studios want their big action star movie for next summer. That’s their key focus, and yeah, they tend to be derivative because they don’t understand what makes a movie successful either. They understood what made that movie successful, it was really cool and a lot of things blew up, so let’s do that again. Or let’s try to copy Home Alone, or whatever.

I can understand it. It’s not an evil conspiracy, it’s just people trying to do their jobs as best they can. I think audiences are in the mood for more sophisticated movies again. The big, dumb action movies that have held sway for so long are starting to crumble around the edges a little bit. You can only shovel the same horseshit so many times. There’s nothing wrong with a good action movie, but some movies invent form while others imitate it.

Sit down and read Eugene O’Neil. Sit down and read Paddy Chayefsky. These were writers who drew from life. When I see a movie like Courage Under Fire that doesn’t seem to recall another movie, that seems to be taken from life experience, I think to myself, “That’s the most honorable job we do.”

Meg Ryan as Capt. Karen Emma Walden in Courage Under Fire

Meg Ryan as Capt. Karen Emma Walden in Courage Under Fire

With The Green Mile, you’ve mixed a bit of fantasy in with the dramatic. The story is set in the real world, and we’re not expecting anything magical. The rules are different because in this case you can’t say, “Everyone knows about Freddy Krueger.” How do you bring the fantasy into the real world and make it realistic?

That’s King’s greatest strength. He’s always done that: he took Dracula out of a crumbling castle and he put him in a small town in Maine where people go to McDonalds.

It’s an approach that Steve credits Richard Matheson for introducing him to. Matheson was also a very fundamental writer in my world. A brilliant, amazing, and evocative writer, Mr. Matheson. One of my all-time favorite novels is I Am Legend. It’s a guy in a tract house in Los Angeles who’s apparently the last man on Earth in a world where the vampires come out at night and try to bust in and get him.

Night of the Living Dead owes a huge debt to Richard Matheson. It might be an oversimplification to say he took the uncanny and put it in suburbia, but he did take those elements and inject them into a world that we’re all familiar with. And that’s what Steve does so well. Most of his work is very much planted feet-firm in the real world.

No matter how fantastic the extraordinary is, you’re usually next door to whatever’s happening. I believe that’s why King is such a popular writer. It’s very relatable stuff. The same thing with The Green Mile. There’s something very magical that plops into this very unlikely place, in the character of John Coffey, who is a bit of a Christ figure.

Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead

Crucified for what people believe he’s done, or fear he’s done.

Crucified for the inevitability of having to crucify visionaries, and those who are plugged into something higher. Though I won’t mention this to Entertainment Weekly [laughs]—because I don’t want that to be seized upon and turned into a mountain—I do believe that on a thematic level this is about Christ being crucified and the guys who have to crucify him, who have to drive the nails.

What’s fascinating about it is, what if the guys who have to drive the nails know what they’re doing? And what if they are decent and compassionate men? That’s what’s so provocative about the story.

What are your views on miracles, and the death penalty? Are there some of your personal views which come out in this film?

Some. Not all. The ones that do are somewhat ambiguous, and I’d like to keep them that way. Because the audience will want to draw their own conclusions, they’ll bring their own views to the table here, which to me is very exciting.

Am I in favor of or against the death penalty? I’m going to keep that one to myself. Do I believe in miracles? Yes, I do, but not necessarily the kind the Biblethumpers have been drilling into our brains. I believe in miracles that spring from the better angels of our nature.

What’s an angel to you?

Raoul Wallenberg. Oskar Schindler. Albert Schweitzer. Gandhi. Martin Luther King. It’s the best part of us. I have yet to see somebody in flowing robes with wings flitting around my house.

I’m not saying they’re not there. But, I’m also fairly pragmatic about these things [laughs]. And I am also desperately and deeply skeptical of anything that people have to tell me. Like the ones who wrote the Bible, for example. I promise you, God did not sit with an Underwood, slamming this thing out on a deadline.

The problem with people telling us things as absolute fact is that everybody brings their agendas to the table. I was raised Catholic, so I’ve earned the right to be skeptical.

Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi

What is your personal vision? What do you want your stories to bring to people?

[Pause] The notion that we can be better than we are, as human beings; that there’s a bar that can be raised in all of our lives. And that there are certain acts of incivility that we should no longer indulge in. Maybe we should try to do a little better.

Helping everyone on their personal angelic flight?

That’s why I hesitated to answer the question. Because when you say it, it sounds cultish and preposterous and pretentious. I don’t shout it from the rooftops; I’m no evangelist. But I think that’s the element that keeps popping up in my work. 


Before You Go

shawshank featuredIf you missed the first article in this series, don’t forget to check out Frank Darabont on The Shawshank Redemption.



Erik Bauer is the founder of <i>Creative Screenwriting</i> and Screenwriting Expo, and was editor from 1994-2005.

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