Frank Darabont on The Shawshank Redemption


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 getting started in the business, and his work on The Shawshank Redemption.

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

Morgan Freeman as Red and Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption

Morgan Freeman as Red and Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption

What were the early years working in Hollywood like for you? The nine years spent working towards becoming a screenwriter?

Those were lean years. Those were very lean years. I did a lot of weird jobs throughout that time. I was a forklift operator, I bussed tables at The Old Spaghetti Factory on Sunset, I did whatever I had to do.

Mostly, luckily, happily, I wound up set dressing for about six of those years on a freelance basis. So I was Mr. Glue Gun, Mr. Screw Gun, Mr. Where-do-you-want-it? It was a pretty thrilling time actually, a lot of intense effort and guerrilla warfare filmmaking.

We worked a lot of non-union shows, we worked a lot of commercials and low-budget, often bad movies. But it was a grand experience for me. As a set dresser, as the art department’s representative on the set, next to the camera, boy, did I learn a lot. That was film school for me. That was learning how to make a movie, learning how to direct. That experience was really cool.

I didn’t go to film school. I didn’t go to college. I graduated Hollywood High back in ‘77 and decided to kind of attack life and hope it worked out. It actually worked out quite well. I’m sort of stunned. I don’t recommend circumventing college, it’s not for everyone, but I’m one of these fellows unburdened by the benefits of higher education.

Hollywood High School. Image by Galen Smith

Hollywood High School. Image by Galen Smith

How did you learn screenwriting?

Endless hours at the desk. Endless hours at the typewriter, then the computer, which came along later. It was really a lot of applied time and effort and self-study. Which is the way most people learn. I have many ambivalent feelings about the “screenwriting gurus…”

The whole industry of screenwriting…

Yes, the whole industry of “we can make you a screenwriter.” I have ambivalent feelings because, ultimately, even though there is some benefit to be gained by those things—I stress the word “some” benefit, minimal benefit— ultimately you know what it all boils down to? You’re sitting at your desk, all by yourself for years, trying to figure out your craft and applying the effort necessary. And that’s what nobody wants to hear. Everybody wants to hear, “I can teach you a three-act structure, I can give you a formula, and you’ll be selling screenplays within six months.” Bullshit.

In only two days for $249.

Exactly. Exactly. Bullshit I say. And what’s really funny is, these guys in the business of being screenwriting gurus, they don’t ever write screenplays. I have never seen one of these guys’ names on a screen credit in a movie. I do think there is some benefit to these classes, but I don’t think people should be misled into thinking it’s the be-all and end-all, and they’re going to walk out a screenwriter. Everything is self-applied effort in life. Everything. You don’t learn anything easily.

How did you work towards your screenwriting initial break with Nightmare On Elm Street III?

The initial break is an interesting thing, because it seemed like every plan I had didn’t pan out. The ones I didn’t recognize as a plan were the ones that came through. Suddenly here’s opportunity tapping on my shoulder.

Nightmare III came about because of my friendship and association with Chuck Russell (director of The Mask and Eraser). He was a line producer, and hired me as a production assistant on my very first movie job. It was Hell Night with Linda Blair. Look at the end credits, I’m there! I’m in there, man. It was such an exciting thing to see that credit roll at the end. My very first screen credit. But it’s a terrible movie.

Peter Barton as Jeff Reed and Linda Blair as Marti Gaines in Hell Night

Peter Barton as Jeff Reed and Linda Blair as Marti Gaines in Hell Night

Anyway, Chuck hired me again for the next movie he was doing, and it was on that show that the wardrobe lady, who had become a friend of mine, gave Chuck a copy of a spec I had done for M*A*S*H* behind my back. Chuck read it and was sufficiently impressed that, once the show ended, he called me into his office and said, “Hey, I’m looking for a writing partner. Would you be interested in writing with me?” And I thought, hey, this is the first time anyone’s asked me to write! I’ll do this. In the ensuing years, he and I became very good friends.

He was doing a lot of line producing work and was trying to direct, so we were always generating scripts. He would pay me $1,000 or $1,200 bucks out of his pocket just to keep me from having to go take a set dressing gig, which is how I was making ends meet by then.

So we wrote together and turned out a lot of scripts, until one day he walks in and says, “I’ve been offered Nightmare On Elm Street III.” He had just come from a pitch meeting over at New Line. They had a very problematic script on their hands and he had suggested a rash of solutions to the problems and it all made sense so they said, “Okay, you can direct.” And he came home and said, “Okay, Frank, we’ve got two weeks to rewrite this script.”

So off we went to Big Bear. Got away from the phones and everything else, locked ourselves in a cabin and rewrote Nightmare III in eleven days, beginning to end. We made sense out of it, to whatever extent it makes sense.

Mind you, we retained all the good ideas that were there, we retained all that worked. We weren’t and aren’t in the habit of changing something that doesn’t need to be changed just because it might get us credit. We did happen to get credit on that one, so there was a significant amount of work that went into that rewrite. Which Wes Craven, at that time, disputed. He was grinding an ax with New Line and unfortunately, Chuck and I got caught in the middle of it.

Wes had been told some things about us that were not true. There was a certain amount of dishonesty going on there that Wes didn’t realize. So he responded on a very visceral level, on a very emotional level, and was a bit childish in the press. That’s okay. I’ve never held a grudge and have since met him and got to know him a little bit. He seems like a very nice man. I just think he was in a bad situation with those folks.

There were a lot of hard feelings bouncing around and Chuck and I got caught in the crossfire. I think within three weeks of Chuck walking through that door and making the announcement, he was on the set saying, “Action.” Can you imagine being three weeks away from shooting and you don’t have your director? I don’t know what they were thinking.

Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors

Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors

When you write a screenplay on spec, are you working to get it down on paper to be filmed as you see it, or are you also working at creating feelings in and motivating the reader?

Both. Very much both. I’ve always felt my job was to try to describe this really cool movie to somebody who hasn’t had the chance to see it yet, to make the reading experience as enjoyable and engrossing as possible in order to convey that’s what the movie will be as well.

If I can get them to picture the movie in their heads, then I’ve done the job I intended to do. I not only do that for specs, but for any script I write. Even the most straightforward assignment, I’m trying to make it a thrilling experience for the reader. I want to get everybody who’s involved in the making of the film excited about the movie. I think that’s part of my job. In a sense, I’m kind of the cheerleader. So I wouldn’t make a delineation between a spec and an assignment script here.

Mind you, I’m not terribly experienced in writing specs. I haven’t done those all that much. I wrote a spec, Black Cat Run, in ’84, two years before Nightmare III came along. And that spec gave my agent, Allen Greene, something to show around, to get me in the door and introduce me with. That spec really got my career started, got read a lot, and led to a lot of work. The only other spec I ever wrote was Shawshank. And I speced that specifically because I wanted to direct it.

Frank Darabont and Morgan Freeman on set of The Shawshank Redemption

Frank Darabont and Morgan Freeman on set of The Shawshank Redemption

You were getting hired a lot. How did you take the time out to write the spec for Shawshank?

It wasn’t easy, because being a writer who gets one job after another becomes a really cushy and easy thing to take. I wrote Shawshank in ’92 and that was maybe five years after my career had started as a writer. And when you’re only five years into a career you still figure it’s kind of a fluke, and you’re loath to turn down the work. So, it was a bit of a nerve-wracking thing to face, to say to your agent, “Knock it off. Leave me alone. No, I don’t want to rewrite that sequel to that movie. Let me just sit home and write this thing and I won’t make any money doing it, but it’s something I really believe in.” I had to shut down operations, barricade myself in, and not come out until it was all done.

What attracts you to Stephen King’s stories?

That’s like answering the question, “What attracts you to chocolate ice cream?” I loved King’s work from the get-go. I read The Shining when I was in high school—seldom have I been that engrossed in a book. I became a fan of his work from that moment on. I have read every word that the man’s published and some that he hasn’t.

What attracts me to his work? He’s one hell of a story spinner. He spins yarns in a very old-school way that tend to be very involving, very rich in character. He’s considered by some of the snobbier critics, the literary critics, to be a populist and therefore not to be trusted or endorsed. The same thing was said about Dickens.

Stephen is a very old-fashioned storyteller, in the best sense of being oldfashioned. Aside from character and absorbing narrative, he has one hell of a knack for suspense, as he’s proven time and again. I may be the first person in history that draws a parallel between Stephen King and Frank Capra, but there’s a real thread of humanity and humanism in King’s work. King loves people; you can see it in his writing. He loves their nobility and their foibles; he loves the ways in which they can excel and the ways in which they can crumble and fall. He loves the good side and the bad side. He is an analyst of the human soul, if you will, as all the best storytellers are.

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining

It’s been said King wants to stay close to the films adapted from his work, to keep them on track.

Quite the opposite. If he’s involved in a film, then he’s very involved in the film. If he’s not directly involved as a producer, then he’s very hands off. He explained to me that very early on in his career, he had enough bad movies made out of his work that he learned to distance himself emotionally from the movies being made, from anything he doesn’t have a direct hand in. That way, if the movie turns out great, he can take enormous pleasure in it. And if the movie turns out poorly, he doesn’t have to take all the emotional hits of seeing something go wrong and not be able to control it. Because, frankly, you can’t control those situations. We’ve all felt that happen.

So he was very hands off where Shawshank was concerned; he was hands off where The Green Mile was concerned. He trusts that I’m going do right by him, which is really nice. His involvement has been that he read both scripts and said, “Yeah, this is great. Good luck.” It’s an enormous compliment, particularly coming from somebody that I respect and admire so much. He’s been very generous to me. In my life, he’s occupied the niche of patron saint. Let’s face it, he’s provided me with some amazing material that I have used to fuel my career.

You started your career by adapting King’s short story, “The Woman in the Room.”

The Woman in the Room is a thirty-minute short film that I made in my very early twenties. It took me three years to get the damn thing finished. And that is what opened up the door with Steve. It remains, I think, his favorite short film of the many short films that have been adapted by young filmmakers— he has a policy of granting those kinds of rights fairly freely.

So a few years later, when I asked for the rights to Shawshank, he was of a mind to grant them, because he had seen that short and did like it very much. And also [chuckling] it was such an obscure story, I think he figured, “Ah, what the hell.” Steve’s always been a little intrigued by the notion that, as a director, I tend to gravitate toward his lesser-known works—until The Green Mile, which became a bestseller.

But of all the youngsters who ever asked for the rights to a story, I was the only one who ever asked for Woman in the Room. I wasn’t interested in [filming] the more obvious Stephen King-type stories. This is the story about a man whose mother is dying of cancer in the hospital. Shawshank—I think that request perplexed the hell out of him. I think part of why he granted me the rights was to see what the hell would happen— almost like a science experiment. So he’s been great to me. I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to repay the debt that I owe him. But maybe the best thing I can do is keep doing well by him, when I adapt his work to the screen. Because he seems to derive an enormous pleasure from that.

What initially attracted you to King’s novella of Shawshank? Why did you consider it cinematic?

More than cinematic or visual, I first responded to the emotional content of it. The really wonderful characters, the wonderful relationships, the obstacles they face and overcome. Secondarily, there was the visual element of it which always boiled down to, “Gee, if we could find a really cool looking prison to shoot, this is going to be a really cool looking movie.” And luckily, that happened. We found the OSR in Mansfield, Ohio, which they had just shut down two years prior. It was an incredible, gothic place. Mostly though, it was the emotional content. It’s the little things that make a movie good, the little emotional moments. The rest of it is all candy.

You were quoted in the press kit for Shawshank as saying the movie was about redemption. Whose redemption? Red’s?

Everybody. Everybody gets redeemed in that movie to some degree or another. One of the cool things about life—or drama, if not life—is that a forceful and righteous individual can really effect a lot of change. And some of it’s awfully subtle, maybe it’s just one tiny kernel of grace you take away from knowing this person. And that’s what I love about storytelling too—everybody winds up getting kicked in the ass or uplifted in a really good story. Even the warden, when he puts the gun to his head and pulls the trigger, that’s redemption for this guy.

OSR Mansfield, Ohio

OSR Mansfield, Ohio

Wasn’t the theme of the film really hope?

I think the two are inextricably intertwined. I think hope is always redemptive. Hope really is the key word, isn’t it? That’s the finest part of us as human beings.

In terms of craft, how did you approach weaving that theme of hope and redemption into the screenplay?

That’s a tricky question. Honestly, half the stuff I do, I don’t know why or how it happens as I’m doing it. I don’t think I really expended much of an effort on that because it’s the whole core of the story. It’s like all roads lead to Rome, every road marker led to that premise for me. Sometimes it was a conscious decision to just sort of bald-faced go for it.

Some of the nicer moments in King’s story are the little moments where characters reach for hope. For example, the beer on the roof scene—one of the scenes I love most from the book. Every once in a while I would make a conscious decision to do something that illustrated the point of the movie. Another scene that is similar in that sense is the Mozart scene.

That scene wasn’t in King’s novella.

Right. That was me just saying, “What the hell, I’m going to try to go for the throat a little here and if people think it’s too corny then, well, I’ve shot myself in the foot.” But I think it’s heart-felt enough not to be corny. That scene was really a result of my listening to that opera, hearing that one piece of music over and over again. Every time I heard that piece, my soul was just lifted up, my spirit soared and I thought, what the hell. You wind up playing “let’s pretend” a little bit. You think, if I were Andy and I had the opportunity, I would play this piece of music for the whole prison to hear.

Maybe that would be a cool scene in the movie, but it also reinforces the whole premise—we have to grab for hope wherever we can, even in the bleakest of circumstances. Every once in a while there was that conscious decision, but for the most part it was an unconscious pursuit of Stephen King’s theme, which was very strong in his story.

How did you approach the adaptation?

You do what you always do, you try to make the most sense of the story that you can. You try to smooth out the bumps and plug the holes and find an emotional through-line.

Were there certain things you thought you had to do to bring it from a novella to the screen?

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King

My real conceptual breakthrough was the James Whitmore character. I think this was prior to the writing, in the thinking about the story that he just kind of popped into my head and unlocked the whole movie for me.

The trickiest aspect of adapting King’s story was the issue of institutionalization. Which, in a larger sense, represents hope versus despair. Very fundamental to the theme of the movie. And I had no idea how to do this because King, by benefit of the printed page and just being able to describe the character’s thoughts, could tell you what being institutionalized is, and how scary the thought of parole is after you’re behind bars long enough.

We, the screenwriter, need to figure out a way to illustrate that. Sure, you can talk about it to an extent, but you can’t just talk about it. You have to show it. I realized that Brooks Hatlen, a character mentioned in passing in one paragraph of the novella, needed to be a main character, and that we needed to see his experience in order to relate to the entire theme of the movie, and to Red’s (Morgan Freeman) experience at the end of the movie. I thought, ahh, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I get it.

That was my biggest breakthrough. The rest of it was just sewing the elements together and having little inspirations here and there. I’m making it sound easier than it was, probably, but the rest did fall into place.

One of the things that really struck me about the screenplay for Shawshank was the way it broke the rules on showing vs. telling.

Rules are there to be broken.

Could that movie have been made as effectively without Red’s continuing narration or voice-over?

Not at all. Not at all. And I’m delighted that it worked. I’m delighted people responded to it. I’m delighted I had Morgan Freeman to deliver that narration. Let’s start there. If you’re going to listen to somebody’s voice for two hours, that’s the guy to do it. Thank God it worked. There were many arguments in favor of it, starting with Stephen King’s narrative voice in the story, told from the point of view of that character.

Much of that narration is verbatim.

Much of it is verbatim. Much of it is simply the narrative of Stephen King. And it was such a strong voice, it was such a present voice, the whole story was, “Let me tell you about this amazing guy I once knew, Andy Dufresne.” It was like Red, this character, was spinning a yarn for you on a porch somewhere, telling you this story. I couldn’t imagine the story working some other way without that voice. And I thought, okay, it’s got to be narration. Half of what’s interesting about the story are the insights of this man.

So I started writing it, and I got really freaked out halfway through. I suddenly thought, oh my God, I’m breaking the rule. I’m going to be damned to movie hell. I’m telling instead of showing. I’m relying too much on it.

As if a sign from God, I turned on cable that night and it’s the premiere of Goodfellas. And I thought, this is a really great movie and it has a lot of voice-over. It had been about a year since I had seen it in the theaters, and I sat and watched it again. And I thought “I’m a piker, man, I’m a stingy little bastard when it comes to narration compared to these guys” [Nicholas Pilleggi and Martin Scorcese].

There are no rules, and as soon as you think there are, you’re fucked. Because it all comes from the heart, from the instinct, and if it feels right, it probably is right. So, my talisman in Ohio was my tape of Goodfellas. I took it with me, and on weekends—my weekend was Sunday—I’d sit there totally blown-out and depressed, and I’d pop in Goodfellas and get inspired again.

Lorraine Bracco as Karen Hill and Ray Liotta as Henry Hill in Goodfellas

Lorraine Bracco as Karen Hill and Ray Liotta as Henry Hill in Goodfellas

It’s a great movie. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it.

Yeah. You lose count with a movie like that. It’s a brilliant movie. One of the best ever.

Another thing that struck me about your adaptation of Shawshank was the way you added a lot of violence to the cinematic version. What do you think the relationship is between violence and effective cinematic drama?

Tommy gets killed, and Fat Ass gets killed. Then the warden commits suicide, right. That was not really an effort to spice the movie up with violence, which is something I don’t believe in, so much as it was an attempt to create more dramatic closure for these characters.

In King’s story—and mind you, I’m not criticizing King’s story because I think as a story it’s largely flawless—but on the printed page you can be a little more ambiguous, a little more ambivalent. Movies need a greater sense of closure in plot elements and in an overall sense.

In the story, Tommy is merely transferred out of Shawshank to a minimum security prison. He’s only got another six months to go and he’ll be back with his wife. And I thought, well that makes Tommy kind of a shit. Granted, I understand. We can’t all be brave and courageous and take a stand in life, but, one, I like him less. Two, we’re missing a good opportunity to make a better villain out of the warden. And three, we’re missing a great opportunity, by virtue of the first two, to intensify Andy’s triumph.

So, to tighten all these dramatic screws, I thought, okay, we’ve got to whack the kid. We’ve got to love him, and then we’ve gotta whack him. It makes the warden such a terrible man that Andy’s triumph is that much greater, and there’s much greater catharsis in the movie for the audience. So, in honesty, shooting the kid to pieces was not just me trying to have squibs on the set one night and do a cool bit of violence on screen.

Gil Bellows as Tommy in The Shawshank Redemption

Gil Bellows as Tommy in The Shawshank Redemption

It was really an attempt to make a dramatic turn more precise and satisfying. The same thing with Fat Ass. You can tell people all you want that this is a terrible place. They see a guy being beaten to death the first night in, they know it’s a terrible place.

But I don’t think the violence that was added to the narrative of the movie was glamorized. I remember sitting there, tapping my head, asking myself: how do we do this scene where Fat Ass gets beaten to death? Do we do the obvious, do we do the sort of erotic close-up, big blurry quick-cut shots of some guy getting beat up and blood hitting the wall?

I thought, screw that, I’m sick and tired of that. I don’t find it interesting or erotic anymore. I think it’s pretty sophomoric now. The solution to Fat Ass was to just do a wideangle, static, very objective point of view where you’re looking at figures in the environment. It’s not about violence, it’s about the place.

Could you talk a little bit about setups and payoffs?

I’m a big believer in them. I love them. It’s a popcorn rule of thumb. You always have to have a setup and you always have to do a payoff. But, you know what? It works great! And it works in great movies as well. I noticed some setups and payoffs in Courage Under Fire that were very subtle and sophisticated, but they still work on the same level of your basic action movie setup and payoff. They’re great! I live and die by my setups and payoffs, and most good screenplays do.

Denzel Washington as Lt. Col. Nathan Serling in Courage Under Fire

Denzel Washington as Lt. Col. Nathan Serling in Courage Under Fire

In Shawshank, the one that seemed particularly clever to me was the Bible and “Salvation Lies Within.”

Thank you.

What do you think little clever bits like that do for a movie?

I think they delight an audience, for starters. When I see something clever like that, when I see something that is carefully thought out and planted, I’m simply delighted. I always want to thank the storytellers for doing a good job. Setups and payoffs, at their best, create a sense of irony that is delicious. You take it home and think about it and ask, why isn’t life like that? It should be. I think they’re really an intrinsic part of storytelling.

An example of supplying payoff to a setup in Shawshank was the fact that in the novella, Andy’s revenge is simply to escape. His false identity, the money he walks away with, was all a separate issue. King mostly got away with it in the story because he could finesse it. But, from the bald storytelling point of view of a screenplay, it was a bit of a contrivance.

Andy had a friend on the outside whose existence is introduced very late in the story, who set up this false identity and made investments for him. Somehow, it didn’t feel integral to the story. It worked fine, but for my purposes, I needed something a little cleverer. So, I decided to tie it in with all the scams Andy was doing for the warden. I thought, if he’s doing all these scams, if he’s generating all this money, why can’t he also be setting up a false identity for himself? Why can’t he be setting up his own score? It makes him a cleverer hero. It makes the warden a more defeated villain. It provides a payoff to the setup, because the setup was in the story to begin with. What a great setup.

To not have that be the payoff seemed a bit of a misstep. Sometimes doing a rewrite or an adaptation, you’re trying to take those elements and tie them in. Trying to make those connections work a little better.

Morgan Freeman as Red in The Shawshank Redemption

Morgan Freeman as Red in The Shawshank Redemption

I thought one of the real strengths of the screenplay vs. the original novella was its increased dramatic unity.

Thanks. The screenplay was a much more mechanical affair as well. By necessity, it is a mechanical construct. Whereas, a work of fiction doesn’t have to be. Getting back to what I was saying about the story feeling as if Red were telling it to you on the front porch one night, not only was that a delightful kind of folksy technique, but it also provided a loose, rambling narrative.

The real challenge was to take that nice rambling narrative and put all the pieces together as if it was the transmission of a car. Do the linear, mechanical structure a movie needs and still retain that sense of whimsy in the narrative. That was the challenge of the adaptation. Telling what seemed like the same story, but actually with a lot of differences along the way.

Are you really conscious of structure when you write?

Oh, yeah. But not like some people. I’m not a big carder. I’m not a big prestructurer. I find that to be an onerous task. I fuckin’ hate it. My best work has been the result of writing organically, or starting without a completely firm notion of what the next scenes are going to be. And, funny enough, apparently some of my best structured work is the result of doing that as well.

I know my beginning, I know my end and I know certain key things along the way. Certain markers in the road. That’s how I like to write. Otherwise, it becomes nothing more than a mechanical exercise and writing shouldn’t be that.

But, if pre-structuring things in a firm way helps a writer organize his or her thoughts, great. Whatever works is what needs to be done. Chuck Russell always cards things. He always wants to know in the first act these things happen…George Lucas is the same way. One can’t criticize results, can one?

George Lucas

George Lucas

How do you approach the rewriting process? In reading the two drafts of Shawshank, there weren’t any major changes, just a tightening.

Right. By the time I’ve got a first draft done, my structure is pretty much there. I don’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel when I rewrite. Sometimes, however, the areas are gray. You wrestle with whether or not you need something on the very basic level of two plus two equals four. The audience will understand what is going on without it. But perhaps it’s a grace note that makes the experience or the character richer, so you don’t want to lose that. It’s not just math and mechanics, sometimes it’s poetry and you need to follow your heart and not lose something that enriches the moviegoer’s experience.

There were a couple of scenes toward the end of the movie that were cut pretty late in the process. Right after our first test screening. They are scenes of Red after he’s been paroled, after he’s gotten out of Shawshank and before he gets to the tree. This is the section where he’s coming to grips with the fact that he’s not going to make it, that he’s institutionalized as Brooks Hatlen was institutionalized, that all he really wants to do is go back to prison.

That seemed pretty well mirrored in what was left.

Yes. The scenes I cut out were good scenes. One was a scene of Red walking along, it’s the Summer of Love and there are hippies in the park. It’s like he’s on a different planet all of a sudden, looking at all these crazy people, at women not wearing bras. The audience loved that scene.

There’s another where he has a nervous breakdown, this huge anxiety attack in the supermarket where he’s bagging groceries. And there’s another scene where he’s talking to his parole officer. It was all meant to build up the notion that he’s not going to make it.

But, ultimately, all it built up was a terrible impatience on the part of the audience, because they knew it already. They had seen James Whitmore’s experience, and Morgan himself says, “I know I can’t make it on the outside. I’m just like Brooks Hatlen was.” When Morgan says it, the audience believes it. The man has nothing but integrity on screen. So they bought it immediately.

They knew the moment he left the prison and walked into the same hotel room—boom, the point was made. After that, anything I gave them was just taxing their patience, ‘cause now they wanted to see where the movie was going to go. They wanted to see the end of the film. They wanted to see what happens when he gets to that tree. That’s part of the fun of it. You discover your own movie when you’re cutting it together. That’s my favorite part of making the movie.

The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption

Has living up to Shawshank forced you to be tougher on yourself as a writer?

Absolutely. But more so as a director. As a writer there are so many kinds of writing jobs. I know I can take a rewrite job on so-and-so’s next movie and write a draft or two, and know I’m not going to be judged on that. I can come in and clean the windows and detail the car, so to speak, but I’m not the guy who’s going to have to be driving it.

That’s interesting, because many writers complain they’re not recognized for their contribution to movies. The flip side to that is the anonymity you seem to cherish.

There is an anonymity that can be very comforting sometimes when you’re a writer. You can go and make a great living and remain fairly anonymous. Somebody like John Sayles is not judged by the rewrites he’s done, he’s judged on Lone Star. That’s him, that’s John Sayles.

Your visibility as a director is much higher. And sometimes one is grateful for that. I’ve had credit on movies that are embarrassing to me. Sometimes you don’t get credit at all. You’ve just gone in and done a job of work for somebody and given them what they needed, and your name won’t even appear on the screen. And there’s some comfort in that too. If the film turns out successfully, you’ll take pleasure in it anyway.

My ego doesn’t need to have my name up there, necessarily, to be satisfied. I don’t need to steal somebody else’s thunder. Although if I’ve provided a substantial amount of work, if I feel I’ve helped shape the movie, I definitely like to share credit. But in that situation, I’m never interested in having my name up there alone. I’m certainly glad I shared credit on Frankenstein, for example, because I didn’t have to take the blame for how that ended up.

Kenneth Branagh as Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Kenneth Branagh as Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

I haven’t read your draft for Frankenstein. How did it differ from the final film?

I’ve described Frankenstein as the best script I ever wrote and the worst movie I’ve ever seen. That’s how it’s different.

There’s a weird doppleganger effect when I watch the movie. It’s kind of like the movie I wrote, but not at all like the movie I wrote. It has no patience for subtlety. It has no patience for the quiet moments. It has no patience period. It’s big and loud and blunt and rephrased by the director at every possible turn.

Cumulatively, the effect was a totally different movie. I don’t know why Branagh needed to make this big, loud film…the material was subtle. Shelley’s book was way out there in a lot of ways, but it’s also very subtle. I don’t know why it had to be this operatic attempt at filmmaking. Shelley’s book is not operatic, it whispers at you a lot. The movie was a bad one. That was my Waterloo. That’s where I really got my ass kicked most as a screenwriter.

 Did people associate you with Frankenstein?

No. Branagh had made himself such a visible target by proclaiming himself the ultimate auteur of this work, that when people started shooting bullets, they were only shooting at him. They were punching holes in his hide, not mine. He really took the brunt of the blame for that film, which was appropriate. That movie was his vision entirely. If you love that movie you can throw all your roses at Ken Branagh’s feet. If you hated it, throw your spears there too, because that was his movie.


Before You Go

green mile featured 2If you enjoyed this article, don’t forget to check out part 2 of the interview: Frank Darabont on The Green Mile.



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

Improve Your Craft