If the obituary is, Frank “Shawshank Redemption” Darabont died today’, that would be awesome. Of course, I hope people check out the other films I’ve made, too…
On the wall of Frank Darabont’s LA office — next to his desk and across the room from his big TV, on which sits a hoard of movie memorabilia, including more Hellboy action figures than you could shake a big, red stick at — are three pages of this very magazine that you now hold in your hands. Well, not this very issue. More accurately, three pages from Empire‘s 201 Greatest Movies Of All Time, lovingly framed and hung, in which it is announced that Darabont’s first film, 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption, had been picked by Empire readers as their favourite movie of all time. And those three pages are testament to the impact that this 48 year-old French-born, American-raised son of Hungarian parents and his gut-wrenching yet uplifting debut had on moviegoers around the world.
“That really blew my mind,” he smiles, “in a big and happy way.”
A geek (way before the word was popularised) with a passion for the Golden Age of cinema, B-movies and comic books, Darabont started out as a set dresser, working on movies like Ken Russell’s Crimes Of Passion before managing to segue into life as a writer-cum-script- doctor on horrors like The Blob, The Fly II and A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Then he turned his hand to directing with The Shawshank Redemption, based on a novella by Stephen King, with whom Darabont had been friends ever since he made a short film of one of King’s most personal stories, The Woman In The Room, when he was 20.
Yet The Shawshank Redemption was no fright flick. Instead, it was a beautifully crafted tale of friendship, hope and redemption that initially flopped upon release, despite seven Oscar nominations, but found a huge and receptive audience on video. From there, Darabont moved on to another King prison movie, the excellent, more successful The Green Mile, before stumbling in 2001 with his overt and underrated homage to Frank Capra, The Majestic.
Since then, Darabont has largely been a writer for hire, enduring unfulfilled experiences on Mission: Impossible III and Indiana Jones IV. But, galvanised by this, he vowed to return to directing and does so this year with his third King adaptation, The Mist, in which an otherworldly vapour filled with unspeakable monsters consumes a small Maine town and traps a group of locals in a supermarket. This one, in case you hadn’t guessed, is a horror — unapologetic and nasty.
Empire Contributing Editor Chris Hewitt virtually stalked Darabont across the globe for this piece, from the aforementioned office to the set of The Mist, where he spent three days watching him at work. “I feel I got to know Frank fairly well,” admits Hewitt. “And he’s an extremely likeable guy, chugging through an endless stream of brown cigarillos as he talks. And boy, can he talk with passion and grace and humour, flip-flopping effortlessly from a humble appraisal of his own talents, to extraordinarily generous tributes, to expletive-filled rants. He’s disillusioned with his experience in Hollywood since The Majestic, but I think that’s led to a new resolve, which should lead to some very exciting movies.”
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Interview by Chris Hewitt
EMPIRE: It’s a strange place to start, but let’s talk about The Mist’s ending. It’s very dark, which is interesting, given that Shawshank ended on the word ‘hope’…
DARABONT: Yeah… This also does, sort of, end on the word hope. It’s just the other half of the equation. (Laughs) Much to my delight, Stephen King really has been incredibly supportive. My God, more than I can really even tell you. He loves the ending. I had a lot of opportunities to make the film, but the string was always attached: “Of course, you’ll have to change the ending.” I needed to find the home for it that had the balls to say, “We like your ending.” I found that with Dimension and Bob Weinstein. Instead of making it for $30 million and changing my ending, I made it for half that and didn’t change it.
EMPIRE: Why did you want to change the ending in the first place?
DARABONT: It felt like an honest and muscular direction. You know, what’s the alternative? The pat, trite, happy ending? Or the open-ended one that Steve used, which I think for a movie would have been quite frustrating. It’s a horror movie, so I thought, “Let’s go with it.” I’m not just Mr. Nice Guy — I can be a pretty dark bastard. I grew up in the ’70s — what can I tell ya? I want a movie to kick me in the nuts every once in a while.
EMPIRE: There’s always been a dark side to your work, though. Shawshank, in particular, goes to some very dark places.
DARABONT: I think you’re right. I think people remember the uplift, but I don’t think they quite remember the dark stuff. What does Morgan Freeman say in Shawshank about crawling through a river of shit? Well, sometimes you don’t get out of the river of shit, and I think that’s an equally valid thing for a film to say.
EMPIRE: During the shoot for the mist, only key cast and crew had complete scripts. Were you deliberately creating mystique?
DARABONT: No, it was a deliberate attempt not to have some PA or grip jump on the internet and blow my ending! (Laughs) I said, “Let’s publish The Mist script without the last two pages, so hopefully the audience can walk in and have the kind of moviegoing experience I had when I was younger, which is, ‘The ending was a surprise! Wow! That’s cool!”’
EMPIRE: Do you long for those pre-internet days?
DARABONT: You’re too young to imagine, but I remember the thrill, the physical thrill, that went through my body when I was seeing The Empire Strikes Back for the first time and he said, “Luke, 7 am your father.” I just about fell off my chair. Had there been an internet back then we’d have all known that going in. There’s a sick need some people have to spoil the surprises for themselves and I’d rather not enable that kind of sick behaviour. When I was in seventh grade Soylent Green was coming out and this asshole shows up at school, having seen it before me, and says, “Soylent Green is people!” I never talked to that fucker again! I didn’t want to know. And thank God I didn’t know that Darth Vader was Luke’s father. That was really cool!
EMPIRE: The Mist is shot handheld and very rough and raw. It looks absolutely nothing like anything you’ve done before…
DARABONT: Yeah, and I’m the guy with pretensions of Kubrick! I’m the guy who really likes to take my time and make the frame perfect.
EMPIRE: Where did that come from?
DARABONT: I gotta say, kudos to Danny Boyle, he inspired me. I saw 28 Days Later and thought, “Oh my God, this is great!” And it was done on a budget of peanuts and crackers. And yet, rough edges and all, it’s a masterful film. I thought, “Why not? Why not go and make the movie you set out to make, even if you have to shoot it really fast?” And I had a wonderful experience last year directing an episode of The Shield for Shawn Ryan. The camerawork is all improvised and it’s completely documentary style: fast, fast, fast. And so I totally got into the spirit of that and I found it exceptionally liberating. The pretensions of Kubrick went by the wayside.
EMPIRE: You borrowed most of the technical crew for The Mist.
DARABONT: I did, yeah. This was a completely new experience. I threw everything out the window that I knew as a director, and tried out a completely different method — just to get reignited and re-excited about what I do. And it served that purpose beautifully. I wanted to be incredibly unmoored and fluid with how we shot this. I wanted to shoot it exactly like I shot The Shield. I’m not comparing myself in any way to Hitchcock, but when the studio didn’t want to get near Psycho, he decided to take the TV crew off Alfred Hitchcock Presents and shoot Psycho during the hiatus. And it proved to have more energy than any of his previous films.
EMPIRE: You weren’t rusty? It’s been seven years since The Majestic.
DARABONT: Actually, no. It really is like jumping up on stage with a small jazz trio and grabbing an instrument and playing.
EMPIRE: Why the long gap between The Majestic and The Mist?
DARABONT: I’ve been busy. [Laughs] For 20 years I’ve been a screenwriter, making a really good living, getting to work with some extraordinary people and putting out an extraordinary amount of effort, and the results have been mixed. But I’ve now shifted my priorities in life. The things I’m proudest of are the films that I’ve directed. So 20 years of being stuck in a room by myself have gone by in a blur. You wake up one morning and you start totalling up the results on the sheet going, “Hmm, I should direct more movies.” So I stopped writing last year, which I should qualify: I quit writing for other people as a hired gun, writing for a paycheque. A couple of bad experiences came along which just flattened me.
EMPIRE: Including your experience on Indiana Jones IV when George Lucas rejected your script…
DARABONT: It was the ill-fated Mission: Impossible III script, actually. That, in addition to Indy IV. Neither debacle had anything to do with a lack of quality in what I had done and that’s what makes it especially frustrating. If I had handed in a crappy script, then I would only have myself to blame. But you hand in a really terrific script, for example, that Steven Spielberg was just ecstatic about… Working with Steven is just a treat and a challenge, by the way. And boy, we kicked some ass. That was an absolutely terrific script and Steven loved it and wanted to make it, but George couldn’t recognise it. So I quit writing for hire.
EMPIRE: It seems that a fair amount of your ideas — the Russian villains, for example — are actually being used in the script that Spielberg shot. How does that make you feel?
DARABONT: Hey, fantastic! I don’t know to what degree that is the case because I haven’t read the script that they shot. I know I inevitably will because there will inevitably be an arbitration for credit. There always is in these situations. But I am hearing that, and it makes me feel delighted that something I brought to the table was of value.
EMPIRE: What are your feelings towards George now?
DARABONT: There’s no controversy. I’m not walking around holding a seething grudge against George. That goes away, otherwise you wind up being a raving, bitter shithead. Everyone’s career is full of triumphs and disappointments. This is not singular in my career. It didn’t work, so I moved on. Frankly, I only wish them well.
EMPIRE: What was that you were saying about crawling through a river of shit?
DARABONT: (Laughs) We’ll see. I’m not counting any chickens. I’m very Zen about the whole situation — you have to be, otherwise you’ll go mad. You can really let yourself get bogged down if you just dwell on the one thing that didn’t go right. It’s like getting 50 great reviews, but the only one you remember is the one terrible one that kicked your ass. The Majestic, for example, is a movie I’m very proud of and I really love. It achieved exactly what I set out to make. And I find it very moving. But in your very magazine, somebody who praised the hell out of Shawshank said, “Frank Darabont needs to apologise for making The Majestic.” And I thought, “Really? What did I do? I need to apologise? Kiss my ass!”
EMPIRE: We giveth and we taketh away…
DARABONT: Yeah, no kidding!
(Laughs) This guy calls me a genius for Shawshank and says I have to apologise for The Majestic. Wow! That’s harsh! Fuck!
EMPIRE: Do you think the reaction to The Majestic was simply a backlash? That it was your time?
DARABONT: It felt like because of the success of The Green Mile, they were waiting in the bushes for me, like highwaymen. You see it all the time. It bothers me because, you know, what I see are people doing honourable work. Whether they lose their way or make some choices that don’t prove out.
EMPIRE: Nobody sets out to make a bad film…
DARABONT: No, absolutely. I think Cameron Crowe is one of the best directors working today, whose work is just thrilling to me. I don’t go a year without seeing Almost Famous at least twice. This is a guy who’s made a real contribution. He has nothing to apologise for to anybody, and then they kick his ass with Elizabethtown. Fuck me — give him a break, you know?
EMPIRE: The Majestic was a tough sell in many ways.
DARABONT: Yes, it was. It’s a very sweet and quaint movie. That’s always a tough sell.
EMPIRE: With that movie — and with Tom Hanks in The Green Mile — you cast an A-list star in the lead role, but audiences didn’t really seem to follow Jim Carrey to that movie.
DARABONT: No, they didn’t. I don’t know if it was too much of a change for him as an actor because he really embraced it and did quite a wonderful job with it. But there’s always that risk one runs of a star being known for a certain thing and then completely changing it. Will his audience follow? Or do they just want to see him talking out of his butt, with a funny haircut? And you never know. It doesn’t lessen by one degree his achievement as an actor. But certainly with Tom, it not only helped get The Green Mile off the ground, but it helped get the movie seen by the public. Although I’ve never wanted to cast stars at the expense of the right actor for the role, and I don’t think I ever made that mistake.
EMPIRE: Were you wary of taking on The Green Mile directly after Shawshank, given it was another Stephen King prison movie?
DARABONT: I had known going in what the nature of it was even before I knew what the story was. To be honest with you, Steve had kinda pitched me the idea one day on the phone when we were chatting. He hadn’t written it yet, or maybe he was just getting started on it. He said to me, “Well, I’ve been kicking this story idea around, Frank. I think it would be a great movie for you but I think you probably don’t want to do another prison movie.” I said, “Tell me the idea anyway,” and he told me the idea for this and I said, “You know, I probably don’t want to do another prison movie, but if you ever write this, please give me first crack at it because it sounds extraordinary.” It was based on a 60-second pitch!
EMPIRE: And then, when you read it, you were hooked?
DARABONT: Indeed. When Steve sent me the first volume of the six when it was published, without benefit of reading the remaining five volumes I basically committed to the movie right there and then.
EMPIRE: Is your version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 still on the agenda?
DARABONT: Yes. That would be my heart’s-desire project. It’s much bigger. It’s not going to be a 33-day shoot. I’ll be getting back towards the elegant approach.
EMPIRE: Do you have a time-frame for that?
DARABONT: At this point, no, I can’t venture a guess. The truth is that with the Writers Guild being on strike, one of the key things is, it throws everything into uncertainty and doubt. It’s impossible to schedule anything because nobody knows when something can move ahead. Right now, it’s in that state — I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that we stay on track.
EMPIRE: How do you feel about the strike?
DARABONT: I certainly support my guild. There’s plenty of stuff they do that pisses me off, but that’s okay. (Laughs) They’re a good guild and I think the strike is a necessary thing, and I support it.
EMPIRE: You’ve wanted to make Fahrenheit since you were a boy. What grabbed you?
DARABONT: It is such a fantastically passionate book, which is what the Truffaut film missed by quite a wide margin. It’s the passion of the thing, but to me it is the perfect story of one man against society, of free thought versus societal control.
EMPIRE; A theme that’s recurred throughout your work…
DARABONT: Absolutely. I’ve never trusted authority. I think every society, whether it be governmental or religious-controlled, ultimately is sliding in one sense or another towards a form of fascism. We’re seeing it here (in the U. S.) now, sadly, and I think we should fight it with every breath in our body.
EMPIRE: If it happens, you’re going to shoot that in Budapest, right?
DARABONT: Yeah. I found some fantastic locations in Hungary. They have these massive factory zones which visually feed into what I want to do. They’re like what Stanley Kubrick did with Full Metal Jacket.
EMPIRE: In London’s Docklands…
DARABONT: Exactly. Some of these factories are so huge that you could make them look like a city. It seems every time that I make a movie, I’m always in some fucking factory or some prison! And Fahrenheit is really no different. Every time somebody tries to create the future, they really try to create the future. I don’t want to create it so much as find it, considering that the future of Fahrenheit is a bit decayed.
EMPIRE: Why has it taken so long for you to get to this point with it?
DARABONT: There’s a tremendous bureaucracy here (in Hollywood) designed to prevent you from doing that and realising your creative vision. They will try to find every reason in the world not to make your movie. It’s a very interesting and perverse situation. It can take years to get a movie made and that’s part of the frustration of what we do. Christ, it took us six years to get Collateral (which he produced) made!
EMPIRE: The perception most people would have of you is that, especially with Shawshank and The Green Mile under your belt, you could do whatever you wanted.
DARABONT: No. I’m Willy Loman wandering with a briefcase under my arm. Truth is, most people in Hollywood are. The only person who can, with impunity, make the movie he wants to make, has gotta be Steven Spielberg. And I’m sure even he has a bumpy day or two. The rest of us are flailing around trying to find somebody who’ll believe in what we believe in. It’s tougher than ever, really, because the kinds of movies that I wish to make are not the obvious thing being shovelled out by Hollywood every day. I keep getting sent these scripts, and offers coming through to direct this and direct that. My problem is that I don’t want to spend two hours watching them, much less two years making them.
EMPIRE: It sounds like this is a recent development for you…
DARABONT: (Nodding) I’m getting less able to pin down what’s going on in our business ever since Castle Rock (which financed Shawshank) lost its autonomy and its ability to finance its own movies. It was the last shining beacon of sanity and stability in our business. It was literally the only place I know where, if they read a script and believed in it. Like Shawshank, they said, “Wow, we like this. We’re going to make it.” So the script was the basis on which they made their decision. That doesn’t happen elsewhere. “Is it a good script? Is it a bad script?” It either doesn’t matter, or they don’t know. What makes it a movie they want to make is who’s gonna be in it. If Tom Cruise wants to be in it, then they think it’s a great script. Cart-before-the-horse thinking…
EMPIRE: But when Tom Cruise or whoever comes on, the script they approved can undergo changes…
DARABONT: And, indeed, can result in something wonderful. But the point is, it could be the fucking Lithuanian phonebook and if Tom Cruise says he’s in, they’ll shoot the Lithuanian phonebook.
EMPIRE: You seem to be pretty cynical about Hollywood.
DARABONT: Everybody is the same way; they’re trying to get their own stuff going. But you know what? When I say it, people seem to be surprised. “Ooh, Shawshank. Ooh, The Green Mile…”
EMPIRE: Speaking of Shawshank, can you explain the film’s enduring appeal and popularity?
DARABONT: I think it is a Rorschach kind of film and story. There’s so much that people can infer from it, so much that people can read into it. It becomes a very interesting template for trials and struggles in life, regardless of what those trials and struggles are. I’ve heard all kinds of wonderful metaphors drawn from the film — one gentleman used it as a metaphor for his medical problems, his Lou Gehrig’s disease. He’s become a prisoner in his own body, and the message of hope in the movie gives him some of the strength to carry on. It’s really quite remarkable, and it’s the last thing I had in mind.
EMPIRE: It also appeals particularly to guys — as this wonderful depiction of male friendship.
DARABONT: Morgan and Tim (Robbins) pointed out that it’s so rare and so unusual to have a movie that is a non-Brokeback Mountain love story between men. How many movies are there really about friendship that don’t involve car chases? (Laughs) It’s not about that, it’s not a caper movie, it’s about the friendship. I really get that and that’s probably what makes the film so unique. You don’t get that kind of thing often as a man, as a male viewer of films. You get plenty of people doing kung fu on wires, and the tough, idiotic Arnold Schwarzenegger one-liners, or whatever. But you don’t get movies that are more rooted in the reality of what a friendship can be in someone’s life.
EMPIRE: So if Castle Rock hadn’t made this movie, you could have had a car chase in Shawshank?
DARABONT: Having been a screenwriter in this town for a little while, even at that point, I know how wildly and hideously off the tracks this film could have jumped. I know how badly derailed this fucking thing could have been once cadres of studio committees started second-guessing everything and saying, “Less character, more plot.” In other words, more action: “Maybe we should make him a kickboxer behind bars!” And before you know it, it’s the old joke of, “My small Civil War story wound up on a U-boat!” I guarantee if some other studio made that, it would have deformed the child tremendously. I don’t know if I would have survived.
EMPIRE: Yet Castle Rock actually insisted that you reshoot the ending, to show Andy and Red on the beach. You were reluctant to initially, right?
DARABONT: The draft, the first draft, the one I originally handed in, ended exactly where Stephen King’s story did, which is Red (Morgan Freeman) heading down on the bus towards Mexico, towards a hopeful but uncertain future. And here was Castle Rock’s biggest note: “After putting the audience through this experience for over two hours and creating this relationship, you might owe the audience the catharsis of seeing them back together again.” I kind of squinted my face up and said, “I don’t mind that so much, as long as it’s not the painfully obvious Hollywood ending,” and they said, “You don’t have to do that. Take whatever version you think would be the best and shoot it. And we’re going to give you final cut on the movie.” That’s how generous and wise these people were: “You don’t have to use it if you don’t want to. Just give it the best shot that you can.” That was our last day of principal photography after months and months in Mansfield, Ohio, and we went down to St. Croix in the Caribbean. I know it’s supposed to be Mexico, but we fibbed. It is Hollywood, after all. (Laughs)
EMPIRE: Now you can’t imagine it ending any other way.
DARABONT: Exactly right. This is indicative of the wisdom of a company like Castle Rock. Instead of being fascists and pricks and trying to shove something down the filmmaker’s throat, they think, “Encourage them to do the thing we think is correct and then let them make their own decisions.” It’s such a smart thing to do because then you’re not fighting it. If it winds up being a good idea, you can recognise it.
EMPIRE: You had previously made the TV film Buried Alive, but do you consider Shawshank your first?
DARABONT: Yeah. Something like Buried Alive was really more of a filmmaking exercise, in the sense that The Woman In The Room or any short film I might have made in my teens is, for that matter. It’s an exercise, it’s practice for the actual event — which in this case would have been Shawshank.
EMPIRE: And you hit a home run with your first movie proper. That’s not how it’s meant to work.
DARABONT: I know. That’s what makes it cooler, though! (Laughs) It was a very weird home run, though. It was one of those bizarre circumstances where a film comes in under the radar and nobody notices it. There was a period of time when I thought that the movie was going to disappear and fall into obscurity, and nobody would ever know what The Shawshank Redemption was. People couldn’t be dragged to the theatre. The thing that really rescued us were the Academy Award nominations, but even that didn’t really get people into the theatre. We had grossed — and how pathetic is this? — $18 million at the domestic box office in the States when the nominations were first announced. Seven nominations, including Best Picture, and all we were able to squeeze out of those nominations was another $10 million. But it became discovered through video, and I think the nominations helped people check it out. We wound up being the most rented video of the next year. It’s A Wonderful Life, The Wizard Of Oz, same thing.
EMPIRE: Do you ever tire of it?
DARABONT: The answer is, “Gosh, no.” I really don’t think you can get tired of the kind of loving reaction that people have for this movie. It seems to have become its own ambassador to the world. It does mean something to people, and that’s so fantastic to me. How many people have even one thing like that in their lives? If the obituary is, “Frank ‘Shawshank Redemption’ Darabont died today at the age of,” hopefully, “ 110”, that would be awesome. Of course, I hope people check out the other films I’ve made too, and I hope they enjoy them and I hope I get to make some more that they enjoy. But hey, if the one thing I am remembered for is Shawshank, why on Earth would I complain about that? Few people are remembered for anything.
EMPIRE: You mentioned The Woman In The Room, the short that sparked off your personal and professional relationship with Stephen King. And all you paid for the rights was one dollar. Best investment you’ve ever made?
DARABONT: Oh yes! Good God, yes! (Laughs) For old times’ sake, we still do the dollar deal, Steve and I. Bear in mind that’s the option. When the movie gets made, he gets many more bucks.
EMPIRE: He does alright, anyway…
DARABONT: He does okay. I’m sure he did really well, particularly from The Green Mile, as that was a hit. I’m sure he still gets those requests all the time. Being that he is such a generous man and such a good soul, I believe that unless the rights are tied up elsewhere, it’s his policy to grant the rights to young filmmakers and student filmmakers to make a short out of his stories. I was just one of those kids. I should, for the record, say I never went to college, but I sent him a letter when I was 20 years old because I really wanted to make this short film. Stephen was very, very pleased with the result of that. And subsequent to that, my writing career finally started and I re-approached him for the rights to Shawshank in about 1986. I’ve had a fantastic directing career really thanks to Stephen King.
EMPIRE: Your leading man in The Mist is Thomas Jane. Did you feel he needed to do this movie to atone for Dreamcatcher?
DARABONT: That’s like the guy asking me to apologise for The Majestic! I’m saying nothin’ about that movie! It didn’t work entirely. I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault, or through a lack of sincerity. But I do remember that Steve King came out here for the premiere — it was one of the rare times that he was actually on the West Coast. He was so sweet about showing all of his friends and we all piled into one limo and went out to the premiere, and Steve was like a kid that night. He asked me what I thought of it. I couldn’t lie to my friend, so I said, “I didn’t care for it that much,”and his face fell. I felt so awful. Oh my God, I’m such an asshole!
EMPIRE: The Mist is your third King adaptation. Are you done?
DARABONT: It seems to be a well I’m drawn back to again and again. I wind up being so simpatico with him as a storyteller. I’m so drawn to his voice. I think it’s inevitable that I’ll do something else in the future. I actually have the rights to two other things, The Long Walk and The Monkey, which I’d like to be even more low-budget than The Mist. I love The Long Walk [a dark, futuristic piece, in which teenagers are forced to walk across several states; if they stop, they are killed], but it’s maybe not what one would immediately think of if one were running a studio and thinking of their blockbuster for next summer! I may wind up doing it for a few million bucks and get out there and do it really guerrilla style. The more I’m doing stuff like this, the more I’m learning to do what I do: directing movies, and enjoying the filmmaking process.
Empire, February 2008, pp. 111-116