Monday, 27 May 2013

John Milius: American Outsider

Apocalypse Now (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
A new documentary about the writer and filmmaker John Milius recently premiered at the SXSW in Texas (see trailer here). Made by debut directors Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson, Milius (2013) explores the life and career of the maverick Hollywood filmmaker behind such works as Dirty Harry, Apocalypse Now and Conan the BarbarianFeaturing interviews with such Hollywood luminaries as Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Francis Ford Coppola, Milius promises to be a comprehensive take on the life of a unique storyteller.

John Milius’ early flamboyance led Paul Schrader to label Milius as the ‘Master of Flash’ – a contrarian in which the gesture of showmanship always took precedence over politics – and sometimes even over morality. Noted for his volatile personality and penchant for guns and machismo John Milius became something of an outsider in Hollywood in later years. A self-styled ‘zen anarchist’ Milius was also supposedly the inspiration for the fiery Walter Sobchak (played by John Goodman) in the Coen Brothers’ cult movie The Big Lebowski (1998).

Born in 1944, Milius turned his hand to writing after he was refused entry to the US marine corps due to a chronic asthma condition. Milius graduated from film school at the University of Southern California in 1967 along with fellow students George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. He found success relatively early, writing Apocalypse Now in 1969, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and co-writing Dirty Harry for director Don Siegel (1971). For Spielberg’s hugely successful Jaws (1975), Milius contributed Robert Shaw’s speech about the US Indianapolis sinking in shark-infested waters. 

John Milius directed his first film Dillinger in 1971. Starring Warren Oates as the eponymous outlaw it was described by writer and director Paul Schrader at the time as ‘the most manic, insane, unbalanced, immature film I have ever seen. It is also one of the best, most promising first films I have seen... The film is a total excess, an arrogant display of youthful talent.’ Milius went on to direct The Wind and the Lion (1975) which explored issues of US military intervention; Big Wednesday (1978) his homage to the surfing scene; and Conan the Barbarian (1982) his monument to camp heroism. In recent years his most notable screen credits have been Clear and Present Danger (1993) and Geronimo: An American Legend (1993). 

However, it is for the original screenplay of Apocalypse Now (1979) that Milius is best known. Based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness director Francis Ford Coppola has gone out of his way in recent years to dispel the myth that Coppola completely rewrote Milius’ work (see article here). In the following extract from an interview with Creative Screenwriting, John Milius discusses the origin of his screenplay for Apocalypse Now, along with his approach to screenwriting: 

Apocalypse Now (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
Going back to the beginning, what did you learn about screenwriting in your two years of film school?

Well, I learned everything I need to know. I had a wonderful teacher, Irwin Blacker, and he was feared by everyone at the school because he took a very interesting position. He gave you the screenplay form, which I hated so much, and if you made one mistake on the form, you flunked the class. His attitude was that the least you can learn is the form. ‘I can’t grade you on the content. I can’t tell you whether this is a better story for you to write than that, you know? And I can’t teach you how to write the content, but I can certainly demand that you do it in the proper form.’ He never talked about character arcs or anything like that; he simply talked about telling a good yarn, telling a good story. He said, ‘Do whatever you need to do. Be as radical and as outrageous as you can be. Take any kind of approach you want to take. Feel free to flash back, feel free to flash forward, feel free to flash back in the middle of a flashback. Feel free to use narration, all the tools are there for you to use.’ I used to tell a screenwriting class, ‘I could teach you all the basic techniques in fifteen minutes. After that, it’s up to you.’

I used Moby Dick as an example because I think Moby Dick is the best work of art ever made. My favorite work of art. I used to point out the dramatic entrance of characters, how they were threaded through.... Moby Dick was a perfect screenplay, a perfect example of the kind of drama that I was interested in. Another great influence on me was Kerouac, and a novel like On the Road, which has no tight, linear narrative, but sprawls, following this character. Moby Dick and On the Road are completely different kinds of novels, yet they’re both extremely disciplined. Nothing happens by accident in either of those two books.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (Directed by John Huston)
Would you say that your original screenplay for ‘Apocalypse Now’ followed more of the Kerouac approach?

I don’t know. You could say it’s very much like Moby Dick, too. You start with this character who’s given up on life, and suddenly they haul him out of his shower and take him to the ship. They tell him you’re gonna hunt white whale at the end of the river. I don’t know. I never thought of it that way.

I was kind of thinking along the lines of its flowing with the character.

Yeah. It’s very influenced that way. But the basic idea is that this thing is out there that you’re going to have to deal with, you know, that somewhere there’s going to be Judgment Day, somewhere, you know, you’re gonna meet Moby Dick.

How far did you get on that script in film school?

Not very far. I wrote two real scripts in film school, but when I came here and really started writing, I rewrote every bit of them. Neither of them were ever made, but I was able to option them. I had them rented out for like $5,000 a year.

You left film school with a new wife. How did you work at getting into the industry?

Well, I was just happy having any job at all. I was very lucky. I did very, very well from the beginning. I went to the first job I had, working for AIP for Larry Gordon, and I was amazed that I actually got paid to do this, I mean for something other than lifeguarding. Then I worked for Al Ruddy over at Paramount and I wrote a script called The Texans, which never got made and wasn’t very good.

Dillinger (Directed by John Milius)
Was that an assignment?

No, I just thought it up.

But you got paid to write it.

Yeah, not very well. But it was enough. I didn’t need a lot. And then after that I wrote another bad script. I didn’t do a good job and I realized the reason I didn’t do a good job was because in both cases I was influenced by the people who had hired me. They said put this in and put that in, and I went along with it. Every time I went along with something in my whole career it usually didn’t work. Usually there’s a price to pay. You think of selling out, but there is a price to pay. Usually what people want you to do is make it current. They want you to make it relate to people in 2000.

To have ‘cultural resonance.’

Yeah, ‘cultural resonance.’ And of course, that’s always the worst shit. Cultural resonance is dated instantly. When I did Big Wednesday my first impresions were that I was going to do this coming-of-age story with Arthurian overtones about surfers that nobody took seriously, their troubled lives made larger than life by their experience with the sea. And that’s what the movie is. It never strayed from that. There was a lot of pressure to make it more like Animal House, but the movie has a huge following now because it did have loftier ambitions. It wasn’t just a story about somebody trying to ride the biggest wave or something. That’s not enough.

Dillinger (Directed by John Milius)
What place does the use of myth have in screenwriting?

Well, people talk about it all the know George Lucas talks about it all the time. He doesn’t know how to use it at all. He doesn’t understand myth at all. As illustrated by Phantom Menace. Writers who really understand myth don’t use it consciously. There are very few things that are truly mythical. There’s a lot of stuff that’s famous, but very few things that are the stuff of myth and legend.

I’m thinking more of classical mythology. Do you think that can empower a script in a way?

Yeah, I think there’s something there. See, myth is something where you feel an importance. The writer is relating something to an important story. If the hero has the heel of Achilles or something, then you might create a slight resonance to The Iliad – then in your gut you feel that this is important. I think the reason that The Iliad works is because nothing’s real clear. You know, it’s a story about war in which nobody is really sure what they’re fighting for, which makes it like all wars. Therefore it becomes myth.

The Mafia is myth. The Mafia is one of the great American myths. There are two truly great American myths, the myth of the Old West and the myth of the Mafia, and they’re both the same story. They’re about promise, about coming here with nothing, and the promise over the next horizon. They’re the same story, told in different ways. One’s told in the city, one’s told in the country. That’s why we love the Mafia. We never tire of the Mafia.

Are there any rituals that you put yourself through in your writing?

No, I just like to write at the end of the day because I like to think about it all day. And usually, I’ll try to avoid thinking about it, I’ll bullshit and talk to people all day long. I’ll do various acts of procrastination and then as the sun starts to get low and the shadows lengthen, guilt wells up.

Dillinger (Directed by John Milius)
Do you still try to write six pages a day?

Yeah, at least six. If I feel like going for more, I go for more. But I write no less than six – in longhand.

Keep away from the computer.

Yeah, it’s too easy to change things on the computer. You don’t have to handfit it, you know. And basically, this is hand work. There is no way to make precision parts and put them together. Every screenplay is different so it must be made by hand.

Now, you were able to option two scripts right out of film school.

Yeah. I lived pretty well on $15,000 a year back then, so $5,000 was a third of my income. If I went up to Malibu and shot a deer that cut the income down even further. I think the first year I made about $25,000. The second year I made about $40,000 or $50,000. I mean, I was as rich as a rajah.

So, the early scripts that you wrote attracted attention in the industry, they got you some small assignments and decent options.

I never got any assignments. I never got assignments from them. I had an agent sending me to their offices – I guess what they call ‘pitching’ today. I hate ‘pitch’ because it’s such an ugly term. It really describes the demeaning of the writer. Writers are treated like garbage, just stepped on and spit on. In my day, when I was hired as a young punk writer to write Apocalypse Now at Warner Bros., no one would dare think of hiring another writer. John Calley said, ‘This guy’s a genius. Leave him alone. He’s going to do this brilliant screenplay and most of all, he’s cheap.’ Nobody knew what it was going to be. He didn’t know whether I would turn out to be a good writer. But that’s the way they treated writers then.

Dirty Harry (Directed by Don Siegel)
A lot of that probably goes back to the demystification of screenwriting through all the books and seminars and tapes...

It is mystical. All creative work is mystical. How dare they demystify it? How dare they think they can demystify it? Especially when they can’t write. These guys who write these books, what’s their great literary legacy to us? What have they done? They don’t even write television episodes.

A writer’s greatest fear now is not that he’s going to be no good when he sits down to write. A writer’s greatest fear is that he’s going to be brilliant and that no one will read it, that no one can read it, that no one knows the difference because they read these stupid ‘How to write a screenplay’ books. It’s made people into idiots. In the old days the writer’s greatest fear was always, this time out, it just isn’t going to happen. I just won’t have the stuff. Now the fear is that I’ll have it, but those little jerks from Harvard Business School won’t be able to understand it. Because these MBAs can follow instructions, they read these books and say your script has to have these characters and those turning points. They ask questions like, ‘Who are you rooting for at the end of the first act?’ I was never conscious of my screenplays having any acts. I didn’t know what a character arc was. It’s all bullshit. Tell a story.

When I got in, you had to write all that stuff like ‘ext,’ ‘day,’ all the stuff that’s necessary, and then writers actually wrote, ‘we see so and so coming down the hall, she is a beautiful woman in her thirties and by her walk we can tell she’s a certain type...’ I threw it all out. I said, ‘I don’t want to write that. That doesn’t tell you what the story’s about.’ With The Wind and the Lion, the first line was ‘A gull screams, horses hooves spattered through the surf.’ I actually wrote it in the past tense because it was in the past. But I wrote Apocalypse Now in an active tense because I wanted it to have a crisp, military feel to it. Plus, Vietnam was still going on when I wrote it.

I remember fooling with the form a great deal then and I was respected for it. Today, you fool with it and they say, ‘Well this doesn’t follow the form.’ They don’t know what’s good. They don’t have any judgment. This isn’t just sour grapes. Look at the crap that’s made. I’ll put my titles up against anything these jerks produce.

Big Wednesday (Directed by John Milius)
Have you had to change the way you think about your own writing to try to get it past some of these people?

Never compromise excellence. To write for someone else is the biggest mistake that any writer makes. You should be your biggest competitor, your biggest critic, your biggest fan, because you don’t know what anybody else thinks. How arrogant it is to assume that you know the market, that you know what’s popular today – only Steven Spielberg knows what’s popular today. Only Steven Spielberg will ever know what’s popular. So leave it to him. He’s the only one in the history of man who has ever figured that out. Write what you want to see. Because if you don’t, you’re not going to have any true passion in it, and it’s not going to be done with any true artistry.

So is it that passion that ultimately sells and makes people interested in a project?

Not necessarily. It’s that passion that makes for good writing, but a lot of tricky writing, a lot of gimmicky writing sells. That doesn’t mean it’s good. Most of the people who talk about how wonderful they are, about their great reputations and their great careers as writers, and being able to write what sells, don’t have very many credits. They may do rewrites and work occasionally, but they don’t have a body of work or a voice because nobody cares. There’s a million other people just like them.

Jeremiah Johnson (Directed by Sydney Pollack)
In those initial scripts, were you developing your perspective, your voice as a writer?

The real breaking point where I knew – and it was almost overnight – that I had become a good writer with a voice was Jeremiah Johnson. When I started working on that, it was called The Crow Killer and I knew that material. I’d lived in the mountains, I had a trapline, I hunted, and I had a lot of experiences with characters up there. So, it was real easy to write that and there was a humor to it, a kind of bigger-than-life attitude. I was inspired by Carl Sandberg. I read a lot of his poetry and it’s this kind of abrupt description – ‘a train is coming, thundering steel, where are you going? Wichita.’ That great kind of feeling that he had, that’s what I was trying to do there. I remember there was a great poem about American braggarts. You know, American liars – ‘I am the ring-tailed cousin to the such and such that ate so and so and I can do this and I can do that better than Mike Fink the river man...’ I just realized that this was the voice that the script had to have. It was as clear as a bell. I knew that writing was particular to me.

Sydney Pollack and Robert Redford didn’t trust me very much at first, though. I wasn’t really housebroken in those days. I was a wild surfer kid, you know, and they preferred their writers to be more intellectual. And so they would get the intellectual writers to try and rewrite it and they’d have to hire me back because none of those guys could write that dialogue. None of those guys understood that stuff. They didn’t understand the mountains. They didn’t understand what a mountain man was. I love mountain men. I’d love to write a mountain man story today.

Was that based on an historical figure? 

Yeah. Though it changed a great deal. That was when I really realized I had the voice. And I think what gave me something there that I didn’t have before is that I allowed a sense of humor to take over, a sense of absurdity – that was the spirit of the thing. ‘I, Hatchet Jack, do leaveth my Barr rifle to whatever finds it. Lord hope it be a white man.’

Jeremiah Johnson (Directed by Sydney Pollack)
So you wrote ‘Jeremiah Johnson’, but then you weren’t able to sell it.

No, I wrote it for nothing. I wrote it for $5,000. And then I was offered a deal to rewrite a Western script [Skin Game] for $17,000. But Francis [Ford Coppola] had this Zoetrope deal at Warner Bros. and asked me, ‘How much do you need to live on?’ I said, ‘$15,000.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll get you $15,000 to do your Vietnam thing. You and George [Lucas],’ because George was going to direct it. He offered that wonderful fork in the road where I could go do my own thing rather than just rewrite some piece of crap that would probably be rewritten by somebody else. That was the most important decision I made in my life as a writer. That sort of steered me onto the path of doing my own work and being a little more like a novelist. Today I see writers making the exact opposite decision, taking the $17,000 again and again.

Two grand more.

I see them always taking the two grand more because it’ll help their careers, they’ll get to work with a real big producer, they’ll be in a big office, they will be working on a greenlit movie, and it’s going to star someone who’s hot. They always take that job, every time. Whereas I tackled an unpopular subject that no one was going to make a movie about where the chances were really slim that I could pull it off. There was no book, nothing but me and the blank page. And that was wonderful because I had followed my heart. One of the nicest times in my life was writing Apocalypse Now.

What kind of guidance did you get from Coppola or anyone else in writing it?

None. Francis was very good about that. Francis wanted us to be artists, like him. He didn’t want to interfere with anybody. He wanted you to go out and write your scripts and if you couldn’t do it, if you went to him and whined and said, ‘Gee, I need some help,’ he didn’t have much regard for that. You know, he expected you to be independent and he was giving you a wonderful opportunity to be independent of anybody else. But people did go to him and complain and whine all the time. All the time.

Apocalypse Now (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
Had you thought about ‘Apocalypse Now’ at all in the interim?

Yeah, somewhat. I never think about any story too much. I sort of know where they’re going and I know specific things are going to happen to them along the way, but I don’t know when they go do this and when they go do that, because if you do know all that, for me anyway – I mean other people write it all down on little cards – I don’t want to know what’s going to go on. I want the people to surprise me each day. I have no idea how I’m going to make transitions from one scene to another. I have no idea where they’re really going to go and the thing I just wrote. On my latest script, Manila John, I had a voyage of discovery because I had my own ideas on who this character was and what he did and in the middle of writing it I found the man who knew him and who saw him die and idolized him back then, and he completely changed my mind about what I thought the script was really going to be, and that was wonderful.

How do you approach getting inside the heads of your characters?

You get to know them and perceive the way they’d say things and view things. Like Manila John, he comes from New Jersey, so he’s always going to call a girl a dame. You know? A dame, a broad, or a doxie.

Did you go back in then on ‘Apocalypse Now’ and rethink what you had written?

I didn’t need to because I had left it open. I knew what the beginning would be. I knew sort of what the end would be, and I knew certain things would happen in the middle. It was the same with Apocalypse Now. I knew where it was going to end, I knew Kurtz was at the end of the river, but I didn’t know how we were going to get to him. I knew somewhere along the line there would be the first obstacle, this character Kharnage [Kilgore in the film] who was really like the Cyclops in The Iliad, and then there are the Sirens, who are Playboy bunnies. But basically I didn’t know where I’d find them, or what would happen. When I was writing Apocalypse Now I wanted them to meet people and become involved in the war, but I could never think of anything that was appropriate. Every time I would get them into a firefight or an ambush or something it would degenerate into just another meaningless Vietnam war scene. They had to be thrown into the war at its most insane and most intense.

Apocalypse Now (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
Did Coppola just tell you to go for it, pull out all the stops and realize your vision? Be out there as far as you can be?

Absolutely. Absolutely. You have to also discipline yourself to pull it in afterwards and make sense of it. But you’ve really got to go for it. The worst thing about today’s films is the complete lack of ambition. I mean, look at all these independent films that should be interesting. Most of them are about a bad dope deal in the Valley. The rest of them are about a homosexual love affair that’s misunderstood. There’s really just not a lot of ambition there.

I find the violent films to be particularly onerous. There’s a lot of shooting and killing, and people turning on each other and they’re kind of supposed to be the film noir of the ’90s, but they’re not. They’re all about punks. Everybody gets killed and you sit there and say, ‘God, I’m glad that person got wasted,’ you know. ‘At least I got to see it.’

Some brain on the wall.

Yeah, at least you got to see that guy get knifed and that bitch get shotgunned to death. You know, I got my money’s worth.

So, did you do any rewrites on ‘Apocalypse Now’ with Lucas after your draft was done? 

No. People didn’t do that in those days. They didn’t sit there and interfere. They took things for what they were, and when Francis and I rewrote the script it was when it was being made. The script remained the same ‘til Francis really decided to make the movie, and then we went in and reexamined everything. That was part of a process.

Apocalypse Now (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
Do you think you’ve gotten enough credit for your writing on ‘Apocalypse Now’?

Oh, yeah. I get full credit for the movie. I mean, I get credit for writing the movie. And Francis gets the credit for directing, which he certainly deserves because no one could have – if I’d have made it or anybody would have made it, it would have never been as good as that. But I get the credit and it’s a Milius movie. It’s not a Coppola movie. A Coppola movie is The Godfather. He was the one who said very early on, ‘I will make this movie more like you than you are, you know? I made Mario Puzo’s The Godfather more like Mario Puzo than he is.’ There’s a thing that Francis did in this movie and in The Godfather, a sense of the theatrical. A sense of grand, epic storytelling that none of us could have done. So ultimately, he gets the full credit. I mean, I get credit as the writer, I get the credit like Mankiewicz did in writing Citizen Kane. But what is Citizen Kane without Orson Welles making it?

It just seems to me that the perception is out there, perhaps fanned by Bahr and Hickenlooper’s documentary ‘Hearts of Darkness’, that Coppola was out there in the Philippines writing the script and essentially improvising what he didn’t write. 

No, I think I get enough credit. Hickenlooper’s just trying to kiss Francis’s ass all the time. When the movie first came out, Francis tried to hog all the credit, but not any more. He gives the credit to me and to everybody else, because everybody who worked on that movie suffered and has credit for it. It stained everybody’s lives. We were messing with the war and war is sacred. There’s something about that war. It’s just, you know, obscene and sacred. You mess with it, you’re going to get your life fucked with.

Apocalypse Now (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
In the past you’ve called ‘Apocalypse Now’ a young man’s film. Do you think you could write its equal today?

I’d be different, you know. I’d be a lot different. Apocalypse had a certain outrageousness to it. It went headlong into things. The worst thing I could do now would be to try to do something like Apocalypse. You can’t go back and recapture that power...

What does a screenwriter owe his audience beyond a satisfying tale?

A certain honesty. A screenwriter has to be able to put it on the line. I didn’t have another agenda. I didn’t do something because I thought it was going to make me rich. I didn’t do something because I thought it was going to make me loved. I didn’t do something because I thought it was going to be hip. I did the best I could and put out something that I believed in…

You have a certain flamboyance. Do you think that helped you in building your career in Hollywood?

Yeah. I think that all the people who are successful in Hollywood have a flair for flamboyance. Francis certainly does, he’s the most flamboyant of all. And I guess you could say Spielberg has a flamboyance in a way. If you don’t have that kind of flair for being a showman, for being an entertainer, then you’re not going to live with this business very well. But to be truly flamboyant you have to be about something.

Apocalypse Now (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
The scripts of yours that I’ve read have an interesting style. It’s very much cast against the current Hollywood style where writers are warned against long, descriptively detailed passages and long speeches that are meaningful. Did that style just flow out of you, or is it something that you saw elsewhere?

No, I suppose it came from a real desire to do novels. Yeah, today is minimalist, isn’t it? I don’t know how they do it...

Do you find the anonymity of rewrite work exasperating?

I don’t even think about it. You take the job because it’s money and then hopeeully within the job you get to do a couple of scenes where you can really, you know, you can do good riff. Like a musician, you get a couple of good riffs and it feels good, and then you just take the money and go off to another gig.

You’ve rewritten a lot of screenplays by other writers for the films you’ve directed. How do you go about making the material your own?

You have to find something in it that you really like...

What’s the best atmosphere for a writer to work in?

Well, I think Francis was right. I think that you’ve got to say to the guy, ‘Go out and do your best and I’ll be here to help you. You can bounce stuff off, but I’m not going to be here to pick you up. I’m not going to be here to tell you what to do.’ Because the minute you start telling them what to do, you’ve lost...

– ‘John Milius: Interviewed by Erik Bauer’. Creative Screenwriting, Vol 7, #2 (March/April 2000)

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Frank Darabont: On Adapting Stephen King – II. The Green Mile

The Green Mile (Directed by Frank Darabont)
Creative Screenwriting Magazine caught up with writer and director Frank Darabont in 1997 and 2000 as he was finishing some pick-up shots on The Green Mile. An adaptation of King’s serialized novel of the same name, The Green Mile tells the story of Paul Edgecomb, who in 1935 must balance his humanity with his job as a guard on the Green Mile (death row) in Cold Mountain Penitentiary. Paul’s views of life, death, and humanity are challenged with the arrival of John Coffey, a gentle giant convicted of a horrible crime who has a magical effect on the guards, the inmates, and a mouse.

What did you bring to the adaptation of ‘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.

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.

When did you arrive at that point?

Post-Shawshank. Pretty much in the last couple of years, writing The Green Mile, doing work for Steven [Spielberg] on Saving Private Ryan, and some of the other things that I’ve been working on in the last three years or so [his ongoing adaptation of the Robert R. McCammon novel, Mine]. It doesn’t make them any less challenging to write. You always feel like you’re making it up for the first time as you’re going along, as if you’ve never done the job before. But at least I figure I have a decent shot at making it work. So I’m a little more relaxed about that aspect of it. I’m hoping that one day I can look that way at directing.

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.

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.

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.

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. And it will be fascinating to see what conclusions are drawn by the people who see it. Because I’m not sure that I’ve drawn my own yet.

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.

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 an E-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.

‘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.

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].

You worked for years writing genre films, dealing with creatures and monsters. And then you become known as the ‘Shawshank’ guy, the warm-hearted guy who makes us glow when we walk out of the theater.

I loved it when Shawshank came out. There were a number of reviewers who pondered, ‘Where the hell did this guy come from? He did Nightmare 3, he did The Blob, he did The Fly II. Where the hell did this come from?’ That was funny. Most recently, there was some mention of me in the trades: ‘Darabont, known for star-driven drama...’ I thought, ‘Wow! Off of one movie!’ Very funny how the perception of people changes as time goes by. You’re remembered for your last movie more than anything in this town.

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.

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.

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...

– Extracted from ‘Frank Darabont Interviewed By Daniel Argent & Erik Bauer’ Creative Screenwriting, Volume 4, #2 (Summer 1997) & Volume 6, #6 (November/December 1999)

For Part One of this Interview (on The Shawshank Redemption) click on the link here

Friday, 3 May 2013

Frank Darabont: On Adapting Stephen King – The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption (Directed by Frank Darabont) 
Frank Arpad Darabont was born in 1959 in Montebeliard, France, the son of Hungarian refugees who had fled Budapest during the failed 1956 revolution. Brought to America while still a baby, Darabont graduated from Hollywood High School in 1977 and began his film career as a production assistant on a low-budget 1980 horror movie called Hell Night. After working nine years in the industry as a set dresser and production assistant while he struggled to master his writing craft, Darabont sold Black Cat Run in 1986 (it took over a decade for the story to reach the screen as an HBO film in 1998). Since then, Darabont has written extensively in film, many times in the horror and SF genres, co-scripting such screenplays as Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (his first produced credit), The Blob, and The Fly II. He has also done uncredited rewrites on such films as Eraser and Saving Private Ryan, as well as writing eight episodes of George Lucas’s television show The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

In 1980 Darabont wrote to Stephen King, asking him for the rights to adapt his short story The Woman in the Room. King assented, and Darabont wrote and directed his first short film. Then in the late ’80s Darabont again approached King, this time asking permission to adapt King’s novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. His screenplay The Shawshank Redemption (which he also directed) would win him the USC Scriptor Award (shared with Stephen King) and the Humanitas Prize – in addition to being nominated for an Academy Award, a Writers Guild Award, and a Golden Globe. The film continues to be a favorite on the Internet Movie Database ( The extract which follows is taken from an interview with Creative Screenwriting in which Frank Darabont discusses adapting the work of Stephen King:

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 old-fashioned. 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.

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 story? 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.

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?

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.

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 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?

Was there?

If you look at it, yes.

Well, you’re right. 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. 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 wide-angle, 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.

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.

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 pre-structurer. 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?

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...

– Extracted from ‘Frank Darabont Interviewed By Daniel Argent & Erik Bauer’ Creative Screenwriting, Volume 4, #2 (Summer 1997) & Volume 6, #6 (November/December 1999)

For Part Two of this interview click on the link here