Monday 4 March 2019

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

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