Monday 11 March 2019

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

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