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There are few modern dramas more beloved than The Shawshank Redemption, Frank Darabont’s 1994 classic starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, based on Stephen King’s 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. It was the first of three King adaptations by the 57-year-old writer/director, who began his Hollywood career writing horror films like A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors and The Fly II. Those initial gigs led him behind the camera, resulting in favorites like The Green Mile and The Mist, as well as his role as creator and showrunner of AMC’s zombie-apocalypse TV series The Walking Dead (from which he had a public split in 2011). This Sunday, he’ll discuss his celebrated oeuvre with filmmaker/host Robert Rodriguez on El Rey’s The Director’s Chair. In advance of that TV appearance, we spoke with him about his fondness for Stephen King, the enduring appeal of Shawshank, and the unbelievably bleak (and unforgettable) conclusion to The Mist.
I have to start with arguably my all-time favorite movie ending, in The Mist. Without treading into spoiler territory, can you tell me: WHY?!?
[Laughs] I was in something of a mean mood at the moment.
‘The Mist’: Watch the trailer:
When I first read Steve’s [Stephen King] story back a zillion years ago [in 1980’s Dark Forces anthology], I thought, “Wow, that’s a great story,” but I thought that for a movie, it should have a more conclusive sort of feeling. So I was trying to puzzle through what that conclusive ending would be, and he kind of lays the groundwork for that, actually. There’s a line of the story where he contemplates that eventuality. And I thought, well, that seems like a clear marker for me, that Steve laid in there.
When that came to me, it just felt like the kind of Twilight Zone ending that really stays with you. You know, “Time Enough at Last” where Burgess Meredith breaks his glasses — that kind of ending, where you’re like “Oh no, if he’d only waited two more minutes!” I liked the horrendous irony of it. At that time, I was feeling a little bit pissed off at the world. There’s definitely a political element to that movie, which you don’t have to look too hard to see. Though it’s not a political movie, it’s in many ways a very political movie. I was feeling a little angry at the world, and at our country at that time [The Mist was released in 2007], so it felt like a valid way to end a movie. It doesn’t always have to be a happy ending. It shouldn’t always be a happy ending. Having grown up in the ’70s, it wasn’t always a happy ending. And I always loved endings like that.
But I thought, “OK, I’m going to let Steve decide. If Stephen King reads my script and says, ‘Dude, what are you doing, are you out of your mind? You can’t end my story this way,’ then I would actually not have made the movie.” But he read it and said, “Oh, I love this ending. I wish I’d thought of it.” He said that, once a generation, a movie should come along that just really pisses the audience off, and flips their expectations of a happy ending right on the head. He pointed to the original Night of the Living Dead as one of those endings that just scarred you.
And it felt OK to me! On balance, it seems like, thematically, it’s a pretty good companion piece to Shawshank, in a weird way. Because if Shawshank is the movie about the value of hope, then The Mist becomes a movie about the danger of hopelessness. And believe me, I knew that it was going to be one of those endings that people either really dug, or really hated. I was OK with that, because I think that at the end of the day, we should be willing to go either direction. It shouldn’t always be about making the audience love you and about pandering to their approval. So I’m glad to hear that you really like it. That’s awesome.
I’d say I’ve watched that movie more than any other from the past decade…
Weirdly, my mother likes it the most. And my wife likes it the most, of all the movies I’ve made. They think The Mist is the best one. When they told me this, I said, “Ma, what about Shawshank?” And she said, “Oh, that’s good. But I really like The Mist.”
Mom, I had no idea you were into flesh-eating tentacles and carnage! [laughs] But there you go.
As you said, Shawshank is the hopeful opposite of The Mist — and I know you originally thought about making the latter your directorial debut, before opting for Shawshank. Was the reason for that decision because you thought it would be easier to get a more upbeat film produced for your directing debut?
It was funny, because I’d done a short film, 1983’s The Woman in the Room, which is based on Steve’s story, and he really liked that. A couple of years had gone by, and my writing career was just finally getting into gear, and I was thinking that maybe I should think of a directing project. For me, I loved both The Mist and Shawshank Redemption. I loved them both for different reasons, but it’s Steve King writing at his best.
I remember trying to decide which project to ask him for. I was going to write him a letter and ask him for the rights to one or the other of those stories. So I was kind of wrestling with this, and then I met Michael De Luca on the set of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 , which was my first produced project as a writer; Chuck Russell and I wrote it and he directed it. [De Luca] had just been hired at New Line, and it was his first time on a set. We started chatting, and that’s where I got to know Mike; he was a baby executive and I was a baby writer. He said, “What are you thinking of doing next?” and I said I was thinking of asking Steve King for the rights to one or the other story. I told him the two stories, and he said, “If you were doing this tomorrow, which one would you rather be directing?” Which I thought was a really smart question. Which one is speaking more directly to your heart at this moment? And I said, “Well, I really love The Mist, but I think Shawshank is the one that would speak the loudest.” And he said, “Ask him for that one.”
While making Shawshank, did you have any inkling that it would become this sort of phenomenon? I can’t think of another movie that’s had the same sort of life cycle.
I know, it’s bizarre and wonderful, isn’t it? It’s a wonderful feeling.
I had two feelings every day of the shoot. There’s that sinking feeling you got where, OK, I had to get five shots one day that I wasn’t able to get. So you kind of feel like a failure that day, and you walk off the set going, “Am I screwing this thing up?” Then there’s the other part of me that was saying, “The stuff we’re getting is very solid, and it’s really telling the story.” And at the end of the day, if you’ve told the story, you’re doing the job right.
When we were done shooting, I was exhausted, and not sure if I ever wanted to direct again, because it really takes it out of you. But I felt we had a really good movie, and that if audiences gave it a chance, they would like it. Once we had a cut of it and started doing test screenings, that proved to be the case. The people who saw it really dug it. The trick was getting people to see it. When it came out, it really didn’t do well at first. There was some talk about the awkwardness of the title — you know, that the title worked against you. Well, you know what? Forrest Gump is a worse title, except it was a very successful movie, because everyone went to see it, so nobody questions that title. [Laughs] It’s a great movie, but it just overcame what we didn’t overcome, if the title is the issue.
With Shawshank, I think the issue was more that it was a prison movie, it had two significant actors in it, and I think people looked at that trailer and thought, “Oh, this is going to bum me out.” I honestly think that was more the factor, by far, than the title. If it’s an action movie behind bars, then an audience will automatically show up for it. If it’s Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, then it looks like a spoonful of medicine. So people didn’t show up.
Luckily, enough members of the Academy saw it that we got the seven Oscar nominations that year, and in that year’s broadcast, our movie’s title was mentioned seven times, which was amazing! Talk about trumping any advertising effort you could make. You have all these great movies, like Pulp Fiction and Quiz Show and Four Weddings and a Funeral — and then there’s the movie that nobody went to see! [Laughs] I think people went, “Oh, I should rent that!” So from ’94, when the movie came out and failed at the box office, until ’95, we became the most rented video of ’95. True Lies was No. 2. So that was an amazing way of getting the movie seen. It was a huge help. I always felt that the Academy came to our rescue, by giving us the nominations.
But also, Ted Turner had a lot to do with it, because Turner owned Castle Rock Entertainment for a brief period of time when I made the movie. And when he sold it, I believe he retained the right to broadcast movies that had been made while it was in his ownership. So Turner started airing Shawshank on TV like every five minutes for years, because I don’t think it cost him anything! [Laughs] There was this endless opportunity for people to catch up with it on a Turner network, and so I bless Ted Turner as well. Because he played the heck out of it.
Though The Mist features some actual monsters, all three of your King adaptations are rooted in human villainy and ugliness. Is that what drew you to those stories in particular?
Yes. Even in The Mist, the monsters outside are only the context for the monsters who are your friends and neighbors, who you really have to worry about. Again, that’s one of the reasons I love Steve’s story so much.
I was a kid who grew up reading Famous Monsters of Filmland, and staying up until all hours of the night to catch Attack of the Puppet People because it had monsters in it. I was one of those guys. Greg Nicotero [special effects guru and director on The Walking Dead], who’s a good buddy of mine, we basically had the same childhood, as it turns out, because we would do the same thing. We would take the TV Guide, mark off every monster movie that was going to be airing that week, and make every effort to watch them all.
However, I always loved real humanistic storytelling as well. And what Steve King did — and why his work was so revolutionary — was combine the two. He took that pulp tradition of the fur and the fangs and the tentacles and the scary face that pops out and says, “Boo,” and he worked in human storytelling that was as valid as any other school of literature, and told these incredibly compelling stories. That’s why his work sticks like chewing gum, and it’s why in 100 years people are still going to be reading him.
I’m also a die-hard King fan, and I’ve been selling him to my kids in that very way.
He’s brilliant. I mean, truly one of the all-time greats. It’s this knack he has — regardless of the fantastic elements that he has in play, it’s the human journey through his stories that keeps you riveted, even more than the plotting or the cool ghoulish effects of whatever. It’s that human story that he’s so damned good at! And I’ve been kind of blown away by Joe Hill’s work too [King’s son], for the same reason. Have you read Joe’s work?
No, not yet.
Read Nosferatu. It’s like reading a classic Stephen King novel from about 1979. It’s the weirdest thing — it’s like going back in time 30 years. He’s like a genetic carbon copy of his dad; he’s got the same muscular talent as a writer. I think their brains just work the same way, and I think that’s a big compliment. Nosferatu is just an absolute delight. It kept me glued, first page to last, and I really, really recommend it.
You’ve been busy this decade with TV’s The Walking Dead and then Mob City, and you consequently haven’t made a film since The Mist. Any urge to get back to movies?
I’m thinking about it. Coming to grips with the fact that the business has changed vastly and dramatically, and that nobody quite knows where it’s going, has been like trying to get your bearings on shifting ice. I was very proud of Mob City, and I really devoted a very intense year to it. And that came on the heels of several very intense years on The Walking Dead. At the end of Mob City, I came in for a bit of a rough landing. I had to go in for spine surgery because I had two discs rupture while we were posting Mob City. And I realized that, from that first gig of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 to the end of Mob City, I hadn’t really stopped for 28 years. It was 28 years of just ruthless pressure, and three decades just blew by me in a blur. I felt like a guy on a bullet train.
And so I married this amazing woman, and I decided to take some real time off. We moved out of L.A., up to the central coast in Monterey, and I love it here and I’ve just been recovering from the last 28 years. It’s a sabbatical. Who knows, it could be retirement — ask Hollywood! [Laughs] Whether they invite me back in or not, who knows? But I’m now at the point where I’m thinking that I’ve still got a few good movies left in me, and maybe it’s time to get back into it and see what I can do.
I’ll tell you one thing — this is like crying over the fact that things aren’t what they used to be, but I sure am sad that there isn’t a Castle Rock anymore, because Castle Rock was the platinum standard of a studio, in terms of how to treat filmmakers, and how to gracefully go about your business. They made so many great movies, and had a great run of success, and I was so spoiled, without really knowing it, when I started directing. I didn’t realize how privileged a position I was in, and how well I was being treated. I knew I was being treated well, but looking back on it, they treated everyone like gold — so respectful and supportive and loving.
And that’s not how everybody does it, so… [Laughs] It’s not that easy to get anybody to say, “Yes,” for starters. Hollywood is an endless series of obstacles and roadblocks, basically. Whereas at Castle Rock, if you handed them a script and they really liked it, they said, “Oh, great, let’s make this!” It was that simple to get Shawshank green-lit. The Green Mile, same thing.
So I’m sorry that they’re not around anymore, and I wish there was a place out there that had that same vibe. But that’s what you get when you have a company that’s founded by filmmakers [Castle Rock Entertainment was co-founded by Rob Reiner] who are nothing but supportive and respectful.
And interested in other artists.
And believe that movies are an art form! Oh dear God, I sound like an old guy — stop me! [Laughs]
You began your career writing horror films, and you segued back into that territory with The Mist and The Walking Dead. Is that where you envision yourself heading in the future, creatively?
Funny enough, Shawshank pigeonholed me as this classy filmmaker, and then I did The Green Mile, which pigeonholed me even more as a classy filmmaker [Laughs]. The thing is, when I was younger, I thought, “If I’m lucky enough to ever get to make movies, I’m probably going to wind up following in John Carpenter’s footsteps. Chances are, I’ll be a genre guy. And that’s great — I adore John Carpenter.” And I thought that would be a really honorable career to have. So for me to go back to The Mist was a conscious decision to go back to the genre, because that was always my first love.
Listen, the horizon is clear and the sky is blue right now. I’d love to make the movie that I’m going to fall in love with the most, however that defines itself. If it’s a pure genre piece, great. If it’s more of a human drama along the lines of Shawshank or Green Mile, also great. I’m not really imposing an idea or a template on that pursuit. It’s whatever you fall in love with most, you ought to go in that direction, right?
Watch a clip of Darabont on ‘The Director’s Chair:’