'The Shawshank Redemption' Turns 25: Frank Darabont Reflects on the Journey From Box Office Bomb to Oscar Nominee

Courtesy of Photofest; Emma McIntyre/Getty Images
'The Shawshank Redemption,' (Inset: Frank Darabont)

The director recalls the "slow burn" of the film's success, from test screenings that earned 98 percent audience scores to poor ticket sales to a slew of award nominations to the film's location — Mansfield, Ohio — achieving celebrity status.

"I remember the very first movie I ever saw in a theater. My big brother Andy took me to see Robinson Crusoe on Mars at the World Theater on Hollywood Boulevard — which is no longer there — it was full-color, on the big screen, [and it] blew my mind," recalls director Frank Darabont. "Movies had me at 'hello.' "

Ahead of the 25th anniversary of Darabont's 1994 directorial debut, The Shawshank Redemption, which Fathom Events and TCM Big Screen Classics are re-releasing in theaters from Sept. 22 to 25, the filmmaker happily summons his memories of shooting the Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins-starrer that earned seven Oscar nominations. Though, as the director explains, it wasn't good news from the beginning. 

After gaining the confidence to attempt a character-driven adaptation of Stephen King's novella and then writing the movie in eight weeks, shooting for 71 days, screening the finished product at the Berlin Film Festival and participating in a "whirlwind press junket," Darabont was frustrated by the initial reaction.

"When the movie was released, it didn't do very well at the box office, which was a tremendous letdown and [gave me] a profound sense of disappointment," he says, adding that the film had earned 97 and 98 percent scores at test screenings. "But we couldn't convince people to actually go see the movie, because, I think it appeared to be kind of a bleak film. People thought it was going to be a bummer."

According to Box Office Mojo, the film originally opened in 33 theaters and made $727,327. The lifetime gross is $28,341,469.

THR's original 1994 review of the film states, "Frank Darabont's writing and direction are generally crisp, but Shawshank is a tough watch and audiences could use some time cut from its 142 minutes." Despite its unenthusiastic reception from filmgoers, the movie generally received positive reviews, which was a turn for the better.

But arguably the best outcome happened when Academy voters got involved and saw the movie via screeners, leading to the film's seven Oscar nominations including best picture and best adapted screenplay. And then Turner Classic Movies started airing the movie "every five minutes," Darabont says, which gave the film "tremendous exposure." He adds, "So this interesting slow burn happened, where the movie just started to find its audience, accrue credibility and attract a kind of devotion that is amazing, humbling and surreal. From a not great box office release to the most rented video of 1995, it was a really good result."

Sharing details about Shawshank is not difficult for Darabont, since he's not one of those directors who can't bear to see his own film after the editing is completed or the movie has been released. On the contrary, Darabont revisits the film every time there's an anniversary event, such as now. "I can't believe it's been 25 years, my god!" he exclaims, adding that he recently visited Mansfield, Ohio, where the movie was shot and where the prison is set in the film, to take part in panels and autograph signings. "They are so proud of being the hometown of the movie," Darabont explains. "And nowadays they have a tourist industry that never existed, because of the film. They have annual celebrations." 

Recalling his time directing Freeman and Robbins, Darabont notes that it was "a great experience in learning that every actor is different, and the director needs to be a barometer for what the actor needs or doesn't need." He says that Freeman worked from the gut and needed little conversation, while Robbins came more from the intellect and thrived on conversation. "I always felt a great comfort level, because they're great actors," says Darabont.

Throughout his career, wherein he created The Walking Dead and follow-up features such as The Green Mile and The Mist, Darabont is often reminded of a piece of filmmaking advice that he received from screenwriter and Kramer vs. Kramer director Robert Benton: "Every day of filmmaking feels like a failure, because you had to give up something." As Darabont explains, Benton was referring to the pressure of the ticking clock; how every director walks onto the set with a set of creative ambitions for the film, and every day, because of the demanding schedule, they have to give up a handful of things they really want to do to make the film better.

"I've remembered his words of wisdom so often since then, anytime I've had a day when I felt beaten by the clock, when I've had to give up something, I always think of what Robert Benton told me and I take comfort from it," Darabont says.

Upon landing in Los Angeles from Chicago at age five, and arriving in Chicago from Hungary before that, when his parents fled the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and carried infant Darabont, he says, in a picnic basket, the director recalls his discovery of "shock theater packages" — all the old Universal monster movies that had been sold to television stations around the nation. He rattles off a list of titles: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and King Kong, movies he loved from a very early age.

As he got older, Darabont sought out L.A.'s revival houses "that existed before videotapes in the early Jurassic," viewing films like Lawrence of Arabia, Slaughterhouse Five, The Wild Bunch, A Clockwork Orange and Doctor Strangelove. "Sometimes the prints were pristine," Darabont says, "sometimes they were tattered and scratched, but it didn't matter as long as it was the experience of seeing them projected as they were meant to be seen."

Near the end of the interview, I bring Darabont's attention to the fact that his IMDb profile indicates that he picked up writing skills partially from his childhood friend Cody Hills. "I have never heard of Cody Hills," he says, perplexed. After explaining that he was inspired to write from a robust group of authors and filmmakers, including Ray Bradbury, Frank Capra and Rod Serling, he then points out how everybody thinks he is married to Karyn Wagner, his costume designer on The Green Mile. (Sure enough, a quick Google search of "Frank Darabont marriage" conjures numerous pages that are under the impression he is wed to Wagner. Darabont identifies his actual wife, Sara Rae, who is not listed.)

"She is a dear friend, but we've never been married," Darabont says, "some knucklehead put that online and it gets repeated and repeated."

Circling back to The Shawshank Redemption, Darabont expresses gratitude for the continuing relevance of the film and recognizes its enduring legacy. "It's a really good feeling, to have something like that in your past," he concludes. "It just...never went away."