Postcard: Beverly hills
Some films, such as the Oscar-winning 1939 civil war epic Gone With the Wind, resonate with audiences on release, but others, such as Frank Capra's 1946 yuletide tale It's a Wonderful Life, take time to become part of the cultural lexicon.
In that latter category is The Shawshank Redemption, which languished at the box office upon its cinematic release in the autumn of 1994, but became enormously popular on home video and cable after receiving seven Oscar nominations including for best film, lead actor (for Morgan Freeman) and adapted screenplay (for writer-director Frank Darabont).
Last week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences celebrated the 20th anniversary of the humanistic prison drama, which didn't end up with any Academy Awards. Today, however, it is No1 on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb)'s Top 250 list of films as voted by the website's users.
Darabont believes audiences initially stayed away because it was a prison movie without any action. "It looked to the casual observer like a spoonful of medicine," he says. "One of those movies that just kind of looks like it's going to be a difficult chore to sit through."
The filmmaker says the turning point was the Oscar nominations. "Nobody had heard of the movie, [but] that year on the Oscar broadcast, they were mentioning this movie seven times," he says.
The academy's director of programming, Bernardo Rondeau, believes the film has become a modern-day favourite because "it balances humour and poignancy".
"It takes a very hard look at the realities of incarceration, and then sometimes, it almost has a dreamlike feel to it," he adds. "I think it connected to people, because it feels timeless in a way."
Based on Stephen King's 1982 novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the story chronicles 20 years in the lives of two inmates at the brutal Shawshank State Prison: Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding (Freeman), a convicted murderer who narrates the film, and Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a young banker falsely accused of murdering his wife, who finds a strong ally and friend in Red.
"It was the best script I had ever read," says Robbins.
Freeman recalls being sent the script by his agent. "Nobody said what part to read for," he says. "So I read it and when I called to find out what part they wanted me to consider, he said Red." The actor was thrilled because Red was the lead character. "He was the movie," says Freeman. "I said, 'I'll do it.'"
The Shawshank Redemption was a true passion project for Darabont, who made his feature directorial debut with the film. He had previously adapted and directed the 1983 short film The Woman in the Room, based on another Stephen King short story.
"[King] had done a dollar deal with me for Woman in the Room, which was a policy he had for student or young filmmakers who wanted to make a short movie out of one of his shorter pieces," says the filmmaker. He recalls writing a cheque for a few thousand dollars to option Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. "But the truth is, Stephen never cashed the cheque," says Darabont, who later adapted and directed the 1999 Oscar-nominated adaptation of King's The Green Mile.
"He held onto it and sent it back to me years later framed," says Darabont. "He signed on the matte of the frame - something to the effect - 'Just in case you ever need bail money, Love, Steve.'"
Red is a middle-aged Irishman in the novella, but as soon as Freeman was suggested for the role, "he became a very good, obvious choice", says Darabont. "Certainly, he never dawned on me when I was writing it. But when someone like Morgan is mentioned, you get the surprise and delight of picturing that actor in the role."
The filmmaker was drawn to Robbins after re-watching him in the 1990 psychological horror film Jacob's Ladder. "There is something enigmatic and fascinating about this actor," Darabont says. "I thought he and Morgan would have terrifically interesting chemistry on-screen, and they did."
They also developed a bond off-screen. "I [felt] from the start that Morgan was a person I could hang out with. We were on the same page regarding the script," Robbins says.
Los Angeles Times