Friday, May 13, 2016

Directorial Debut: Frank Darabont's THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION

Welcome to a new segment here at Merc With a Movie Blog called DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS, where we look at some of the best, most interesting and iconic directors and the films that started their careers. First up to the plate is what I consider to be the ultimate debut, Frank Darabont's masterpiece, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION.

Darabont, born in France and moved to the U.S as an infant, became inspired to pursue a career in film when he first saw the George Lucas movie, THX 1138. He worked odd jobs after finishing high school and became involved in the film industry working as a production assistant; mostly on schlocky horror movies. The first film he wrote and directed was short adaptation of horror legend Stephen King's short story, The Woman In The Room. The short was a semi-finalist for Academy Awards consideration, and one of the first of King's famous 'Dollar Babies'. King would grant the rights to adapt his short stories to student filmmakers for $1, and still does to this day. Although Darabont wasn't happy with how his short turned out, it gave him something better; a relationship with Stephen King that led to a handshake deal between them for Darabont to make The Shawshank Redemption, another of King's short stories.

Darabont wrote some screenplays in the late 80s and early 90s, for films including A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and The Blob, and also directed a made-for-tv movie called Buried Alive in 1990, but no one expected what he would eventually bring to the table in 1994 when he wrote and directed his first feature.

Based on the novella Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, the film stars Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne, a banker who is wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife and her lover and is given two life sentences in the Shawshank State Penitentiary. Morgan Freeman plays Red, a long-time resident of the prison who befriends Andy. What follows is an epic tale of imprisonment, police brutality, revenge, politics, corruption, friendship and above all: hope. Hope is the biggest theme and ultimately the driving force behind the whole movie.

Shawshank is above all a fantastic example of storytelling. Darabont's screenplay and the brilliant acting from the wide cast makes the prison come to life. When I rewatch this movie, I'm not just watching a film. I'm taking another trip the the Shawshank Penitentiary, spending time with these characters again and living their struggles with them. My highest praise has to go to Darabont's script, who took quite an un-cinematic novella and turned it into what we know today. He knew exactly what plot points to keep, what to add and what to change for the most emotional impact.

Taking place over a few decades, Shawshank never loses sight of who its characters are and what they stand for, and it is one of the best ever film representations of what institutionalization does to a man. The heartbreaking montage showing James Whitmore's Brooks leave the prison after nearly a lifetime of incarceration really says it all for me. Everybody is humanized, from our good-natured protagonists to the downright evil warden played magnificently by Bob Gunton. It is a fantastic portrayal of prison life, and how important it is to appreciate the little things. For example when Andy hijacks the PA system of the prison to play a Mozart duet. The sweeping shots of the prisoner united in one moment of bliss, is one of the most beautiful scenes in the film.
“For the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free”.

This movie really is the epitome of the word cinematic. Everything is so tender, so real and alive, but at the same time it feels larger than life, assaulting our senses with music and imagery in the best way possible. It's one of my favorite films ever made, and its become such a phenomenon that I'm not the only person you're going to hear utter those words.
Fear can hold you prisoner, hope will set you free”.

The Shawshank Redemption was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, sadly winning none, as 1994 was also the year of classics Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump. Shawshank bombed at the box office at the time, and is ultimately shows us that to be a great film you don't have to rake in millions of dollars.

Frank Darabont went on to direct two other Stephen King adaptations, the also fantastic and Oscar nominated The Green Mile, and his most recent film The Mist, an imperfect but effective horror film. He was the showrunner for season 1 of The Walking Dead, and most recently worked on the series Mob City. He currently holds the rights to two Stephen King stories, The Long Walk and The Monkey, both of which he says he will make eventually. I personally can't wait for him to do The Long Walk, having read it I think it's a fantastic story ripe for the big screen.

While Darabont may never again hit the heights of his first feature, he has given us something that film buffs and casual moviegoers alike will forever cherish.

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