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 in fall 1994. It became enormously popular on home video and cable after receiving seven Oscar nominations, including best film, lead actor for Morgan Freeman and adapted screenplay for director Frank Darabont.
On Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the humanistic prison drama, which is No. 1 on IMDB’s Top 250 list of films voted on 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 said. “One of those movies that just kind of looks like it’s going to be a difficult chore to sit through.”
He felt the turning point was the Oscar nominations. “Nobody had heard of the movie, and that year on the Oscar broadcast, they were mentioning this movie seven times,” he said.
The academy’s director of programming, Bernardo Rondeau, believes the film has become a modern-day favorite because “it balances humor 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 added. “I think it connected to people, because it feels timeless in a way.”
The sold-out screening Tuesday evening at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater will reunite Darabont with his stars, Freeman and Tim Robbins.
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 and long-term prisoner there who narrates the film, and Andy Dufresne (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,” said Robbins.
Freeman recalled being sent the script by his agent. “Nobody said what part to read for,” he said. “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,” said Freeman. “I said, ‘I’ll do it.’”
“Shawshank” 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 a King short story. It was an offer Darabont couldn’t refuse.
“He 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,” said the filmmaker.
Darabont recalled writing a check for a few thousand dollars to option “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.”
“But the truth is, Stephen never cashed the check,” said 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,” said Darabont. “He signed on the matte of the frame — something to the effect — ‘Just in case you ever need bail money, Love, Steve.’”
Though Red is a middle-aged Irishman in the novella, as soon as Freeman was suggested for the role, “he became a very good, obvious choice,” said 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.”
Darabont was drawn to Robbins after rewatching him in the 1990 psychological horror film “Jacob’s Ladder.”
“I thought there is something enigmatic and fascinating about this actor,” recalled Darabont “I thought he and Morgan would have terrifically interesting chemistry on-screen, and they did.”
They also developed a deep bond off-screen.
“I did feel from the start that Morgan was a person I could hang out with,” said Robbins. “We were on the same page regarding the script.”
The film was primarily shot at the old Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, which had closed in 1990. Darabont noted that the cast and crew couldn’t help but feel “the weight of all of those years of human suffering and misery” when they entered the prison.
“It was palpable,” agreed Robbins. “I walked my son Jack, who was 4 years old, on the cell block with me and he said, ‘Daddy, this place is very sad.’ He could tell.”