Rated #1 on IMDb’s “Top Rated Movies” list (for 12 years now) this modern classic was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and is among the most beloved films of all time. “The Shawshank Redemption” is one of those films that sticks with you for a while. And by a while, I mean 25 years later, it still resonates with people. The film about the inmates at the Shawshank State Prison, shot at the Ohio State Reformatory, was home to tens of thousands of inmates between 1896 and 1990. The prison had another nickname, too: “Dracula’s Castle.”
The Shawshank Redemption story first came to life in the mind of Stephen King at some point in the mid-70s. By 1982, the novella was published along with three others in a book called “Different Seasons.” Frank Darabont then turned King’s novella into a screenplay, and eventually directed the film in 1994. The movie didn’t do so well at the box office, but critics praised Darabont’s prison drama, and it went on to dominate the home movie-watching game… as well as our hearts.
The Stephen King Novella
No, “The Shawshank Redemption” isn’t based on a true story. The film is based on the book called “Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption,” a novella published in Stephen King’s “Different Seasons” in 1982. And it wasn’t even the only story from that book that made it onto the big screen. “Apt Pupil” and “The Body” have also been adapted to film.
But that last one is much better known as the legendary 1986 movie “Stand By Me.” Yes, Stephen King knows how to write. Anyways, director and screenwriter Darabont and Stephen King first met when Darabont was just a film student who wanted to adapt the short story “The Woman in the Room” into a short film. King liked Darabont’s finished product so much that when Darabont asked him about “The Shawshank Redemption” story, King was happy to comply.
A Win-Win Situation
Stephen King gladly let Frank Darabont have the movie rights for a small amount ($1,000). King was very pleased with the script Darabont came up with, though he figured it was too good for Hollywood. “It was great,” the writer said. “Too great, I thought, to be produced by any company in California. I did not feel there was a place for “Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption” in an industry consumed with Predators and Terminators.”
Ultimately, it proved to be a win-win situation. Darabont proved King wrong and the film was critically acclaimed and loved by audiences. According to Mark Dawidziak’s “The Shawshank Redemption Revealed,” King’s name purposely wasn’t plastered on movie posters and billboards. The studio didn’t want audiences to think they were going to see another Stephen King horror movie.
Fun fact: That $1,000 check? King never cashed it. Instead, he framed it and gave it back to Darabont as a gift.
Rob Reiner Almost Directed It
First of all, RIP Carl Reiner. The 98-year-old recently passed away on June 30, 2020. His son, Rob Reiner, almost directed “The Shawshank Redemption.” After writing the script, Darabont sent the screenplay to Castle Rock Entertainment, Reiner’s production company. Castle Rock producer, Liz Glotzer, read the script and called it “the best script she’d ever read.”
She even threatened to leave the company if Castle Rock didn’t make a move on it. But Reiner himself wanted to direct the film, offering Darabont $3 million to sell his screenplay. Keep in mind that Darabont only made one actual move by then – a made-for-TV movie called “Buried Alive.” But the young director stood his ground, taking a lower paycheck and the directorial duties that went along with it.
Tom Cruise as Andy Dufresne?
Though he was never made director, Rob Reiner served as Darabont’s mentor and had a say in casting. That said, he offered the role of Andy to Tom Cruise. The two worked together in 1992’s “A Few Good Men.” While the movie star was intrigued by the project, he simply didn’t want to work with an inexperienced director. Cruise said he would only take the part if Reiner was running the show.
After Cruise passed, the role of Andy was offered to Tom Hanks, Kevin Costner, and Nicolas Cage – all of them said no. Eventually, the part fell into the lap of Tim Robbins. Now, it’s clear that it was meant to be. I think it’s safe to say that no one could have done a better job.
Red Was Supposed to be White
In Stephen King’s novella, the character of Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding was an Irish-American man with reddish-gray hair. When it came time for Darabont to think about who would fit the part, he considered two of his favorite older, white actors: Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall. But, neither of them were able to accept the part.
That’s when producer Liz Glotzer suggested Morgan Freeman. Darabont loved the idea, and when they approached Freeman, he gladly signed on. It was the right career move for him too as he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. So his hair wasn’t red as his character’s name pointed out, but Darabont got around it by writing a joke in the film to explain the nickname. When Andy asks him why people call him Red, Red responds with: “Maybe it’s because I’m Irish.”
What About Rita Hayworth?
When it comes to movie titles, “The Shawshank Redemption” is kind of a mouthful. But it could’ve been even longer if they went with King’s “Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption.” But what’s the real reason the first three words got cut out of the title? Darabont didn’t do it for linguistic reasons. Rather, he changed it because he didn’t want to mislead agents or actresses into thinking it was a movie about the 1940s movie star Rita Hayworth.
If you’re wondering, Hayworth’s “role” in the film is being in the infamous poster that covered up Andy’s secret tunnel. Early on in the production, Darabont said he received resumes and headshots from actresses who wanted the “title role.” As Darabont mentioned, it “told us how carefully that agent had read the script… and how much hot air floats around Hollywood from time to time.”
Finding Dracula’s Castle
The real prison that was used for filming was the Ohio State Reformatory, aka Dracula’s Castle. It had been a prison since 1896, and it finally closed down in December 1990, after the inmates won a class action suit. About what? Well, the prison was overcrowded and prisoners were suffering inhumane conditions. Five months were spent scouting prisons across America and Canada, looking for the perfect site with a timeless aesthetic.
It also had to be completely abandoned so as to not cause conflicts in filming. This is exactly why the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio was chosen as the fictional Shawshank State Penitentiary in Maine, but also for its gothic appeal. Most of the film was shot there, with the crew working 15-18 hour days in what Darabont referred to as “a bleak place.”
Fun fact: Many of the film’s extras were former inmates. And Shawshank is now a tourist destination and location for other films, music videos, and TV shows.
The Original Ending
I don’t think I need to write SPOILER ALERT here, but still… The film ends on a good note when Red meets Andy on the outside. But Darabont’s original screenplay wasn’t as Holywood-ish. He initially followed King’s novella closely, which had it end with Red just getting on the bus with the hopes of finding Andy somewhere in Mexico. The idea was that it would be left open, with no confirmation that the two friends ever met outside of prison.
But, thanks to Liz Glotzer, they added the final scene we got to see and appreciate. In Darabont’s eyes, it was “the commercial, sappy version,” but Glotzer insisted on giving the audiences the pleasure of a genuine resolution. The film’s first draft was long and a lot scenes had to be cut, but Glotzer didn’t give up the happy ending.
No Advice Needed
There are countless actors who favor method acting and doing the necessary research for their roles. That said, you might think that when playing a prison officer, getting tips from real-world officials would be more than welcome. But, in reality, when several prison officers offered actor Clancy Brown advice and guidance for his performance, Brown turned them all down.
Brown is the unforgettable sadistic Captain Hadley. Apparently, he turned down their offers for help as a sort of favor to the correctional officers. Brown said that he didn’t want his performance in the film to reflect badly on them, “Nobody wants me saying I based my performance on them.”
Speaking of method acting, Tim Robbins did his research…
This is Real Method Acting
There are just as many ways to prepare for a role as there are actors – there’s no right or wrong way. Tim Robbins had an idea for how he could truly immerse himself into the role of Andy Dufresne. To play the wrongfully convicted inmate, Robbins spent some time in solitary confinement. And, no, he wasn’t an actual inmate.
“I asked to be locked up,” Robbins said. “It gives you a good idea of what the isolation is, and what the loneliness of it is.” The actor also met with actual inmates in their cells at a prison near the Ohio State Reformatory. As for Morgan Freeman, he didn’t go to such lengths. “Acting the part of someone who’s incarcerated doesn’t require any specific knowledge of incarceration,” he claimed.
The Tiny Bible Detail
Any movie buff knows that a movie set’s prop team will often put in a lot of work for only small details, and this film was no exception. Prop master Tom Shaw found a way to put a prop to very good use. Remember the rock pick that Andy used to tunnel through the wall that was smuggled inside the pages of a Bible? When the warden discovered it, he opened the book to find the pages that were cut out to hide the tool.
In those few seconds on screen, you can see that the chapter he turns to is “Exodus.” Shaw wanted it so that the pick was hidden right at the beginning of a chapter about escaping. For those who don’t know, “Exodus” tells the story of Hebrew slaves escaping from Egypt (Exodus literally means “to escape or depart”). Nice little touch, right?
A Little Bug Problem
“The Shawshank Redemption” received the fashionable “No animals were harmed during the making of this film” credit. That label of animal-friendly approval from the American Humane Association (AHA) is a serious one. But what’s the label for? If you’re anything like me, you don’t remember many animals being in the film.
Do you remember the scene where Andy finds a maggot in his food and Brooks asks him, “Are you gonna eat that?” We all thought for a second that Brooks was going to eat it himself, as we held our breaths. But then we were pleasantly surprised to see that he just fed the maggot to his baby bird. Had Andy fed a live maggot to Jake the bird, the AHA would not have signed off on the movie.
Ask anyone: who’s their favorite voice-over narrator? Some will probably say David Attenborough (who does “Planet Earth” and other BBC classics perfectly). But others will most certainly say Morgan Freeman. And Shawshank was, believe it or not, Morgan Freeman’s first time narrating a film! In a rather atypical manner, his narration was recorded before filming even began, and then played on-set to dictate the rhythm of each and every scene.
Freeman recorded the track in an Iowa recording studio in a mere 40 minutes. But, there was a minor hiss on the track, which sound engineers in LA were unable to remove. Consequently, the tape had to be re-recorded in a proper studio. This time, it took three weeks.
No Real Maggots Here
So the film crew had to get creative. When AHA inspected the movie to make sure no animals were harmed, they were anxious about the bird in Brooks’ pocket. But no one expected the maggot to be the one in question. An AHA inspector felt that feeding a live worm to the bird would be cruel. The prop department found a solution, though.
At first, they considered making a fake maggot out of baby food. But that didn’t happen in the end. Filming had stopped and the crew stood around a bucket of squirming maggots until one stopped moving on its own. They were then able to feed the bird in good conscience and officially claim that no animals, maggots included, were harmed in the making of the movie.
Freeman’s Unusual On-Set Injury
Actors get injured on set all the time, but Morgan Freeman’s injury was less conventional. His injury wasn’t the result of a dangerous stunt or anything, rather it was from throwing too many baseballs. In one scene, Andy approaches Red while he is practicing baseball. The scene took a long nine hours to complete, with Freeman constantly tossing the baseball for each take.
He didn’t complain, though. The man is a professional, after all. But the next day, he came to the set with his arm in a sling. The entire film shoot was tough on the actors in general, and Darabont was a bit of a taskmaster. He wanted as many takes as it took to get the perfect shot. There were times when Freeman would flat out say no. “Acting itself isn’t difficult. But having to do something again and again for no discernible reason tends to be a bit debilitating to the energy,” Freeman said in an interview.
The Lethal Water in Andy’s Escape Scene
There’s a brilliant piece of foreshadowing in the movie when Red said that Andy’s hopes of freedom were a “pipe dream.” When it came to filming the climactic and disgusting escape scene through the sewers, it proved to be pretty dangerous. In fact, it was so risky that a local chemistry expert was brought in to test the quality of the water below the sewage pipe’s outflow.
According to production designer Terrance Marsh, the chemist stated that it “was absolutely lethal.” As you can imagine, Robbins wasn’t so happy to hear that the sewers weren’t safe. But they went ahead and shot the scene anyway, promising Robbins a warm shower immediately after. For some of the shots, however, they used a different pipe filled with something less lethal and maybe a bit more pleasant: chocolate syrup thickened with sawdust.
Opening Night Nightmare
According to Hollywood tradition, on a film’s opening night in movie theaters, the director and producer typically tour the local theaters to get a sense of the public’s response. Darabont did so on the film’s opening night, but he was met with any director’s worst nightmare – the theaters were empty.
Darabont and Liz Glotzer went to the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood because it was known as “the coolest theater.” But, when they got there, they were the only two people in the 900-seat movie theater. Ouch. Glotzer blamed a particularly bad review in the LA Times. She and Darabont allegedly cornered two girls outside the cinema, begging them to watch the movie (and promising to refund them if they didn’t like it).
A Second Coming
During that opening weekend, the film earned $727,000 from a mere 33 theaters. The really low box office result was partly blamed on a lack of female characters, the unpopularity of prison films (at the time), and the bleak tone used in the film’s marketing. Of course, looking back on it now, it’s hard to believe that the box office was such a failure.
After not even making one million that opening weekend, the film still managed to scrape together $16 million in total, meaning it fell $9 million short of breaking even. But it was nowhere near the end of “Shawshank”’s story. After the 1995 Oscars, the film was re-released, earning another $12 million in ticket sales. In total, the film earned $28.3 million in North American theaters, and another $30 million worldwide.
The Unlikely Crew Member
If you want another bit of bird-related trivia, here’s one. For the scene when Andy goes into the library looking for Brooks, the crow, Jake, is sitting right by the door in the shot. Andy asks him, “Where’s Brooks?” Robbins had to compete with the bird in delivering his line. After all, the crow wasn’t trained when to squawk.
So Robbins learned to predict the crow’s patterns so that he would be able to deliver his line without any squawking interruptions. This really impressed Darabont, too. If you go back and watch the scene again, you can see Robbins keeping his eye on the crow for, what we know now, was his cue to deliver his line.
The Opera Music Improv
Tim Robbins impressed Darabont in more than one way, and improvisation was one of them. One of the greater moments of Andy’s growing defiance was when he blasts opera music through the prison’s PA system. In the original draft of the script, Andy was going to turn off the record player in the warden’s office. But Tim Robbins felt that more could be done with the scene.
He suggested that he turn it up instead of turn it off. Red narrates that Andy had no idea what the women were singing about. But if you’re curious, the song was from Mozart’s opera, “The Marriage of Figaro.” The soprano duet is about a husband’s infidelity, which can be seen as an ironic reverse of the events that led to Andy’s imprisonment. Thanks to this scene, the opera piece was nominated to be in the American Film Institute’s list of 100 top film songs.
More Than One Freeman
Shawshank came around before the introduction of CGI (which can do wonders, like de-age Robert Downey Jr. into a 20-something superhero, for instance). Therefore, directors once had to be creative if they needed a photo from a character’s past. In Shawshank, production needed a mugshot of Red as a young guy, so they used Morgan Freeman’s son, Alfonso, as a double.
Freeman’s son also had a small speaking role in the film. When Andy and the other new inmates arrive at the prison compound, one of the prisoners shouts out, “We got fresh fish.” It was an unsettling moment and set the tone for the first part of the movie, all thanks to the line delivered by Alfonso Freeman.
Beyond Shawshank’s second coming in theaters, there was also a boom in video rentals, making it the most rented movie in 1995. Luckily for fans, the movie finally became available at Blockbuster for rental. When it was released on VHS, Warner Brothers manufactured and shipped 320,000 copies of “The Shawshank Redemption” to video rental stores.
That kind of volume is usually reserved for the big blockbuster movies, and so it was a strategy by Warner Brothers to get the movie in front of as many customers as possible. And in the end, it worked. Despite the very real competition with movie giants like “The Lion King” and “Forrest Gump,” “The Shawshank Redemption” became the most rented video that year, grossing about $80 million in rentals.
Why It’s on TV So Much
One reason why Shawshank is such a classic is because it gets played on TV a lot (and, of course, on Netflix). But why is the movie so popular on the small screen? It might be due to the fact that a year before Castle Rock Entertainment produced it, cable television tycoon Ted Turner bought the production company in an effort to provide his channels with programming.
When the TV rights for Shawshank were available, Turner made it part of TNT’s “New Classics” campaign. Just look at the numbers: in 2013 alone, Shawshank aired on cable TV for a total of 151 hours. That means, if you turn your TV on right now, chances are you’ll see Tim Robbins standing in the rain with his arms open.
The Moving Dedication
At the end of the movie, after Andy and Red reunite, and we’re either wiping away tears or getting up to finally go to the bathroom, there’s one last moving moment. If you stuck around, you saw that the dedication reads: “In memory of Allen Greene.” So who is this Allen Greene? For those who watched the director commentary track on the DVD, Darabont explains that Greene was his first-ever agent.
Darabont explained that in the ’80s, he was “a set dresser on low-budget movies who wanted to be a writer, and it’s very hard to get an agent to believe in you on that level.” When Darabont met Greene, he realized that he was a friend and ally. But, Greene died from AIDS right before “Shawshank” started filming. “I wanted to acknowledge not just his significance to my career, but also that he was an incredibly decent, much-loved, and much-missed person in the lives of those who knew him.”
Frank Darabont, who came to the set with very little experience, made his first real feature film into hands-down one of the best. Pretty impressive, right? Well, the novice director had more than one argument on set, especially with the director of photography, Roger Deakins, with whom he clashed about the kinds of shots – Darabont wanted grand, sweeping shots whereas Deakins disagreed.
Darabont also clashed with Morgan Freeman, for instance, in the final scene. “Frank thought I should be blowing that harmonica that Andy gave me. And I refused,” Freeman stated. He thought it was “sort of asinine, sort of clichéd, sort of unnecessary.” That’s in addition to the several times when Freeman would refuse to do too many extra takes.
Your Next Holiday Spot
If you’re looking for a vacation spot, you should know that tours are available inside the prison, including stops in the library, showers, the solitary confinement cell, and even the sewer pipe Andy crawls through. The pipe was actually built for the movie, but left there after production ended (and reportedly still smells like chocolate syrup).
In 2008, the Mansfield Visitors Bureau created “The Shawshank Trail” to help travelers, or rather “Shawshank Pilgrims,” find their way to filming locations around town, like the huge oak tree where Red contemplated life as a free man. Local businesses also got in on the action. Cafe on Main sold a “Shawshankwich,” and Eatmor Bundt Co. sells cakes shaped like the prison. Then there’s the Squirrels Den candy shop that displays scenes from the movie re-created in chocolate!
The Rooftop Scene
One of the first light moments in the dark first part of the film is when Andy gets some beers for the guys who were working on the rooftop. The scene opens with the inmates tarring the roof in the sun, and Andy gets beers for them in exchange for doing the captain’s taxes. That scene was not easy to make.
Morgan Freeman recalled, “We were actually tarring that roof. And tar doesn’t stay hot and viscous long. It tends to dry and harden, so you’re really working.” The challenge of that scene was matching the shot to Freeman’s pre-recorded voice-over. After one retake, Darabont saw one crewman with a tear on his face. By the end of the day, Freeman said when they sat down and drank that beer, “it was very welcome.”
Andy Crawled for How Long?
The climax in “The Shawshank Redemption” came when Andy escaped through that little tunnel. But have you ever wondered just how long that tunnel was? In 2010, the author of a certain blog called “Yamaloka” figured out that very piece of information. Assuming that Andy started chipping away in 1950, and did so every day for over 15 years, that makes for roughly 5,500 days.
He gets rid of the displaced dust in the yard, which the blogger estimated to be about 200 daily grams. All in all, that’s about 1.1 million grams. Then, based on the shot of the warden looking into the tunnel, it looks to be about two feet. Using some geometric and physics formulas, it all works out to about 14 feet of tunnel.
The Live Version!
First it was a book, then it became a movie, and then it made its way to the stage. “The Shawshank Redemption” is also a play. British comedians Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns tried their hand at adapting Stephen King’s novella for the stage, dismissing the movie version completely. And this is why it doesn’t exactly line up with the film.
The play had its world premiere at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin, Ireland, in 2009, before hitting London’s West End (the Broadway of England). Reg. E Cathey, the actor known for his work on “The Wire,” “House of Cards,” and “Oz,” played Red. Kevin Anderson played Andy. But unfortunately, critics didn’t enjoy the stage version of “Shawshank.”
Making an Impact
In 2015, the United States Library of Congress selected the film to be preserved in the National Film Registry, citing it as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Darabont’s response was: “I can think of no greater honor than for ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ to be considered part of our country’s cinematic legacy.”
Such a significant and enduring public appreciation for “Shawshank” has often been hard for critics to define. In one interview, Freeman said, “About everywhere you go, people say, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’—greatest movie I ever saw’.” Robbins said, “I swear to God, all over the world — all over the world — wherever I go, there are people who say, ‘That movie changed my life’.”
Praise from the King
Yes, Stephen King gave the movie two thumbs up. In fact, King said, “If that isn’t the best [adaptation of my works], it’s one of the two or three best, and certainly, in moviegoers’ minds, it’s probably the best because it generally rates at the top of these surveys they have of movies.”
In a 2014 article in “Variety,” Robbins stated that Nelson Mandela told him how much he loved the movie. The movie was also cited as a source of inspiration by several famous figures, including Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York. Director Steven Spielberg called it a “chewing-gum movie — if you step on it, it sticks to your shoe.”
A Religious Experience
“Shawshank” has been the #1 film on IMDb’s user-generated Top 250 list ever since 2008. That means it surpassed “The Godfather.” In the UK, readers of “Empire” voted it the best of the 90s and the greatest film ever (in 2006). In 2011, it was voted by BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 1Xtra as listeners’ favorite film of all time.
A 2017 poll by Gatwick Airport identified the film as the 4th-best to watch on a flight. When film critic Mark Kermode interviewed American moviegoers, they compared Shawshank to a “religious experience.” And it’s not just the moviegoers that love this film. Morgan Freeman himself cites Shawshank as his favorite of his films.
Tim Robbins Today
The now 61-year-old is still making movies. In 2019, he did “VHYes” and “Dark Waters.” Sports fans might like to hear that Robbins is an avid baseball and hockey fan. He roots for the New York Mets and the New York Rangers and goes to their games often. In 1995, Robbins did promos for MSG Network advertising Rangers games, and narrated a documentary on the 1969 Mets.
In 1988, Robbins started dating Susan Sarandon. They have two sons: John “Jack” Henry and Miles Guthrie. The two split up in 2009 and it seems as though the tall actor (who stands at 6 foot 4 inches) is single. Ladies, did you hear that?
Morgan Freeman Today
I have to admit that it was shocking when I found out that Morgan Freeman is now 83 years old. The man was born in 1937! His last film was in 2019, called “Angel Has Fallen.” The man has four kids: Alfonso Freeman, Saifoulaye Freeman, Deena Freeman, and Morgana Freeman. He’s also twice divorced and now living his life as a single man.
In 2018, CNN reported that eight women accused Freeman of sexual harassment. Freeman issued an apology: “Anyone who knows me or has worked with me knows I am not someone who would intentionally offend or knowingly make anyone feel uneasy. I apologize to anyone who felt uncomfortable or disrespected — that was never my intent.”