Shawshank’s Very Redeeming Features

From time to time, I come across small nuggets of information. Gossip is probably a better description. Trivia, I can live with. But is it interesting? Definitely.

Today’s small goldmine of information concerns a movie rated as one of the best ever. I’m talking about The Shawshank Redemption. Chances are you will have seen it on video or TV rather than the big screen. When the film was first released it would be fair to say box office records were left undisturbed. It was one of those conundrum movies. It really came into its own when other formats got hold of it. Life can be like that.

I love the famous line from that movie, when Andy played by Tim Robbins tells Red played by Morgan Freeman. ” Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things and no good thing ever dies.” So true.

But here’s some stuff I bet you never knew about Shawshank.

The movie is actually based on a Stephen King short story called Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. King sold the movie rights to his 96 page story to Frank Darabont, for the princely sum of $5,651. Darabont adapted the book into a screenplay and directed the movie. But clearly, King didn’t need the money because he never cashed the cheque. According to that font of all wisdom, The Wall Street Journal, King framed the cheque and sent it back to Darabont years after the movie was released with a note which read: ” In case you ever need bail money, Love Steve.”

Not only does Stephen King possess an overactive imagination, he also has a sense of humor.

First time feature Director, Darabont, having secured the rights and the funding, began the task of assembling the right cast of actors to play the leading roles. He approached Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and Kevin Costner but all of them said no, which was kind of surprising to me. Tom Cruise was very keen but didn’t think Darabont could pull it off because of his lack of Director credentials. Cruise wanted the more experienced Rob Reiner to be given creative control of the project. Reiner directed Cruise in A Few Good Men and was Darabont’s mentor. But Reiner said to Cruise if you want to do this movie you have to do it with Darabont and follow the Darabont vision. It was all too much for Cruise and he withdrew. Darabont finally settled on Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman to play the two central characters in the film.

But according to Morgan Freeman, there was always an extraordinary amount of tension between the cast and crew on set because of Darabont, who Freeman claimed lacked confidence in his own abilities. As a typical first time Director, Darabont constantly insisted on re-shooting scenes countless times even if he already had the perfect take. Freeman would invariably say no which resulted in an argument. Freeman later explained it this way to justify his rebellion: I don’t want to be chewing the scenery. Acting itself isn’t difficult but having to do something again and again for no discernible reason tends to be debilitating to the energy levels. He’s got a point.

Morgan Freeman wasn’t exaggerating about doing things again and again. Remember the scene where Andy chats to Red as he throws a baseball in the prison yard? It represented a very small amount of screen time in the movie but it took 9 hours to shoot. And for the entire time Morgan Freeman had to keep throwing the baseball back and forth. Surprisingly, on this occasion, Freeman kept the complaints to a minimum but did arrive on set the next day with his arm in a sling. It was Freeman’s less than subtle message of protest to the Director.

Here’s another slice of interesting trivia. In another scene, there is a shot of Red’s parole papers that include a photograph of Red as a young man. But who was the actual person depicted in the photograph? Was it Freeman as a young man or just a random extra? The answer to that question is neither. The young man in the photo was Morgan Freeman’s son, Alphonso, who liked spending time on set and ended up being co-opted into having a cameo role in the movie.

One of the more dramatic moments in Shawshank was when Andy Dufresne played by Tim Robbins tries to escape from prison. The scene called for Robbins to crawl through a sewer pipe but there was also the strong possibility that it could be dangerous or, at the very least,a health hazard. So a local chemist was called in to test the quality of the water to make sure there was no health risk. But the chemist discovered the water was not only toxic, it was lethal. A courageous or foolhardy Tim Robbins, I am not sure which, agreed to film the scene in the dangerous water so long as there was a hot shower nearby to clean himself.

As I mentioned earlier, many film-goers regard Shawshank as one of the pinnacles of modern American cinema. It was greatly admired by a man who would know. A man who was probably the most famous prisoner in the world and whose life was not unlike Andy and Red. His name was Nelson Mandela and he went on to become the President of South Africa. Robbins met Mandela who told the actor how much he had loved the movie.

Director Frank Darabont wanted the Shawshank Redemption to be authentic as possible so he chose to film in a real prison, the Ohio State Reformatory. The prison was built in 1886 but closed in 1990, three years before Shawshank was made. The prison was, at one time, earmarked for demolition but a group of people went about trying to restore it. The reformatory is now a major tourist attraction as you might expect. It attracts more than 80 thousand visitors every year. There is a 14 stop self guided tour you can take called the Shawshank Redemption tour which includes several sites of major significance from the movie. If you are into Shawshank, its characters, its interesting backstory and how the movie got to be made, then the tour is going to be money well spent.