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Doing 'Redemption' Time in a Former Prison : Movies: For a story about inmates, the crew takes over an abandoned Ohio reformatory. After weeks there, some find the spot, well, confining.

December 01, 1993|ROBIN RAUZI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MANSFIELD, Ohio — "Why don't we do a shot of him alone?" Frank Darabont suggests. The first-time feature film director is having some timing problems with a temperamental four-legged actor.

The crew snickers as the first assistant director clears the set: "Let's all step out, please, so we can make room for the rat . . , " he shouts. " And the actor."

Although they look to be right in their element, the two rats (one is an understudy) are not necessarily comfortable in the solitary confinement sector of the Ohio State Reformatory. But then neither is the film crew, and its members have been shooting "The Shawshank Redemption" here for more than two months. About a dozen people are crowded into a narrow hallway, stale-aired and damp even though it hasn't rained in central Ohio in weeks.

Nine takes later, the rats are given the same send-off all actors get when they're done with the shoot: "Ladies and gentlemen, the rats are now officially between shows," followed by light applause from the cast and crew.

"The Shawshank Redemption," a Castle Rock release starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman due out next year, is the tale of a mild-mannered banker convicted of murder (Robbins), as told by a hardened lifer (Freeman). The story, adapted from a Stephen King novella, spans 20 years--nearly all of them behind the walls of the Shawshank maximum-security prison in Maine.

"This place gives me the willies, it really does," says producer Niki Marvin. But that's the reason she chose it. She spent five months researching prisons all over the United States and Canada before deciding on the reformatory. The sprawling complex of Gothic-style stone and brick buildings had the two qualities she was looking for: It had a timeless style and was absolutely empty.

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Until the mid-1980s, the reformatory, built in 1896, housed between 2,300 and 3,300 inmates, all first-time offenders between the ages of 18 and 30. But in December, 1990, the new Mansfield Correctional Institute was completed and all the prisoners were moved there.

"For the volume of what we're shooting, we couldn't shoot in a functioning prison," Darabont says. "I know people who have shot in a real prison, and for the first two hours it was security checks going in and for the last two hours security checks going out."

Darabont was already an established writer in Hollywood ("The Fly II," "The Blob," "Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors") when he optioned the rights to the story about five years ago knowing he wanted to direct it. He had become a King aficionado long before, however, and had even directed a short film version of King's story "The Woman in the Room." That wasn't going to land him a chance to direct a feature, though. So he directed a cable movie for the USA Network to get experience with feature-length material.

Then, four years after he optioned it, Darabont finally sat down and wrote the script. He calls the delay "a massive case of work avoidance," apparently a recurring problem. "It's like solitary confinement: You know you're going to be there for a while," he says. For "Redemption," his stint was eight weeks.

The 1982 King bestseller "Different Seasons," from which the story is taken, also contains "The Body," which became the 1986 Castle Rock hit "Stand by Me," directed by Rob Reiner. It's no coincidence that Darabont and Marvin took "Redemption" to Castle Rock. "The reason we went there was really because of 'Stand by Me.' And Rob Reiner. We thought they would have a sensitivity to this material," he says.

Much like "Stand by Me" and the company's "Misery," Darabont's movie is atypical Stephen King in that it's low on things that go bump in the night. Rather, it's a tale of hope; a small, personal story. At least that's how it seemed on the page.

"It's bigger than I thought," Darabont says. "The script sort of reads like a little character piece, until you get to the prison and the 200 extras."

With the strength of the script--literally every actor on the set insists it was the best he had read in years--and the reputation of Castle Rock, Darabont and Marvin attracted some top names. In addition to Freeman and Robbins, Oscar-winning production designer Terrance Marsh ("Dr. Zhivago") signed on, as did noted cinematographer Roger Deakins ("Barton Fink").

Just in case anyone was getting too comfortable in his or her complimentary Ohio Film Commission T-shirt, out came Money magazine with its annual livability ranking. Of the 300 most populous places in the United States, Mansfield was No. 297.

Everyone has found his or her way to cope with being away from home. "Everything I want is here. My wife sent my horse," says Morgan Freeman. Yup, the quarter horse was trailered up from Freeman's home in Mississippi and boarded south of town so the actor could ride when he has time.

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