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The Prize: Directing 'Shawshank' : Frank Darabont Didn't Want to Just Write the Screenplay, So He Took a Pay Cut

October 05, 1994|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Frank Darabont may have been a first-time feature film director, but the buzz around his period prison drama "The Shawshank Redemption" was so keen, it helped lure such A-list talent as Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman.

Oh, yes. Also a guy in drag.

Since the film was adapted from a Stephen King novella titled "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," there were a few souls who wanted to audition for the part of the screen goddess. The only hitch was that she appears in "Shawshank" in all her two-dimensional glory as a pinup poster on a prison wall. Not much of a bio-pic there for aspiring faux Rita Hayworths, even cross-dressing ones.

"I thought that would be interesting for the John Waters version of 'The Rita Hayworth Story,' but not exactly appropriate for us," Darabont says with some understatement.

That wasn't the only surprise behind the scenes of "Shawshank." Word has been going around Hollywood that Darabont turned down Castle Rock's $2.4-million offer to do the screenplay in exchange for the right to direct. (In addition to the seven-figure script offer, he said, there was a tandem deal to write and direct another movie--the grand total could have reached $4 million.)

Even though Darabont had sent the script only to Castle Rock, the studio had upped its offer because Castle Rock partner Rob Reiner was eager to direct "Shawshank." Reiner had directed "Stand by Me," based on another non-horror novella from the same King collection. "Shawshank" pivots on the friendship between two lifers who bust through their chains, real and emotional.

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"We're a script-driven company," says Castle Rock president Martin Shafer. "We just loved the script. We thought it was very moving, very intelligent, great characterizations, not like anything you've seen recently."

What Darabont opted for was a screenplay and directing deal of $750,000, plus a percentage of the net profits. His other unspecified reward was redemption from B-movie hell and a high-profile debut as a feature film director.

The $25-million film had a strong opening Sept. 23 in 22 cities including Los Angeles, averaging $22,727 per screen on 33 screens. In its second weekend, it had a per-screen average of more than $16,000. And some critics have been effusive in their praise of Darabont--the Washington Post called "Shawshank" "his remarkable debut," and the New Yorker said the film, although too long, was filled with "an old-fashioned decency in the way that it exerts, and increases, its claim upon our feelings." Others, though, such as The Times' Kenneth Turan, chastised him for being overly sentimental.

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Indeed, Darabont, 35, who counts "It's a Wonderful Life" among his favorite films, sounds a bit like a Frank Capra hero when he talks about his reasons for turning down the cash.

"Ultimately, what kind of price tag do you put on your passion?" Darabont says. "What's it worth to you to sell your dream away to somebody else, even if it's somebody as great as Rob Reiner?"

Darabont's restraint has nonetheless turned out to be a solid investment. The positive buzz on "Shawshank" as well as Darabont's background writing horror films prompted TriStar to recruit him to do the rewrite on Kenneth Branagh's "Frankenstein," which opens Nov. 4.

In a bit of quirkiness, he peppered his "Frankenstein" script with Bernie Wrightson drawings created by the cult cartoonist a decade ago for an edition of Mary Shelley's Victorian novel. The originals hang on the wall of Darabont's Los Feliz home.

"I've always been such a big fan of Frankenstein that when I went to London to meet with Ken Branagh, I took my prints," Darabont says. "He was terribly excited by Wrightson's visualizations, and he said we ought to put them in the script. The idea was to convey to the reader what they could expect the movie to feel like and look like."

Darabont has also been tapped to write one of three prequels to the "Star Wars" trilogy for George Lucas. The two had worked together on ABC's "Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" in 1990. And at Castle Rock, Darabont has a deal to write two pictures and direct at least one, possibly both. One will be an adaptation of "The Mist," another King novella about several people trapped in a supermarket.

For Darabont, horror encompassed most of his earlier work despite his broad interests. His writing credits include "Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors" (1987) and "The Blob" (1988), and he directed the 1991 cable thriller "Buried Alive."

But he had also directed a short PBS film, "The Woman in the Room" (1983), based on a King short story about a man whose mother is dying of cancer. King liked Darabont's adaptation enough that the author granted him the rights to "Shawshank" five years after it was published in 1982.

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Darabont's ambitions were forged at a young age. The son of refugees from the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, he was born in a French camp. When he was still a baby, his parents moved to Chicago where they settled in a tenement. Darabont recalls discovering his calling at age 5.

"My big brother took me to see 'Robinson Crusoe on Mars,' which was my very first movie in a theater. I was so knocked out by this experience that I made him sit through it three times, and he got in deep trouble when we got home because it was after dark.

"Even (at age 5) on some level, I knew I wanted to be the storyteller. There was always something grand about it to me," he says. "My focus is to be behind the camera and pushing the buttons the way that certain people pushed my buttons as I was growing up."

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