Frank Darabont: The Paradox of Early Directorial Success – A Case Study

I want to transport you back to the year of 1994, Bill Clinton had been in office for a year, and Nelson Mandela had been sworn in as south Africa’s first black president. In the movie world, the likes of Jurassic Park and Pulp fiction where hitting the theatres, and a young aspiring film maker by the name of Frank Darabont was starting to make a name for himself as a screenwriter. By this point, Darabont had primarily worked as a writer for horror films such as the nightmare on elm street 3, the blob and the fly 2. His first directorial work was a short film based on Stephen king short story, the Woman in the room. King himself gave Darabont his seal of approval, praising the short film for its honest portrayal of his short story. In fact King was so impressed that he gave Darabont a handshake agreement to the rights for another one of his stories. This story that King had offered Darabont, would then be adapted into one of the greatest movies ever made, the Shawshank Redemption.

The Shawshank Redemption has stood the tests of time and holds a place as one of the greats, amongst the likes of Citizen Kane, Casablanca or The Godfather. Now, you would think that these movies, being the masterpieces that they are, were made by veteran film makers with years of experience under their belts. In reality both the Shawshank Redemption and Citizen Kane were very early movies in the careers of directors Darabont and Orson Wells. So what is the cause of this apparent paradox. Of course this isn’t the case for any and all directors, even in the case of Godfather as we mentioned, Francis Ford Copella had been involved in filmmaking for decades before making the Godfather. But there is something to be said about certain filmmakers peaking early in the career. If we stick with the example of Darabont and look into the movies he made after the Shawshank redemption, they are by no means bad movies. Titles like the green mile and the mist are excellent movies, but what is it that leads to an early director having success as remarkably great as the Shawshank redemption.

I think the reason this is so interesting to me is because I have heard directors talk about the film making process and describe it as a job where you are a decision maker. You are the one person who has your hand in every aspect of the movies production. So you would think that directors start off by making movies with a series of poor decisions resulting in glaring mistakes, but as they get older and more experienced, their movies become better and more refined. But in the case of Frank Darabont, he seems to have struck apparent gold with his first ever cinematic directorial work. Why is this? If I had to boil it down to a single word, it would be this. Vision

Having a vision for what you want your film to be in my opinion, is the one thing that can give a relatively inexperienced director an edge over his or her more experienced counterparts. Let’s start with a story that occurred early in the production of the Shawshank redemption. After writing the script for Shawshank, Darabont approached the film production company castle Rock to produce the movie. The reason he chose them was that Castle Rock had previously released other atypical Stephen King adaptations such as stand by me, by writer and director Rob Reiner. The company loved Darabont’s script and agreed to make the movie and for Darabont to direct. That was until the companies own Rob Reiner read the script and also loved it and wanted to direct it himself. The company then came back to Darabont and gave him an offer. He could continue to direct this film as originally planned, or, he could sell the rights to it for an exorbitant sum of money. Well here is what Darabont has to say about that.

‘The option of saying yes never existed for me, I asked myself why was I put here, was it just to do rewrites on action movies or was it try and be a filmmaker, to try and leave some mark behind

Now, Rob Reiner was a well established and acclaimed director, and had already successfully adapted King novels. And Darabont has also gone on record to say he is a huge admirer of Reiner and did like what Reiner had in mind for his version of Shawshank. But darabont had confidence in his own vision and was willing to take the risk of directing this himself.

Darabont has spoken in interviews about his adoration of Stephen King, and particularly of his approach to horror. This becomes more obvious when you look at Darabont’s filmography, there is a clear King influence as to what he is drawn towards when it comes to style of storytelling. So clearly there is an incentive for Darabont to do the best job that he can, he doesn’t want to disappoint this man he greatly admires by poorly adapting his work. And so that being the case, Darabont has to answer the age old question, what is the best way of adapting a book for the big screen?  There’s a fine line between sticking to the source material and adding your own elements to the narrative. Often a book has been written in a way that much of to just wouldn’t work if directly translated onto the screen. Take Bret Easton’s American Psycho. There are entire chapters dedicated to Patrick Bateman describing intricate details of his morning routine or what people are wearing. How do you convey these same ideas of the character, without boring your audience half to death. Well you cut it down to a few lines of dialogue, use music to create atmosphere, and add excellent acting and narration from Christina Bale. Darabont ended up taking a similar approach with Shawshank, where a few characters from the book such as wardens or the sisters were combined into single characters, and the time that passes in the film was cut down to ten years as opposed to the thirty years that occurs in in the book. But none of these changes detract from the overall story or message that Stephen king was trying to tell. Darabont understands this, the reason he chose this book to adapt was because of how much he loves the story being told within the source material. There is no ego involved when it comes to Darabont of changing things simple because you can. Anything that was added, for example the extended story of Brooks Hatlen, was all in service of providing the same overarching story.

The question can arise as to why Darabont didn’t try to find someone else to direct. He could still have his creative input as the screenwriter, an area where he is more comfortable. He already knew he had something special in his hands since he had the approval of the studio and Rob Reiner. Why not find someone with more experience to take the helm with directing. That would be for the best right? Well not exactly. Darabont was a screenwriter for the movie ‘Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein’ directed by Kenneth Branagh. Darabont has gone on record as hating the film and puts it down to lack of a unified vision between writer and director. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has described similar views when it came to directing Molly’s game. Despite previously working with highly talented and capable directors like David Fincher, he felt he couldn’t trust anyone with what he had written to convey the story he wanted to tell, in the way he wanted to tell it.

In researching for this post, I’ve watched through hours of Darabont interviews and its clear to me that his character is something to be admired. He speaks with a clear passion for what he does, but he does so with an honesty and candidness that frankly is rare to come by in Hollywood. Darabont’s heritage and upbringing are potential reasons why. He was born in a refugee camp in France when his parents fled Hungary during the revolution. He spent the majority of his childhood in the US along with 10 other siblings, and even in such a large family, Darabont describes himself as an outsider growing up. In fact he talks about how growing up he used films as a way to not feel alone, as he connected with the characters he was seeing on screen.

When the Shawshank Redemption first hit theatres, it performed poorly at the box office. As a young director just starting out, that can really shake your confidence. But with the virtue of perspective, looking back now that hardly seems important. It seems to me that Darabont exists in a fine balance between being humble and being a visionary filmmaker. I understand now how Darabont was able to create one of the greatest movies of all time as such an early director. He had laid the groundwork for himself ever since he decided to start writing, it was never a matter of if, but simply when.

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