In Stephen King's gritty 'Redemption' Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins do the big stretch
Not every prison movie is Natural Born Killers. Oliver Stone’s over-the-top bloodbath was designed to bring out the soul-consuming beast in its actors. But The Shawshank Redemption is a descendant of Cool Hand Luke. Its prisoners endure, its tortures are exquisite, its triumphs are designed to fire the spirit-and all stabs at satire took place off camera.
* ”Today we were reshooting a scene where I pick a maggot out of my oatmeal,” says costar Tim Robbins. It is August in the drought year of 1993, and after three months in the heat and gothic gloom of the old Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, cast and crew are attuned to the tiny gestures of defiance that make life inside bearable. ”The first time we shot it,” Robbins continues, ”someone from the ASPCA was on the set because we were using a bird that day. We were informed by the person that we weren’t allowed to kill the maggot on screen. So today (for the reshoot) someone made a little matchstick director’s chair with a star on it and ‘Maggot’ on the back. We put the maggot on his chair between takes.”
*Robbins’ belly laugh lasts a good long time, then his famous baby face goes deadpan: ”I don’t want to give the impression we don’t care about < maggots.''
*Adapted from a 1982 novella by Stephen King, Shawshank is a tale that respects survival. Robbins, 35, plays lifer Andy Dufresne, a soft-spoken banker convicted of a double murder who remains unbowed-but is frequently bloodied-by the sadism that swirls through Maine’s Shawshank State Prison. Morgan Freeman is Red, 10 years along on his own murder rap when the two meet in stir in 1947. Red is the prison’s leading entrepreneur, the guy who can get you anything from the outside. Their 20-year friendship is at the heart of Shawshank. ”It’s a love affair,” says Freeman, 57. ”They’re not in love with each other-they’re friends who are interdependent. It’s what Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Thelma & Louise were about.”
The difference, of course, is that those characters were footloose, while Andy and Red must pursue freedom within. ”When I walked into this place I immediately felt an overwhelming weight of whatever tragedies had taken place here,” Robbins says of the 1896 Ohio fortress, which had its date with the wrecking ball postponed by Shawshank‘s production. ”I don’t think you can have square footage more filled with pain than a cell block.”
Neither actor wanted to overthink his role, however. ”Tim and I, we work in the same way,” says Freeman. ”When we’re in rehearsal or they say roll cameras, we’re there, doing our jobs. Otherwise, we’re doing other things. He’s not a brooder, I’m not a brooder.”
”It’s more about emotions-what comes out in the moment naturally-than it is about planning,” Robbins agrees. ”With (Morgan) it always feels very true.”
Robbins did meet with inmates in their cells at the new prison across the road-and had his arms and legs shackled for a few hours. Not Freeman, though. ”Acting the part of someone who’s incarcerated doesn’t require any specific knowledge of incarceration,” says the actor, who won early screen acclaim in the 1980 prison drama Brubaker. ”Because men don’t change. Once you’re in that situation, you just toe whatever line you have to toe.”
Several of the denim-clad extras didn’t need to imagine what prison was like, either. Casting calls brought in former inmates who had done time at the reformatory before it closed in 1990. Robert Green, a tall, gaunt local with weary blue eyes, donned the familiar uniform for the first time since his release eight years before. Now in his 40s, Green first came through the heavy prison doors just after his 18th birthday. ”I wanted to lay old ghosts to rest,” he says, then adds, ”After doing so much time for the state, I kind of liked the idea of coming back and getting paid for it.”
Assistant warden Richard Hall, Shawshank’s prison liaison, rounded up guards to play themselves in the movie as well. ”In the solitary wing,” says Hall, recalling the old days, ”the 6-by-8-foot cells (had) nothing but a hole in the floor-no lights. Guys would be in the dark for four days with nothing but bread and water twice a day. Solitary in the new prison has a window and shower with hot and cold water, a radio, and air-conditioning, too.”
Robbins, whose character spends more than his share of time in the hole, says he was surprised by the guards he met. ”One thing that came up an awful lot was their belief that the problems with the prison system could be solved by legalizing drugs,” says the actor, known for his support of liberal causes. He’s relaxing in his trailer between scenes, taking notes from books on American vaudeville for a screenplay he’s writing but refuses to talk about. An Elvis Presley tapestry — a Father’s Day gift from actress Susan Sarandon, with whom he’s raising three children — hangs on one wall, the focal point of the room. The ceiling fan makes it undulate authentically. ”I just have this unnatural fascination with Elvis,” admits Robbins, quietly amused with himself. ”I guess it reminds me of how important perspective is. You know, watch out or you might wind up wearing really silly costumes with Hawaiian leis.”
For Robbins, last seen with a Hula Hoop around his middle in The Hudsucker Proxy, the role of Andy Dufresne represents a chance to take his self-assured screen persona in a new direction—far from the sardonic uses made of it in Hudsucker, The Player (which earned him the 1992 Best Actor award at Cannes), and Bob Roberts (which he also directed). ”Andy discovers a way to survive by using his mind and his heart. In the beginning he tries to live on another plane,” says Robbins. ”Toward the middle he’s almost false, he almost loses his grasp-the weight of the prison lands on his head at one point. But then he discovers another way.”
Writer-director Frank Darabont, making his first feature, had his own rites of passage in the course of filming. A longtime King fan who based one of his first scripts on the author’s ”The Woman in the Room,” Darabont, 35, took only eight weeks to adapt ”Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” one of the four stories in Different Seasons (another became Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me). In May 1992, two weeks after he showed the script to Castle Rock Pictures, he secured a $25 million budget and word went out that Darabont had delivered a prison drama actors would kill for. Freeman was the director’s first choice for Red, the film’s narrator, even though the character was conceived as white, as were the actor’s parts in Unforgiven and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. James Whitmore, 72, was lured back to film after a seven-year absence to play a trusty, and William Sadler (best known among a certain demographic as the grim reaper from Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey) snagged a role as one of Red’s gang. Gil Bellows makes his debut as an illiterate young con, a role that originally went to Brad Pitt, who bowed out because of scheduling conflicts.
And when the stellar cast assembled, Darabont, whose most lustrous prior credit was the 1991 USA Network thriller Buried Alive, felt the weight of the big production on his head. ”My nature tends to be very quiet. On the set there are a hundred questions per minute,” he says. ”You can never slam on brakes to stop and think.” One constant struggle was with director of photography Roger Deakins. Darabont wanted to film as much of the spectacular location as possible, a strategy Deakins (The Hudsucker Proxy) resisted. ”It’s nice not to see outside the prison,” argues Deakins. ”It adds claustrophobia, so when we go wide, it’s a much bigger statement.”
Darabont’s other struggle was with one of his stars. ”For me,” Freeman remarks, ”someone who comes to the project as a writer first is not going to be a good director. He’s going to usurp my job. You pay an actor for his expertise. If you don’t use it you’ll raise hackles.”
Darabont, whose writing credits include The Blob, The Fly II, and Kenneth Branagh’s upcoming Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, allows ”the director has to gauge what any actor needs,” and that he learned that Robbins ”is comfortable with a great deal of discussion,” while for Freeman ”it boils down to ‘Where do I sit? Where do I turn?”’ In the end, Freeman concedes, his director knew when to lay off. ”Frank Darabont is a writer, but he’s not crazy. He’s made a wonderful movie.”
”When I was a con,” says extra Robert Green, echoing the story of Andy Dufresne, ”I did what I had to do. It took me a few years to learn to stay away from the wrong people. Some inmates let time get to them-that’s hard time. But if you have a strong mind and a strong heart, you’re not going to let it beat you.”