Frank Darabont makes old-fashioned new again.
Frank Darabont loves living in the past. His suite of offices on the old Warner Hollywood lot in L.A. is a virtual museum of the director’s retro pop taste. An oil painting of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster. Planet of the Apes action figures — from the original, not the recent Tim Burton ”re-imagining.” A glass and chrome Art Deco-style radio, permanently parked on a jazz and boogie-woogie station. Most important, there’s a framed head shot of Darabont’s artistic role model, Frank Capra, that hangs behind his desk. ”I’m an old-school kind of guy,” says the single, 42-year-old filmmaker, clad this balmy day in a black shirt dotted with sand-colored palm trees. ”You can tell with my movies — there’s nothing cutting-edge about me.”
Those movies are the period prison dramas The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile (adapted from a Stephen King short story and a serialized King novel, respectively), and now, The Majestic, which opens Dec. 21. Set in 1951, the film stars Jim Carrey as Peter Appleton, a screenwriter accused of being a Communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Fleeing Hollywood, he gets into a car crash and finds himself in a small California village, where he’s mistaken for a native son who never returned home from World War II. But since he has amnesia, Appleton can’t correct the townsfolk. Soon, he is running a movie palace called the Majestic and falling in love with an aspiring lawyer (Laurie Holden). It’s a wonderful life…until the Commie hunters come to town.
The Majestic — which Darabont calls ”the Capra film I’ve always wanted to make” — was written by Michael Sloane, one of 18 high school friends the director recruited to work on the reported $68 million film. ”We got the whole gang back together — we called ourselves ‘the Hollywood High Mafia,”’ chuckles Darabont, who adds that another one of those pals was production designer Gregory Melton, who built The Majestic’s neon-gilded edifices from scratch. ”We don’t just have a 1950s diner — we have the quintessential 1950s diner. We don’t just have a small-town movie palace — we have the quintessential small-town movie palace,” says Darabont. ”With a Capra tone, you want to get a little iconic.”
Yet for all his traditionalism, Darabont is fervently modern when it comes to his favorite part of the filmmaking process: editing. ”I am so glad that they invented the Avid,” he says of the now widely used editing tool, which eliminates the need to cut actual film stock by instead creating a computer-generated work print. Darabont compares it to using a word processor versus a typewriter — you don’t have to retype every page if you want to change something. ”I think [Steven] Spielberg is the only guy who still cuts on film. Every time we discuss this, I tell him he’s a lunatic. It’s so much drudgery!”
Nonetheless, editing The Majestic has been a taxing experience for Darabont. On Shawshank, he had an unusually luxurious nine months for postproduction; on The Green Mile, he had a whole year. But with The Majestic, which began rolling last March and wrapped in June, Darabont for the first time had to meet a predetermined release date. ”Okay,” he recalls thinking, ”time to bite the bullet and do it like everyone else.” The filmmaker was able to take vacations after shooting each of his first two films. This time, he was at the Avid bay the next day, working 12-hour shifts (with editor Jim Page) to finish a first cut so that the special effects and music departments could begin their work. Once that cut was complete, Darabont (an unrepentant late riser) began the refining phase, starting each day around 1 p.m. and finishing around 11. ”I would certainly say one of my characteristics is patience,” quips Page, who’s married and has an 8-month-old son. ”I’m up in the mornings because of the baby, anyways, so it gives me a chance to try things or finish things we left the day before. It works out nicely, because given our postproduction schedule, Frank really finds the time effective when I can present things that are finished or near finished, instead of working through things with him.”