Those two and a half decades have been kind to the movie, which was a box office disappointment during its initial run in the fall of 1994, earning just over $16 million. But thanks in large part to repeat showings on television and a strong push on rentals, the film slowly achieved cult classic status, as evidenced by its No. 1 ranking on IMDB’s user list of the most popular films of all time.
Based on Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the film follows Robbins’ Andy Dufresne, a banker who is wrongly imprisoned for the murder of his wife and her lover, as he strikes up a lifelong friendship with Morgan Freeman’s Red, who is serving a life sentence.
Ahead of the 25th anniversary of the film’s wide release on Oct. 14, Robbins talked to EW about what it’s like to be part of such a beloved film, the weirdest ways people have messed up its name over the years, and why he thinks the movie’s themes still resonate with viewers.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you hear that this film is still the No. 1 most popular film of all time on IMDB, what comes to mind?
ROBBINS: It’s really been a great blessing. When you’re in a film that is the most popular film of all time, you can scratch that one off the bucket list. For perspective, when you’re in this industry, oftentimes people are in a constant quest to outdo themselves. If your new film doesn’t outperform your last film, you’re on your way out. And I’ve never really bought into that philosophy because the kinds of films that I participated in, I was looking at whether they were going to last rather than whether they were going to make a brief splash. And I think the testament of a great film is that it still resonates with people years and years after it was made. And so to be part of a film like that is such an honor.
And what do you make of its initial failure at the box office?
When it came out, and was not well received at the box office, there were various reasons given: Well, it’s the title, no one can remember the title. And that makes sense too, because for years after that film came out, people would come up to me and say, “You know, I really liked you in that film Scrimshaw Reduction” or “Shimmy, Shimmy, Shake” or “Shankshaw” — you know, so many different ways that people got it wrong. But again, the immediate reaction at that time wasn’t as important as whether the film would have life in video and on cable. And when given a chance, when people actually started to see the movie, it became something that was a movie that people had to watch several times.
Why do you think it’s resonated with audiences so much?
I’ve thought various things over the years, and I think they’re all valid. One is that there are very, very few films that are about the relationship, the friendship between two men that doesn’t involve car chases or being charming with the ladies and those kinds of buddy movies. This one is about a true, deep friendship that lasts. And part of me thinks that people want or need that kind of story to be told. But in the larger picture, I think it’s a film that is about hope, and about transcending whatever challenges or obstacles are in your life to become a better person. To overcome those obstacles and know that somewhere, if you have patience, and a belief, and you live your life with generosity, that there might be a spot on the beach in Zihuatanejo [Mexico, where Andy and Red meet up at the end of the film] for all of us.
We all have various things that imprison us in our lives. Sometimes it’s a job you hate but you have to go to. Sometimes it’s a relationship that you’re trying to make work that is hurting you in some way. Sometimes it’s the circumstances you’re born into. Overcoming trauma, overcoming past traumatic experiences, all of these things are things that factor into what eventually is a lack of freedom in our own lives. And something about that film talks about freedom as being something that is inside of us, and that with the proper approach to life, regardless of your circumstances, freedom is possible. And I think that is another theme that’s deeply resonant with audiences.
Since you’ve had 25 years to digest this film, is there anything about it that you look at now and wish you had done differently?
I usually would say, yes, with most films. But no, not with this one. I think we all understood going into it that the script was very special, and that this story was very special. And we were in a creative environment where we had a passionate connection to what the roadmap was, this beautiful script that [director] Frank Darabont had written. And I think a lot of us felt our job was to not get in the way of the script. Our obligation was to find the truth of that script. So everyone, every actor, every crew member, had similar connections to the material. Cinematographer Roger Deakins was really instrumental in realizing the scope of the film. And I remember Morgan and I would often speak about the scenes we were going to do, and holding on to what truth it inspired in us and fighting for that on the set.
Your new documentary 45 Seconds of Laughter documents the work of the Actors’ Gang Prison Project, which is something you’re heavily involved in. Did your work on Shawshank influence your interest in helping incarcerated men and women, or how did that come about for you?
Well, a number of things. First of all, you have to go back to childhood, when I was growing up in New York City. I saw friends of mine that I used to hang with and that I grew up with enter into the system, that got arrested and put in jail. So I never felt that far removed from the people that we were incarcerating. Then you add into that what happened with the criminalization of marijuana in the ’60s and ’70s, and the ever-increasing prison population, mostly people of color, for nonviolent crimes like drug possession. Being someone that was a pot smoker, again, I didn’t feel that far removed from people that had fallen into the system. I didn’t view it as them and us, I viewed it as I’m incredibly fortunate in this society to have not fallen into that system.
And so then all of that is the preface to reading the script of Shawshank Redemption and responding the way I did, because I saw it as an opportunity to tell the story of human beings that are caught up in a system. And nothing about the script was exploitative, in my opinion. It was an attempt to create a very human story in a very difficult environment that we tend to ignore in storytelling, or when we do movies or stories inside that environment, they’re oftentimes exploitative and violent, and about survival around a population of animals. Our culture’s directly related to the way that we view things, and when you have movies and TV shows that are exploiting that, you tend to think about the people incarcerated in a way that’s abstract and nicely tied up in a box with a bow: “They’re bad people. It’s good we have prisons. Put them away forever.” And that’s ultimately the way we think about it. We don’t tend to think about these people as human beings. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do this documentary, because based on my experience in the last 13 years working inside with these incarcerated men and women, I’ve seen so much human potential.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.