17 years ago today, The Shawshank Redemption was released. The movie basically tanked at the box office, but through repeated airings on TNT and exposure via DVD, it has become one of the most beloved films of all time, still the #1 rated film on the IMDB top 250 movies list.
To celebrate, here is an interview in three parts on “The Charlie Rose Show” with writer-director Frank Darabont, and actors Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins.
I was lucky enough to see the Hollywood premiere of the film — one of the cinematic highlights of my life — and raced home that night to send an email to some Castle Rock execs about how much I loved the movie. I noted all sorts of themes and dynamics in the movie, but one tiny set of grace notes sticks with me even to this day: how Darabont used the harmonica in the story. From the script:
I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company.
Hardly felt the time at all.
Oh, they let you tote that record
player down there, huh? I could'a
swore they confiscated that stuff.
(taps his heart, his head)
The music was here...and here.
That's the one thing they can't
confiscate, not ever. That's the
beauty of it. Haven't you ever felt
that way about music, Red?
Played a mean harmonica as a younger
man. Lost my taste for it. Didn't
make much sense on the inside.
Here's where it makes most sense.
We need it so we don't forget.
That there are things in this world
not carved out of gray stone. That
there's a small place inside of us
they can never lock away, and that
place is called hope.
Hope is a dangerous thing. Drive a
man insane. It's got no place here.
Better get used to the idea.
Like Brooks did?
152 EXT -- PRISON YARD -- DUSK (1957) 152
Red emerges into fading daylight. Andy's waiting for him.
Same old, same old. Thirty years.
Jesus. When you say it like that...
You wonder where it went. I wonder
where ten years went.
Red nods, solemn. They settle in on the bleachers. Andy
pulls a small box from his sweater, hands it to Red.
Anniversary gift. Open it.
Red does. Inside the box, on a thin layer of cotton, is a
shiny new harmonica, bright aluminum and circus-red.
Had to go through one of your
competitors. Hope you don't mind.
Wanted it to be a surprise.
It's very pretty, Andy. Thank you.
You gonna play something?
Red considers it, shakes his head. Softly:
155 INT -- RED'S CELL -- NIGHT (1957) 155
...and we find Red gazing blankly as darkness takes the
cellblock. Adding up the months, weeks, days...
He regards the harmonica like a man confronted with a
Martian artifact. He considers trying it out -- even
holds it briefly to his lips, almost embarrassed --
but puts it back in its box untested. And there the
harmonica will stay...
FADE TO BLACK
Now that is all set up for a tiny grace note. When Red hitches a ride up to that field in Buxton, he trudges along looking for that tree Andy had described:
Red, if you ever get out of here,
do me a favor. There's this big
hayfield up near Buxton. You know
where Buxton is?
Lots of hayfields there.
One in particular. Got a long rock
wall with a big oak at the north
end. Like something out of a Robert
Frost poem. It's where I asked my
wife to marry me. We'd gone for a
picnic. We made love under that
tree. I asked and she said yes.
Promise me, Red. If you ever get
out, find that spot. In the base of
that wall you'll find a rock that
has no earthly business in a Maine
hayfield. A piece of black volcanic
glass. You'll find something buried
under it I want you to have.
What? What's buried there?
You'll just have to pry up that
rock and see.
So when Red sees that wall, then peers up and spots that tree, what do we hear in the soundtrack? A harmonica. Not once, but twice. The only time in the movie.
Andy talks about how music can remind us of hope.
He offers a taste of hope to Red with the gift of the harmonica, but Red refuses to accept it.
But when Red finally gets free, rejects committing suicide like Brooks, and heads up to Buxton, what happens when he spots that magical tree? Harmonicas. And then this. And this.
Is there a better movie than The Shawshank Redemption? Hard to imagine.
We may tend to think of Mentor characters as sage men and women, spouting off wisdom in memorable aphorisms. But there are all types of Mentors (as there are all archetypes). And in Brooks Hatlen in The Shawshank Redemption, we have a unique one: What I call a Dark Mentor.
Brooks has been a prisoner at Shawshank prison for over 50 years. Then for no apparent reason, the peaceful old man who feeds birds and tends to the library as his avocation puts a knife to a prisoner’s neck [Heywood]:
But it’s the only way they’ll let
Brooks bursts into tears. The storm is over. Heywood
staggers free, gasping for air. Andy takes the knife,
passes it to Red. Brooks dissolves into Andy’s arms
with great heaving sobs.
Take it easy. You’ll be all right.
Him? What about me? Crazy old
fool! Goddamn near slit my throat!
You’ve had worse from shaving.
What’d you do to set him off?
Nothin’! Just came in to say
(off their looks)
Ain’t you heard? His parole came through!
As it turns out, Brooks has been “institutionalized,” five decades of prison life changing the very soul of the man. And this is what happens upon his release from prison.
How is he a Dark Mentor? Because he cuts a trail for Red who when he is released, stays in the same boarding house as Brooks, the same bedroom as Brooks, even the same job as Brooks. And Brooks’ path leads toward suicide.
Red lies smoking in bed. Unable to sleep.
Terrible thing, to live in fear.
Brooks Hatlen knew it. Knew it all
too well. All I want is to be back
where things make sense. Where I
won’t have to be afraid all the time.
He glances up at the ceiling beam. “Brooks Hatlen was here.”
Only one thing stops me. A promise
I made to Andy.
Andy (who is Red’s Attractor) and his offer of hope trumps the dark wisdom of death provided by Brooks:
As Red puts it, the final dialogue of the movie:
I hope I can make it across the
border. I hope to see my friend
and shake his hand. I hope the
Pacific is as blue as it has been
in my dreams.
The impact of Red’s choice and the satisfaction of his reunion with Andy in Mexico would not mean nearly as much were it not for the Brooks Hatlen subplot, a Dark Mentor who challenges Red… and Red meets the test.
“I guess it comes down to a simple choice: get busy living, or get busy dying.”
– Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), screenplay by Frank Darabont, based on a short story by Stephen King
The Daily Dialogue theme this week is favorite dialogue from favorite movies of GITS readers. The Shawshank Redemption suggested by Mike.
Trivia: Stephen King sold the rights to the movie very cheaply out of his friendship with Frank Darabont. They had originally become friends when Darabont adapted a short story of King’s called “The Woman in the Room” (King has a policy stating that any aspiring filmmaker can adapt his short stories for a buck) and King was thoroughly impressed. They maintained a pen pal relationship and didn’t actually meet until Darabont optioned Shawshank.
one of my biggest struggles in writing is finding my ending. I usually know what the end result must be (A must be happy, B must have been foiled, etc), but determining how to do it stumps me. I’ll usually go through about many, many different endings and never be satisfied with it as being “big” enough or strong enough.
Do you have any tips on writing a successful conclusion?
Darren, it depends on what you mean by “big.” And you have to include the story’s genre in there as well because ‘big’ in an action movie could be entirely different than ‘big’ in a drama. Plus one other dynamic currently at work: With CGI now a part of virtually every movie combined with the emerging 3D format, movies can have really big endings. I mean gargantuan, epic battles that blow your mind endings.
Which puts writers in a bind: How do you top those type of endings in a spec script?
There are certain narrative elements you can add to an ending to try to make it bigger. Create a ticking clock where something awful will happen if the Protagonist doesn’t achieve this in that amount of time. Increase the odds against the Protagonist through the sheer numbers against them and/or the impenetrable nature of the physical surroundings. Add complications, roadblocks, and reversals. And so forth.
But what if the issue isn’t what happens in the plot? What if the problem is what is not happening below the plot?
My first piece of advice is to break down the story’s climax into two parts: The External World of what happens in the Plotline through characters’ actions and dialogue, and the Internal World of what happens in the Themeline through characters’ intentions and subtext. You can have the greatest set of events imaginable happening in the plot, but if they don’t mean anything on an emotional, psychological, and/or spiritual level, then no matter how ‘big’ of a Final Struggle you create, it will likely fail to deliver the goods.
Moreover it probably behooves you to spend more time thinking about what’s going on in the Internal World of your story, especially in what the events of Act Three and the Final Struggle mean, because the greater the emotional impact on a script reader, the ‘bigger’ their experience of the ending.
Indeed this may be a way for writers to combat the “how-can-I-top-the-latest-Michael-Bay-CGI-bombastic-ending” syndrome — by focusing more on what the ending means on an emotional level to primary characters and less on what the pyrotechnics are.
A great example of this is The Shawshank Redemption. [For background, you can read my analysis of the movie as a Dual Protagonist story: Andy as Protagonist here. Red as Protagonist here]. Since there are two Protagonists in the story, that means the movie has – in essence – two endings: The first is Andy’s Final Struggle where he ends up escaping from prison (you can see that clip here).
The second ending is Red’s Final Struggle where he chooses not to follow the course of his Dark Mentor Brooks, who committed suicide, but rather to heed Andy’s wisdom — “Get busy living’, or get busy dyin'” (you can see that clip here).
Now which is the ‘bigger’ of these two endings? In terms of scope, you’d probably have to say Andy’s escape. But what about in the Internal World? Andy’s escape is a wonderful surprise and we feel great for him that he’s finally free. But Red’s struggle is in its own way perhaps even more powerful because of his metamorphosis at the beginning of the movie from a cynical “institutionalized” man to someone who claims hope. Indeed the very last words of the movie, as Red strides across that beach in Mexico to see Andy, are “I hope.” While the scope of what Red does isn’t as ‘big’ compared to the heightened action of Andy’s escape, it delivers a huge and satisfying emotional wallop, sealed by the visual of the two friends reconnecting.
There’s another way of looking at a story’s ending, again tied to the External and Internal Worlds of your screenplay universe. Often a Protagonist progresses out of Act One into the world of adventure with a specific want in mind, a conscious goal. But there is something else going on inside, a need that dwells in their unconscious mind or a repressed part of their psyche. Throughout the course of the story, this need emerges – as it should – in order for the Protagonist to achieve any sort of authentic life or sense of wholeness or unity.
If you can identify what that need is in your Protagonist, something that they hold quite close to a core part of who they are, but have as yet refused to acknowledge it openly or allow it to see the light of day, you can craft an ending in which that need does erupt to the Protagonist’s psychological surface – and in theory at least, that should elevate the emotional resonance of the story’s conclusion.
A great example of this is Pixar’s brilliant movie Up. [For my complete analysis of the movie, you can go here]. Focusing on the story’s Protagonist Carl Frederickson, what is his want and what is his need?
Want: To float his house to Paradise Falls in order to fulfill a promise to his deceased wife Ellie.
Need: To save Kevin, Russell, and Dug, and thereby seal a relationship – and a ‘resurrected’ life – with his new ‘family.’
If you will recall, Carl achieves his conscious goal (want) by getting the house to the top of Paradise Falls. But it is a pyrrhic victory. Kevin has been kidnapped by Muntz, Dug is with Muntz as well, and Russell is moping and angry outside the house . And as the script notes [P. 79]:
Carl sighs. He managed to bring the house to the falls, but Ellie never made it.
Then Carl opens up Ellie’s ADVENTURE BOOK and turns to the page marked “STUFF I’M GOING TO DO.” He’s surprised to see that it is filled with photos and memorabilia of Ellie’s married life with Carl. Then he reads a final message to him from Ellie:
“THANKS FOR THE ADVENTURE! — NOW GO HAVE A NEW ONE! LOVE, ELLIE.”
Carl heads out the front door only to see Russell floating in the air with some balloons tied around him, powered by the leaf blower, and declaring, “I’m going to help Kevin even if you won’t!” And as Kevin zooms away, Carl’s new adventure begins — saving Kevin, Russell, and Dug, in other words realizing his need.
It’s interesting to note how much emotion is involved in both Shawshank and Up in each of their ‘dual’ endings, which brings me to the takeaway from this post:
Make sure your ending is tied directly to the emotional life of your primary characters, and especially your Protagonist. You can write ‘big’ in terms of action, but if it doesn’t mean anything on an emotional, psychological, or spiritual level, then it will likely be a less than satisfying ending. Conversely if you identify what the key emotional dynamics are re your primary characters, most notably your Protagonist’s want and need, you can imbue your ending with more psychological richness, making it a ‘bigger’ experience for a script reader.
During one of those click-through-endless-links modes last night, I stumbled on this Q&A with David Lynch. The video is super-amateur, shot shaking worse than Blair Witch on uppers, so I almost stopped watching. But what Lynch was saying grabbed me. Here’s a transcript of the question from a woman in the audience and Lynch’s response:
Q: I’m a former English teacher, and we saw Mulholland Drive, my son and I, recently. And I just wondered, is there a specific message or theme? Because we just were completely confused.
[Lynch talks about his English teacher]
A: I was saying, the idea tells you everything. Lots of times I get ideas, I fall in love with them. Those ones you fall in love with are really special ideas. And in some ways, I always say, when something’s abstract, the abstractions are hard to put into words – unless you’re a poet.
But these ideas, you somehow know. And cinema is a language that can say abstractions. I love stories, but I love stories that can hold abstractions, and cinema can say these to difficult-to-say-in-words things.
A lot of times, I don’t know the meaning of the idea – and it drives me crazy. I should know the meaning of the ideas, and I think about them. And I tell the story about my first feature Eraserhead, I did not know what things meant to me. And in that particular film, I started reading the Bible. And I’m reading the Bible going along. And suddenly, there was a sentence [in the Bible]. And I said, ‘Forget it. That’s this thing.’
I should know the meaning for me. But when things get abstract, it does no good for me to say what it is. All viewers, on the surface, we’re all different. And we see something — and that’s another place where intuition kicks in. You see the thing, you think about it, you feel it. And you go and you sort of know something inside. You can bring your light on that.
And another thing I say is, if you go after a film with abstractions to a coffee place, and you’re having coffee with your friends, someone will say something, and immediately you’ll say, ‘No, no, no, that’s not what that was about.’ So many things come out, it’s surprising.
So you do know, you do know. For yourself. And what you know is valid.
Lynch wanders around in his response, but one thing he seems to be saying is that “cinema” is a multivalent medium – that is, a movie, the particular combination of visuals, audio, characters, dialogue, action, scenes, themes, and so on, is capable of ‘holding’ multiple values or meanings.
He also is saying that each one of us brings our own unique life-history to the movie-viewing experience – therefore, we will pick up on this image, that line of dialogue, this emotional undercurrent, that theme, etc.
I think that’s not only right, that’s one of the reasons those of us who love movies, love them so much. I am passionate writing, music, art, poetry – but nothing can capture me so wholly as a movie, in part because they work on so many different levels of consciousness and even subconsciousness.
From a screenwriting perspective, what I take away from Lynch’s comments is that we, as writers, need to free ourselves up to go with our intuition, to immerse ourselves in our story ideas in a non-rational as well as rational way – because that’s when movie magic can happen. We can ‘know’ something of the ideas about we which write, but if we give ourselves over to our ideas and the creative process in an intuitive way, the story can end up taking on all sorts of shades of meaning and multiple layers of interpretation.
Take all those little grace notes you find when analyzing a movie closely. For instance, in The Shawshank Redemption, one of my students in a class a few years back noted this connection. During Andy’s (Tim Robbins) final conversation with Red (Morgan Freeman), where Andy is talking about how he’d go to Mexico if he ever got out of prison, Red responds with this side of dialogue:
RED Goddamn it, Andy, stop! Don't do that to yourself! Talking shitty pipedreams! Mexico's down there, and you're in here, and that's the way it is!
“Talking shitty pipedreams!” Now think about how Andy escaped. What did he break open and crawl through 500 yards? The sewage line. “Shitty pipes”. In other words, Red’s dialogue is symbolically prophetic because, in fact, Andy was talking about “shitty pipedreams.”
You may say, “Coincidence.” But I say, “Synchronicity.” Was screenwriter-director Frank Darabont conscious of that symbolic connection when he wrote that line? Perhaps the line derives from Stephen King’s story upon which the movie was based. Then the same question: Was it a conscious act on the part of the writer? Or is this one of those moments where a tiny bit of magic occurred, an unconscious creative inspiration resulting from going so deeply into the story ideas?
Another example. In my class at UNC yesterday, we analyzed Juno written by Diablo Cody, a movie I thoroughly enjoyed when I first saw it, but have come to appreciate even more as I’ve taught it. On P. 64-65 of the final draft of the script, there is a small scene with Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) Loring. They are in the room they are turning into the nursery. The couple is staring at a wall, two swatches of yellow painted there. Vanessa, who has said she was born to be a mother, is consumed with the prospect of adopting the baby that Juno is carrying. Her nesting instincts have kicked in. It’s important to her to choose the right color for the walls. So the scene starts with her line, “What do you think? Mustard or cheesecake?” After much hemming and hawing, Mark says, “I just think it’s too early to paint.” Vanessa answers, “I disagree.” They turn around to the other wall and Vanessa says, “That wall is going to need something.” Then turning to Mark, “Can you see it?” He doesn’t respond. And we’re out.
The point of the scene would appear to be showing Mark in his process of developing cold feet about the adoption, reflected in subtext re his comments about painting — “I just think it’s too early” — his clearly unenthusiastic body language, and his lack of any response at the end. “Can you see it?” The answer is either, no, he can’t, or yes, he can, but doesn’t like what he sees (i.e., his future as a father).
But there’s that other line from Vanessa, “That wall is going to need something.” Go to P. 100 of the script — the ending sequence of the movie after Juno has given birth to the baby and Vanessa is home with the infant — for this scene description:
We pan past the wall Vanessa has said “needed something.” There’s a framed note on the wall. It looks like it was handwritten on the back of a Jiffy Lube bill. We see that it says:
“Vanessa – if you’re still in, I’m still in. Juno.”
Of course, that is the note that Juno penned, directly after she drove away from the Lorings – post Mark’s confession that he didn’t want to be a father. She then drives back, puts the note outside their front door, rings the doorbell, then screeches away. Vanessa takes the note and one look at her face says it all — yes, she’s still in.
The shot of the framed note on the wall, recalling the earlier line of dialogue, is a beautiful grace note, a tiny little thing, but imbued with great meaning — a pact between these two women, utterly different people, but bound together by their respective connection to ‘motherhood.’
So here’s a case where the writer – Cody – made a conscious connection when writing the script (the same reference is in an earlier draft of the script), and represents precisely the type of magic that can happen when we trust our instincts and fully embrace our story ideas.
Circling back to Lynch, one of the very first “How They Write A Script” posts I did here was with him — here. Check out how Lynch used to come up with ideas:
”For seven years I ate at Bob’s Big Boy. I would go at 2:30, after the lunch rush. I ate a chocolate shake and four, five, six, seven cups of coffee – with lots of sugar. And there’s lots of sugar in that chocolate shake. It’s a thick shake. In a silver goblet. I would get a rush from all this sugar, and I would get so many ideas! I would write them on these napkins. It was like I had a desk with paper. All I had to do was remember to bring my pen, but a waitress would give me one if I remembered to return it at the end of my stay. I got a lot of ideas at Bob’s.”
Sugar and chocolate! Hey, whatever works.
I don’t really know the point of this post other than to remind us that writing, like our stories, is a multivalent thing: We’re not just writing from a rational place, but also spiritual, emotional, psychological, symbolic, unconscious, subconscious, and so on. If our writing can envelope us and pull us deeply into our Stories, our Self, and our Ideas, then magic can happen on the printed page.
Since I’ve ventured back (once again!) this week into one of my favorite movies The Shawshank Redemption — analysis here and here — I figured why not select something from it for this week’s Great Scene.
But which one? The trial? Suds on the roof? Mozart? Brooks’ suicide? Andy’s escape? So many memorable scenes. And I’ve chosen this one — Red’s final parole board hearing — because it represents perfectly a payoff scene. Twice before, Red sits in the same chair in front of the same type of soulless, dreary people — the first time we meet Red in the movie in 1947, then about midway through the movie in 1957 — and goes through his rote lines:
MAN #l It says here you've served thirty years of a life sentence.
MAN #2 You feel you've been rehabilitated?
RED Yes sir, without a doubt. I can say I'm a changed man. No danger to society, that's the God's honest truth. Absolutely rehabilitated.
And both times, the scene ends with a big rubber stamp slamming down: “REJECTED.” Now it’s the third time in front of the parole board:
AN IRON-BARRED DOOR 274
slides open with an enormous CLANG. A stark room beyond. CAMERA PUSHES through. SIX MEN AND ONE WOMAN sit at a long table. An empty chair faces them. We are again in:
INT -- SHAWSHANK HEARINGS ROOM -- DAY (1967)
Red enters, sits. 20 years older than when we first saw him.
MAN #1 Your file says you've served forty years of a life sentence. You feel you've been rehabilitated?
Red doesn't answer. Just stares off. Seconds tick by. The parole board exchanges glances. Somebody clears his throat.
MAN #1 Shall I repeat the question?
RED I heard you. Rehabilitated. Let's see now. You know, come to think of it, I have no idea what that means.
MAN #2 Well, it means you're ready to rejoin society as a--
RED I know what you think it means. Me, I think it's a made-up word, a poli- tician's word. A word so young fellas like you can wear a suit and tie and have a job. What do you really want to know? Am I sorry for what I did?
MAN Well...are you?
RED Not a day goes by I don't feel regret, and not because I'm in here or because you think I should. I look back on myself the way I was...stupid kid who did that terrible crime...wish I could talk sense to him. Tell him how things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone, this old man is all that's left, and I have to live with that. (beat) Rehabilitated? That's a bullshit word, so you just go on ahead and stamp that form there, sonny, and stop wasting my damn time. Truth is, I don't give a shit.
The parole board just stares. Red sits drumming his fingers.
CLOSEUP -- PAROLE FORM
A big rubber stamp SLAMS down -- and lifts away to reveal the word "APPROVED" in red ink.
Red comes clean, no more spouting off what he thinks the boards wants to hear, but a true confession from his soul. Here’s the movie version of the scene:
What is different about Red this time around? Why does he change his tune with the board? I’ve got some ideas, but I’d like to hear your thoughts about this Great Scene.