Way back when The Shawshank Redemption was barely hanging on in theaters, squeaking out some pretty meager box office, and still years before it was regarded as one of the greatest American movies of the last thirty years, Academy and Guild members were not yet able to rely on screeners as a way to keep up with award-worthy movies. If you didn’t catch the flick in a theater, the best you could hope for was catching an invite for an evening showing at a studio or a talent agency screening room. It was either that or wait for the movie to show up on VHS at the corner Blockbuster.
Shawshank was initially released with little fanfare and expectation. After it had already fizzled on the national scene, Castle Rock was doing whatever it could to keep it in a few theaters in Los Angeles and New York with hopes of salvaging some of its lost coin with some award nominations. By the time I got around to seeing the film, it was playing only once a day one at some last chance triplex on Beverly. Though the industry word of mouth on the movie was terrific, it still wasn’t the highest on my list of wannasees. More than anything else, it was luck and timing that led me to purchase the ticket on that Tuesday. I had big gap between a westside lunch and a meeting at Sony Studios. When that happens, I usually try to slide a movie into the slot in lieu of burning gas back to the Valley or finding a quiet space to flip open my laptop in order to bang out a thousand words. On that particular afternoon, The Shawshank Redemption fit both my mood and timing. Or so I figured.
Though it doesn’t play as long as the numbers suggest, Shawshank clocks in at 142 minutes. (That’s two hours and twenty-two clicks for the mathematically challenged.) Before I parked myself in that squeaky seat with a popcorn and a Diet Coke, I’d already erred. I’d forgotten to check the running time on the movie and only allotted myself the standard 110 to 120 minutes to see the picture before tacking on another thirty to navigate from Hollywood to Culver City, zip through the studio gates, park, and hike across the lot to my appointment. So as the movie rolled on, I’d begun to uncharacteristically check my watch despite being completely wrapped up in the compelling tale of Andy Dufresne and Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding. The story wasn’t near close to winding up and my meeting was fast-approaching. I had two options. Bail on the meeting and watch the movie to its conclusion, then make some lame flat-tire excuse for blowing off the meeting to my agent. Or be the responsible studio scribe and break the movie off before it had its talons even deeper into me. There was a brief, death struggle inside of me, finally choosing the latter. It was, after all, just a movie. All I need was a clean exit.
But here’s the awful moment where I chose to make my escape: Tim Robbins as the defeated and depressed Andy Dufresne, is seated in his lonely jail cell, staring at that poster of Racquel Welch, when he reaches under his pillow and removes the rope with which I fear he’s going to hang himself – just like poor old Brooks as portrayed by James Whitmore.
Damn damn damn! What a bloody cliffhanger, created by my own mix of lousy timing and fiscal propriety. I jetted over to the Sony lot, beginning my meeting with breathless recitation of what I’d just seen and my afternoon predicament. To this day I don’t remember with whom I met or what was discussed aside from the merits of The Shawshank Redemption, Frank Darabont’s unbridled talent as a writer-slash-director, and what the hell was Tim Robbins gonna do with that damned rope?
When the meeting broke up, I had just enough time to skidoo back to Sunset Boulevard’s Cinerama Dome where I was set to attend the premiere of a movie I also don’t recollect. I parked, got my name crossed off the list of the invited, then entered the theater and went about trying to find myself a seat. It was already slam-packed. As I scoured the room for a single, available seat, I bumped into an agent acquaintance, Robert Stein. I said hello, shook his hand, then was introduced to his guest.
“Doug Richardson,” said Stein. “Meet Frank Darabont.”
Understand, I was in movie-premiere-social-schmooze-remote-mode. Smile on my face. Ready to shake hands and say my good evenings to a coterie of the usual suspects who populate these kinds of events, while deftly avoiding the few who hadn’t returned my call or those whom I plainly didn’t want to speak with. So it was as if my brain was on a three-second delay as I swung my short-fingered mitt to grip Frank Darabont’s hand.
“Nice to meet you, Doug,” said Frank, warmly.
When I finally put the face and the name into context I believe I performed something between a genuflection and kissing Frank’s ring. Involuntarily, I dropped my knee to the floor and then said something moronic about needing to explain myself.
“You don’t have a clue what I’ve been through this afternoon,” I began.
I followed with the tale about the gap between my lunch and the late afternoon appointment at Sony, and the couple of hours between where I’d tried to squeeze in a 3:15 PM showing of Frank’s powerful movie.
“So I got up to leave right when Andy reaches under his pillow and pulls out the effing rope,” I said.
Frank bellowed with a big laugh, clearly amused by the situation I’d just described.
“Please,” I said. “Not at all trying to get you to tell me what happens next. I just wanted to express to you what a fantastic effect your movie had on me.”
“Not the whole movie,” chimed in Stein.
“He’s right,” said Frank, wise smirk on his face. “It might not finish so well.”
“I doubt that very much,” I said.
The lights to the room temporarily dimmed as a signal the movie was about to begin.
“I better find a seat,” I said. “Nice meeting you, Frank.”
I shook the filmmaker’s hand, hiked up to the rear of the movie house to where I found a corner seat. Like I said, I don’t recall a frame of the movie that unspooled in the Dome that night. In the fray of flesh pressing which usually follows a movie premier, I wasn’t lucky enough to bump into Frank Darabont to put a finish on our brief conversation. And since I hadn’t seen my wife all day, I skipped the after party and hustled myself back over the hill to my humble suburban shelter.
Upon my arrival home, I discovered a simple package leaning up against the gate that guards the entry to my home. This wasn’t an odd occurrence. Studios and agencies often messenger scripts and such, leaving a variety of paper envelopes in danger of being ravaged by my dogs or the automated sprinklers. Luckily, the package that night had escaped such danger. As I switched on the lights to my dining room, I dropped my keys and ripped open the seal. Out dropped a single, unmarked video cassette with a buck card taped to it, reading:
“WITH COMPLIMENTS FROM FRANK DARABONT… I hope the rest of the film lives up to your expectations.”
Damn damn damn!
The man had somehow gleaned my address and had a copy of the movie hand-delivered to me just so I could see how things turned out for Andy and Red.
I walked upstairs, kissed my wife a speedy goodnight, then retired to the den where I jacked the cassette into my VCR and fast-forwarded the tape to precisely where I’d left off with Andy, the Racquel Welch poster, and that rope he’d pulled out from under his prison cell pillow.
Of course, the movie finished strong. Despite that, it was skunked in the awards race and slaved in its attempts to make a profit.
I’ve since watched the movie a number times. Always satisfied. Always remembering Frank’s coolest deed.
Not long ago, I finally succeeded in convincing my fifteen-year-old son to watch the movie. The boy was pretty reluctant and it took him losing a bet before he sat to watch the movie from beginning to end. When it was over, I told him my story about the movie. Then I asked him to go on the Internet and check out Shawshank’s rank in the critical lexicon of American Cinema. He was not just stunned and excited. But inspired to make a list of other great films for father and son to experience together.
So once again, Frank, your cool deed keeps on giving.
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