Behind the Lines with DR: The Coolest Deed

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 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 a 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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4 thoughts on “Behind the Lines with DR: The Coolest Deed

  1. Susan

    Doug,
    Thanks for that story. I’ve heard the name Shawshank redemption before, but I never heard what it was about or saw it. Reading about your enthused, hating to be torn away, experience convinced me I had to see it now, so I found it online. When I first saw drama I wasn’t sure I’d like it. I like drama in my stories, but I’m not an avid drama by-its-self fan. But it grabs at the start with an innocent man going to prison. At least I believed him. You really left at the perfect time. Thanks especially for not giving away what happens after the rope. If you had watched longer to the next morning you would’ve lost that suspense. I won’t be a scene spoiler for any other late comers. Despite what Frank said, it did finish so well.

    It’s ironic, but I’ve found that often the movies that are not highest on my list of wannasees end up being favorites while those big wannasees can fall short of my list of wannasee-overandoveragains.

    You know I realized this movie shares something with “Back to the Future”. The hero is not the protagonist. In this story it’s Red who changes most, not Andy. That makes Andy, the hero, the antagonist because he causes the changes in Red. That’s a definate spin from the normal villian antagonist. I wonder if Frank Darabont considered Robert Zemickis’ work in his film.

  2. Brian Shell

    Shawshank had a profound impact on me in 1995 when a friend recommended it in an email with the title: “Are you institutionalized?”

    At the time, I was a humble engineer working in LA who had just worked as an extra on Get Shorty… and feeling like Corporate America had its Golden Handcuffs cleverly around my wrists.

    Upon the ice cold beer scene, the La Boheme record player scene, and the finale, I cried harder than I ever had in a movie… relating only TOO well to Andy DuFresne.

    A few months later, after deciding to leave my engineering career to become a writer, my LA drum teacher told me that my decision to pursue my passions would meet with incredulous disbelief… until I “made it”… at which point, people would return (who’d estranged themselves) and say, “Oh, I knew it all along.”

    As I left his home that day… overlooking all of LA… I turned back and said, “I feel like Andy DuFresne in that I just tunneled my way out of prison and have to crawl through the sewer pipe.” He responded, “Just remember bro… once he makes it, he ends up in one place – Paradise.”

    That message sent me on my way… and thus last year at this time, I was invited to a retreat center in Paradise, Michigan… during peak color of autumn… a 16 year full circle… now, “Into the New”… and now with 10 screenplays written and 22 eBooks published for the Amazon Kindle.

    Gratzi for your Redemption story!

    Ciao,
    Brian Shell

  3. Michael Eddy

    Doug — great story! One of the all-time small world and perfect timing tales I’ve ever heard. And a gentlemanly and classy move by Frank to top it all off. I saw the film when I lived in LA when it first came out (having read the Stephen King story on which it is based) and I loved it. One of those films that should have found a much larger audience its first go round. I think my Mom caught it first when it showed up on cable TV and she called to ask me whether I’d ever seen it. I did I raved. I’ve seen it quite a few times since (one of those films that I’ll stop and watch whenever I’m channel surfing and stumble across it – no matter what scene I click in on) and own it on DVD – but your story has inspired me to sit down and watch it with my son (16) the first chance I get. Thanks.

  4. Princess Scribe

    Oh, Doug.

    I love this story so.

    I remember seeing Shawshank in a tattered seat in the Glendale Galleria. It was the only place showing it at that time. I think I read something about someone who said that they saw something by someone kind of good about the movie, and so I traipsed over the hill and through the warehouses to the Galleria… and I would gladly traipse so every day of my life for the rest of my life. What a glorious film.

    How fortunate to have met Darabont. I must say I am pea green with envy; I have yet to hear one unkind word about him. A man amongst men. I think I’ll curtsy. Now.

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