text Audrey Kelly
photography Fergus Greer
There’s a certain anxiety you experience when you’re a filmmaker with a movie about to open, and an entirely different kind of angst when the film in question happens to be the follow-up to your last picture, which garnered seven Oscar nominations. But Frank Darabont seems to be taking it all in stride on this extraordinarily hot Los Angeles afternoon.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising after all. His adaptation of The Green Mile, Stephen King’s best-selling, six-part novel, was one of the most highly-lauded scripts in Hollywood when he completed it two years ago. No small feat, walking in the shadow of his triumphant 1994 directorial debut The Shawshank Redemption. But Darabont’s navigated his Hollywood course with aplomb. The one-time B-movie horror scribe has upgraded into a full-fledged A-list filmmaker -- complete with a matured confidence. And the forty-year-old artisan now counts such luminaries as Spielberg, Schwarznegger, Lucas and Hanks among his circle of friends.

It all seems light-years away from Montebeliard, France, where Darabont was born to Hungarian refugees before moving to Chicago. At the age of five, his parents divorced and Darabont relocated to Northern California to live with his father. And although he’d already developed a consuming fascination with cartoons, comic books and horror movies, his father was dead set against his son’s newfound interests.

“He was pretty much dead set against everything, recalls Darabont of the time. “But my mom, who I spent summers with, thought it was fine. She didn’t mind me staying up until 2 a.m. to see Attack of the Mushroom People.”

By the time he graduated from high school, Darabont knew he wanted to be a screenwriter. What he didn’t know was how to go about learning his craft and landing his first break. The latter came one night in 1981 when, on a tip from a friend, he stumbled onto the set of Hell Night and discovered both his future creative partner (writer/director Chuck Russell), and his first industry job -- as a P.A.

Now, nineteen years and numerous credits later, Darabont continues to satisfy audiences the world over. Not even mentioning his extensive rewrite work on countless Hollywood blockbusters like Saving Private Ryan, the multitalented filmmaker has terrified moviegoers with his scripts for Tales From the Crypt, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Blob, and sequels to Nightmare on Elm Street and The Fly. He’s thrilled them with his work on George Lucas’ Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. And, of course, he’s moved them with his tales of hope and redemption like Shawshank -- and now, with a story of miracles.

His first film in five years, The Green Mile is notable not only for the caliber of elements involved -- Tom Hanks, Gary Sinise, legendary production designer Terence

Marsh, Stephen King and Darabont himself -- but also for the unheard level of expectation it’s inspired. Everyone has been salivating over the prospect of another emotional epic from the writer/director who gave them Shawshank.

And luckily for audiences, it doesn’t look as if they’ll have to wait five years for another opus from the auteur. In addition to prepping his next film, Mine (based on Robert McCannon’s novel), eyeing his next King adaptation, The Mist, and attending to his “day job” (writing), Darabont has added another title to his moniker: producer. Together, with Chuck Russell, he’s reinstated his Darkwoods production banner. And in his spare time, you’ll find him moonlighting...as an actor. With cameos in John Carpenter’s Vampires and the miniseries adaptation of King’s The Shining, Darabont’s having the time of his life.

When we caught up with the meticulous filmmaker, we discovered that it’s no coincidence that he’s set his last two features in pre-war America. From his movies to his music, Darabont lives in a virtual time warp -- made obvious by the classic jazz drifting throughout his modest house nestled high in the Hollywood Hills. And so, with Louis Armstrong crooning in the background, and the sun setting on the smog-filled horizon, the amiable storyteller sat down to talk about the future of filmmaking, his own place in it, and why he’s not fixated on Stephen King prison movies.

So, congratulations on The Green Mile. Oh, thanks. I’m proud of it. I think everybody did a great job. I had a blessing of great cast and crew and fantastic collaborators on this film. I chose wisely. We’re looking at the tail end of two years now of pretty intense effort. It was Halloween two years ago that I typed “Fade Out -- The End.” And we pretty much haven’t stopped since then. I think it’s a better film than Shawshank, but then maybe that’s just ’cause it’s the most recent one. I don’t know. Time will tell. Although, the test screenings have been very, very, very positive. People really seem to love the film. They don’t mind sitting there for three hours, which was one of my biggest concerns. My editor and I had a theory that if the movie engages their attention, they won’t mind sitting there for three hours -- which I find true myself. If it’s Schindler’s List or, on a different sort of tonality, Titanic, I’m pretty much there. I watch the thing and I’m grateful for the full meal that I’ve been served by the filmmaker and I enjoy going on the journey with them. But I’ve seen some two-hour movies that felt like four-hour movies.

Many claim that a three-hour film is self-indulgent on the filmmaker’s part. How do you respond to that kind of criticism? Fuck ’em. Actually, that was a very flippant comment. I don’t mean to shortsheet the question. The truth is, I don’t know where the length of a movie is determined to be two hours or less, otherwise you’ve done something wrong or you’re self-indulgent. If you want to qualify Schindler’s List as indulgent. If you want to qualify Lawrence of Arabia as indulgent, or Bridge on the River Kwai as indulgent. I mean, the list goes on. Godfather, Godfather II -- these are all great, great movies. But you can’t tell me that most of the movies that came out this year are better movies than those I just mentioned by virtue of being shorter. I’ll watch any of those longer movies again at the drop of a hat. Length is such an immaterial concern. It’s not an issue. I think a story should take as long to tell as it is appropriate to that particular story. Schindler’s List needed to be exactly as long as it was. I’ll say the same about Titanic, which I know some people will quibble with, but I found it to be just great, sweeping, gonzo storytelling of a very old-fashioned, engrossing kind. Hats off to Cameron. Believe me, I didn’t set out to make a three-hour movie. In fact, it came as a bit of a shock to me. [Laughs] Oops. How’d that happen? Especially considering that the script is about 126 pages long. I may be the poster boy for the minute-per-page rule not working out. [Laughs]

The buzz on the script when it was first being passed around town was enormous. And, of course, Shawshank had been nominated for so many awards. How did you deal with that kind of added pressure going in? Oh, you know, making a film is a process of putting one foot in front of another and trying not to drop dead in your tracks. So, it’s easy to tune out any of that kind of noise that’s going on around you and just pay attention to your work. In fact, it’s very difficult to do anything else. In terms of my own feelings about it, I just wanted to not screw up the story. Because I felt I had a good piece of material and that’s most of the battle right there.

Why would you think you’d screw it up? You never know what’s going to happen. You never know where your best intentions will get derailed, where challenges can defeat you. And when you’re going into something that is that enormous to make -- it was actually a bigger movie to make than I even realized -- you hope that you’re up to the task. You hope that you’re up to the challenge, that you can rise to the demands of the job and rise to the occasion and not unravel like a cheap suit one day and be found in the paint closet of the soundstage moaning for your mom. I guess that’s why I waited five years to direct again. Because I didn’t want to just go out and make another movie. I wanted to find something that I really believed in as much as I believed in Shawshank. And I waited that period of time to do just that.

But why this story? Any number of things. You could start with, it was different. It’s not like every other movie that gets made. I’m tired of seeing the same movie over and over again. I always lean toward something that’s unusual. I loved the characters; I loved the heart of it; I loved the soul of it; I loved how compelling the characters were; I loved their situations/circumstances -- all of those things that attract you to a good story. I found it utterly fascinating. And I loved the time period -- 1935. You can’t go wrong.

You do seem to be attracted to a certain period of time past -- namely the ’30s and ’40s. I am fascinated with times past. I tend to be far more intrigued with what has happened, although I do like science fiction as well. So, I guess I have a love for what might happen as well. I don’t know. Somehow I just don’t tend to find my own time all that interesting. Maybe I will one day. Inevitably, I suppose I’m going to have to do something contemporary as a film. [Laughs] But the next one I’m doing is also a period piece. I love having a context of a certain period of time in which to tell a story.

Were you worried about any similarities between Green Mile and Shawshank? Only superficially, on my reckoning. The fact that it’s a prison setting is the only similarity. I can’t imagine two films being any more different than these are. I think they’re completely different stories and two completely different kinds of viewing experiences for an audience. Honestly, I wasn’t looking to do another prison movie, believe me.

Send all your prison movies to Frank Darabont. No. No. Never again. I had no intention of doing another one but Steve… you know, your best-laid plans are thwarted by fortune because Steve dreamed up this fantastically good story. It did give me pause when I heard the word “prison” drop out of his mouth. I thought, “Oh, criminy. Not again. I can’t do that twice.” But then I thought, “That’s a stupid reason to avoid making a film of a story that I thought was really great.” It’s sort of like the length issue; it’s an arbitrary criterion to apply.

Tell us about your relationship with Stephen King. Do you involve him in the writing process? Not at all. He’s always been very hands-off.

What about during production? He showed up on the set one day and everybody got his autograph, but Steve is very hands-off; unless he’s directly involved in a production, he’s very hands off with the stuff that he options or sells. Luckily, I seemed to have earned his trust, so he’s very generous with me. He likes me to send him the script, which I would want to do anyway to get any comments that he might have. I always solicit his comments. He never gives me any other than “Gee, I think it’s great. Good luck.” [Laughs] And then I show him the cut of the movie, and so far he’s liked what he’s seen -- both times. And he loves showing up at the premiere. He loves taking pleasure in how much people like the movies. Otherwise, he’s out there in Bangor rooting long-distance. I really like him terribly much. I think the world of him. He’s one of the most genuine people. He’s so funny. He’s such a regular guy. It’s almost weird how regular he is. [Laughs] Of course, horror/fantasy has always been this disreputable stepchild of literature. Most people assume that if you write that kind of stuff, there’s something wrong with you.

Or even if you’re just a fan of it. Yeah. Less so now than when I was a kid. I mean, when I was a kid, I was into Star Trek and science fiction and horror and I loved monsters. And back then, that made you a weirdo. Now, it’s mainstream stuff. Now, it’s on five thousand screens at the cineplex every summer. Things have changed. And I think Steven [Spielberg] and George [Lucas] changed them. I think Steven and George are really the ones who have had the most influence there because they took what used to be B-movie fodder and pulp stories and they legitimized them. They actually rendered them mainstream. They really brought science fiction and pulp storytelling to the masses in a very classy way. I think they really reinvented that stuff and just infused that into the popular culture and it’s really quite informed everything that’s come since. Somebody said what used to be our B-movies are now our A-movies. It’s true. And I think that Steven and George had a lot to do with that. And it’s great to see Steven surprising the shit out of people on occasion with something like Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan. I love that. Talk about a director who’s versatile.

Speaking of directing, you take more time than most filmmakers to complete a picture. Why do you think that is? Am I getting that reputation? It’s called delusions of being Kubrick. [Laughs] It’s true, I am a control freak and I am incredibly anal-retentive, as my friend Stephen King has pointed out. I don’t like giving things short shrift. Honestly -- and this is not to sound arrogant or indulgent -- the movie’s going to last a thousand years. It’ll be here forever, as long as there are people wishing to see a story told. Somebody, somewhere will be watching this thing. And that experience will reflect on us. I mean, after I’m dead and done, the movie will still be here. I want to make it as good as it can be.

Most filmmakers are not given that rein. Well, yeah. No kidding. I have many friends in the same line of work. There’s always enormous pressure on them to compromise based on meeting a predetermined and also -- many times -- unrealistic schedule. And hey, frankly, I’m no stranger to that either. I get the same kind of pressure and I still try to make my days. It’s not like I’m sitting there thinking, “Okay, I am Stanley Kubrick and I’m taking as much time as I damn well please.” But luckily, I’m not dealing with a studio that’s going to pull the rug out from under me. They can see me out there trying my best. They gave me final cut on Shawshank when they didn’t have to. Castle Rock was under no contractual obligation to give me final cut. They saw a movie that was twenty minutes longer than they hoped it would be and they said, “Well, we’ll give you our notes; we’ll share our ideas with you but you make the decisions.” Where do you get that elsewhere?

Elsewhere you have twenty-two-year-old executives -- That don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground. They took the McKee course so they think they know everything about screenwriting. This is another reason I love Castle Rock. There is no tier of executives -- baby executives, mini-executives and people whose job it is to make sure that nothing ever actually happens. These people wind up just shuffling the scripts from one desk to another desk and generating more and more pointless notes. The bureaucracy doesn’t exist at Castle Rock.

You are lucky, aren’t you? I am. I’m the luckiest son of a bitch there is. I’m the first to admit it.

Do you think we’ll ever go back to a time where producers and not conglomerates run the studios? I’m not an expert on how businesses run, but I don’t think so. They’re controlling enormous things, those corporations. They’re not just controlling the movies; they’re controlling the theme parks. They’re controlling the Happy Meals. And that’s sort of a corporate-run global force I don’t think is going to go away. It’s going to become only more so. Mostly, what you’ll have and perhaps at most what you need really are the little pockets of humanity and creativity that exist like Castle Rock, where you’re not dealing with some sort of corporate giant. You’re dealing with other human beings who are trying to tell a good story. We’ll be little guppies at the bottom of the tank doing what we do while the global market keeps snowballing on, I suspect. That’s my guess.

 

Do you fear that film is a dying art form; that one day you may be replaced with technology? Visual storytelling of one kind or another has been around since cavemen were drawing on the walls. I mean, it’s been around forever; it’s just that technology keeps changing. I, for one, being the dinosaur that I am, really hope that film doesn’t go away. I know there’s a lot of people predicting that it’s all going to go to some kind of digital storage medium before too long. Boy, I’d hate to shoot on tape or disc or whatever the hell they’re talking about. I love film. There’s something about the photographic process that I think is magical and I think we’d lose something. Maybe I’m being romantic about it, but there’s something about projecting light through translucent film and projecting an image on a wall I think is fantastic. Although, one of the people I admire most in this business is George Lucas and he has nothing but disdain for the physical film -- the celluloid. He’s of course this amazing technological trailblazer and he can’t wait for it all to change. “We’ll beam the movie right into your theatre or your home.” I’m like, “Gee, George, that seems like a good thing to you, huh? I don’t know. I think it kind of makes me sad.” But, like I say, “the world isn’t shaped by guys like me; it’s shaped by guys like George.” So, chances are, he’s right.

You’re not totally anti-technology though? No. I embrace it. It’s wonderful. It’s fantastic. It’s a very compelling tool. This is why every time I hear some new cry of “Oh my God! It’s going to end storytelling as we know it” -- we said the same thing about sound. It’s not going to end storytelling as we know it. It’s just going to enhance our ability to tell the stories. And, right now, we’ve been in a bit of a phase where the digital stuff is so new and so eye-popping that you’re kind of relying on it to bring the audiences in, in some cases. And you’re forgetting to tell a story perhaps as much as they would otherwise require. That works for a while, but sooner or later, the luster wears off as indeed the luster’s wearing off on the action film. It’s not just about blowing shit up anymore. I think audiences are starting to get really hungry for content again. You see that in certain films recently like Private Ryan. I don’t think the audiences showed up just because Tom Hanks was in it. It happened to be a great story. It really engaged your attention and your emotions and you got caught up in the darn thing.

You did a little rewriting on that film, right? Yeah. So did Scott [Frank].

Have you ever been rewritten? It’s happened. It’s rare that I’ve been rewritten and been happy about it though. It’s usually done badly, is the problem. And it pisses me off. Maybe it’s my arrogance and my ego speaking, but when it’s done well, actually, I don’t mind it. Like I said, Scott Frank came in and added some cleanup on Ryan while I was here at home writing The Green Mile. Scott took some of my stuff and tossed it out the door. But he did it so beautifully and the work that supplanted what I had done was so good [laughs], I can’t begrudge it. On the other end of the spectrum is Frankenstein, where I still want to kick the shit out of Kenneth Branagh and whoever he was rewriting me with for changing my words, because he did it so badly.

But when you take on a rewriting assignment, does it intimidate you? Not really. No. If it does it means the script is really good, and I’ve passed on some assignments because of that. If I read a script that I have enormous respect for and I don’t know what to do to it, then I’m going to be honest about that. I don’t care that they’re waving a paycheck at me. I’m going to say, “Guys, I think this script is pretty damn good. I don’t know that I can bring anything to it. I’m not going to take this job.” That’s actually why I didn’t become involved with Apollo 13. It was the wackiest meeting I ever had. I went to see Ron Howard and all I could do was praise the script. [Laughs] Usually, that’s not the case. Usually, I see where there’s room for improvements or feel I can enhance what’s there in some way. That’s my criteria for taking a job like that. I certainly exclude Private Ryan from this because Rodat’s script was very solid, but oftentimes it’s a terrible script and it needs help. And I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets here, but there are a lot of terrible scripts in this town. All you have to do is grab a stack off anybody’s desk at any studio or any agency in town and good luck trying to wade through it. There’s a lot of bad shit floating around in the Hollywood pond every day.

So, what then, in your opinion, makes a great storyteller? I think what speaks to me is the skill of a writer in illuminating the human soul -- whatever context that’s in. The greatest storytellers are really the ones who are seeking the best insight they can into people. I guess it’s that simple. Dickens had it. King has it. Bradbury has it. Harlan Ellison has it. Richard Matheson has it. Eric Roth has it. I could go on. Steven Zaillian has it. Your buddy Scott [Frank] has it. Those are the writers I really…I don’t read for effect. I read for good stories with good characters.

What are some of the things you learned from making Shawshank that you applied to The Green Mile? Oh wow, that’s a good question. There’s always a learning curve. I suppose that never ends as long as you’re alive. Probably the most valuable thing I learned as a director was that following my instinct works. You can second-guess yourself to death on a set. One of the most unnerving things about being a director is just trying to figure out where the hell to put a camera and how to shoot a scene and what angles you need. And how best to visually tell the story and will it even cut together. And it’s fun, especially when you’ve got an editor like Richard Francis-Bruce, to see that your instincts on the set are ultimately not going to fail you too badly. I learned that on Shawshank. And I think I’ve carried that on to The Green Mile. So that was comforting, because I’m one of these guys that’s convinced that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing at any given moment.

Why is that? Because it’s not something you learn. It’s not something you’re taught. You can’t go to two-day film school and really know what the hell you’re doing. It’s learning as you do it. And that’s kind of a weird, unsettling feeling. It doesn’t feel like you really have a safety net. It’s not like you went to eight years of college and dental school so you really know how to drill the molar. It’s all very much instinctive. Writing is the same thing. I’m still there with writing. I don’t know where it comes from and I honestly don’t feel like I know what I’m doing, because it’s an instinctive process. There are no right and wrong answers. There are no hard and fast rules. You just kind of go in and do the best you can. Learning that that results in something worthwhile is pretty empowering because you’re not as frightened of the process as you used to be. I’m now at that point as a writer where I kind of feel like I’m not going to screw anything up too badly. Confidence really is what it is.

Which is a hard thing for writers, because most writers always think whatever they’re writing sucks. Yes, absolutely, that’s true. That’s true of everybody. Don’t think that I’m any different. And poor Scott Frank. I’ve never seen a man torture himself more. [Laughs] He’s such a damn good writer and he’s so convinced that he’s not. Bless his heart. Yeah, we should all fail as spectacularly as Scott fails on a creative level. We should all be that good. You know what I’m saying? He’s a great writer. Scott, you’re a great writer. Stop beating the shit out of yourself, okay, pal?

As both a writer and a director, is there a part of the process you like more? Finishing. Whether I’m writing or directing. [Laughs] Another flippant answer from Frank. Let me be a little more honest about it. I think my favorite part of directing has got to be editing. I know you’ve heard this from a lot of directors. But it’s the place where you have the most peace and quiet and where you’re actually really making the movie. Everything else is really preamble, I think. It’s generating the raw materials for the real job, which happens in the editing room. And that’s where you have the pleasure of sitting back and seeing the movie take place, take shape before your eyes. As far as writing is concerned, there are moments of great joy intermingled with endless hours of drudgery. The process never gets any easier. There are times when some switch gets thrown in the back of your brain and it all becomes some weird channeling flow. And that’s great, but that’s rare. It’s some odd place of Zen where suddenly your self-doubt mechanism has been disabled and your resentment of not seeing your friends is gone and you just become one with the material for a while and that‘s great. Boy, you can crank out some pages then. I figure, when I’m having a ten-page day, I get close to that.

Isn’t that half the battle -- actually writing? Well, all the battle is actually writing. Nobody ever wrote a script not writing. And you can take all the seminars you want, and take all the courses you want, and read all the books you want, and you can talk about it all you want, but unless you sit your ass in the chair and figure out from scratch how to do it yourself, you’re not ever going to have a screenplay written. And that’s the difference between people who will succeed (or at least have the chance to succeed) and those who will not. And then once you learn how to write a script, then I think you need to pay attention to getting better at it. Because once you’ve typed “Fade Out -- The End” for the first time, it doesn’t mean you’re a writer. Now try and put a few years of effort into being -- dare I say -- a good writer, because we have enough bad ones and not enough good ones. I don’t know if there are enough people parking their ass in the chair and putting in that kind of effort and saying, “I’m going to be a great screenwriter.”

As opposed to “I’m going to make a lot of money”? Right. I’m going to get a deal. Maybe I can get a thirteen-episode commitment or some damn thing. I don’t know what people are in this for, but I came into it to be a good writer. That was my whole emphasis. And you can see the folks out there who are in it for the same reasons. You can see it in the quality of their work.

Each year, the industry debuts several new writers. The sudden success affects many of them. They’re out on the Sunset Strip with their cell phone, drinking, drugging, looking for the club babe. Me, I’m down at the Mayfair market with the cell phone going, “Oh, please don’t call me in the market. I feel like an idiot!”

What do you feel a person must possess in order to succeed or maintain longevity in this business? Succeeding is not as challenging as maintaining the longevity, I would think. Because heat and hype can land on anybody at a moment’s notice; it’s a matter of keeping your wits about you and keeping your eye on the ball really. Just staying with the work. That’s the honest and simple answer. You can’t get too carried away with yourself. Of course, I never really had that kind of heat and hype land on me.

Well, you had all the awards and nominations with Shawshank. With Shawshank, yeah, but even at that, we were still flying under the radar because the movie wasn’t perceived to be what it’s perceived to be now. It’s emblematic actually of my career overall. It’s sort of a slow build. It was slowly coming. I never found myself being wined and dined by the power brokers and having happy sunshine blown up my butt when I was twenty-five years old. I was never suddenly the hottest thing in town, which was a great thing. I’ve always been almost anonymously going about my business and doing the best I could. Now, with The Green Mile, things are shifting quite a bit into something I’ve not experienced before, which is a lot of hype and heat and scrutiny and expectation and all these crazy things that… again, it’s been a very slow time coming. But I take it with a grain of salt, because I’ve been around long enough also to know that careers are peaks and valleys. And it’s just really all about with how much grace and equanimity you can keep walking along in one direction. Whether you’re marching through the valley of the shadow of death or whether you’re at the pinnacle of whatever, it’s such a flaky endeavor and such a fluky business for all of those reasons of what somebody decides is hot at the moment. You can’t pay too much attention to it or it really will drive you nuts. Because for the last two peaks I’ve experienced there’s been five years of valley.

That was your choice. Yeah, it was. But that was okay with me too, as long as I was allowed to do work that I cared about, which has been really my focus. I mean, I couldn’t wait to not direct another movie. [Laughs] Shawshank really kicked my ass. It was a very difficult experience; directing tends to be for me. So it’s not something I want to rush into. And it’s not like I have to depend on directing for my livelihood. I’ve got a great day job as a writer. It’s a wonderful place to fall back, because that’s ultimately where I come from and that’s what I feel mostly that I am -- a screenwriter. So it’s way easier for me to take a five-year hiatus than it is for some other folks who are, professionally speaking, directors. I didn’t have anything set before me to direct that I was really passionate about. I didn’t want to direct again just to direct, because that’s kind of a trap in and of itself. That’s where you wind up taking some studio-generated project that you’re going to regret having taken.

So it isn’t about making as many movies as possible? No. It’s about making as many good ones as possible. As long as I feel I go in with that as my intention, then I stand a better than even chance of maintaining some level of quality in what I do. And that’s why I really got into this business in the first place -- to try to do some good; try to do some films that, at least to me, counted. I promise you, the world does not need Frank Darabont directing the next Die Hard-inspired rip-off. There are other people out there who are better at that than I am. And it’s too hard. At the end of the process, here I am two years later, and I feel about as used up as I can possibly feel. I look at the movie and see the work that everybody did on it and I feel proud of the results. I feel like it was worth the two years of intense effort and pain and lack of sleep and all of the gray hairs that I’ve gotten now. And if I’d made a movie that I didn’t respect, I don’t know why I’d want to do it.

You’re also suspending your life when you direct a movie. Completely. Oh. Oh. Oh. Completely. It’s amazing how much stuff slips through the cracks when you’re directing because you don’t have a life aside from that. People wonder why directors need so many personal assistants. Well, that’s because I’d be wearing the same pair of underwear for six months. I would have never have paid any of my bills. My electricity would have been shut off. And I’d have to go home and go to bed by candlelight. Everything gets shut down. You lose contact with your friends. You lose contact with your family. It puts an enormous strain on everything because it leaves very little time for anything else. I’m stunned that two years have gone by.

After the success of Shawshank, weren’t you barraged with offers? Yes, there were many things offered. There were many things turned down. Many of them have gone on to be made. And I’m still glad that I didn’t direct them because I saw the movies and I didn’t much care for them. There were a lot of -- I don’t use the term “Die Hard rip-off” lightly. That was the unfortunate cycle we were going through at the time and I got offered a lot of “Oh, he’s stuck in a Port-a-san with terrorists,” you know, fill in the blanks, you know which movies I’m talking about.

Why do you think they offered you those? I don’t know. I wanted to call them and ask, but I didn’t want to seem rude. Why me? At a certain point, I found it almost amusing because it didn’t seem like Shawshank had anything to recommend me for that kind of thing. But apparently that really doesn’t stop people from fishing. There’s a lot of fishing expeditions that happen in Hollywood every single day. They cast their lines out into the talent pool and see who might bite. And you wind up with your name on a studio-approved list -- whatever column you’re on -- the A list, the B list, the C list, Moo Shu Pork or Moo Goo Gai Pan. And somebody’s got some project that they think is hotter than hot that the studio wants to fast-track, so they have to get somebody that can help make that happen. So you wind up reading stuff that you roll your eyes at as you say, “What the hell is this doing in my mailbox?” [Laughs] It’s actually kind of amusing. It’s a funny town. It’s a funny business. If I had any balls at all, I’d write a book like William Goldman. But he’s a much ballsier man than I am.

Never say never. It’d probably be a pretty boring book, I guess, because I mostly have really nice things to say about people.

That’s because you seem to avoid these other people. [Laughs] Yeah, as a rule I do. Oh my God, have I run into some idiots in this business, but the negative experiences are the ones that people usually write about or talk about or the media loves to dig out like little turds out of your garden. And they wind up, I think, painting a rather unbalanced portrait of what this town really is. To hear Entertainment Weekly tell it -- I’m not singling them out for damnation here, but all the movie magazines, all the media -- they love to dig out all the underbelly stuff of who’s a cocaine-fueled ego freak, who’s more ruthless than who this week, who’s more out of control than the other guy. And I just find it so unbalanced because, for the most part, the people that I know and deal with in this business have enormous integrity. There are people of integrity and reason and goodwill, and they care about what they do and they go home at night and they don’t go to drug parties and have sex on Hollywood Boulevard. There are a lot of family people in this business who really do their jobs and care about trying to do well. They’re in it for the right reasons: trying to do good work, trying to do something that they’re passionate about. Maybe I just fell in with a good crowd. I don’t know. You know, they say you fell in with bad companions; I guess I fell in with good ones. I’m sure there’s a lot of cutthroat bad behavior going on in this business every single day, but I see very little of it.

You’re also gone for two years at a time. That helps. [Laughs] Well, I always say that the business end of this business drives me crazy, so actually I tend to avoid it. Because I really don’t care to know who’s running what company this week and who’s suddenly got more power than somebody else. All that shit makes me not want to be in this business. Who’s got the power table at what restaurant? I don’t give a shit, folks; I really don’t. If I’m blessed enough to be working with good people and doing work that I care about, what more do I need to know?

Five years ago, magazines like Entertainment Weekly didn’t include screenwriters but now — The last Entertainment Weekly Oscar Guide I saw didn’t have any screenwriters in it, nor have they ever. But I noticed the year I wrote to complain, I was the only member of the Writers Guild who did. Apparently, every other member of the Writers Guild was out buying the magazine and fawning over the celebrities that are so extravagantly profiled and who’s hot and who’s wearing what. Where the hell was everybody else? Leave the damn Oscar Guide where it belongs: on the shelf until they decide to include writers. It’s just indicative of the kissing-celebrity-ass approach to journalism and it makes me crazy. Because all these people who are profiled in those Oscar guides that Entertainment Weekly puts out so lavishly once a year would not have been nominated were it not for some writer writing words to fall out of their Oscar-nominated mouths. And the fact that Entertainment Weekly has not acknowledged that yet makes me crazy. It’s like we’re not even allowed to ride in the back of the bus. No, we’re not even on the bus yet, as far as they’re concerned.

Didn’t they have, like, costume designers last year but no writers? The costume designers also depend on screenwriters for their jobs. More to the point, the year Shawshank was nominated, I paged through the magazine and I saw how many ads they had. For example, how many tobacco ads they had; how many Joe goddamn Camel ads they had, and there were a hell of a lot of pages there. The fact that they cannot spare us even two of those pages should infuriate everybody who reads this magazine. I’m very serious. If they leave us out again this year, I think every member of the Writers Guild or anybody who wants to be a member of the Writers Guild should stop buying Entertainment Weekly. Everybody, shame on you if you don’t pick up a pen and write a letter -- a really incensed, infuriated letter. I mean, how many members do we have? Five thousand? Six thousand? What if, the day after that magazine comes out, they get five or six thousand really pissed-off letters in their offices? Do you think they’ll change their policy? They don’t have to because everyone’s too goddamn lethargic to bother. You know what? If the writers are not mentioned as having anything to do with any of the Oscar-nominated films in Entertainment Weekly’s super-duper Oscar guide at the end of the year, guess whose fault it is? It’s not Entertainment Weekly’s. It’s the people who are members of the Writers Guild and people who care about screenwriting who don’t fucking bother.

But don’t you think the profile of screenwriters has grown definitely in the last five years? Well, that’s credit to you and to others like you who care about what the screenwriter does and acknowledge what the screenwriter does and celebrate what the screenwriter does. And no credit whatsoever to the writers who don’t get pissed enough to sit down and write a goddamn letter when they’re excluded. They’ll whine up a storm though. But when it comes down to doing something, is writing a letter so hard? Apparently so. It makes me sad. It pisses me off. “Why don’t we have more respect?” they whine. Well, there you go; that’s the reason. So this year, let’s keep an eye on that Oscar Guide.

Someone once said that the reason we go to the movies is to learn how to live our lives. With that in mind, what as a filmmaker do you feel you’re trying to portray thematically in your pictures? Hmm. Wow! That’s sort of a heavy question. I wonder if there’s a way to answer that without coming off sounding like a pontificating putz. I’m not sure I entirely agree with the quote. I think learning how to live your life is perhaps a byproduct of going to see movies, but I don’t think that’s why people go to see movies. I think people go to see movies to get out of their lives and be entertained and escape into somebody else’s life for a while. It’s a shared communal form of dreaming really. But I think, if anything, what I respond to in movies as a viewer, and I guess is kind of what I like to explore as a filmmaker thematically, is the capacity in us all to achieve our potential -- how good we can be to each other and to ourselves. How we can make life matter more? That’s why I like Capra’s work so much. How can I be better than I am? I love that in films. I think that’s probably the most honorable part of what we do. Which leads me to all the nihilistic stuff that’s been showing up at the multiplexes in recent years. I think movies can be very good examples. I think they can also be very bad examples. And we’re running the risk of having too many bad examples. A sort of odd mean-spiritedness has come into what we do.

In what way? Just in terms of human behavior. I don’t want to get into the whole movies-promoting-violence thing, but you can’t tell me a movie like Cobra enriches anybody on any level whatsoever. It degrades the human spirit and I don’t want to see it. And there’s been this trend in recent years to pass off as screen heroes and admirable human beings people who do not particularly employ reason or compassion or any level of thoughtfulness whatsoever to solve their problems. They pick up a gun and they make their problem go away. And every once in a while, that can be pretty cathartic. But as a steady diet, I don’t think it can help but affect the way we perceive one another and the way we perceive the value of human life. It’s that simple. You know, it depends entirely on what point of view the filmmaker has or the storyteller has. You will find nobody who thinks that The Wild Bunch is a better film than I, or the first Die Hard for that matter. But violence is like eating a Big Mac every night. You forget what real food is. You become numb. And I’m not getting on any sort of platform here, because I always say that I’ll start listening to politicians tell me how to make a movie just as soon as they start listening to me on how to spend my tax dollars. That ain’t ever going to happen. [Laughs] But truly, you can’t tell me that -- in channel surfing, I see one form of horrible human behavior after another; you can’t tell me that some impressionable mind is not influenced by that, numbed by that. You see twenty-thousand murders by the time you’re fifteen years old; I’m not surprised by some of the violence that comes out in real life. But I know that there are all kinds of shades of gray. Particularly in what kinds of movies we should make.

And, of course, we just went through that whole uproar again from Washington. It’s the simple, stupid answer yet again from the politicians in Washington. It’s their way to deflect blame from themselves. They’ve got a really handy place to point the finger because they’re doing nothing to enrich the culture; they’re doing nothing to ennoble the human spirit. They’re as corrupt and vile and shitheaded as any sector of our society. They’re the ones who are not doing what they can for social good -- like not making certain that weapons of enormous destruction are not made available to every weak-minded individual out there. But when that nasty little fact crops up they go, “Oh, it’s not us. It’s them. It’s those evil Hollywood types.” What a mealy-mouthed, shitheaded, cowardly thing that is.

Well, if they didn’t lay the blame elsewhere — Then they’d actually have to accept some sort of culpability and responsibility and actually have to get off their dead asses and do something other than vote themselves a yearly raise. But contrary to what the politicians want us to believe, there is no clear dividing line. There is no clear line between what is entertaining and what is recklessly irresponsible. Look, you know, life is made of heroes and villains and all shades in between. There are some really bad people out there, and movies shouldn’t ignore that. There’s no reason that Die Hard should be such a good movie, but it is. [Laughs] It should be a film that sort of horrifies me with the level of violence in it, but it doesn’t. It’s a guy trying to apologize to his wife. That’s what the whole movie’s about. There’s some core of decency even with all the action going on. So, believe me, I’m not here to condemn the use of violence in movies. I just think that people need to have a perspective and a conscience when they sit down to create a film and not just do the body count for the sake of the body count.

One thing that has happened, as a result, has been the climate in Hollywood is no longer one wherein those kinds of movies are being purchased or put into production. They sure were in vogue though for the last twenty years or so. Damage done. It also unfortunately points to a creative bankruptcy amongst the people responsible for writing and making those things. When you don’t have anything better to say, blow something up. There’s a lot of that going on in this town amongst those who would call themselves writers and filmmakers. Every movie cannot be a gem of originality. I perfectly understand that. But it would be nice not to have to fall back on the formulaic and not have every psycho with an Uzi being passed off as a screen hero. Now, let’s change the subject because once you start talking about this, you wind up sounding like you’re on a soapbox. I just know I see a lot of movies that piss me off because they rely on simple, hostile answers.

You’ve had a longstanding relationship with George Lucas stemming from your stint writing on the Young Indiana Jones series. What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned from him? He’s an amazing individual and quite a teacher in his own quiet way. I value that experience enormously for the opportunities it gave me as a writer to grow. And that’s actually why I took the job in the first place. It certainly wasn’t for the pay. [Laughs] Scale for television ain’t nothing to write home about. Let me tell ya. But I saw in there an opportunity. At the time, I was doing a lot of the writer-for-hire thing, doing a lot of script doctoring -- mostly on features that I found mostly uninspired. I was starting to feel like I needed more as a writer to grow beyond that which I was doing. And George gave me the opportunity to be one of the writers on Young Indy. Boy, was that a lovely way to evolve as a writer. Just terrific. Because I didn’t have anybody’s forty-million-dollar feature riding in the balance, I could really get down to the focus of what two characters will say to each other in a story where nothing explodes. And I wrote a few where I got to blow up some stuff. I blew up a train damn well once. [Laughs] But actually it was mostly very, very small-scale character-driven writing, and that was just great. One of the reasons I think I held off writing Shawshank as long as I did was because, on some level, I don’t think I felt ready to tackle the adaptation. I don’t know if I had the confidence or the abilities yet. In a way, I think I was waiting for my abilities to catch up with my ambitions for that script.

What’s going on with you writing and/or directing one of the Star Wars prequels? Beats the shit out of me. Truly.

Will that ever happen? I don’t think that I’ll be involved to any degree other than maybe George will ask me to read the next script or give him notes or come see his rough cut. That was my involvement on the first one. And my involvement extended no further than that. There was a time early on when George was considering asking me to be his screenwriter. And that didn’t work out because George didn’t really need me. While he was working on this treatment, he kept fleshing it out and kind of took it into a first draft and then kind of took it into a second draft and he wound up being his own writer on that. He didn’t really want to veer away from that. And I thought that was appropriate. So I never had any qualms about not being involved.

Did you ever step back and say, “Wow, I’m giving George Lucas notes!”? Yes, that did happen. I had this wonderful experience. George sent me an airline ticket and I flew up to San Francisco. I drove up to the ranch and they put me up in the John Ford room in the guesthouse. And there I was with a copy of Star Wars in my hands and a complimentary bottle of Skywalker wine on the table, sitting out in this idyllic beautiful setting and I thought to myself, “This is so cool! I can’t believe it! There are any number of Internet geeks who would trade places with me in an instant!” We got together the next day and we chatted about the script and I liked it very much. I didn’t have anything to say about it. “Gee, George, I’m sorry that you wasted your airline ticket on me. Good luck with the shoot.”

You’ve started your own production company -- Darkwoods. I revived my production company. My very first movie -- which was that Stephen King short, The Woman in the Room -- was a Darkwoods production back when I was just a kid and felt I needed to have a production company name.

How did you arrive at that name -- any significance? It comes from the Robert Frost poem. “The woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep…” which pretty much defines life. It certainly defines making movies. [Laughs] It’s actually such a thrill so many years later to look at The Green Mile poster and see “A Darkwoods Production” when the only thing it’s ever really served as is a little bullshit production company name for my first short. It feels as if it’s all grown up now and actually has a reason to be there. And I’ve always been particularly touched by that piece of poetry and particularly by that stanza of the poem. It says a lot, that poem -- somehow to me. Can you tell I read a lot when I was a kid? Can you tell I had no life? Can you tell girls wouldn’t go out with me?

Things have changed. Things have changed. I still have no life. [Laughs]

What kinds of movies or television are you looking to make? Just good stories. I’d like to try one of each, if I can. I really want to explore different genres and I’d love to make a really intense thriller. I’d love to make a horror movie someday. I’d love to do a Western. I think some of the best directors of the past were very versatile that way and did a little bit of everything.

No comedy? There’s always funny stuff going on in my movies. There’s always some laughs there, but I don’t know if I’m the right guy to do a comedy necessarily. This next one, The Bijou, is a romantic comedy. But I think it probably will be coming from a more serious place than something like Ruthless People, which is one of the most accomplished comedies I’ve ever seen. I don’t know that my mind thinks that way. It would be interesting to try some day. But I have a feeling that if I flopped with anything that it would probably be a comedy.

But you like comedy. Love it. Hey, I love music too, but I have no aptitude for it either. But I live for music. It’s like blood in my veins. I wouldn’t know how to make music if you held a gun to my head. It’s something for which I have no talent.

Are you still a writer for hire? Hell, yes. When I have the time. It feels funny to me not having done a job like that since Private Ryan.

But you probably get offers all the time. Yeah, and believe me, the fact that I’m renovating my house right now, if I had the time I would grab one of those jobs in a heartbeat. Tom Hanks -- again -- I had to weasel out on him again with Band of Brothers simply because I don’t have the time to do it.

“No thanks, Tom, but thanks for starring in my movie?” [Laughs] Again, he’s been very understanding and sweet about it. He can see how burned out I am, for starters.

So when you set out to become a Hollywood filmmaker, is this how you imagined your life would be: freedom to make the pictures you want to make and the ability to turn down A-list movie stars? I suppose so. [Laughs] But when you don’t know the day-to-day reality of it, it probably appears more glamorous than it is. I have yet to trip over much glamour in this business; mostly it’s just a lot of people working their asses off. I’ve been dealing with the reality of it for so long that I’m not quite sure what my perception of it was once upon a time. I didn’t know that lack of sleep would enter into it so heavily [laughs]! Being busy tends to cover those tracks, if you know what I mean. I remember very distinctly having this one moment when I was writing -- this is going back some years now -- I was writing something on a deadline. It was very early on because my Writers Guild card arrived in the mail -- my very first Writers Guild card -- and I’m at the desk in front of this old steam-driven Kaypro computer and I’m bleary-eyed and I haven’t had much sleep and I’m opening my mail and I pull out the Writers Guild card and I stare at it and I think, “Oh wow, that’s good.” And I keep writing! [Laughs] Afterwards, well, that should have been a bigger moment somehow, that should have been better. I should have savored that a little more. It’s not that I wasn’t grateful for it. It’s just that when I was younger I thought, “Boy, when I get into the Writers Guild, the heavens will open up and the angels will sing.” And I was too busy at that moment for the angels to do anything. [Laughs] I was on a deadline, damnit, and I had to finish! So it’s these moments that you think are going to be enormous epiphanies when you’re a kid -- markers where you perceive “My life is really going to change when that happens.” Once you’re there, it’s not like that at all. It’s just another in a run of things that you’re dealing with as you’re too busy to cook your own dinner. I hate how those moments slip by, and they can if you’re not paying attention or you’re too busy to appreciate them. And when you are able to do that, it’s probably many years later and you’re sitting on a beach somewhere and you’re staring at the water and you go, “Wow! Remember when I first got my Writers Guild card? How cool was that?” “Remember when we got nominated for seven Academy Awards? Damn, how great was that?”

Are you happy? Oh yeah. Yeah. I don’t go doing handsprings down Hollywood Boulevard, but yeah, of course, I’m happy. I’m doing what I set out to do. And that’s a great blessing. And I’m getting to do it largely with people who I really respect and admire and have a great time working with. I mean, what could be better than that?

 

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