It’s been a really long time since we’ve seen anything from Frank Darabont. The last film to carry his writing credit was 1999’s The Green Mile, and his last feature directorial effort was 2001’s The Majestic. But now he’s coming back – he has two movies lined up (The Mist and Fahrenheit 451), and this week saw the release of a new special edition of The Green Mile, packed with extras and commentary.
I got on the phone with Darabont a couple of weeks ago, and our conversation made a little news – the snippet I ran with his thoughts about the whole Indiana Jones IV debacle (he wrote a script George Lucas turned down) got picked up everywhere. Even the Guardian newspaper in the UK ran it.
But that was just a tiny bit of what Frank and I talked about. I found him to be the kind of guy who’s funny, open and honest. And he earned a huge amount of respect from me at the end of this interview, when he couldn’t stop talking about Guillermo del Toro’s new movie, Pan’s Labyrinth…
Click here to order the new edition of The Green Mile!
What’s it like revisiting a picture that you finished years ago?
Darabont: A bit of a stroll down memory lane, for sure. Sometimes you look at it and say, ‘Ooh, I could have done that better,’ or, ‘Ooh, that’s better than it had any right to be.’ It’s always a patchwork of emotions, but I think what you’re really looking for is how the story hangs together, and I think it does hold up. Certainly the performances are there to delight me at every turn, because my whole cast was extraordinary. That certainly makes up for any deficit I might perceive on my part.
When you’re adapting material, how do you make sure it’s yours?
Darabont: Some of that comes in the writing process – it’s trying to filter another storyteller’s work through your sensibilities. Although if the material is as good as that, you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. I don’t want to make it just me. What I want to do is maintain the voice of the author and the author’s intention, even when by necessity you have to change things because film is a different language than the written page. I’m always trying to, when adapting King, is honor his intentions and create the same emotional affect on the viewer as he did on the reader. It’s an interesting balancing act, but when you have material that’s that distinctive it’s also far from an impossible task, because there’s a lot to cling to.
How closely do you work with King when you’re adapting his work? Do you consult with him a lot, or does he just show up on opening day to see the movie?
Darabont: It’s kind of more of the latter, really. My experience with Steve on both the previous films, and it’s been this way on The Mist so far, is I say, ‘Hey, how about I make a movie out of this?’ And he says, ‘OK,’ and I go off and write the script. I sent him the scripts on Green Mile and Shawshank and The Mist, all three, and he reads the scripts and he would call me and say, ‘Wow, I really dig it! Good luck.’ Then I would make the movies and he would come and watch them. It’s a very simple process with him. He makes it easier rather than harder, and he’s been very appreciative of whatever I bring to it. And certainly having the trust of the creator of the story is a huge blessing, I must say. He feels I’ve done right by him so I’ve earned a certain amount of trust in what I do. Although, you know what? That was really there from the get-go. Even with Shawshank, he said, ‘It’s your movie, go make your movie.”
Will you be changing the setting of The Mist to a prison, so you can go for the Stephen King prison hat trick?
Darabont: [laughs] Well, you know, when you think about it, that supermarket does become kind of a prison. Maybe I’m drawn to those enclosed, pressure-cooker stories of Steve’s!
The Mist is a novella, but it reads very fast.
Darabont: It gallops along, doesn’t it? The movie will as well; there’s not going to be the same kind of pace that either Shawshank or Green Mile had. It doesn’t warrant it or call for it. It’ll be a pretty fast and furious narrative, really. And I’m certain the shortest film I’ve made to date.
And very different from any of the other movies you’ve directed – it’s much more of a standard horror film than any of your other movies.
Darabont: Absolutely. But thankfully there’s a core, that wonderful array of Stephen King characters, which is his strength. There’s a lot of meat there for the actors and the director.
I’ve always thought of it as Stephen King’s Lord of the Flies, because it’s less about the monsters – which are important, certainly. If you’re going to do a horror movie you might as well have some really cool monsters – but it’s more about the disintegration of civilization in that supermarket, how everything breaks down for those people in there. From that standpoint it’s a fascinating story to tell.
Where does The Mist put Fahrenheit 451? Is it not happening, or happening later?
Darabont: While I’m doing The Mist – which is going to be a really quick project; it’s very low budget, very fast, not unlike what Danny Boyle did in 28 Days Later, which I found very inspiring in terms of, hell, just go out and make a movie and have fun with it –
Are you going to shoot it on DV or on film?
Darabont: Still working out those details, actually. I think on film, but with a few little tricks up my sleeve.
But while I’m doing this process, I’m going to be keeping my eye on the ball of Fahrenheit 451. I’m going to be doing a lot of long range prep work on that while I’m making The Mist. That’s hopefully going to go next right after Mist is done.
Does that mean we won’t have to wait four or five years between Frank Darabont films?
Darabont: I think it’s likely, unless they finally catch on and ask me to leave! But no, it’s not going to be that long, and I’ll tell you why – for twenty years of my career I’ve been a screenwriter who directs occasionally, and last year I decided to stop that part of my career. I spent twenty years in a room writing scripts for other people and I kind of hit the wall with it. I realized I’m not getting any younger and I haven’t made enough movies. I want to make more movies, so I have eliminated that part of what I do and am finally embracing a career definition of director.
So no, you’re not going to be waiting five years. It’s all too easy to let five years go by when you’re on one script deadline after another. Screenwriting is a great day job and it’s been a great place to hide from the responsibility of making my next film. I don’t want to hide from that anymore, I want to embrace it and really try to get some movies made. I don’t think three movies is enough at my age.
Why is it that screenwriters, who have one of the most important positions in the Hollywood creative food chain, get treated so poorly in general?
Darabont: You know, some guys are luckier than others. I’m friends with a number of screenwriters who have had tremendously good luck in having their material put on screen. I’ve had less good luck in that regard, and I think that’s just luck of the draw. It’s all too easy to get bitter about that – which I certainly don’t want to do. I get zen about it. I chalk it up to the fact that two people can’t share a brain; you can’t legislate for some director being handed your script and really being in your head and recognizing the value of it. I’ve had a few experiences that were satisfying, but most of the time they were not. Which is one of the reasons why I decided to put a stop to that. The things I’ve been most happy with, the things that worked out best on screen, were the films I directed. So I wonder why the hell I’m not doing that more. It seems a really stupid thing for me to continue to do.
You cannot share a brain. Frankenstein is a really good example of it. I think the script I wrote for Frankenstein was one of the best things I have ever written; Kenneth Branagh couldn’t be in my head and recognize that and he had some other idea and it was rephrased enough that I wound up not liking the film at all. I thought it was a terrible, terrible disappointment. Am I going to spend the rest of my life blaming Kenneth Branagh for that? Well, no. It was just the luck of the draw. Maybe another director would have gotten it. He just had some other ideas in mind that I think were maybe less successful.
Is it more frustrating when someone takes a script of yours and makes something you don’t like orwhen someone takes a script of yours and then never makes it? I’m thinking of the whole Indiana Jones thing.
Darabont: That was the most frustrating of all, and that was the straw that broke the back of me wanting to continue in that line of work. That was terrifically frustrating. I worked for over a year on that; I worked very close with Steven Spielberg. He was ecstatic with the result and was ready to shoot it two years ago. He was very, very happy with the script and said it was the best draft of anything since Raiders of the Lost Ark. That’s really high praise and gave me a real sense of accomplishment, especially when you love the material you’re working on as much as I love the Indiana Jones films.
And then you have George Lucas read it and say, ‘Yeah, I don’t think so, I don’t like it.’ And then he resets it to zero when Spielberg is ready to shoot it that coming year, [which] is a real kick to the nuts. You can only waste so much time and so many years of your life on experiences like that, you can only get so emotionally invested and have the rug pulled out from under you before you say enough of that.
Coming from an insider’s perspective on that whole thing, do you think that movie’s ever going to happen?
Darabont: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. But that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong. I just think it’s fantastically bizarre that for a project that people have been trying to crack for ten years and have a writer come in and finally crack it and have a director who happens to be Steven Spielberg, one of the greatest directors of all time, and then say, ‘No, I don’t think so…’ It’s just bizarre to me. I can’t get into George’s head.
What’s the timeline on The Mist?
Darabont: It’s going to be fast and furious, pal. I just started prepping and we’re going to be shooting maybe February. When I say fast, I ain’t kidding around.
Is casting starting?
Darabont: We’re starting casting right now; we’re starting this week. We’re starting to get out there and look around and see who’s out there and who’s available.
Dimension is going to let you do a grown up version of The Mist? They’re not going to make you fill the film with teeny bopper actors from TV shows?
Darabont: I think they’re legitimately really super excited about this. Unlike some other folks I have spoken to, they’re really embracing the darker and edgier choices. Bob Weinstein is being tremendously supportive, and that makes me very happy.
Fahrenheit 451 almost doesn’t need to be modernized – except that maybe the whole idea of books as the source of information is becoming outdated.
Darabont: The thing about all this technology is that there isn’t any of it that can’t be monitored and controlled. When people say that books will no longer be relevant in the future, that’s ludicrous to me because it’s the only place you’ll be able to hide anything. Will you be able to hide it in your computer? If things keep going the way they are, all of that will be analyzed, scanned and controlled. You’re not going to be able to use this technology to hide things. So where do you hide things? In the pages of the book. And as Bradbury’s great, poetic point is, the ultimate hiding place is in the human mind. That’s the one thing they cannot control. To me that’s about as timeless and relevant as any statement you can make.
I know there’s a movie you love this year that I want to talk to you about – Pan’s Labyrinth.
Darabont: A masterpiece.
As a guy who writes about film, I see a movie like Pan’s Labyrinth and I wonder how am I possibly going to go home and write about this. How does that affect you as a director? Do you feel like you want to try and one up Guillermo now?
Darabont: Oh, good God, no. There’s no point. Once you’ve been outclassed, you’ve been outclassed. Come on! I saw that movie and what I love about my reaction to it is that I had so much respect for it that I thought, a, damn this is inspiring because it shows you what film can be, and b, it’s humbling because it tells you good luck doing something as good as this. I know that’s sort of a mixed feeling, but what comes out at the far end of it is respect for the filmmaker who did it. Since I know Guillermo personally and he’s a dear friend of mine, there’s an enormous pleasure and joy in seeing him hit one so far out of the park that anyone who steps up to the plate will lose in comparison. The only thing I want to make sure of is that people go see it. It could be so easy to get lost in the shuffle with a film like that, because it’s not an obvious film. If you’ve seen it you know what I’m talking about.
I have. It’s a film that asks people to bring themselves to the table, to not just sit back and veg out.
Darabont: Exactly. It’s not just a passive body count movie, it’s not just a passive thing with ‘Look at the pretty explosions.’ It’s the best kind of movie – it challenges and it involves your mind and your emotions. It does what art is supposed to do; it provokes you.
I love that you come out and say such great things about a film like this – it’s nice to see people in Hollywood who are supportive and doing great work, not just competing for first weekend box office.
Darabont: It’s hard not to, when the work is that good. But I’ll tell you what keeps me going is not the big franchises, where they churn out new installments every couple of years. Even though some of those movies can be very good occasionally. But it’s not the big corporate marketing decisions that keeps me excited about film, about cinema – it’s stuff like Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s stuff like Richard III that Ian McKellan did. That kept me going for a couple of years, seeing something like that. Every time I walk into a movie theater I hope for one of those experiences. They’re rare, mind you, but when a movie transports us it winds up reigniting your passion for what you want to do. Not that you want to compare or compete – it’s just a source of inspiration. I’m always grateful for those movies.