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THE GREEN MILE: Frank Darabont Interview

The writer-director on adapting Stephen King's novel into film, now available on DVD.

    June 13, 2000

1999's Oscar-nominated blockbuster success, THE GREEN MILE, based on Stephen King's serialized novels, is an impressive adaptation (written and directed by Frank Darabont) that flies in the face of most accepted studio wisdom regarding what represents commercial viability in today's movie marketplace. Here are some comments from writer-director Darabont, given at a press conference last year to promote the film's theatrical release.

HOW DID THE PROJECT COME ABOUT?
It really came about originally as a result of a phone call from Steve King, or maybe I called himI forget. It was 'Hey, hi, how are you? How you doin'?' In the midst of this, he said, 'You know, I've been kicking a story around, and you'd be great for it. I know you don't want to do another prison movie, but let me tell you this idea.' I found the idea intriguing enough that I asked him, if he ever wrote the thing, to give me first crack at it. About six months later I got the first volume from his publisher, and I read the first volume and said, 'Okay, I can see I'm making another prison movie.' I actually committed to the film before I had read the remaining five volumes, just based on the quality of the first book and his brief description.

WERE YOU WORRIED ABOUT BECOMING THE PRINCE OF PRISON PICUTRES?
I am. That's all I'm going to do the rest of my life. Got any prison movies for me? [laughs] It gave me a moment's pause because I certainly wasn't looking for the next prison movie to make; I never imagined I would make another one. It just happened to be the card that was dealt me by Steve King. It was the one story that had come along in five years that I was just completely captivated by and felt I had to make. Which is actually why I had waited five years, because I really got to fall in love before I want to direct again. I don't want to do it just to do it. It's too hard. It's been two years of just getting my ass kicked! It's just a tough gig. So I was wading and wading through lots of DIE HARD rip offs that were being sent my way.

WHAT WAS THE TOUGHEST PART OF DIRECTING THIS MOVIE?
I don't know that there was any part that was tougher than any other part. Every aspect of directing is kind of a difficult one for me, although I have to say that dealing with my cast in this movie was about the easiest part of the whole process for me, because the cast was so superb, and they were all so devoted to bringing the material to life. That part was a pleasure.

IT WAS EASY TO BELIVE THAT THESE MEN WERE A TEAM. HOW DO YOU CREATE THAT ATMOSPHERE?
They had a great rapport, these actors. Mostly before these guys even meet, you're shuffling the deck in your head and trying to come up with what you think will be screen chemistry. That's how Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins were put together [in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION]: I thought, 'There's going to be an interesting mix.' Once I knew that Tom [Hanks] was on board, I immediately offered the script to David Morse, because I knew as I was writing the piece, as I was doing the adaptation, these faces were popping up in my head, and I thought, 'That's going to be a great combo. Tom and Bonnie Hunt are going to be a great comb.' It's just an instinctive thing. They happen to be great actors, too.

WAS MORSE A HARD SELL, HAVING ALREADY STARRED IN THE NOT VERY GOOD STEPHEN KING ADAPTATION [THE LANGOLIERS]?

You've been channel surfing!

DID HE HAVE ANY QUALMS ABOUT IT?
Oh, I don't think so. Once he read the script, he was on board. It's not the name on the script so much as what's on the pages of the script, and I think David was quite taken with it when he read it.

STEPHEN KING STORIES, EVEN THE HORROR STORIES, ALL HAVE THAT ELEMENT OF HUMANITY IN THEM. WHY IS IT THAT SO MANY OF THEM GO WRONG?
My theory has always been that the adaptations that go right, recognize the thread of humanity in Steve's work; they pay attention to the texture and characters. The ones that don't, figure that's not important. They figure that what's important are the trappings of the ghoulish, so what you're left with is the fur and the fangs, and you lose Stephen King altogether. The good onesTHE DEAD ZONE and MISERY and STAND BY MEthey didn't leave Steve King out of it; they got that between-the-lines texture that he has, and indeed the key word there is his sense of humanity. He's a real humanist, isn't he?

BRUCE WILLIS RECOMMEND MICHAEL CLARK DUNCAN FOR THE ROLE OF JOHN COFEY. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THAT?
If I ever have any casting problems, I'll call Bruce: 'Bruce, what do you think?' What a lucky thing for me that Bruce Willis was out there and was a fan of these books. He loved the books, and he heard we were making the movie, and he grabbed Michael Duncan on the set of ARMAGEDDON and said, 'Read this. You're perfect for this; you've got to go in and read.' He called us and said, 'I've got your John Coffey.' So Bruce iswhat's the word?are yenta? Our matchmaker? Bless his heart, because I can't imagine anybody else having pulled that role off as thoroughly as Michael did.

WHAT DID YOU THINK WHEN YOU FIRST MET HIM?
I wasn't entirely sure when I first met him. There was something about... Maybe he was nervous in the reading, or maybe he didn't have quite the level of experience that some actors do, walking into the room. But there was something about his soul that I couldn't let go of; I kept going back to this guy. We were seeing and reading other actors, throughout a period of some months, but I kept saying, 'Yeah, but Michael Duncan...! There's something about him.' So we kept having him come back, too. We put him with Larry Moss, where he worked with an acting coach a little bit. It doesn't seem, in the final analysis, that he needed it! Once I screen-tested him, once I put him on film, I thought, 'Okay, this guy's gonna work.' Once we started rolling cameras for real, he more than did that. He became this character; he transformed in front of my eyes while the cameras were rolling. I still to this day don't know where it came from. All I can do is be thankful for it, because he so exceeded my hopes for that character.

And really that was my greatest concern walking into this movie, because the physical characteristics of that role are so specific. It's hard enough finding a superb actor, much less one that looks like Michael Duncan. I knew that without perfection there, the movie would collapse. Without that role being superbly performed, that movie would not stand.

COULD YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE 3-HOUR LENGTH OF THE FILM?
To me, length is an artificial and arbitrary factor in a film. It certainly hasn't hurt the audience that has seen the movie. There was obviously a concern, because nobody sets out to make a three-hour movie. Nobody particularly wants that; certainly the studio didn't want that. But I think a film has its own organic need to be whatever length it needs, whether it's eighty-five minutes or three hours. Once we test screened it the first time, any argument from the studio regarding length just evaporated, because the audience was riveted to this thing every momentwhich was a great relief to me as well. It proved that I wasn't crazy, that this story that Stephen King had written was this compelling.

In fact, one of my fond memories of that first screening was that if somebody had to get up and go the bathroom, they ranthey scurried, because they didn't want to miss it. For me, if a film involves me to that level, I don't...length means nothing to me. And I'm not comparing this with any other movie, believe me, but I didn't feel a moment of SCHINDLER'S LIST and I didn't feel a moment of DANCES WITH WOLVES and I didn't feel a moment of TITANIC. Two of those moviesin fact, all of those movies were longer than this one! The audiences didn't seem to feel that time, but I've seen plenty of movies that were an hour and fifty minutes long and it seemed like I was there for eight hours. It's how much does the narrative involve you, how much does it absorb you, rather than how many minutes does it run, I think.

EVERYONE'S COME OUT WITH A DIFFERENT INTERPRETATION OF THE MOVIE, WHETHER IT'S A CHRISTIAN PARABLE OR IT'S ABOUT AN ANGEL.... CAN YOU TALK ABOUT WHAT IT MEANS FOR YOU?
Honestly, and I'm not trying to be disrespectful or duck the question, one of the great pleasures of having made this particular movie is that I'm still trying to figure out what the metaphors are; I still haven't completely drawn my own conclusions. Maybe in a couple of years I will. But the great pleasure for me is that the film works on so many levels that I am going to be fascinated to see what conclusions people draw. It's really a function of what the audience brings to it. SHAWSHANKI've heard from people who used it as a metaphor in so many ways, from a bad marriage that broke up to a guy suffering from ALS who's trapped in his own body.

This is even more complex. How people interpret it in terms of a stand on the death penalty, how people interpret it in terms of the spiritual questions that it raises or the racial questions that it raisesit means whatever the audience wants it to mean. That's thrilling to me as a filmmaker, because mostly you go to see a movie these days and it's pre-digested for you. You leave it in the theatre the moment you walk out the door; you don't take it home with you. It doesn't live in your head. I remember when I was a kid, you'd get more movies where you had stuff to talk about; you had stuff to think about; it raised questions that really informed you. I want to see more movies like that.

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