How 'The Shawshank Redemption' Became a Movie Classic
"The Shawshank Redemption" hit theaters on Sept. 23, 1994. It made about as big of an impact as a single strike of a six- or seven-inch long rockhammer on a concrete wall.
But over time, "Shawshank" tunneled itself into the category of the world’s most beloved movies. Now the movie about struggle, hope and, well, redemption, is just as good as it ever was.
To celebrate the movie’s success, we compiled a list of facts, trivia and financial information about this timeless gem. Because no good thing ever dies.
1. It’s the Highest-Rated Movie on IMDB
"Shawshank" holds a 9.3 score on IMDB, more than "The Godfather" and "The Godfather: Part II," which hold a 9.1 and 9.0, respectively.
And "Shawshank" is also the movie with the most amount of votes in general, with over 2.135 million IMDB users having rated the movie so far.
The second movie on IMDB with the most votes is "The Dark Knight," with 2.099 million votes.
2. The Rights Cost Only $5,000
Director Frank Darabont wanted to film another one of Stephen King’s stories. He had done so before, in 1982 — for an adaptation of King’s short story, "The Woman in the Room." The rights were sold by King as one of his "dollar babies" — rights to selected stories available to aspiring filmmakers for $1. King enjoyed "The Woman in the Room," but Darabont wouldn’t approach King again for another five years, opting to wait until he had more experience.
Sometime around 1987, he asked King for the rights to "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," a 96-page novella that no one else had an interest in. King granted him the rights, but not for $1. This time, Darabont needed to cut King a $5,000 check, according to The Wall Street Journal. (We’re going to take a leap here and say this short story’s rights cost 5,000 times more because Darabont was no longer an aspiring filmmaker and had real ties to the industry by this time. Even so, $5,000 is dirt cheap.)
It was Darabont’s first feature film.
3. Darabont Gave Up a Fortune to Direct It
According to Vanity Fair, director Rob Reiner, who founded Castle Rock Entertainment, offered Darabont a huge amount of money to buy the script so he might direct it. The price was somewhere around $3 million, which would have launched Darabont into the upper echelons of highly paid screenwriters.
He turned it down. "[Y]ou can continue to defer your dreams in exchange for money and, you know, die without ever having done the thing you set out to do," he told Variety. The decision wasn’t easy. Darabont said he was "completely tormented" while making the decision.
But it wasn’t easy finding the right people to cast with a no-name director in the driver’s seat.
4. So Tom Cruise Walked
Tom Cruise was Rob Reiner’s pick for Andy Dufresne, and Cruise was onboard — if Reiner was directing.
But when Darabont was given the helm, Cruise — who was only working with high-profile directors — walked on the part.
5. Many Big-Time Actors Turned Down the Main Role
Also said to have turned down the role of Dufresne were Tom Hanks, Kevin Costner, Johnny Depp, Charlie Sheen and Nicholas Cage.
Actors considered for Morgan Freeman’s character, Red, included Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman.
In the novella, Red was a white, Irish guy with red hair. Hence the name.
6. Actresses Wanted to Be Rita Hayworth
The film’s original title was that of the short story, "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption."
But Darabont and the producers dropped the first part because it was confusing actresses and Hollywood agents who couldn’t read. During the pre-production process, Darabont said that he would receive resumes from actresses looking for a part in what they believed was a Hayworth biopic.
On the DVD commentary (as transcribed by Phil On Film), Darabont said they "got a phone call from the agent representing a supermodel who at that time was trying to break into acting. This agent swore up and down it was the best script she had ever read, she felt her client would be perfect, darling, to play the role of Rita Hayworth. That told us how carefully that agent had read the script, and how much hot air floats around Hollywood from time to time."
7. Stephen King Never Cashed Darabont’s Check
King never did cash Darabont’s $5,000 check for the rights to "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption." He hung onto it for a long while.
Years after "Shawshank" had released, King framed and mailed the check back to Darabont with a note: "Just in case you ever need bail money. Love, Steve."
8. Production Days Were Long
According to Variety, workdays lasted 15 to 18 hours, six days a week for three months in the summer heat. That’s about 1,170 to 1,404 hours, not including post-production.
How long did that take? We don’t have the numbers, but Darabont drops a hint: "[W]e spent our last month of post working seven days a week on the final sound mix, blending dialogue, music and sound FX until our brains dribbled out our ears," he wrote.
9. Filming Was Difficult
Darabont recorded Morgan Freeman’s lines before the movie was shot. He used those prerecorded lines while shooting, so that everything in the scene matched up with voice-over.
The film required a lot of takes, which led to Freeman sometimes refusing to do additional takes.
But after this next fact, would you blame him?
10. Too Many Takes Left Morgan Freeman in a Sling
During the scene where Andy meets Red and asks for the rock hammer, Freeman tosses a baseball back and forth to the other inmates off-screen.
It’s a simple-looking scene, but it took nine hours to shoot, with Freeman pitching the entire time.
He showed up to work the next day icing his arm and sporting a sling.
11. The Actors Were Creeped Out by the Prison
While the fictional Shawshank Prison is set in Maine, the prison used in the film was the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio. The prison had been closed only a few years before, in 1990, when it was shut down for having inhospitable conditions.
According to Ohio Exploration, the prison opened between 1886 and 1910, but had deteriorated by 1933, with cells fit for one person crammed with up to three inmates. Over 200 people perished while behind bars (or attempting to flee them), and are buried in the prison’s cemetery.
"You could feel the pain," Tim Robbins told Vanity Fair while discussing how he became in-character for his role as Andy. "It was the pain of thousands of people."
12. The Cellblock Scenes Are a Set
While the real prison is featured throughout the film, the scenes taking place in a cellblock with rows of jail cells were all created for the film.
"It's a four-tier, 200-cell block, and every little scrap of it is fabricated, every frayed cord, the years of chipping paint on the walls, it's all created by them [the set designers]," Darabont says on the "Shawshank" DVD commentary. "[E]very door was tied into an air pressure system so we could open or close 200 doors at once."
13. You Can Walk the Shawshank Trail
And don’t worry, the Sisters aren’t invited. Sixteen sights in Mansfield, Ohio, make up the Shawshank Trail.
They include the prison, the oak tree where Andy buried money for Red, the bank (with the ginormous vault) and the Shawshank Prison’s woodshop.
14. Type in $370,000 in Google…
…and the first search suggestion is "$370,000 in 1966."
$370,000 is the amount that Andy pilfered from Warden Norton in 1966.
It would equal about $2.9 million in 2019 dollars.
15. The Actors Actually Tarred That Roof
During the scene where Andy almost gets tossed off a roof by Captain Hadley, that black sludge that Red, Andy and the other inmates are slopping over the rooftop was real tar. Hot, thick tar.
"We were actually tarring that roof," Freeman recalled to Vanity Fair. "And tar doesn’t stay hot and viscous long. It tends to dry and harden, so you’re really working. For the different setups, you had to keep doing it over and over and over and over and over."
16. Animal Protection Groups Said Live Bugs Couldn’t Be Fed to Brooks' Bird
When movies say "No animals were harmed during the making of this film," they mean it. To a ridiculous degree of caution.
There’s one scene where Andy finds a maggot in his food, and Brooks asks if he can feed it to his pet bird. The American Humane Association and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which were both on set to ensure compliance, said not so fast. Even though the waxworms were sold as fisherman’s bait, the protection groups insisted that the waxworm be dead before being fed to the bird.
As Mark Dawidziak writes in his book, "The Shawshank Redemption Revealed: How One Story Keeps Hope Alive":
"The impasse was resolved when a dead waxworm was found in the batch, although an impatient Darabont suggested having the deceased waxworm autopsied to determine it had indeed died of natural causes. By the end of the day, some grips had fashioned a small director’s chair out of matchsticks, for the comfort of the waxworms."
17. The Film Bombed at Theaters
"Shawshank" had a production budget of $25 million. On its limited-release opening weekend, the film made $727,327, according to Box Office Mojo. On its wide release opening weekend, which had the movie shown at 944 theaters, it only made $2.4 million.
Eventually, after a 1995 re-release, the film accumulated $28.34 million at the box office — still not enough to make back its marketing budget (a general rule of thumb is that a movie has to make twice its production budget to break even).
18. The Title May Have Contributed to Its Lackluster Box Office Take
Theories as to why the movie bombed vary.
Freeman believed it was because of the title. "What sells anything is word of mouth. Now, your friends say, 'Ah, man, I saw this movie, The ... what was it? Shank, Sham, Shim? Something like that. Anyways, terrific.'" he told Vanity Fair. "Well, that doesn’t sell you."
Darabont disagrees. In an interview with Yahoo News, he noted that "'Forrest Gump' is a worse title, except it was a very successful movie, because everyone went to see it, so nobody questions that title." Darabont believes that "Shawshank" couldn’t lure viewers because people thought it was going to be a prison movie, and they would think, "This is going to bum me out."
Which also brings up the issue of competition. "Forrest Gump' was the highest-grossing film of 1994 and held a spot in the box office’s top 10 for 19 weeks straight. "Pulp Fiction" also took a sizable share of the box office when it released in mid-October.
And then there’s the movie’s disjointed trailer, which blends uplifting orchestral music with prison brutality.
19. Ted Turner Put It on Television … a Lot
The reason why "Shawshank" seems to always be on television is that it often is being replayed.
Ted Turner purchased Castle Rock in 1993 and then the rights to "Shawshank" in 1997 for a lower-than-normal price (probably because it was a flop).
He went on to replay the movie on TNT "every five minutes," Darabont told the Wall Street Journal. Sixteen years later, in 2013, "Shawshank" aired 44 times, tying it for eighth place as the most aired movie on basic cable that year.
20. Steven Spielberg Called It His 'Chewing Gum' Movie
"Shawshank" is one of those movies that sucks you in whenever it comes on screen.
And since it was played on television a whole bunch, thanks to Turner, the movie is a guaranteed 142-minute time suck if you happen to pass it while flicking through channels.
Steven Spielberg said "Shawshank" was his “chewing-gum movie. In other words, you’ve stepped in it and can’t get it off your foot. You have to watch the rest of the movie," Darabont told Vanity Fair.
21. It Has Made Over $100 Million
When "Shawshank" released on VHS in 1995, it was the most rented movie of that year. Its television licensing revenue was, and is, also substantial.
"Shawshank" is now in Warner Bros.' movie library and, according to the Wall Street Journal, is one of the network’s main movies — along with "The Wizard of Oz," "A Christmas Story" and "Caddyshack" — that helped generate Warner Bros. the $1.5 billion in licensing fees that it made in 2013.
The Journal says that "Shawshank" has brought in over $100 million during its lifetime.
22. Stephen King Considers It One of the Best Adaptations of His Work
King famously hated "The Shining" and called "Dreamcatcher" a "train wreck," but he has high praise for "Shawshank." Here’s a tiny blurb from a post he made on the Oscars website:
"When I first saw it, I realized he'd [Darabont] made not just one of the best movies ever done from my work, but a potential movie classic. That turned out to be the case, but he continued working almost up to the moment the film was released.
'I hate Tim [Robbins's] makeup,' he fretted as we watched the last scene. 'It looks too liquid, or something. I need to fix that.'
'Frank,' I said, ‘people aren't going to notice the makeup, because they'll be crying.'"
23. Red’s Mugshot Is Morgan Freeman’s Son
In the scene where the prison’s parole board rejects Red for parole, a mugshot of a 20-year-old Red is shown.
The photo is of Alfonso Freeman, Morgan Freeman’s son.
24. There’s a 'Shawshank' Parody
Alfonso Freeman made a goofy 30-minute short comedy parodying "Shawshank" called "The SharkTank Redemption." It takes place in a Hollywood Agency called CMA stuffed with assistants, and Alfonso pretty much just plays his father’s character from "Shawshank," only adapted into office life.
"Hope? Let me tell you something about hope, my friend,' Alfonso says while pointing a sandwich at his co-worker. "Hope will drive an assistant crazy. It has no place within CMA."
It’s on YouTube if you’re curious.
25. The Title Does Not Translate Well
Even in English, "The Shawshank Redemption" doesn’t make sense. What’s a Shawshank and how is it being redeemed? Which is why some other countries had a hard time translating the film for their release.
- In Taiwan, it was titled either "1995: Fantastic" or "Excitement 1995" – there’s no clear consensus. Taiwan was really excited to get this movie a year after its U.S. release.
- In Israel, it was titled "Walls of Hope."
- In Italy, it was titled "The Wings of Freedom."
- In Finland, it was titled "Rita Hayworth — The Key to Escape."
- In Greece, it was titled "Last Exit — Rita Hayworth."
Maybe Freeman had a point about that title.
26. The Script Took Eight Weeks to Write
Darabont wrote his "Shawshank' script in a furtive eight weeks. Here’s how he describes his writing process, per the select DVD commentary transcript:
"I tend to write very intensively. I tend to spend 10-12 hours a day at the computer when I'm really going at it and I am willing to be a prisoner of the process and not leave the house. I remember going three days straight with a lot of coffee and a few naps on one deadline."
27. Freeman Jumped at the Chance to Be Involved
Unlike other actors who were dissuaded from the film because of Darabont’s inexperience, Freeman wanted a role in the movie — no matter what that role was.
"I just got the script, and I called my agent back and said, 'Any role. I’ll play anything in here.' That’s how good it was,' Freeman told the New York Daily News.
28. The Snow Was Potato Chips
All winter scenes — like all scenes shot in the film — were shot in the summer. The snow used in these scenes was crushed potato chips blown by a fan, and the cast was sweltering under their jackets while trying to act cold.
29. The Director’s Paycheck: $750,000
Darabont passed on that rumored $3 million for a $750,000 paycheck for directing "Shawshank." He also received a percentage of net profits, but that wouldn’t mean anything as the film bombed at theaters.
However, residuals are another matter.
30. The Movie Will Pay Residuals Forever
Thanks to Turner’s TV deal, the "Shawshank" actors receive substantial residual payments.
Bob Gunton, who plays the warden, received "close to six figures" in residuals by 2004, according to the Wall Street Journal.
"I suspect my daughter, years from now, will still be getting checks," Gunton told the Journal in 2014.
31. Darabont Wanted the Movie to End on a Somber Note
One of the great things about "Shawshank" is the beach reunion of Red and Andy.
But in Darabont’s original ending, the movie closed with Red riding a bus to see Andy, which is closer to King’s novella. It was an ambiguous ending — we would never know if Red and Andy were reunited.
Studio executives intervened, telling Darabont that "After two-plus hours of hell, you might owe them that reunion."
32. The Studio Wanted Red to be Playing His Harmonica at the End
Not all of the studio’s input for "Shawshank" was top-notch advice.
Upon their reunion, the studio wanted Red to playing the harmonica that Andy had gifted him years before. Freeman thought that was "sort of asinine, sort of clichéd, sort of unnecessary and overkill," he told the New York Daily News.
In Dawidziak’s book, the author reveals the studio really wanted that harmonica in, and it was a fight to keep that harmonica away from the final scene.
33. The Last Lines of the Movie Were Cut
The last few lines of the "Shawshank" we all know and love are part of Red’s poignant narration: "I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope."
But in the original screenplay, the two have some dialogue. Andy says, "You look like a man who knows how to get things." And Red replies, "I’m known to locate certain things from time to time."
Then Red would shrug off his jacket and pick up the sander to help Andy fix up the boat.
34. One Quiet, Poignant Scene Was Chaos Behind the Camera
After Red finds Andy’s letter underneath the tree, he slings his jacket over his shoulder and walks back through the field while dozens and dozens of grasshopper bounce in and out of frame. Were the grasshoppers a symbol of freedom? A religious symbol? Nope. Turns out it was just a cool shot. And if someone could zoom back behind the camera, they would see a quite less dramatic scene.
According to Dawidziak’s book, they had wrapped up filming the scene and were heading back when Darabont noticed jumping grasshoppers. They sent Freeman back to reshoot the scene, but this time, Darabont and other crew members walked in front of Freeman and out of frame, wildly yelling and stomping around to get the grasshoppers to jump.
"It’s such a quiet, poetic scene, but right in front of it was what looked like absolute madness," Darabont said.
35. It Was Nominated for Seven Academy Awards
And it won zero. But the buzz helped word-of-mouth, which drove VHS sales and rentals.
Nominations were for best adapted screenplay, best film editing, best picture, best cinematography, best sound mixing, best original music score and best actor (for Freeman).
36. How Does the Poster Get Back on the Wall?
One pretty valid criticism of "Shawshank" is that the Raquel Welch poster is tacked back on the wall after Andy makes his escape. Except that would be impossible.
Andy is stuck in a head-first position and can’t turn around to tape the poster back up. So how did it happen? Here’s Darabont’s answer:
"It's a movie cheat! Live with it!"
Thank you, director.
37. Why 'Shawshank' Is Dedicated to Allen Greene
As the movie’s final shot pans out from the beach, the first words on screen are "In memory of Allen Greene."
Greene was Darabont’s first agent, who took Darabont on as a client when he was just a set dresser on low-budget films. He died of AIDS before the shooting of "Shawshank" began.
"I wanted to acknowledge not just his significance to my career but also that he was an incredibly decent, much-loved and much-missed person in the lives of those who knew him," Darabont says on the DVD commentary.
38. The Sewage Pipe Water Was Toxic
While Robbins didn’t actually crawl through five football fields' worth of feces, the actor did subject himself to some pretty disgusting water.
When Robbins emerges from the pipe, he lands in a stream. That stream was tested by a chemist, who found it loaded with bacteria from washed-up animal waste.
The crew had to dam up the stream and treat the water with chlorine before the scene could be shot, according to Dawidziak.
39. Only Two Women Have Speaking Roles
"Shawshank" is almost entirely composed of male actors.
Only a handful of females ever appear on screen, and only two have speaking roles.
One is a grocery store customer who complains that Brooks didn't double bag her items, and the other is the bank clerk who helps Andy after he made his escape.
40. For His Character, Robbins Went to the Zoo and Talked to Prison Guards
To get into the role of Andy, Robbins visited a zoo to watch the caged animals, spent an afternoon in solitary confinement and talked with actual prisoners and prison guards, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
He also had his legs shackled for a few hours.
41. For His Character, Freeman Just Read the Script
On the other hand, Freeman didn’t think getting into character was necessary.
"Acting the part of someone who’s incarcerated doesn’t require any specific knowledge of incarceration," Freeman told Entertainment Weekly. "Because men don’t change. Once you’re in that situation, you just toe whatever line you have to toe."
42. Some of the Extras Had Done Time in the Real Prison
When the casting call for extras went out, several inmates from the Ohio State Reformatory showed up and were cast in the film.
A former warden at the Mansfield Correctional Institution and former corrections officer at the OSR, Dennis Baker, can be seen behind Tommy Williams on the prison bus.
43. Solitary in the Real Prison Was Worse
Glimpses into a solitary confinement room in "Shawshank" show a toilet.
The real solitary compartments in OSR didn’t have such amenities — they were 6-by-8-foot cells with no light and a hole in the floor.
Prisoners were fed bread and water twice a day.
44. 'Shawshank' Was Freeman’s First Narration Role
With "Shawshank," Darabont revealed to the entire world Morgan Freeman’s rich, soothing voice that is just perfect for narration and voice-overs.
He said he received a lot more narration roles after the movie came out.
45. It’s in the National Film Registry
In 2015, the Library of Congress chose "Shawshank" for one of its 25 films that the Library chooses each year for preservation for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
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