Behind The Scenes Of 'The Shawshank Redemption,' And The Making Of An Unlikely Classic

What happens when a wannabe first-time director writes an almost perfect screenplay? Look no further than The Shawshank Redemption, the making of which was a laborious process filled with 18-hour days and six-day weeks. Take a look at what really happened behind the scenes of the movie that sits atop the No. 1 spot on IMDb's list of the Top 250 Movies. 

The Shawshank Redemption is one of those movies that makes people not just cry but full-on weep. It's a prison movie but also a tale of enduring male friendship. It's a story of hope and about never giving up. That same mentality was needed for Frank Darabont to bring what Tim Robbins called "the best script he's ever read" to the big screen.

Hollywood insiders knew Darabont's adaptation of Stephen King's novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption was pure gold. What they didn't know was that Darabont would refuse to let someone else direct it - or that the still-green director would ask for so many repeated takes that it would cause a major rift with one of his veteran actors.

The Shawshank Redemption was supposed to be a Hollywood hit. But no one showed up on opening night. Find out why a movie that was nominated for seven Academy Awards failed to initially find an audience, and how the movie ultimately turned a nice profit. Which two A-List actors almost appeared in the movie? What did Stephen King really think of Darabont's script? 

Discover all those The Shawshank Redemption behind-the-scenes facts and more.


  • Stephen King Sold Frank Darabont The Rights For $1K And Never Cashed The Check

    Stephen King is one of the most prolific authors in the history of literature. His source material clearly makes for excellent silver screen adaptations, with over 50 films having been made from his work. The horror author is also generous. In 1976, he established something called "The Dollar Baby," which gives students or young filmmakers permission to adapt one of his short stories for just $1.

    Frank Darabont became an official Stephen King Dollar Baby when he adapted King's 1978 short story The Woman in the Room. Darabont's 30-minute film was a success, even making it to the semi-finals for Academy Award consideration. More importantly, Darabont's writing and directing impressed King enough that he was willing to basically make a "handshake deal" with Darabont for the rights to his 1982 non-horror novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.

    Darabont approached King about acquiring the film rights to the novella, and King agreed to the request. King described the conversation the two men had about the novella's rights:

    I said, "Sure, Frank, I'd love it." He said, "Well, OK, how much?" I said, "Well, I don't know, man. Send me a check for $1,000 and write the screenplay and if something happens with it, maybe we'll all make a little money, and if nothing happens with it, I'll send your check back."

    Even after The Shawshank Redemption became a critical success and earned seven Oscar nominations, King decided not to cash Darabont's check. "Everybody made a lot of money, and I had Frank's $1,000 check framed and sent it back to him," King revealed.

    Darabont and King have teamed up two additional times. The former Dollar Baby also directed adaptations of King's The Mist and The Green Mile.

  • The Actors Actually Had To Tar The Rooftop Themselves

    Andy Dufresne works out a deal with a prison guard that he will help him save money on his tax inheritance if the guard will get beers for the inmates working on the roof of the prison license plate factory. To hear it from Red's voiceover narration (from the smooth delivery of Morgan Freeman), drinking cold beer on a hot roof may be the most incredible experience of his entire life:

    And that's how it came to pass, that on the second-to-last day of the job, the convict crew that tarred the plate factory roof in the spring of '49 wound up sitting in a row at ten o'clock in the morning, drinking icy cold Bohemia-style beer, courtesy of the hardest screw that ever walked a turn at Shawshank State Prison... The colossal pr*ck even managed to sound magnanimous. We sat and drank with the sun on our shoulders and felt like free men. Hell, we could have been tarring the roof of one of our own houses. We were the Lords of all Creation. As for Andy, he spent that break hunkered in the shade, a strange little smile on his face, watching us drink his beer...You could argue he'd done it to curry favor with the guards, or maybe make a few friends among us cons. Me? I think he did it just to feel normal again, if only for a short while.

    For the actual cast and crew, that scene became a nightmare to film. Freeman described how laborious it turned out to be for the actors:

    The scene was shot over a hard, hard day. We were actually tarring that roof. 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.

    Darabont added that the scene was especially complicated and required multiple takes in order to match Freeman's narration. "Then I remember we got a nice take," Darabont said. "I turned around, and somebody behind me had tears rolling down their face, and I thought, okay, good, that one worked."

  • Morgan Freeman Injured His Arm Throwing Too Many Baseballs

    Red and Andy first meet out in the prison yard. Red is throwing a baseball with another inmate while he chats with Andy. The scene reportedly took nine hours to film thanks to Darabont's meticulous nature and desire for multiple takes. Freeman kept tossing the baseball for the duration of the scene. 

    Freeman was a somewhat older gentleman at this point - well into his 50s - and certainly not used to having a catch for hours on end. But Freeman is also a professional actor not likely to complain just because his arm hurt.

    The actor's heroics cost him. Freeman showed up to work the next day with his throwing arm in a sling. Or perhaps, Freeman was just making a point to Darabont?

  • The Original Ending Was More Ambiguous

    The Shawshank Redemption features plenty of heavy drama and heartbreak. Thankfully, for movie audiences who like stories to end well, Darabont's script concludes with two separate moments to cheer. Audiences first get to watch in pure delight as Andy outsmarts the prison system and escapes from Shawshank State Penitentiary. The second happy ending is watching Red and Andy reunite as free men on a sunny beach in Mexico. 

    Darabont almost didn't give spectators the satisfaction of seeing the two old friends meet in paradise. He initially wanted to conclude the 1994 drama the same way Stephen King ended his novella. Darabont revealed: 

    The original script ended with Red on the bus, uncertain but hopeful about the future; that's the way the [King] story ended. But [studio executives told me], "After two-plus hours of hell, you might owe them that reunion."

  • Rob Reiner Wanted To Direct, With Tom Cruise In The Lead Role

    Castle Rock Entertainment (named after the fictional town in Stand by Me) was totally on board for producing Darabont's screenplay. Rob Reiner, a founder of the production company, was one of the hottest directors in the business in the early 1990s with a string of massive hits for Castle Rock, including A Few Good Men, Stand by Me, When Harry Met Sally..., and Misery

    Reiner loved Darabont's screenplay so much that he reportedly wanted to take it on behind the camera himself and offered Darabont an unprecedented $3 million. Reiner had a vision that Tom Cruise would take on the character of Andy Dufresne.

    Darabont's own backstory involves growing up as a poor Hungarian refugee in Los Angeles. In the early 1990s, he was still a struggling writer. Selling his screenplay for an amount of money writers almost never receive, plus the prestige that comes with such a deal, would have catapulted Darabont into rarified scribe air in Tinseltown. He labored over the decision, which was made even more difficult when Castle Rock said it would finance and allow him to direct a different movie of his choice if he signed the Shawshank rights over to Reiner.

    Despite the risks and despite the assured payday, Darabont held onto his convictions. He reasoned: "You 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."

    Reiner graciously stayed on to serve as Darabont's mentor.

  • It Was Filmed At A Notorious Former Prison Nicknamed ‘Dracula’s Castle’

    It Was Filmed At A Notorious Former Prison Nicknamed ‘Dracula’s Castle’
    Photo: Mike Sharp / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    Most of The Shawshank Redemption was filmed at the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, OH. The prison's exterior featured a Gothic facade; some prisoners had taken to calling it "Dracula's Castle."

    "You could feel the pain," Robbins said of the prison. "It was the pain of thousands of people,"  

    The 100 plus-year-old prison lost its funding in the 1960s and subsequently fell into tremendous disrepair. Conditions got so bad that inmates sued the state of Ohio, and actually won the lawsuit. The facility shut down in 1990 and prisoners were transferred out of the facility. Following the film's success, the prison officially got a new lease on life, getting sold to the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society. Fans of Shawshank can tour the facility. A local bakery in Mansfield even sells Bundt-cakes that depict the now-famous Gothic prison.