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6 Filmmaking Tips from Frank Darabont

We compiled the best advice given by the screenwriter/director of ‘The Shawshank Redemption.’
Frank Darabont
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By  · Published on August 29th, 2012

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Frank Darabont.

There’s only a seven-year gap between Frank Darabont delivering A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and delivering The Shawshank Redemption. He wrote the script for the first and wrote and directed the second, but how ridiculously awesome is that combination?

Darabont started out as a production assistant for the 1981 Linda Blair-starring Hell Night, which is as schlocky good as it gets, and has gone on to build an Oscar-nominated career based on his keen ability to adapt excellent books into excellent films. He’s probably also a great guy to grab a beer with.

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the man who gave us the #1 film according to over 800,000 IMDB users.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Frank Darabont

1. You have permission to not have original ideas

“Some of us have great original ideas and some of us depend on adaptations. If I have anything that can be deemed a weakness, it’s that I don’t have that. I don’t have a head full of ideas I’m dying to write. I’m usually responding to the stories that I’ve read. I’ve at times had people look at me with something approaching pity, saying oh, poor you, when are you going to do something original? I say, well, when did Kubrick? Not that I’m comparing myself to Stanley Kubrick.”

There’s a general frustration that major studios have no interest in original work because they’re so risk-averse and addicted to franchises. That’s a difficult situation because innovation is the engine that keeps the whole thing moving forward, although originality hasn’t always (or maybe ever) been the major fuel for their biggest projects. For indie filmmakers, adaptations may seem out of reach because 1) you want to make a mark and 2) purchasing film rights can get pricey.

Fortunately for emerging writers and directors who don’t have original stories to tell, there are plenty of public domain works to adapt. Even if you don’t plan on releasing them, they can make great practice resources.

2. Don’t default to HD if it’s not right for your project

With all of the rancor about digital vs. film, it’s pretty incredible to hear a director talking about choosing a film gauge that was introduced 90 years ago for home movie use to bring a television show to life.

“Well, the [Walking Dead] pilot is definitely back to a more formalized kind of filmmaking than The Mist was. One of the decisions we made very early on was, we want to shoot not on ‐ and we ran tests on every kind of format ‐ didn’t want to shoot on high-def, because that would have been a disaster for us on a whole lot of levels that I won’t bore you with, unless you want me to, and I also said, ‘You know, this show really should have the ability to run and gun and move quickly, and do multiple cameras, and squeeze into places that you can’t take a 35mm camera. Let’s shoot it on a Super 16.’

We’re shooting on 16mm here. And because we’re shooting on 16mm, it’s giving us something you’re not quite used to seeing much of anymore: film grain. It’s the difference between listening to music digitally and listening to your old vinyl records; there’s a warmth, a sort of analog quality to that kind of music, right? This kind of warmth and analog quality, almost, to the visuals, in a piece of film where you can actually see the grain and not necessarily be consciously aware of it, but there’s a life to it that is lacking in high-def. High-def is very pretty, it’s very beautiful and sharp and crisp, but I’m not sure I’d want to shoot a movie in it. And for this series, I thought, ‘Man, 16 is the way to go. It’s only going to give us more of that old-school analog feel.’ That’s probably why the look feels different to you.”

The key there is the amount of tests they did, finally choosing the right grain and not simply the newest since it wasn’t the best option for the tone of what they were creating.

3. Want a screenwriting master class? Study the Shawshank Redemption script

You might be able to find it here.

4. Focus on the humanity

No matter the genre, movies should find the core emotion and focus on it if they’re to transcend beyond pure entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with spectacle because it can be a fun diversion, but the movies that we tend to remember most can marry spectacle to the human element in a way that crawls into our hearts and minds to set up residence.

“Well, mostly keeping the focus on the human drama and the conflict [in The Mist]. I felt like I was on really solid ground there. The sequences, primarily the three sort of, the more fun action effects sequences of the film, I always felt like they were the icing on the cake. That’s the fun stuff for the visual eye candy. That was tremendously satisfying to do too because it was not something that I had ever really done before at least to that degree. But I felt I was on very solid ground with the narrative because the novel Stephen [King] had written was so muscular and kind of subversive and let’s face it, metaphorical. When I first adapted the script I thought, ‘This story would work even without ever catching a glimpse of anything.’ It would still function as powerfully as it does. So yeah, so the critters were just kind of a fun bonus for me.”

5. Get what you need done

“You really have no clue what the final impact of the film will or will not be. If you’re lucky enough to have made something that is considered special by a lot of people, I promise you, you never wake up any morning of that movie saying, ‘I’m making something special today.’ You waking up hoping you’re going to make your day and get what you need done that day. That you’re not gonna screw it up.”

6. Stay humble

Darabont constantly has people telling him he’s made their favorite movie, but you’d never know it to hear the man speak. His ego is firmly in check along with a few self-deprecating jabs. Maybe it goes back to a time when Gene Siskel wasn’t sure how to pronounce Darabont’s name. Or maybe being nominated for 3 Oscars and never winning (or having a movie nominated for 7 and win exactly 0).

Or maybe he’s just that grounded.

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

Being a badass doesn’t mean you have to be an asshole. Focus on the hopes and fears of the people in your story, and the rest will be icing. Darabont has provided a lot of practical advice, but his career has also proven that you can avoid selling out while still making a name for yourself. He’s also an example of someone who didn’t take the usual route to success. Who cares if he doesn’t have original stories he’s dying to tell?

The best part? Darabont has a lot more to make and a lot more advice to share.

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