A 9-minute long spontaneous Q&A with Frank Darabont backstage at the 2009 Saturn Awards. The primary topic of discussion: The Shawshank Redemption. The interviewer asks Darabont if he ever gets tired of people coming up to him to tell him, “Hey, you made Shawshank, one of my favorite movies,” and Darabont’s response is pretty priceless: “Absolutely not. You can’t get tired of that, you’d be douchebag.”
The Woman in the Room, 1983
Written and Directed by Frank Darabont.
Based on a story by Stephen King.
"Clearly the best of the short films made from my stuff"
- Stephen King
In 1983 you did The Woman in the Room. Can you tell me how that happened? As I understand it it’s one of the first Dollar Babies, right?
Frank Darabont: In 1980, I was 20 years old, working many miserable low-paid jobs just to survive and dreaming of a career in films someday. During that time I was a theater usher, telephone operator…man, I can’t even remember all the awful jobs I had back then. I even ran a forklift and did a lot of heavy lifting for an auction company that liquidated industrial machine shops. That was the year I approached Stephen King about The Woman in the Room, and I hadn’t even had my first job in movies yet! But I nonetheless decided I wanted to make a short film from his story, which I thought was lovely and deeply moving, so I wrote him a letter asking for his permission. I was shocked that he said yes. (I found out later about his “dollar baby” policy, which shows what a generous man he is. I doubt The Woman in the Room was the first dollar baby, but I’m certain it must be among the first wave of those films.) Let me digress to say that my very first real job in films happened later that same year, after I’d gotten Steve’s permission to do The Woman in the Room. Chuck Russell hired me as a P.A. on a shitty no-budget film called Hell Night, starring Linda Blair. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t really recommend it. Quentin Tarantino keeps telling me he really likes Hell Night, but I keep telling him he’s the only one. It was one of the cheesier entries in the “slasher movie” cycle. But if you ever do see it, you can check out my name in the end credits — my very first movie job! “P.A.,” by the way, stands for “production assistant,” although I’ve always felt it could also stand for “pissant.” It is the lowest job in movies, a gofer who runs around doing every crappy job they hand you and never getting any sleep. I made 150 dollars a week, which was horrible pay even back then. But it was my entry into the film business, and began my association with Chuck Russell. Chuck was a line producer on low budget films at that time, just making a living, which is how he hired me. We later became dear friends and wound up collaborating as writers on a number of screenplays, including A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. That was Chuck’s first directing job and my first professional writing credit, in 1986.
Anyway, back to 1980. I wrote Steve King my letter, he said yes, and it took me three years to make The Woman in the Room. It took a while to raise enough money (from some kindly investors in Iowa) to shoot the movie and get it in the can. But then I had to personally earn the rest of the money needed to put the film through post-production: editing the film, doing the sound, paying for the lab work, etc. By 1983 I was working as a prop assistant on TV commercials — not great money, but it was enough to get my movie finished. I earned $11,000 dollars that year and spent $7,000 of it finishing my movie — how I survived on $4,000 that year is something I still can’t explain; to this day I have no idea how I did it. (The IRS was also quite curious…that was the only year I’ve ever gotten audited for taxes, because they couldn’t believe anybody could survive on $4,000 a year.) All I can say is, my rent was cheap and I lived very frugally. I spent that entire year with a borrowed Moviola in my bedroom, editing the film. I had heaps of 16mm film piled all over the place. At night, I had to move all the piles of film off my bed onto the floor so I could go to sleep. In the morning, I’d have to move the piles of film from the floor back onto my bed so I could walk to the bathroom. Very glamorous! But eventually the movie did get done, and we entered it for Oscar consideration in the short film category. There are two things we should correct: 1) It wasn’t the 1986 Academy Awards, but earlier — either ‘83 or ‘84, I forget the exact year. 2) More significantly, The Woman in the Room was not nominated…it was named in the top 9 out of the 90 short films submitted that year, but we failed to make the final cut of 4 nominated films. (For some strange reason, the common belief has arisen through the years that the film was nominated, but that is incorrect.)
Did King comment on what he though about it? The Woman in the Room is a rather personal story to him…
Frank Darabont: He liked it. In fact, we used his quote “Clearly the best of the short films made from my stuff” on the video box. He did feel the character I added, The Prisoner (played by Brian Libby, who later played Floyd in The Shawshank Redemption) was a bit cliched, and I can’t disagree. Steve’s favorite bit was the dream sequence where the mom turns into a rotted corpse — he loved that! Hey, give Steve a rotted corpse and he’s your pal for life. Here’s some trivia: that corpse originally appeared in Hell Night. (If I remember correctly, Linda Blair stumbles into a room at one point where a bunch of corpses are propped around a table — it was a male corpse, but in my short I passed him off as a woman. Corpse in drag!) Some two years after Hell Night, I borrowed the corpse to use in The Woman in the Room from the makeup fx guys who built it. He wound up sitting in my living room for a few months. Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night and forget he was there. I’d wander half-asleep out to the kitchen to get a glass of water and he’d scare the shit out of me, this big human shape sitting in the dark in my living room. That dream sequence was something I also added to the story — looking back on it, I guess I took a lot of liberties with Steve’s material. I’m kind of surprised he liked it as much as he did. But he liked it well enough that when I approached him again in 1986 to ask for the rights to The Shawshank Redemption, he said yes. So spending three years busting my ass to make that short did pay off in a very nice way. It gave Steve a certain amount of confidence in me. As for me, I look at The Woman in the Room now and wonder what Steve saw in it. The movie actually makes me cringe a little, as I suppose any work you did as a kid will make you cringe (unless you’re Mozart). Honestly, it looks like an earnest but very young filmmaker at work to me. The result strikes me as pretty creaky and overly careful in its approach. I think I was really afraid of making any mistakes, so my approach to shooting and editing was cautious, to say the least. And it’s slow! Yikes!
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