For the Love of Shawshank

You can tell yourself that you cherish your favorite movie, but there’s just no way you love it as much as Rick Ayres loves The Shawshank Redemption. Ayres has seen Shawshank thousands of times, he says—about once every other day for the past 10 years. His DVD copy is so worn that it skips and freezes. To this day, he’ll pause the film if he steps outside or grabs a drink, afraid he might miss something. Living with a film so intimately that he can practically breathe its photochemical fumes has helped him through a divorce, heart attack, battle with esophageal cancer, and countless bad days at work. If he’s having a particularly rough shift, he texts his wife and asks her to queue the DVD in the player.

In 2012, per Rick’s request, his wife searched on a public library computer (the Ayreses didn’t own one) where Shawshank was filmed: Mansfield, Ohio, about a four-hour drive from their home in Ontario, Canada. The discovery inspired the couple to make a pilgrimage. Upon arrival, Ayres asked local tour guides to take him through Shawshank’s most notable locations: Warden Norton’s office; Brooks’s bench; Andy’s escape tunnel; the oak tree where Ellis Boyd Redding discovers a note from a friend.

Each plays a pivotal role in The Shawshank Redemption, which follows the wrongly convicted Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) as he attempts to escape from Shawshank State Penitentiary. His belief in hope and change galvanizes his fellow inmates, including Morgan Freeman’s Red, who rediscover those concepts while outmaneuvering the corruption and brutality inside the penitentiary’s walls. The film’s message—that righteous faith will be rewarded, that life’s circumstances don’t define a person—is what still animates fans like Ayres, even 25 years after the film’s release.

A lightning strike split the Shawshank tree to half its former glory in 2011, and strong winds blew the rest down several summers later. But Rick Ayres bore witness. He’ll tell you that when he reached that oak tree, still voluminous and umbrella-like when viewed from the right angle, he lit a cigarette and began to weep. “This is the happiest day of my life,” he said, and stayed near the tree for over two hours.

“I realize it’s only a movie, but it’s very, very real to me,” Ayres later told me. “I’ve had some people say to me, Geez, you watch it that often? Get a life. Get a hobby or something. I have a life; I have hobbies. But that’s my favorite movie. And if I want to watch it every day, I’ll watch it every day.”

Between 2013 and 2018, more than 600,000 visitors hailing from China, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and all across America came to see where Shawshank was filmed. Each of them was likely ecstatic to discover how economic stagnation has preserved the Rust Belt town of Mansfield: It still looks just as it did on film 25 years ago, when it served as a stand-in for a quaint Maine hamlet in the 1950s.

Thanks to these pilgrims, the town’s fortunes are rising; their tourism annually brings in $13 million to the area, a figure that almost matches The Shawshank Redemption’s 1994 box office numbers. Though it was deemed a flop upon release, repeat cable showings and rentals gradually won the movie classic status and a fiercely allegiant cult—a long-gestating adoration that has resulted in Shawshank being ranked as IMDb’s highest-rated drama of all time, while a 2015 YouGov poll declared it Britain’s favorite movie.

In anticipation of the film’s 25th anniversary, its cast and crew returned to Mansfield this past August. For some—including director and screenwriter Frank Darabont—it was their first time back since shooting the movie. An energy rippled through their reunion, not dissimilar to the feeling in the air on Christmas holidays with family or when former military units reconvene. Few of the Shawshank crew ever thought they’d be back, particularly all together like this.

“I can’t believe [that] 25 years have gone by since the movie came out. Now it’s an artifact,” Darabont said. “There are people now who can vote, who can drink, who weren’t even born then. To have that perspective of time take place is kind of surreal—I turned 60 this year. I was 34 when we shot this movie. It’s just like, How did that happen?”

Before he influenced all those fans through his film, Frank Darabont was just another Hollywood screenwriter with dreams of directing. He was on his way to achieving those dreams at the 1993 Los Angeles Location Expo, where he had one burning question for attendees: “Hey, you got any big, empty prisons?”

After establishing a foothold writing B-horror flicks, Darabont had written a screenplay based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. The script quickly became the talk around studios. Castle Rock, the biggest suitor, was willing to pay him about $4 million for the script under one condition—that Rob Reiner would direct, not Darabont, with Tom Cruise attached to star. Though he struggled with the decision, Darabont refused the offer and insisted on directing, knowing he’d never receive a better screenplay for his first movie. Due in part to Castle Rock producer Liz Glotzer, who threatened to quit if she couldn’t make Shawshank, Darabont eventually closed a deal to helm the project.

Now, he needed somewhere to shoot his film, which was of vital importance. “The prison is the biggest character in the movie,” Darabont later told Lee Tasseff, head of Mansfield’s tourism board. After asking a few state film commissioners at the L.A. Expo if they had what he was looking for, one told him to try Ohio: “I heard they have a pretty good prison.”

Indeed they did. Ohio’s former film commissioner, Eve LaPolla, had once run an ad in the Hollywood trade papers that read “Prison for rent,” and boasted access to “quaint, on-site amenities” at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, including a “slightly-used electric chair.” Thanks to her tactics, she told me, Ohio had become known as “kind of the prison state, if you want to shoot a film.” Scenes from Tango & Cash, Air Force OneTom Selleck’s An Innocent Man, and Brubaker—starring Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman—were all shot in Ohio prisons.

So when Darabont came across her expo booth and said, “I hear you got a great big empty prison for me,” LaPolla was ready. She handed him a black-and-white photograph, an aerial shot of the Ohio State Reformatory. Darabont knew instantly he’d found his dream jail.

“That incredible facade, that incredible edifice—at a glance, it says everything there is to know about being in a place where you don’t want to go,” said Darabont. “This felt like the hammer of God had fallen on you, like this massive pile of bricks just fell out of the sky, and bam. It looked like Castle Dracula.”

Darabont didn’t know that the Reformatory’s inmates had actually nicknamed the structure “Dracula’s Castle” themselves. In fact, the building was only available to the director because prisoners had won a class-action lawsuit against the state, arguing the OSR’s conditions inhumane. The prison closed for good in December 1990, after operating for nearly 100 years. Cleveland planner Levi T. Scofield, who believed that architecture could help a man’s character return to the righteous path, had imagined the prison as a Gothic and Romanesque monolith that would be spiritually inspiring, dominating, and uplifting all at once. His original blueprints didn’t even allow inmates to walk in straight lines through the prison—an intentional feature “done to subjugate the person to the bigger scheme,” said Dan Seckel, a Mansfield architect instrumental in the OSR’s restoration.

theShawshankRedemption
A scene in the prison yard

FROM ITV/SHUTTERSTOCK.

But when the Shawshank production team visited Mansfield in March 1993, they discovered the Reformatory in a state of disrepair and decay. Windows were smashed, and no one had bothered to pick up the glass. Tendrils of paint, long and wide as party streamers, were peeling off the walls. Thick layers of ice covered entire rooms.

Of course Darabont loved it. He dashed about, imagined blocking scenes and camera movements. As they toured the facilities—“abjectly freezing our butts off and picking sleet from our teeth,” the filmmaker wrote in Shawshank’s published shooting script—production designer Terrence Marsh paused, breathing it all in. “This place would look smashing with an opening helicopter shot,” he told Darabont, birthing what the director called “everyone’s favorite shot in the movie.”

The Shawshank team had found their lead—and just in time. If the Ohio State Reformatory hadn’t been cast in the movie, a wrecking ball would have demolished it several months later.

My first stop in Mansfield was Pugh Cabin, where Andy Dufresne, pissed off and drunk, goes to confront his cheating wife in The Shawshank RedemptionShawshank faithful ambled about, most of them proudly wearing the burnt orange commemorative T-shirts that came with their 25th-anniversary ticket. A line gathered around Mansfield local Torrey Davis, who, in a three-piece suit and his hair pushed back, bore a glancing resemblance to Tim Robbins. He’d been recruited by the town to stand outside Pugh Cabin, staring blankly as Andy would, in an attempt to bring the film to life. For his effort, Davis became a hot commodity. “Andy look-alike, come over here! We want to take a picture!” fans shouted.

“For the first time in my life, I signed an autograph today,” Davis said later, trying to hold back a smile.

Anyone associated with Shawshank was an icon in the eyes of 23-year-old visitor Thomas Barbara, a baseball pitcher for Harding University. He was the Richard Linklater of his squad—the laidback, laconic jock with a hidden passion for movies. Inside the cabin, he’d met Scott Mann and Renee Blaine, who played minor roles in the film as golf pro Glenn Quentin and Andy Dufresne’s wife, respectively. As Blaine left the cabin, Barbara clutched a signed edition of her old headshot. “Dude, I didn’t know they’d like, have stuff for us!” he said to me.

Later that night, I found him chatting up Frank Darabont outside Hudson & Essex, an upscale Mansfield restaurant that can thank renewed tourism for its clientele. Darabont had stepped out for a cigarette, but entertained Barbara’s questions about his work punching up Saving Private Ryan’s script, as well as other Shawshank-related queries. The fan caught the director in a contemplative mood, as Darabont said Shawshank “wouldn’t do as well today” with current moviegoers.

In truth, The Shawshank Redemption didn’t do that well with audiences in 1994 either; its success required pressure and time. But the way its devotees found the movie—a slow burn that gradually ignited a hearty bonfire over time—was kind of perfect. Cast and crew will also relay entertaining stories from the set, tales that paint the experience as idyllic: how actors would gather around James Whitmore (who played the kindly, institutionalized crook Brooks Hatlen) and ask him to share classic Hollywood tales from the ’50s and ’60s, or how Morgan Freeman and William Sadler (who played the steel-exterior, gooey-insides Heywood) would each try to name doo-wop songs the other wouldn’t recognize. (“It was impossible because we knew them all,” Sadler said.) Or even how baseball and euchre games broke out frequently.

But when I asked Darabont if fate seemed to be on Shawshank’s side, he refuted this narrative. When he was making the movie, he said, he felt like he “was getting the bare minimum of what I needed in order for the film to come together and the scenes to work.” Material that Darabont loved—like a dream sequence following Andy’s escape that featured Red sucked beyond a Rita Hayworth poster and plopped on a Zihuatanejo beach, alone and terrified—never even made it onto the shooting schedule. Later, according to Sadler, there were editing battles with the studio. After one screening of the film for cast and crew, he said, audience members could hear an executive screaming in the hallway, furious the film hadn’t been cut shorter.

Then came the 1995 Berlin International Film Festival. By that time, The Shawshank Redemption had bombed at the box office, and would go on to lose all seven of its Oscar nominations. But Darabont had to go overseas to continue promoting the film. One night, he found himself at a hotel bar sitting next to Robert Benton, who had written Bonnie and Clyde and directed Kramer vs. Kramer.

“Oh, you’re the young man who did the Shawshank movie,” said Benton, per Darabont’s recollection, who was in Berlin to promote his film Nobody’s Fool. “I’m hearing good things about it. Was this your first time directing?”

“Yeah, it was,” Darabont replied.

“How did it feel?”

“Like I don’t know if I want to do it again,” Darabont admitted.

“Listen,” said Benton, “I know exactly how you feel. I felt the same way [with] every movie I directed.”

Benton explained the fundamental contradiction of being a filmmaker to Darabont: Every day you show up with a set of creative ambitions for your movie, but because you’re fighting not just the clock but every problem that the universe can think to throw at you, you can’t possibly bring them all to life.

“[Benton] said—this is the quote I tattoo on my heart—‘Every day of filming feels like a failure for that reason. That doesn’t mean you’re failing,’” Darabont said.

Later, Quentin Tarantino would tell him much of the same thing. “He once said to me he didn’t really feel like he knew what he was doing until he was making his third or fourth film. And that’s when he started to really enjoy directing,” said Darabont. “I don’t think I really started to enjoy directing until [2007’s] The Mist. With that, I was completely loose and free to make creative choices, and not painstakingly pre-plan. Does that make The Mist a better movie than Shawshank?”

He paused. A floor below our conversation, fans thronged the auditorium of Mansfield’s Renaissance Theatre, eager for a Shawshank panel discussion and screening. “It’s not for me to say, in any event. But probably not.”

Upper Sandusky is about 45 minutes north of Mansfield. Almost every year the people of the town reenact their favorite scene from Shawshank—the one in which the convicts pause in the woodshop to listen to opera as it wafts from the warden’s office, which Andy has commandeered. This year, the reenactors had some of the film’s actual cast and crew looking on. A man dressed as a prison guard marched “convicts” into the Upper Sandusky woodshop, where Morgan Freeman and Gil Bellows had nearly 26 years before. Sander belts and circle saws whirred to life. Amidst the commotion, you could faintly hear two Italian ladies singing Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” The woodworkers paused, transfixed. Machines stopped spinning. For the briefest of moments, The Shawshank Redemption was born again.

When Bill and April Mullen bought this old woodshop 19 years ago, they had virtually no relationship to Shawshank. Bill remembers when production rolled through town to film back in ’93. But, he says, “I don’t think before 2000 I’d ever watched the film.” Like so many others, though, Bill and April eventually fell under the film’s spell, and became Shawshank evangelists and began hosting the reenactments to commemorate the film’s anniversary.

As with Mansfield, The Shawshank Redemption has given Upper Sandusky an identity. “As a small town in the Midwest that was built on farming and industry that is not always thriving and even dying off somewhat, it reminds us that even we have hope,” said Bill Caine, a local photographer covering this year’s reunion. “Andy held onto that hope, and day by day, he carved into that wall with what he had available to him. It is the little mundane actions that give us the biggest breakthroughs in life.”

Just as The Shawshank Redemption helped revive Mansfield and Upper Sandusky, other films have invigorated locations across the country. You can play catch on the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa; grab a slice at Mystic Pizza in Mystic, Connecticut; look out for Jaws in Edgartown, Massachusetts; fall in love with Twilight vampires in St. Helens, Oregon. You can’t help but wonder: As Hollywood’s biggest productions increasingly rely on green screens rather than brick-and-mortar locations—and as non-franchise, middle-tier affairs like Shawshank and Mystic Pizza disappear from theaters—will that relationship to films be lost in the process? If there were no freestanding Shawshank Penitentiary, where will the Rick Ayreses and Thomas Barbaras of the world go?

For now, these pilgrims have Mansfield. Standing in the Ohio State Reformatory’s Central Guard room with his former cast and crew, Gil Bellows said that, while they were filming Shawshank, he could feel the ghosts of the prisoners around them. “What struck me today,” he added, “is there are new ghosts in this place—and they’re beautiful.”