Q: Provide an overview of your book The Shawshank Experience: Tracking the History of the World's Favorite Movie.
A: The Shawshank Experience: Tracking the History of the World's Favorite Movie features in an in-depth analysis of the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption and its source text, Stephen King's 1982 novella "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption." The movie was filmed almost entirely in the Ohio counties of Ashland, Richland and Wyandot. The book delves into issues such as the significance of race in the film, the film's cinematic debt to earlier genres, the Gothic influences at work in the movie, and the representation of Andy's poster art as cross-gendered signifiers. The book also explores the history of the Ohio State Reformatory, which served as the primary filming location, and its relationship to the movie's fictional Shawshank Prison. The book also examines why this film has been such a popular and critical success, inspiring diverse fan bases online and in person at the filming sites. Lastly, it traces the creation of the local tourism industry surrounding the film, which last year drew over 100,000 visitors to Ohio.
Q: How did the book project evolve?
A: The original project that led to this book was a collaboration with former Ashland University COBE Hospitality Management professor Dr. Richard "Robby" Roberson, Jr. (now at College of Coastal Georgia) in 2013. Dr. Robby (as his students call him) and I were looking to do some kind of project together, as I have a professional history in the tourism industry and he is a huge film fan! We decided to combine our official disciplines -- film history and fan studies (on my part) + tourism/hospitality (on his). We knew the Mansfield Convention and Visitors Bureau was organizing a "reunion" for cast, crew, and extras involved in the 1993 filming of Shawshank and that many people would be visiting the filming sites. We approached Jodie Puster-Snavely of the CVB in the summer of 2013, simply to ask if we could get permission to survey and interview fans. She not only said the CVB would be happy to have us do that, she asked us for help in planning the event. The CVB knows tourists, but they said they didn't know fans. What would fans want to do during the Reunion weekend? What kinds of activities would we recommend? We collaborated with the CVB to help plan several events, using Fandom Studies research to suggest possibilities. We designed a survey to measure what people were looking for and how happy they were with the activities on offer. The students of the Fall 2013 HN 390 course were our data collectors, having done a 4-week unit on Shawshank and Fan Studies with me. We gathered over 225 surveys and used the data to recommend changes to the marketing, merchandising, and attraction design for the Shawshank Trail (a collection of filming sites). We published the data in a peer reviewed Tourism journal called “The Shawshank Trail: A Cross Disciplinary Study in Film Induced Tourism and Fan Culture.” Link to article here: https://almatourism.unibo.it/article/view/4953
By 2014, Dr. Robby and I were on the planning committee for the 20th Anniversary Celebration event. The committee was hoping to invite Stephen King to the event. I contacted Dr. Tony Magistrale, a professor with whom I had studied at University of Vermont who is a scholar of Gothic literature, and who has written a number of books and articles on Stephen King, to get King's contact information. I knew King was an intensely private person who rarely attends public events, but I thought I could at least try (he never responded!). In chatting with Tony, I asked if HE might be interested in coming to give a keynote talk at Ashland University to kick off the weekend's events. I asked-- do you have a talk on Shawshank ready to go? He said, yes, he had just given a talk in Boston. We raised the funds to bring him out to give the talk (much of which ended up in chapter 3 of the book) and appear on a panel prior to the film's screening at the Renaissance Theater in Mansfield. He was so impressed with the Shawshank Trail that he suggested we write a book on Shawshank. Dr. Robby's contributions are noted for Chapter 4, where some of the data from the 2013 survey was used. The book came out in 2016. The book is available in hardcover, eBook format and print-on-demand paperback. The regular paperback will come out in December 2017.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of writing The Shawshank Experience? The most rewarding?
A: I wrote most of chapter 2, which is a history of the Ohio State Reformatory, and finding out definite information on that place is so much more challenging than you might think! I interviewed a number of people who are connected with the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society and even visited some state archives for information. There is still a lot of mystery surrounding that building and to a large extent, it depends who you talk to what sort of history you get!
The most rewarding part has absolutely been all the people I met working on the project, most of whom were interviewed for the book. A group of us from Ohio were invited to attend the 20th Anniversary Celebration at the Oscars theater in LA in 2014. We were 20 feet from Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, and Frank Darabont. A number of other cast and
crew were in attendance and it was pretty amazing. Also getting to work with the students on this project has been great-- the 2013 HN 390 class and the 2014 Marketing Research class that did another survey-- getting students out doing applied research is so fantastic.
Q: Who are the audiences for The Shawshank Experience? Who might be interested in this book?
A: The audiences for the book include of course fans of the novella and the film, but also students of film history, fan studies, tourism studies, Gothic literature, prison history, and Stephen King. We focus quite a lot on the shift in prison philosophy in the 20th century, so people interested in the issue of mass incarceration may find something in it for them. Ava DuVernay's Oscar-nominated documentary The 13th was not out while we were writing the book, but it's very relevant to understanding some of the changes that have occurred in our country's attitude toward the purpose of Corrections.
Q: What else would you like to share with the readers of this blog?
A: I want to urge everyone to get out to visit all the sites on The Shawshank Trail! Two sites are in Ashland and many more are in nearby Mansfield. The Ohio State Reformatory is a must-see. Check out the Trail's interactive website here: http://www.shawshanktrail.com/
I especially encourage everyone to make the slightly longer trek out to Upper Sandusky to see the Wyandot County Courthouse (Andy's Trial) and The Shawshank Woodshop. The woodshop is featured in several key scenes and the owners, Bill and April Mullen, will give you a personal tour of the location and their extensive collection of posters, photographs, costumes, and props from the film. You can see the prison bus that brings Andy to Shawshank and the ambulance that takes Boggs away from it, along with many other goodies.
This film continues to find new fans through repeated showings on cable television and it is really an excellent piece of writing, directing, and film craft. The screenplay is widely regarded as excellent, it's a fascinating case of an adaptation success, it has the best (in my view) Director of Photography (aka cinematographer) in the business, Roger Deakins, to light the film. The score is haunting and beautiful. The film was nominated for 7 Oscars and took home zero but is arguably more durable as a cultural object than Forrest Gump, which won most of the awards that year. The 1990s were a fantastic period for American films and this film is a prime example of what was going right in Hollywood at the time.