Like countless millions of other people, I was glued to the ongoing news coverage of the escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York in the summer of 2015. It was a true-crime saga writ large across the national stage — two convicted murderers who freed themselves from the confines of a maximum-security state prison.
As the intense manhunt went on and on, I wondered how these two men could elude law enforcement for so long. Being unfamiliar with the area’s terrain, a far cry from the concrete jungle that is New York City, it was obvious from television coverage that it was heavily wooded and sparsely populated.
And when the news broke that the inmates had inside help in making their escape from the prison, I wondered what this small town was like — a place near the Canadian border where the prison provided the livelihood of many of the inhabitants.
But who could’ve predicted then that Ben Stiller, best known for his blockbuster comedy chops in films ranging from “There’s Something About Mary” and “Zoolander” to the “Meet the Parents” series, would be one of those digging deeply into what made the town of Dannemora, N.Y., tick.
Stiller is the director (and one of the EPs) of Showtime’s upcoming series “Escape at Dannemora,” which stars Benicio del Toro and Paul Dano as convicted killers Richard Matt and David Sweat and a nearly unrecognizable Patricia Arquette as Tilly Mitchell, an employee who runs the tailoring shop at the prison, where she first encounters the two.
You’ll be talking about the furtive sex scenes in the equipment room and I’ll be focusing on how Arquette’s brilliant portrayal reminds me of Charlize Theron’s transformation in 2003’s “Monster,” for which she won an Academy Award.
Arquette is destined for comparable acclaim on the television side.
She’s depicted as going to work — grudgingly — every day with her dutiful husband, played by another favorite actor of mine, Eric Lange, who has had showy roles in dramas including “Narcos,” “The Bridge” and “Waco,” but nothing like this. The cuckolded husband, who also works at the prison, has no idea what dangerous deviousness his wife is up to, much less how he almost didn’t survive to witness its results.
Keep in mind it’s a true story but some of its elements have been heightened to Hollywood standards by none other than writer Michael Tolkin (screenwriter of the acclaimed 1992 Hollywood expose “The Player,” based on his novel) and Brett Johnson.
Stiller was out of the country during the original incident and not familiar with the details of the brazen escape, but loved the script from Johnson and Tolkin.
During the TCA summer press tour, Stiller talked about the process of making the miniseries.
“At first the people in the town were very trepidatious. They assumed it would be something comedic,” Stiller said. “They ended up being very open as we tried to tell the story in a real way. We wanted to portray the reality of prison life, the ecosystem of it, and to portray the relationships that were key within the genre of a prison escape story.”
One of those relationships revolves around a prison guard played by David Morse, who is shown to have a very friendly relationship with Matt, and looks the other way at his many violations of prison protocol.
Tolkin pointed out the uniqueness of the story, with a woman playing a key role in the prison break.
“It felt kind of desolate, and there was a sadness, even a ripple effect, affecting people working in the prison, coupled with the intense cold of that area. She was bored, and she wanted to feel alive,” Arquette said about her character, before she further explained her take on Tilly. “To explore sexuality as a middle-aged woman who doesn’t have the type of body that Hollywood values and to explore the need for love and wanting to feel it with men is something she triangulates and shows she’s different with each man. To have an opportunity to look at these things was scary. She takes care of her needs before anyone else’s. It was interesting to live with that.”
Dano took in the smells and sounds of the prison in his research for the role. “The story was so sensational and the script was really fun to read. It’s super heavy, it’s bleak and they are broken people. In prison, there’s an adrenaline drip every day. You need to find somebody. These two guys needed to find each other,” he said.
“They’re childish and emotionally limited,” del Toro said about the two inmates. “There’s something that makes you laugh but it’s not really funny. Paul and I tried to bring that to life. Once Richard Matt commits his first crime and goes to jail, he stepped into the dark side — and will never return.”
(“Escape at Dannemora” premieres Sunday, Nov. 18, on Showtime at 10 p.m. ET/PT)