Convicts make their ‘Escape’ in true drama
It was a prison break unusual enough to inspire a cable movie, and now, it’s the source of a series.
Executive-produced and directed by Ben Stiller and making its Showtime debut Sunday, Nov. 18, “Escape at Dannemora” recalls the mid-2015 upstate New York flight by convicted murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat (played by Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano). They had a surprising conspirator in their getaway: Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell (fellow Oscar recipient Patricia Arquette), a married prison employee involved with both men. Additional stars include Bonnie Hunt, Eric Lange and David Morse.
The eight-episode “Escape at Dannemora” was filmed largely at the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility and other locations where the actual events unfolded. “I think, at first, they were a little bit (wary),” Stiller allows of locals’ reaction, “how we were going to portray the story. Knowing that I was directing it, they probably assumed it was going to be comedic or attempt to be comedic, so it took a little bit of time to explain to them what we were doing.
“They were very open and very clear about how they felt about what happened,” adds Stiller. “The two times that the media has descended on this town was when the escape happened, then when we did this. It’s a very small place, so I think there was a fear of being exploited … which was something I could understand. Eventually, I think, there was a good relationship that developed with the people around there.”
The role of escape enabler Mitchell – played last year by Penelope Ann Miller in a Lifetime movie — gave Arquette an opportunity she embraced. “I was excited to explore a lot of themes,” the “Boyhood” Academy Award winner says. “I started off as an ingenue, as a young actress. That’s a certain kind of story, a certain limitation of a box that you can work within. And then I started to play mothers. To be able to do character work and explore human sexuality as a middle-aged woman, with not a kind of body that Hollywood is used to, I thought was a really interesting conversation to have.”
Del Toro also delved deeply into the psyche of inmate turned fugitive Matt. “It’s a sad story,” the actor who won his Oscar for “Traffic” reflects. “In order for him to survive, it was all about fear, cruelty, dealing in lies. But in the end, he was a human being. He had many feelings, just like anybody else. Just because he was (the way he was), he didn’t turn purple or some color. He had, at least, a talent to organize something. Even if it was a wrong thing.”