Espace At Dannemora is based on the true story of a prison break out in upstate New York in the summer of 2015, which led to a state-wide manhunt for two convicted murderers.
The mastermind behind the escape is convicted murderer Richard Matt, an artistic man but a menacing force within the prison played by Benicio del Toro. Patricia Arquette plays Tilly Mitchell, a wife and mother who supervises the prison tailor shop and becomes sexually involved with the two men and agrees to hide hacksaw blades in frozen hamburger meat to help them escape. Paul Dano plays David Sweat, a convicted cop-killer who may have genuine feelings for Tilly and becomes a reluctant partner in Richard Matt’s plot.
With his global box office standing at nearly $3bn — making him one of the highest-grossing stars of all time — Ben Stiller has come late to series television. But it was clear to him that it was the best medium for this particular story. “I think that right now television is the place where you can make the kind of movies that we’re not making anymore,” he said. “The movie business has changed so much in terms of what the major studios are putting out. This is the kind of thing that would have been made as a movie thirty or forty years ago, probably. I still think there is an audience out there for this kind of thing cinematically, but the reality is that television now is the place where you have the freedom to tell these kinds of stories, and work in a way that is not just about bringing in a huge audience to the theatres. Nowadays the movies have to make such a huge profit that it’s very hard to find a producer who would take on a story like this.” He added: “Projects like this to me are a throwback to the kinds of movie I grew up watching.”
Escape At Dannemora can be dark and menacing in places — it’s not a comedy and it’s fair to say, not the kind of storytelling that we would necessarily expect from Ben Stiller.
“Yes I think that’s fair! In my mind, I’m a person who loves movies and has been doing it for a while, and it’s the kind of story that I’ve wanted to tell, but I’ve never done it until now,” he said. “And I think, for me, the experience of directing it and not acting in it was really freeing in a lot of ways. Because when you just keep on doing what you do you don’t really think about the preconceptions that people have about you. But when we went up to Plattsburgh, NY, where we shot a lot of it and where a lot of the events took place, when I met people from the area, I could tell that they were thinking that we might be trying to do some kind of comedy and in some way find the humour in the situation. I get that. I obviously haven’t directed anything in this genre before so that’s understandable.”
Back in 2015 when the escape happened and the manhunt was all over the news in the US, Stiller was in Europe and so missed out on the panic and excitement. He was approached by writers Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin while the story was still hot, but not knowing much about it, he turned it down. “We’ve all seen a lot of prison escape movies and they are always fun to watch, but what I was more interested in was the detail of how it happened. At the time they didn’t have that information.” But when a full report came out a year to the day of the escape happening, Stiller and his team revisited the idea. “I felt a responsibility to tell the truth as much as possible but, you know, the truth isn’t always true and people have different versions of the same story. That’s why when we did finally decided to do it, it was really important to go up there and talk to people who experienced it.”
Produced by CBS-owned Showtime, Escape At Dannemora is written and executive produced by Brett Johnson (Mad Men) and Michael Tolkin (The Player); Stiller, Johnson and Tolkin are among the series executive producers.
“The ultra-premium programming from Showtime continues to push boundaries, delivering some of the best production auspices and most compelling stories on television today. Escape At Dannemora is no exception, and we look forward to premiering this highly anticipated limited series, with the amazing Ben Stiller, at MIPCOM this October,” Armando Nunez, CBS Studios International president and CEO, said.
Top photo: Photo: Christopher Saunders © SHOWTIME