A jailhouse affair which led to the escape of two convicted murderers forms the basis for a new SoHo drama, Escape At Dannemora. Julie Eley reports.
A real-life prison escape by two convicted killers forms the basis of a new SoHo drama, Escape At Dannemora.
In the summer of 2015, two convicted killers became the first inmates to break out of the 170-year-old Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York.
Richard Matt and David Sweat made their escape with the help of a prison tailor shop supervisor who had affairs with both men.
Now their story forms the basis of SoHo’s new eight-week drama, Escape At Dannemora, starring Oscar-winning actors Benicio Del Toro (Traffic) and Patricia Arquette (Boyhood) along with War And Peace star Paul Dano.
The series was filmed over seven months with much of it shot at the real Clinton prison in the village of Dannemora. It was a location which leads Del Toro to say, “I didn’t do anything and I was in prison and I didn’t like it.”
He plays Richard Matt, a gifted artist who was serving 25 years to life for dismembering a man. It was Matt’s artistic ability, along with the presence of Patricia Arquette as his accomplice and lover Tilly Mitchell, that attracted the 51-year-old Puerto Rican actor to the role.
While on the face of it Matt is hardly a sympathetic character, getting inside his mind prompted Del Toro, who is himself a talented artist, to think about what might have been.
“The story of Richard Matt is a really sad story,” he says.
“He’s a guy who never meets his mom. He meets his father when he is in his late teens, when he goes to jail – that’s where he meets his father for the first time.
“He went from foster home to foster home to foster home. When you grow up like that you grow up with fear, cruelty in order to survive. You deal in lies to survive. This man was like a broken soul from the beginning and I don’t think he was born like that.”
Later he goes on to expand on Matt’s plight saying, “In the end, he’s a human being. He has many feelings just like anybody else.
“I personally think that there was a talent there. He had at least a talent to get to organise something (a prison break), even if it’s a wrong thing. So I feel that had he not had the upbringing that he had, I think he probably would have been successful at something legal or that could have been not where he ended up, you know.”
Matt’s upbringing echoes that of fellow prison escaper David Sweat, who first went to jail at the age of 16 after spending time in a series of foster homes.
When the drama opens he is in his early 30s and serving a life sentence for the 2002 murder of a New York Sheriff’s deputy.
It is his affair with Mitchell, a frumpy, 50-something prison supervisor married to a guard, that sows the seeds for their escape.
Explaining the sexual attraction between the two, he says, “To me, I mean, boy, this guy David Sweat has been in prison for 12 years. I think when somebody gives you a look of compassion or kindness or lust or love, I am, ‘ **** , that would be like water in the desert’.”
Filming in the real Clinton Correctional Facility proved an unsettling experience for Dano who also met the real Sweat.
“There’s certainly very, very little sense of rehabilitation,” he says.
“It is punishment and I found that incredibly difficult, to be there, to see those guys ... You know some of them had probably done some things that we’d be very uncomfortable speaking about, but to see human beings in cages, it was really hard.”
Work on a script for Escape At Dannemora began just five days into the three-week manhunt for Matt and Sweat.
Ben Stiller was approached to direct the series but turned it down. He changed his mind, though, following the release of a 170-page report from the Inspector General on the build-up to the escape and its aftermath.
“We went up to Dannemora,” says Stiller. “We met the district attorney up there. We started to meet people involved. We met David Sweat. We met a lot of people involved and were able to try to just infuse it with as much of the real stuff as possible all the way through the process.”
But not everyone was enthusiastic about the arrival of a film crew.
“It’s probably something they don’t necessarily want to relive,” says Dano.
“This town of Dannemora is built around this prison essentially. The local economy is the prison. The prison escape is not something they want to celebrate. I don’t think that was a good thing for them.”
“He went from foster home to foster home to foster home. When you grow up like that you grow up with fear, cruelty in order to survive. You deal in lies to survive.” – Benicio Del Toro on his character Richard Matt. Patricia Arquette (above) plays his accomplice Mitchell.
Left: Paul Dano. Above: Benicio Del Toro