Stiller’s Dan­nemora se­ries is se­ri­ous

Prison break story re­told as a gritty, in­tense drama

Albany Times Union - - TV / ENTERTAINMENT - By Michael Wil­son New York Times

So a screen­writer, a pho­tog­ra­pher, the district at­tor­ney of Clin­ton County and Ben Stiller drop by a small-town street cor­ner to­gether to see a man­hole.

It sounds like the setup ofa­joke—andthat­wasa prob­lem.

“I got that,”

Stiller said re­cently.


Stiller is go­ing to come up and make a com­edy about this and make fun of us.’”

His re­sponse to those as­sump­tions that met his ar­rival two years ago in Dan­nemora, Clin­ton County, ar­rives on Show­time on Nov. 18 in the form of a seven-part minis­eries called “Es­cape at Dan­nemora.” The se­ries is based on the real-life es­cape of two in­mates from the max­i­mum-se­cu­rity Clin­ton Cor­rec­tional Fa­cil­ity in 2015 — they emerged from that same man­hole — and the week­s­long sum­mer man­hunt through the thick woods of up­state New York near the Cana­dian bor­der.

The se­ries stars Beni­cio Del Toro and Paul Dano as the in­mates and Pa­tri­cia Ar­quette, al­most un­rec­og­niz­able af­ter gain­ing 40 pounds and a brash up­state ac­cent, as Joyce Mitchell, the prison em­ployee who helped them get out.

All seven episodes were di­rected by Stiller, best known for his work in front of and be­hind the cam­eras in his own come­dies, in­clud­ing the “Zoolan­der” films and “Tropic Thun­der.” The tawdry el­e­ments of the prison break story, in­clud­ing Mitchell’s ro­man­tic en­tan­gle­ments with both in­mates, would seem to lend them­selves to a dark com­edy.

Not to Stiller. On the con­trary, he has de­liv­ered a gritty, in­tense drama that calls to mind the dark thrillers of the 1970s, a sus­pense­ful ad­di­tion to the prison genre that wears its deep re­search and at­ten­tion to de­tail on its blackand-white-striped sleeve.

“I was cu­ri­ous how some­thing like this re­ally hap­pens,” Stiller said in an in­ter­view in his of­fice in Man­hat­tan. “That sort of led to learn­ing more about the prison dy­nam­ics and the whole ecosys­tem of the prison.”

Two screen­writ­ers, Brett John­son and Michael Tolkin, were work­ing to­gether on the se­ries “Ray Dono­van” when the in­mates were dis­cov­ered miss­ing on June 6, 2015. They found the sen­sa­tional de­tails riv­et­ing: the in­mates, David Sweat and Richard Matt, both con­victed mur­der­ers, painstak­ingly sawed through their cell walls and a thick, wide steam pipe be­neath the hulk­ing prison and emerged from the nearby man­hole. The hack­saws and other tools they used came from Mitchell, who ini­tially planned to kill her hus­band and flee to Mex­ico with the con­victs, but in­stead had a change of heart and a panic at­tack.

The writ­ers be­gan work­ing on a script even as the man­hunt dragged on that sum­mer. Then, on June 26, of­fi­cers found Matt out­side a trailer in the woods and shot him dead. Sweat was cap­tured two days later. Mitchell and a cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer, Gene Palmer, played by David Morse, were ar­rested and charged with aid­ing their es­cape.

The two writ­ers brought a draft of a screen­play to Stiller, who had been in Italy film­ing “Zoolan­der 2” dur­ing the man­hunt. “I asked them how much of it was real,” he said. Fifty per­cent, they an­swered. Stiller passed. “I don’t want to make some­thing up,” he said.

Then, a year later, the state In­spec­tor Gen­eral’s of­fice re­leased a 150-page re­port re­veal­ing the de­tails of the events lead­ing up to the es­cape and the lax over­sight be­hind the prison walls that al­lowed the in­mates to work on their plan for months un­no­ticed.

“It read like this novel,” Stiller said. The screen­writ­ers found ma­te­rial and ex­cerpts from in­ter­views with those in­volved that were bet­ter than any­thing they could have made up. For ex­am­ple, Palmer, the of­fi­cer, had re­called giv­ing in­mate Matt a pack­age of ground beef in his cell, not know­ing that Mitchell had hid­den a blade in­side. The gift it­self was for­bid­den, but hardly un­com­mon in the quid-pro-quo re­la­tion­ship be­tween jailer and jailed.

“I knew,” Palmer told in­ves­ti­ga­tors, “we were in a gray area with the meat.” That sen­tence be­came a sort of mantra be­hind the scenes of the show, Stiller said.

“The com­pla­cency that grew out of how old the place was,” Stiller said of the prison, which opened in the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury. “Gen­er­a­tionally, it’s just been the same rules for years and years. A lot of cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers’ par­ents, their fa­thers worked there, their grand­fa­thers.”

The di­rec­tor and writ­ers stud­ied tran­scripts from the in­ter­views with Sweat and oth­ers. Stiller con­tacted An­drew J. Wylie, the district at­tor­ney of Clin­ton County, and they set up the meet­ing at the man­hole. A pho­tog­ra­pher who was there of­fered to show Stiller the trailer in the woods were Matt was flushed out by of­fi­cers, and the patch of grass where he was shot and killed.

“That re­ally drew me in,” Stiller said, “It was so eerie, the trailer and that nook in the woods.” He filmed in the same trailer and recre­ated Matt’s fi­nal sec­onds in ex­actly the same spot of grass, even us­ing po­lice of­fi­cers who were present that day in 2015.

Stiller and the cast, af­ter re­ceiv­ing the bless­ing of Gov. An­drew M. Cuomo, vis­ited Clin­ton Cor­rec­tional and saw the cells and the cat­walk used in the es­cape, which seemed to im­press the staff. “They saw we were try­ing to tell the whole story,” Stiller said.


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