It’s no secret that Ben Stiller can get his serious face on when he needs to. He is, after all, the guy who gave us Blue Steel. But over the years we’ve grown so used to him playing kooky (Meet the Parents), and zany (There’s Something About Mary), and downright ridiculous (Zoolander) roles that it feels weird to know that he’s not only bringing a serious show to television, but that his role on it is strictly behind-the-scenes.
Yet Stiller was integral in making the upcoming limited series, Escape At Dannemora (Nov 16 on Crave), happen.
So what is this show?
As an executive producer and director, Stiller was fascinated by the 2015 real-life story of convicted murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat, who broke out of Upstate New York’s Clinton Correctional Facility (Dannemora) with the help of a vulnerable prison employee named Tilly Mitchell. A three-week manhunt followed, in which Matt wound up dead and Sweat was captured and thrown back behind bars.
This eight-hour take is a dramatized version of those events, and does a bit of a character dive into the weird personalities involved—from the correctional officers to the prisoners.
“At first the [residents had trepidations] of what we are doing there, to be honest, and how we were going to portray the story,” Stiller says. “Knowing that I was directing it, they probably assumed it was going to be comedic or attempting to be comedic. And so it took a little bit of time to explain to them what we were doing.”
If Stiller only directs, who stars in this?
This strange and sexual story could only come to life through some truly exceptional talent, and exceptional talent is what Stiller attracted. We’re talking notables like Oscar-winners Patricia Arquette and Benicio Del Toro, who play Mitchell and Matt, respectively. She’s gripping with a unique accent and physical takes on scenes that could otherwise be run-of-the-mill, while he’s chilling as the murderous inmate.
“We had a great dialect coach that we worked with, and there was video footage of Mitchell that we used as a starting point for certain sounds they had,” Arquette explains of her accent. “The local sound was very interesting. Some people really sounded like they were from Minnesota, but they’d lived there their whole lives. Some people had a very strong New York sound. And then there was this other sound, more like her. So the dialect coach had pulled out specific sounds that became kind of rules.”
Paul Dano, who has been nominated for a Golden Globe and been in lots of hit films himself (Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood), does an impressive turn as Sweat, as well.
Okay, but will I like it?
Well, we repeat: this is not a comedy. It’s a dark, serious drama that will probably be a contender in the miniseries categories at the next Golden Globes and Emmys—especially since so many big names are attached. That said, if you like true crime stories (and really, who doesn’t?) that offer a larger picture of why certain events went down the way they did, then yeah, you’ll like it.
“The inspector general came out with this 170-page report about what happened,” Stiller says of the script’s inspiration. “We said, ‘Why don’t we start from this, scratch everything else and let’s go from this and make everything as real as possible.’ And that was the basis for the process from then on. Then we got into the transcripts. We met with the inspector general. We went up to Dannemora. We met the district attorney up there. 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.”
I’m sold. Is there anything else I should know?
Sure. Because we love authenticity in our inspired-by-real-life dramas, we give bonus points to Dannemora for actually shooting at the same prison where the escape happened. Not that the producers actually planned for it to work out that way…
“We were like six weeks away from shooting, and we didn’t have a location. We had a location for inside the prison, and we had sets, but we didn’t have the actual permission to shoot outside the prison or in the prison,” says Stiller. “We were able to get a meeting with the governor of New York, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo was kind enough to say, ‘Hey, you know what? Why don’t you shoot at the real prison.’ And then he talked to the superintendent, and then we got to know everybody there, which made it a whole other ballgame. It was the access and the input of the people who went through it who were able to give us their point of view of what happened. And I feel like that was a very, very important part of the whole process.”
Escape at Dannemora premieres Nov. 16 on CraveTV.