Welcome to “Remote Controlled,” a podcast from Variety featuring the best and brightest in television, both in front of and behind the camera.
In this week’s episode, Variety’s business editor Cynthia Littleton and executive editor of TV Debra Birnbaum talk with Ben Stiller, Benicio Del Toro, Paul Dano, and Patricia Arquette about their new Showtime series “Escape at Dannemora.”
The eight-episode series follows the true story of two inmates, David Sweat and Richard Matt, who escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, in 2015, spurring a three-and-a-half-week manhunt.
Director Stiller talks about getting direct permission from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to film in the actual location from which the inmates made their famous escape.
“You go to Clinton Correctional and you see the environment, you see how old the prison is, you see how long people have been working there,” Stiller says. “It’s really a place that was set in its ways, and that’s how the escape was able to happen.”
He recalls filming in the prison’s North Yard, from which inmates Matt and Sweat could actually see the smokestacks of the power plant on the other side of their escape tunnel. “As an inmate, it must feel conflicting to be stuck in there and see all that beauty,” he says. “It almost feels like you could just fly away.”
Arquette plays Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, the civilian worker who had a sexual relationship with both inmates Matt (Del Toro) and Sweat (Dano), and conspired to help them escape by smuggling tools from the prison tailor shop she ran.
“A middle-aged woman, her sexuality, following her desire, being unapologetically a sexual person — these aren’t things we really as actresses get to explore, and we don’t really talk about much in society,” Arquette says.
Exploring a “twisted four-way love story” was what drew Del Toro to the project as well. “I thought that was so unique,” he says.
For Dano, having Stiller’s consistent directorial voice carry throughout all eight episodes was a luxury. “Having one hand behind it is a really important element,” Dano says. “I feel that sense of authorship behind it, which is important to me as a viewer as well. I feel like I’m watching something unique.”
For the actors, the experience of filming in a real-life prison was at times enough to push them to the limits of their comfort zone.
“As somebody who’s not been in prison before…it was very intense,” says Dano.
Arquette agreed. “I couldn’t wait to get out,” she says. “I also felt like, obviously we need to deal with the prison situation. It’s got to be dealt with in a whole new way.”
Del Toro also couldn’t help but notice the systemic problems surrounding the criminal justice system.
“They’re broken souls from the beginning,” he says of the inmates they were able to meet as research, including Sweat himself. “They didn’t have a mother, a father, they didn’t have a home…no sense [that] actions have consequences. Fear and lies and cruelty is the way to survive. So the prison system is off, but the problem goes before the prison system, and that’s also something to address.”