CANNES — Showtime’s limited series “Escape at Dannemora” marks a departure for Ben Stiller as a director, by design as he tackled eight hours of the stranger-than-fiction story of the 2015 prison break in upstate New York that led to a three-week manhunt.
During a Q&A after Monday’s world premiere screening of “Dannemora” at Mipcom, Stiller said he sought to evoke the gritty tension of some of his favorite 1970s crime dramas a la “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” and “Straight Time.” The drama starring Benicio Del Toro, Patricia Arquette and Paul Dano, revolves around two inmates who hacked their way of a prison in Dannemora, N.Y., with help from a female prison official who had a sexual relationship with both men.
“I was taken by the combination of elements in it,” Stiller said of the series that bows Nov. 18. “It wasn’t just a genre piece. It was about human relationships. For me, its something I’ve always wanted to do. It harked back to the tone of the movies I grew up watching from the ’70s.”
In fact, Stiller passed the first time around on the directing offer for “Dannemora” when the scripts came in from “Ray Donovan” team of Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin and producer Bryan Zuriff. But a year after the breakout, when the New York state report came in on all that went wrong at the Clinton Correctional Facility, Stiller and the trio reconvened and realized that the report read like a movie script.
Arquette was the first to commit to “Dannemora.” Stiller knew she would commit to the complicated, highly unsympathetic character of Tilly Mitchell, who manipulated inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat as much as they used her to smuggle in hacksaws and other items for their great escape.
“She’s such an amazing actor,” Stiller said of Arquette. “She has no sense of ever wanting the audience to like her character. She goes all in and portrays a human being that she trusts the audience will connect with on some level.”
Del Toro took a little persuading for his first TV series role. Part of the lure was the chance to work with Arquette, and another draw was the fact that Matt was a devoted painter, as is Del Toro, Stiller said. The nuances of Matt and Sweat’s characters, and the subculture of the prison and its influence within the small town made for rich material all around.
In the end, after months of shooting, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (played in “Dannemora” by “Sopranos” alum Michael Imperioli) granted the production access to shoot on the prison grounds, Stiller said.
The prison setting itself is highly evocative and creates an instant atmosphere, Stiller said. “There’s something about prisons that are timeless,” he said, noting the lack of modern-day communications tools behind bars. “You can’t bring your phone in, people are forced to pass notes, or give a nod or a look.”