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‘Escape at Dannemora’: Why Ben Stiller Decided to Make the Prison Drama Series

Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette spent enough time at prisons while filming Showtime’s upcoming limited series “Escape at Dannemora” to know at least two things.

The first seems obvious enough: prison is terrifying. The second was that these institutions are in dire need of some restructuring.

“It’s a really broken system, and everyone knows it,” Stiller told Variety at the premiere of “Escape at Dannemora” at Lincoln Center in New York City. “There are so many factors. It’s a very complicated problem.”

Stiller directed and executive produced “Escape at Dannemora,” the stranger than fiction account of Richard Matt and David Sweat’s escape from New York’s largest maximum-security prison, Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora. The real 2015 prison break spawned a massive — and massively expensive — manhunt for two convicted murderers who were able to get away with the help of a female prison employee they had become romantically entangled with. While shooting on location, Stiller was able to see first-hand the need for prison reform.

“Clinton represents a lot of what’s wrong with our prison system in terms of it being an anachronistic place that is antiquated,” he said. “The systems there are very old and places like that need to be modernized. Also the attitude toward incarceration needs to be humanized.”

Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano portray Matt and Sweat, respectively, while Arquette portrayed the female prison worker Tilly Mitchell. Prison guards took the cast around to show the ins and outs of the facilities that Arquette referred to as “constantly on a fast boil.

“I realized that [prison] is a real industry, and there are corporations making money off of this system,” Arquette said. “It’s a really terrifying place to be, both for prisoners and for guards. It’s a weird, symbiotic relationship where people have to make these alliances for survival sake.”

“Escape at Dannemora” may have opened Stiller’s eyes to the issues within prisons, but the hot-button topic isn’t what inspired him to board the show. In fact, he didn’t agree to take on the project until the New York State Office of the Inspector General released a 150-page report that provided him with some much needed detail about specifics of the escape. From there, he felt a limited series was the best way to develop the story.

“We were able to have the buildup to how this happens,” Stiller explained. “That’s what was interesting to me. How did these relationships form in prison that allowed these two inmates to manipulate this person and allow them to get out?”

For Del Toro, playing such a complex character came with its fair share of challenges.

“He’s full of contradictions, but one thing for sure is he was a convicted murderer,” he said. “We’re not trying to glorify them by any means. We’re trying to show them in a way that they could be among us. That’s always a challenge. The balance between the joker and the devil.”

It also helped, Arquette said, to have Stiller as a director.

“We’d have ideas, and he would fully support them,” she said. “He was really just aware of everything. He was really completely focused all the time on everything.”

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