Ben Stiller began his directorial career in 1994 with the Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke rom-com “Reality Bites,” but it wasn’t until last year’s “Escape at Dannemora” that the multi-talented star finally helmed a project in which he didn’t also star.
During his keynote conversation at Variety‘s TV Summit, Stiller talked about how his interest in making “Escape at Dannemora” kept increasing as he heard more and more about the real-life prison escape, and how not acting in the series proved to be a blessing.
“I loved not acting. Every movie I’ve directed I’ve acted in,” Stiller said. “I had so much more of an appreciation from being able to work with the actors, I found that really enjoyable.”
Dano and del Toro star as two convicted murderers who famously escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Dano’s character, David Sweat, was shot by a state trooper only half a mile from escaping over the border into Canada.
Stiller, who has been making the rounds to help bolster the series’ Emmy chances, talked about his desire to keep the drama as authentic as possible, including having several prison guards play themselves. He also revealed that the New York state trooper who pulled the trigger on Sweat, Jay Cook, was in fact in charge of traffic control on the shoot.
“He’s a very humble guy. You would never know it and he never did an interview or anything,” Stiller said. “I asked him to take me out to where it happened and he walked me through it, which was very helpful. I asked him also to play himself, but he didn’t want to.”
Stiller and co. managed to shoot the series in the actual facility, thanks to a little help from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. When Cuomo heard they were making the series, he told Stiller in a meeting, “you’ve got to shoot in the prison.” However, Stiller said the locals and prison employees weren’t all that happy when he and his crew arrived.
“The people who worked in the prison weren’t that thrilled at first. They were concerned about what we were going to be putting out there, how we were going to be portraying the story,” he said. “If they knew who I was it was as a comedy person, so they were probably thinking, ‘what’s Ben going to do with this?’ “
Stiller added that he feels he and the series had won the locals’ trust by bringing authenticity and respect to their story.
Later in the conversation, the actor and director reminisced about his eponymous comedy show, which was famously canceled after only one season on Fox, as well as his work on “Reality Bites.” When asked about a potential sequel or reunion to the 1994 comedy, Stiller said he is “maxed out on sequels.”
In terms of what’s next for Stiller, he is continuing to develop projects through his Red Hour production banner, as well as helping his daughter go through the college entry process.
“My daughter has just finished her junior year in high school, so we’re in the middle of the whole college…legal college process,” Stiller joked to laughter from the room. “Any parent knows that’s an intense time.”