Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora director Ben Stiller was in Italy filming in 2015 when the rest of us were glued to TV news reports of the upstate New York prison break that spawned a massive manhunt for convicted killers Richard Matt and David Sweat.
Writer/EPs Brett Johnson (Mad Men) and Michael Tolkin (The Player) told TCA-ers they began working on the project five days into the wild break executed by these two prisoners who had formed some sort of relationship through painting, and who were assisted in their escape by prison tailor with whom both men were having sex. Tilly Mitchell is played by Patricia Arquette.
Stiller initially passed on the opportunity to direct, feeling there weren’t enough facts in the writing which the writers said they could not provide because so much was unknown.
Then authorities released a 170-page report detailing how the men pulled off the escape, and Johnson and Tolkin started over from scratch, infusing the project with as many details as possible, they said, and Stiller was in. He directed all eight episodes.
They also met with the inspector general who had released the report, and with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who helped them get access to shoot in and around the prison.
The locals understandably were trepidatious about the project and how they would be portrayed, knowing Stiller was directing and assuming it was going to be a comedy, Stiller said. They had a fear of being exploited, he described, adding it was “something I could understand.”
Once convinced otherwise, “they were very open and clear about what they felt happened,” he remembered.
What most impressed Arquette was the town’s sense of desolation, all this time after the incident. And the sadness, she said, describing the “ripple effect” of the prison on the town where a lot of other industry has moved out.
“And the cold,” Arquette added. In aggregate, she described a prison tailor who is “kind of bored and wants to feel alive.”
Arquette’s character has an usual speech pattern and accent which one TV critic described as sounding “damaged with every word she speaks. “That part wasn’t added,” Arquette joked and explained the project’s dialect coach pulled from the local accents, which the actress described as a mélange of Minnesota and New York and other. Those “different sounds” became “the rules” of the series, Arquette said.
Asked of the project’s “70’ vibe” was deliberate, Stiller explained that, in the prison, modern contraptions like smartphones are not allowed “so communication is different, which hearkens back to the era I grew up in and the movies I loved.” That lent itself to the kind of storytelling and tone and “sort of reality” Still said he wanted.
Del Toro described the two men as being “two children trying to get something done,” calling them “emotionally limited.”
Dano described to TCA how prisoners told him about the “adrenaline drip” of every day in the prison. “It’s a scary place to be and I think these two guys needed something from each other,” he said, speculating that the TV critics would get it “If we all were stuck in this room for 12 years.”
You guys have, haven’t you?” Stiller joked, winning the hearts and minds of the drained TCA-ers.
One critic asked Stiller about casting Arquette as if she was an out-of-box choice.
“Why wouldn’t you think of her? She is one of the best actresses we have,” Stiller shot back. “For me that was sort of a no-brainer” he added.
After the Q&A, Arquette speculated she continues to get offered interesting projects, despite the industry’s ageism, because her body of work has brought her into contact with “people like Ben who want to work with me.”
Arquette famously gave an impassioned on-camera plea for equal rights and equal pay for women when she accepted her best supporting actress Oscar for Boyhood. Asked if she had been paid accordingly on this Showtime project, she answered “I don’t know” explaining her needle-moving acceptance speech had been born more of her concern for women in states less “progressive” than California, where working single mothers nonetheless are raising their children in poverty.
Asked to comment on the current sexual harassment allegations against CBS Corp CEO Leslie Moonves – CBS Corp being parent of Showtime – Arquette said she is aware there is an investigation going on, adding “My hope is that all the facts are discovered and justice is served.”