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Realism key to ‘Escape at Dannemora’

November 18, 2018

LOS ANGELES – “Escape at Dannemora” is more than just a prison break film, say the miniseries’ producers.

“It’s about our country and what prison is all about,” says Ben Stiller, who also directed. Using an actual 2015 prison break as its backdrop, he and writer Brett Johnson wanted to go beyond the headlines and explain why someone would take the risk to escape.

“In most prison films or TV shows, everyone is getting shiv’d or sexually assaulted,” says Johnson. “It’s not really realistic.”

Instead, there’s a sense of order that includes perks – like a cell on an upper floor – and expectations. At the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, prisoners worked in a tailor shop and had the ability to pursue other interests – like art.

Two inmates decided it was worth the risk and plotted the first escape in 170 years, evading authorities for 23 days.

When it was in the news, Johnson says, he paid close attention. He and fellow writer Michael Tolkin started penning a script five days into the manhunt.

“We made a lot of stuff up originally because there wasn’t a whole lot of research in the beginning,” Johnson says.

Then, they got information about the three involved – two inmates and a supervisor in the tailor shop – and realized there was more to the story. Thanks to the inspector general’s report about the case, everything clicked.

“We both read it and we’re like, ‘This is the novel. This is the source material,’” Stiller says. “Why don’t we start from this and make everything as real as possible.”

Using the actual words of those involved, they began to craft a much broader story.

Six weeks before the start of filming, they didn’t have a place to film. Then, they visited New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and got permission to use the real prison.

There, Stiller says, they were able to speak to people who were actually around when the break happened. “That was a very, very important part of the process.”

Paul Dano and Benicio Del Toro were hired to play the two prisoners; Patricia Arquette was signed to play the supervisor who helped them.

All three found the setting extremely helpful.

“Prison is bleak,” Dano says. “And these are broken people.”

Del Toro understood how his character took Dano’s under wing and got buy-in.

“These two guys needed something from each other,” Dano says. “Maybe it began with painting,” but it escalated to much more.

Arquette worked with a dialect coach to make sure she sounded like her character and absorbed much of the atmosphere they were in.

“It felt kind of desolate,” she says. “A lot of industry had moved out and all these people were just working in the prisons. There wasn’t a lot to do.”

Affairs were common. The reason? “We as a species want to feel alive,” Arquette says.

According to the story, Arquette’s character was having sex with both prisoners. She provided assistance with their escape and, ultimately, paid for her crime.

“Every prison break movie that we watched was always two guys or three guys or five guys and it becomes the logistics of whether they’re going to make it out or not,” Johnson says. With the inclusion of Arquette’s character, “it became more universal. Here was a woman who was trapped in this town she grew up in and wanted to leave. All three of them (were) trying to get out.”

While others were aware of the situation, only two prison employees were charged with a crime.

“Once he commits his first crime and he goes to jail,” Del Toro says of his character, “it’s almost like that’s the mark of this man who just stepped into the dark side and he’ll never return. If there’s any solution to the problem, it’s catch it when it’s a kid. Very few people are born being bad. Society, life experience makes someone like Richard Matt.”

“Escape at Dannemora” premieres Sunday on Showtime.

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