The Ben Stiller directed mini-series Escape at Dannemora follows the true story of a 2015 prison break during which two inmates incarcerated for murder dug their way out of a maximum-security facility in upstate New York. Prison employee Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell (played in the series by Patricia Arquette) had sexual affairs with both prisoners (played by Paul Dano and Benicio del Toro) as part of a complex set of relationships that made this unlikely escape scheme possible. On Slate’s the Gist, host Mike Pesca sat down with Ben Stiller to discuss some of the elements that make Escape at Dannemora remarkable, including the show’s true story basis, the portrayal of bad sex, and the diversion from typical prison break narratives. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity:
Mike Pesca: So, I want to start off as all great interviews do with a question about a preposition. Why is it Escape “at” and not “from” Dannemora?
Ben Stiller: There was a lot of discussion that went into that.
Of course there is, yes.
People would probably call it Escape From Dannemora, and at one point we were just going to call it Dannemora, and we landed on “Escape at,” which was the original idea that Brett and Michael Tolkin had, the writers. We didn’t want to do “Escape from,” ‘cause that would’ve been Escape From Alcatraz, maybe. We felt like it just was a little bit different, and also Dannemora is the town where the prison is. It’s also how the prison is known colloquially.
It’s the Clinton Correctional Facility.
It’s Clinton Correctional, right. So we felt like there’s sort of a theme of escape happening. Everybody wants to get out of there. Joyce Mitchell, who Patricia Arquette plays, who works there wants to get out. I think the character that David Morse plays, Gene Palmer, he kind of wants to get out, too. So the idea was sort of: Everybody’s escaping at Dannemora. You know what? I have no actual logical answer for you as to why we did that. We just liked how it sounded.
Well, also I think when you say “at,” the prison becomes more of a character. And it’s really about a microcosm. The prison serves as a microcosm, and it’s an analysis of the system and everything the prison represents, and so you’re really doing a story about a place or a structure.
Definitely. The environment was a huge part of the story, and it was really important to be able to shoot up there and to be able to have that be authentic, because that contributed to the escape in a big way, ghe fact that this place has been there for so long. It’s kind of antiquated. It’s set in its ways, and when the Inspector General of New York State, who did this report that we based a lot of our story on, came out with this report she said that this culture of complacency that was there was due to the fact that people have been doing things the same way there for a long, long time. It’s been there for over 130 years, I think.
Another really interesting part of it was that every movie, every TV show about a prison escape centers on the prisoners and why they want to get out, and the guards are usually the antagonists. But in this case because of the facts of it where there was assistance from this guard, Tilly, you had to walk the line between how to treat her exactly. You could’ve gone the way that she was a victim. I think that would’ve been very, very compelling, or it would’ve been very attractive for a lot of moviemakers to make the point, you know, “She was as much of a victim as they were.” But you know what? The facts don’t show that, and she did wrong, and I came away thinking that I understood her motivations, but also I gave her a lot of the blame.
Yeah, she was definitely breaking the rules. I think she’s a complicated character. It’s hard to tell exactly if she’s good or bad.
I wasn’t thinking of it as good or bad.
She was manipulative. This is the information that I’m getting from the people that I talked to who were in that tailor shop with her, and that’s the only information I have, but what they’ve told me, and the feeling that I get, is that she enjoyed the power that she had in that room. And she wasn’t a corrections officer. She was a civilian supervisor in the tailor shop. She was responsible for manufacturing uniforms and shirts for other prisons, and it’s a corporation for profit, so she’s in there having to make a quota and have these 40 inmates who are all in there for violent crimes work for her. She’s in that room with one corrections officer, and that’s it, and it could be a very dangerous environment, and she took advantage of that dynamic, and I think she sort of fed off of it.
I think also this series shows more bad sex that is not rape and not violent and not comic than any other thing I’ve seen. It’s just really bad sex.
It’s what I’m expert at, bad sex.
I loved you in that ongoing HBO series.
I never judged the sex. I think, you know, the sex is going on in a … it’s Tailor 9, they call it. It was just the backroom of the tailor shop. I went to the real place. It’s a back room in this warehouse-like environment these guys are working in, and they had a short amount of time to get what they needed to get done, done. I mean, these people are fulfilling needs, human needs, that everyone has, and I think the fact that you’re in prison means that obstacles are there, but people are going to find a way, and so we tried to show that.
So was your source material is an Inspector General’s report and not a dramatized version thereof?
Basically Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin had written sort of a conjecture version of what had happened right after the escape happened, and it didn’t have all of the facts, and then the Inspector General’s report came out. That was when I came on board, after seeing that, because I thought, “Oh, if we actually went off of this, the reality, now that we have all of this information, this will be much more interesting.”
That is really interesting, because there are, of course, a lot of nonfiction works that draw upon sources, but I don’t think anyone’s ever made a movie just about the Starr Report or just a government report.
Yeah, it’s actually a very well-written report. I recommend it. I clicked on it in the New York Times the day it came out, which I think was about a year to the day after the escape happened, and it’s just a page-turner. It’s got great pictures in it, too. And looking at it, I was like, “This is almost like a novel. Let’s … Oh my God, that happened. They did that. She did that. She stuck the hacksaw blades in the hamburger meat, and how did that happen?” To us, that was the jumping-off point. The first phase of making it was get the facts, get the facts, and only the facts, and then it became, okay, how do we now dramatize this and make it something you actually want to watch and see the next episode?
So, we’ve touched on the character of Tilly, who was the civilian employee on the inside, played by Patricia Arquette. It strikes me that Patricia Arquette can play dumb people and smart people so well, and it’s kind of rare. Not only does she have range, but when she inhabits this character it’s totally believable, and you need that.
Yeah, I mean, she’s amazing, and she really is smart. She’s a very forthright person, and she’s an empowered woman, and she cares about issues that involve women and equality—for everyone, really—and she’s really, really smart. I don’t think she ever looked down at this character. I think she saw Tilly as woman who was being manipulated by these guys but also was a manipulative person but also a woman in a male society. I think it’s impossible not to look at that when you see this in terms of how sex for her was sort of a currency. It’s something that she used to get approval and to manipulate people for her own ego, I think. When she was in that tailor shop, she was sort of on display. She’s a 51-year-old grandmother, but she’s the only woman that these inmates are around, and she would flirt with them, and she liked that.
And the brilliance, I suppose—and you can tell me if this was an appeal, if not the appeal of doing this in the seven-part series—is that, yes, you can get into a lot more realistic detail of how the breakout happened, just in terms of literally sometimes nuts and bolts and sledgehammers, but you could get so much more into the character that she was and her role in this. Because if this is the hour and a half Escape from Alcatraz type movie, it could be a great movie. I’m sure that your main actors will blow us away with their menace and their guile and so forth, but I think her character is the one that becomes more of a caricature.
Yeah. I think that was what was interesting to me was how something like this really happens. Besides the nuts and bolts of it, how do these prisoners get to the point where they have access to people in the prison who are going to help them in a very sort of lo-fi, low-tech sort of way? Because when you walk into that prison, it could be 60 or 70 years ago. You can’t bring your phone in. The people are passing notes to each other. That’s how, you know … It’s all looks and little moments and trading things, and how does that happen today where people take advantage of somebody else to be able to get what they want and develop a relationship. And that involved them seducing her and her thinking she was taking advantage, using them, but really they were using her.
To show that develop over the course of time, because the actual breakout time was about six months, but they had had a relationship with her over the course of a couple of years before that. When we showed the Inspector General and her team the show, I was happy that they said they felt we really got that right: how someone is groomed to be used over the course of time. It starts with just these little interactions, and then they cross the line.
Gene Palmer, the guard that David Morse plays, was bringing the meat that Tilly had put the hacksaw blades into to Richard Matt in his cell. He was sort of the go-between, but he had no idea—at least he claims he had no idea—that there were actual hacksaw blades. He was breaking the law by bringing him the meat, but it was just a favor. They’d bring venison, or if the corrections officers go hunting, they had extra meat, they would give it sometimes to the prisoners. He just thought he was just doing that because he had his own relationship with Richard Matt, but he didn’t know that he was actually helping them escape. Those little infractions led, obviously, to the escape, and that was just the dynamic of how people interact in this ecosystem, which was interesting.
Do you think that viewers are going to instinctively root for prisoners to escape, and how did you incorporate that into what you were showing over seven episodes?
Yeah, I think for sure. The two movie stars who are …
Paul Dano and Benicio del Toro. It turns out they’re charismatic.
Yeah, exactly, and Richard Matt was very charismatic. If you see footage of him, he was handsome. He was tall. He was a manipulator, and he was charming to people in prison.
And he just seems so alpha. You’ve probably seen that blowgun video that was out.
It doesn’t seem compelling to me, but you could see in his milieu why someone would defer to him as this guy with tons of energy and ideas.
Yeah, and he was also a painter, and I think he kind of idolized Tony Soprano. He did paintings of him. David Sweat, who I got to chance to spend a little time with, said that he was a wannabe gangster sort of guy. Yeah, so both of these guys were in prison because they committed murder, and you’re seeing them as the guys who want to escape, and you can look at that place and go, “Okay, I understand why they’d want to get out.” You can’t help but root for them. We tried not to make them likable in that way, except the fact is you want to be able to watch these characters do this thing. I feel in the storytelling we found a way to address that, and it’s something that I don’t like to talk about too much ‘cause I want people to see the show and see how it plays out. But I felt like we did have a responsibility to let people understand why these guys were in jail, which was for committing both very violent crimes.
And you can’t get away from the fact that they really are guilty of the crimes that put them in jail. It wasn’t like a Shawshank situation, it wasn’t like a Green Mile and that’s fine. That’s fiction, but it’s kind of nice if you could root for the guy that’s there when he shouldn’t be.
Yeah. I mean, in Shawshank he’s the wrongly-accused guy, right?
This is not that, but they did liken themselves … They even said at one point, “This is like Shawshank,” when they were down there at the outer wall. He said, “What’d it take them, like 20 years? It’s only going to take us 10.”
What do you expect them to do? Turn to each other and say, “That’s a little on the nose, Sweat, come on.”
We actually had that in the script because they said that to each other. We said “Oh, that’s so funny and so interesting. Let’s put it in.” And then we filmed it, and when we filmed it we looked at it and said, “You know, this is just too on the nose. It feels too weird. It feels too meta,” and so we ended up changing it.
But I find, as far as on the nose goes, in real life so much stuff is on the nose. I mean, I remember one time I was in a situation where everyone in a crowd was shocked, and I had this conscious, “Oh, look to the left and right.” And the expressions that people were giving, the gape-mouthed expressions, were so cliché. We’d consider that bad acting. It happens all the time.
Yeah, it’s the human reaction to things. These guys are going to want to escape. That’s probably obvious. Yeah, that’s just the way these things happen. And they had some crazy ideas, actually, to escape before they actually hit on the way they actually escaped. At one point Richard Matt had this idea to—this is crazy—to make a hang glider out of empty lip balm containers, like to make a frame for a hang glider and get it on the roof of the tailor shop and jump over the wall.
I think that’s a Simpsons episode, actually.
You know [Matt] never went through with that. But to me that’s what was interesting about the story, the clichés of it as they related to the reality of it, because how does something like this actually really happen? Besides the fact that it’s kind of hard to believe that something like this could happen in this day and age, too.