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Ben Stiller on Monday night premiered his Showtime limited series Escape at Dannemora in Cannes.
But that was before the Zoolander star revealed he initially didn’t want to direct the jailbreak drama based on a real-life 2015 prison escape by murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat, who were on the lam in upstate New York after becoming romantically involved with prison guard Joyce Mitchell.
The eight-parter, which stars Benicio del Toro, Patricia Arquette and Paul Dano, was written by Brett Johnson (Mad Men) and Michael Tolkin (The Player). Stiller told a Palais des Festivals audience during a Q&A after the world premiere screening of the first episode that he was immediately intrigued by the script, which follows the two escapees as they evaded capture for three weeks while on the lam, despite a massive manhunt by law enforcement officers across multiple states.
“I get sent this script that [Johnson and Tolkin] wrote about two months after the escape happened. And I asked them how much was true,” Stiller recalled.
Very little, as it happened, as the screenwriters said they made up what they didn’t know about the jailbreak.
“I had to figure out if I could make that version, and I felt I couldn’t because I didn’t have a take on it. I didn’t want to just make up a prison escape story,” Stiller insisted. So he passed on the project.
That is, until a few months later, when New York’s inspector general released an official report that filled in a lot of the blanks for Stiller and the screenwriters.
“So we reconnected and I said, ‘If you don’t have a director still, maybe we should start from scratch and use the report as our source material and just try to do everything from as much of the real story,'” he recommended.
And a year later, after exhaustive research to complete the script and casting, Stiller directed all eight episodes of Escape at Dannemora, including exterior scenes at the actual Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora where a bizarre love triangle led to the jailbreak and civilian employee Mitchell currently serving prison time for her role.
Stiller said the script for Escape at Dannemora allowed him to go beyond the sensational headlines and behind the real-life story to the human relationships and inner life of the prison that led up to the event.
“It wasn’t just a genre piece. It wasn’t just an escape story. It was about human relationships and it was a drama. I thought it could be a little funny also, but it ended up being a little more serious,” he recalled.
The tone and feel of Stiller’s directorial style was borrowed from classic 1970s movies like Dog Day Afternoon and The Taking of Pelham 123. “They were dramas that had real characters that were complicated, and were character-driven pieces that weren’t heavy on plot, but I found them fascinating, and that was always the movie I wanted to make,” he said.
Set to air this fall on Showtime, the CBS Studios International series was executive produced by Bryan Zuriff (Ray Donovan) and Michael De Luca (Captain Phillips) under his banner, with Nicky Weinstock exec producing under Stiller’s Red Hour banner.
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