Ben Stiller’s Escape at Dannemora, a docudrama of the infamous 2015 prison break, airs Sunday November 18 on Showtime. It has gained media attention not only with Stiller’s directorship but also with its taboo content. Based on a true story, the show depicts a love triangle amidst an elaborate escape plan.
Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano), both serving life sentences, seduce Tilly Mitchell (Patricia Arquette) into assisting in their escape. According to Stiller, director of the series, “While the genre is a prison escape story, at its core it is a story about real people, some criminals and some not, who make some bad choices that have huge consequences. I think that’s what’s so compelling about this.”
Most impressively, the show was filmed at the Clinton Correctional Facility, the actual prison in New York where the real story had taken place three years prior. In an audio interview with Variety, Stiller describes how the inmates must have felt surrounded by the mountainous landscape: “As an inmate, it must feel conflicting to be stuck in there and see all that beauty.”
The actors also felt a bit stir-crazy, reciprocating the sentiments of their characters. “As somebody who’s not been in prison before…it was very intense,” Dano told Variety. “I couldn’t wait to get out,” added Arquette.
Arquette’s character has gained much notice in the series. Stiller didn’t allow for any Hollywoodization of the story, keeping with the raw and gritty details of the actual characters. In order to accurately represent Tilly, Arquette gained weight and changed her demeanor. Not only did she go through a physical transformation, with disheveled hair and mismatched teeth, she also changed her gait and speech to befit her character. Despite her complete unattractiveness, her acting holds a magnetism that captivates viewers.
Director Stiller’s hyper focus on minutiae of details paid off, creating complex characters with a show-don’t-tell subtlety seen mostly in film. Morality comes into question as, in spite of their grim past, viewers can’t help but root for these characters. “They’re broken souls from the beginning,” Del Toro sympathized. Seeing actual inmates and hearing their stories impacted the actors and more than likely played a role in the realism and conflicted nature of the series.