'Escape at Dannemora': Authentic portrayal of life behind bars assured Ben Stiller a hit prison drama
Stiller managed to keep the intrigue of the show alive by infusing basic details about what goes on in a prison daily as well as the ways and hacks prisoners use behind bars.
With just a few days to go for the seventh and final episode of Showtime's 'Escape at Dannemora,' it is no secret that this dark, riveting tale coming from Ben Stiller has been captivating, to say the least. And that is noteworthy because, without any brutal action or violence depicted until the latest sixth episode, the show has already changed the game for on-screen adaptations of true crime stories. Often, with prison dramas, there's a risk of straying away from the reality, or sensationalizing the violent aspects - which also leads to the plot somehow dissolving into the background; but not with Stiller's adaptation of the infamous real-life prison break of inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat, from Clinton Correctional Facility, New York, in 2015. Stiller managed to keep the intrigue of the show alive by infusing basic details about what seems to be day-to-day prison life - the prioners' hacks and their ways - et al, thus striking a balance and also putting up a unique side to the story.
Starring Benicio del Toro as Matt, and Paul Dano as Sweat, the show played along this unique strategy of detailing the meticulous planning process these two convicted murderers had indulged in. In that, it brought out the nitty gritty details of their dreams and passions, and pretty much painted such a highly esteemed portrait of their characters, that is was almost impossible to associate them with the heinous crimes they were in for.
There is also the brilliant portrayal of Joyce 'Tillie' Mitchell (Patricia Arquette) - the prison employee who had helped Matt and Sweat with the tools the two used to tunnel out of the prison, in exchange for the shady sexual gratification. And amidst all of that, there were some dark slice-of-life portrayals of life in prison, that Stiller himself believes has worked exceptionally well for the show. In an interview with The Washington Post, he revealed that it was these details about the whole escape plan and the setting it panned out in, that drew him to the story in the first place.
“The idea of this place, and how the prison-break aspect of it was connected with this personal relationship that seemed very hard to believe, and the idea that all of this could happen in this day and age — there’s something really, really intriguing about that,” Stiller shared with the outlet, adding that "from a visceral filmmaking level, it excited me." And true to his filmmaker's expertise, he took note of the surroundings and the inherent essence of the facility where it all went down - which comes out aplenty if one pays close attention to the side-by-side activities occurring on the show. “The physical environment and the culture there and the age of the place: I think there’s something about it that is a metaphor for our outdated prison systems,” Stiller mentioned.
It is this expert eye for detail that probably inspired Stiller to slide in certain remarkably spontaneous scenes in the show which - even though the timeline doesn't really call for - still helps in adding a unique taste of being present in person within the four walls of the prison. In simpler terms, it is with scenes like Sweat looking for a matchbox to create a smoke bomb to drive out cockroaches from his new cell, that Stiller helped his viewers to relate to what would have been an overexposed, yet too dark to relate prison-break story.
"For me, what was most interesting was . . . the reality of what happened in daily life,” Stiller said. “How do you make coffee in your cell? How do you smoke pot and get away with it? How do you get rid of cockroaches in your cell?” he said. “The answers to questions like that [were most interesting to me]. These things really show you why these guys wouldn’t want to be there. That day-to-day reality stuff was important.”
And Stiller caught on to that quite early, clearly, thus explaining the elaborate planning process playing out with full detail on the show's first five episodes, before viewers are even allowed a taste of violence that the sixth episode bombards them with. Self admittedly, he asked more questions about life in the prison from the prison officials during his visit to the real-life facility which Matt and Sweat had escaped from. As he divulges, these questions are not something one would regularly ask or bother to reveal the answers in the context of a prison drama, but this turned out to be the magical secret ingredient that sets 'Escape at Dannemora' apart from all other contemporary gritty, real crime stories airing on our screens.