It’s been widely reported Ben Stiller wouldn’t sign on to direct “Escape at Dannemora” until the script was grounded in facts, but his responsibility to the story didn’t end there. Stiller has shown the seven-part Showtime limited series — recounting Richard Matt and David Sweat’s elaborate 2015 prison breakout — to a slew of the real people involved in the escape, including Matt’s daughter, the victims’ families, and New York state Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott.
“One of the first things [the Inspector General] said to us when they saw it was they were really glad that Episode 6 was there,” Stiller said in an interview with IndieWire. “They felt it really made it clear that these two criminals were in prison for a reason; that these were not victimless crimes — these guys were murderers — and they felt it was responsible [to show that].”
Up until the penultimate episode, each entry of “Escape at Dannemora” proceeded in sequence, starting when Matt (Benicio Del Toro) and Sweat (Paul Dano) began to plan their breakout and concluding in Episode 5 with their successful escape. But Episode 6 flashed back to depict the crimes each future inmate committed and why Tilly Mitchell (Patricia Arquette), the woman who helped them escape, may have gone as far as she did.
“I think we had to do something that addressed what they had done to get into prison — why they were in there,” Stiller said. “I think it would have been irresponsible not to, in terms of telling the story and understanding who these two guys were.”
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Stiller knew the audience would “naturally identify” with the series’ lead characters and felt Episode 6 provided a visceral — and vital — about-face.
“They’ve done something — intellectually, you know that, but until you kind of experience it, you can’t feel it,” he said.
Part of the reason for all those screenings was Stiller’s desire to balance the dark side of these people’s crimes with their inherent humanity. Skewing too far toward their mistakes could make them seem monstrous and leave the audience cold, while evoking too much sympathy might disparage the memories of their victims — and the victims’ families.
“The challenge is you’re making a show that’s entertainment, but also there were people who were affected by it,” Stiller said. “We did as much research as we could do, [but] reaching out is hard because these are real people.”
In David Sweat’s storyline, the audience watches patrol officer Kevin J. Tarsia as he goes about his “mundane” overnight shift. It’s only near the end of his night that he spots suspicious activity in a parking lot, pulls in to investigate, and is shot and run over by Sweat and his accomplices. Stiller said he wanted the sequence to feel “graphic and real,” but also evoke the peculiar nature of the crime.
“It’s a very strange thing that happened,” Stiller said. “It’s hard to understand why he did what he did. I brought it up when we talked to [the real] David Sweat, and he didn’t really want to talk about it. I think he has another version of what happened — not that he claims he didn’t do it, but it’s just a strange crime in terms of what they did to that police officer, why that happened, why he ran them over. It was just a gruesome thing.”
Matt’s backstory starts with him showing up at his former boss’ doorstep in the middle of the night, ransacking the house, and eventually kidnapping and killing William Rickerson. Stiller wanted the calculated, drawn-out, and unprovoked nature of Matt’s crime to clash with Sweat’s actions.
“I don’t think [Sweat] was a cold-blooded killer in the way Richard Matt seemed like he was,” Stiller said. “They both were capable of violence, but Sweat’s crime seemed like an impulse crime.”
Mitchell, meanwhile, was shown cheating on her then-husband Tobey (Charlie Hofheimer) with her future husband, Lyle (Eric Lange). When she was caught, she tricks Lyle into helping her gain custody of her children, in what Stiller described as an “emotionally graphic” form of violence.
“We did talk to the woman who saw her and Lyle having sex by the train tracks — just to verify [and] see how they even did that. How would she get away with doing something like that [at work]? We ended up hiding them in the bushes, but in reality, they were on the long slope leading up to the train track. From what we understand, she was intentionally trying to incite Tobey — we call him Kenny in the show — to show that he was violent so she could help get custody of the kids.”
Despite all the fact-checking, screenings, and subsequent approvals, Episode 6 is a risk. As Stiller notes, people’s tolerance of violence is subjective, and coming from him, any amount of it is a surprise. The series overall has been a departure from Stiller’s past directorial efforts, including “Zealander,” “Tropic Thunder,” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” but Episode 6 is the most graphic entry yet. And Stiller said he’s “nervous.”
“There was always a reaction when [viewers] got to Episode 6,” Stiller said. “But this is different because it’s played out over the last five weeks. It’s actually had time to marinate with people […] and that time makes it almost feel like there’s more at stake.”
Stiller said he’s “loving” the reception so far. He said it’s the first time he’s chosen to “really engage” with fans on social media, and the steady rise in ratings has been refreshing.
“In the movie world, it’s like all or nothing on the first weekend, and it’s very tough because people make great films — sometimes big releases, sometimes small releases — that really don’t get seen,” Stiller said. “It’s been nice that the audience has been growing every week, so people are watching it — and I know what it’s like to have a movie nobody watches [laughs]. It’s not fun.”