‘Escape at Dannemora’: Inside Ben Stiller’s Obsessive Quest for Authenticity

Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast, Ep. 89: For the director and his production team, the characters and the real prison environment were inseparable.
Escape at Dannemora Benicio del Toro
Benicio del Toro in "Escape at Dannemora"
Chris Saunders / Showtime

When “Escape at Dannemora” writers and creators Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin first approached Ben Stiller about making a limited series about the 2015 headline-grabbing prison escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York, the director was unable to commit to the project.

“I ultimately said no because I didn’t have enough of a grasp on it from knowing what really happened,” said Stiller, when he was a guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. That changed when the state’s Inspector General report came out a few months later, which the director saw as the exact source material he felt the project needed. “That was our way into it and I called them up and said if they still wanted a director, why don’t we approach it this way?”

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For Stiller, authenticity was vital to this project, but not simply because he had a need to get the details exactly right. As a director, he was innately drawn the town of Dannemora and the setting of the prison.

“There was just something about this place that was so unique in terms of the geographical landscape,” said Stiller. “How this prison was set on the side of the mountain and had been there for over a hundred years and the history of it. This sheer [prison] wall that’s right up against the town, and the town is only a few houses, not even really a main street in the town. So this prison dominates this little town of the Adirondacks – mountains and woods, and nothing really around it for miles and miles. Just visually that was very striking. That all fell into telling the story because I thought the environment is a big part of the motivations of these characters and trying to establish a sense of place.”

Escape at Dannemora Ben Stiller director directing
Ben Stiller directs on the set of “Escape at Dannemora”Chris Saunders / Showtime

Stiller and “Escape at Dannemora” production designer Mark Ricker always knew they would have to build the prison interiors elsewhere – there would be no way to practically shoot for months inside a prison like Clinton Correctional. Yet, Stiller was still desperate for access to the actual prison. Its infamous and wholly unique North Yard was turning out to be  impossible for Ricker to recreate. Stiller was also insistent that he be able to shoot in the areas around the prison, but possibly even more important, Stiller needed to see the actual locations he had been researching for over a year.

“We were literally six weeks away from shooting and we didn’t have a location for the prison [North Yard] and thinking back I don’t even know how they kept letting us going,” said Stiller. “Up until the first day of shooting, this was one of those projects where I didn’t know if it would actually happen.”

In a last minute Hail Mary, Stiller reached out to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who helped the production gain access to the prison and neighboring areas. Five weeks before production was slated to begin, 15 members of the “Escape” team were granted two tours of the prison.

“It was completely overwhelming because we had just been staring at these photographs and analyzing every single detail,” said Ricker. “There were just details I incorporated into our sets I would never have gotten without seeing the real thing.”

Ricker and others weren’t allowed a camera or tape measure, just a pencil and notebook, which they used to try to capture the overwhelming amount of visual information. “It was sort of a mentally and physically exhausting speed run of going through and just trying to clock, literally memorize, what I was seeing and scribble,” said Ricker. “Just drawing shapes or signs, or I was even using my notebook as a measuring device marking how wide the bars are.”

For cinematographer Jessica Gagné, who had recently shot another project in a far more sterile, modern California prison, the tour opened up a world of visual possibilities.

Escape at Dannemora Paul Dano Benicio del Toro
Paul Dano and Benicio del Toro in “Escape at Dannemora”Chris Saunders / Showtime

“This prison is insanely cinematic,” said Gagné. “The way the light went through those windows, these giant windows with old glass and painted to keep the heat out, the way the sun would hit the ground and bounce around, there was a very magical quality to it. It had these old fluorescents and old fixtures, so all of this stuff as a cinematographer, you love these things.”

Added Stiller: “It’s really kind of surreal when you are in there… I think anybody who was going to do this project was going to say, ‘Let’s do this, let’s just try to recreate this.’”

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, OvercastStitcherSoundCloud, and Google Play MusicThe music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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