In Showtime's upcoming ripped-from-the-headlines limited series, the 'Zoolander' director orchestrates one hell of a prison break, aided and abetted by Paul Dano, Patricia Arquette, and Benicio Del Toro

By Joe McGovern
October 10, 2017 at 09:00 AM EDT
Credit: Christopher Saunders/Showtime

On June 6, 2015, two convicted murderers named David Sweat and Richard Matt escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY. The men had used carpentry tools to tunnel out of the prison, triggering comparisons to The Shawshank Redemption. Or as one pun-ecstatic New York newspaper put it, “Shaw-skank,” owing to the fact that prison seamstress Joyce Mitchell was sexually involved with both men and an accomplice in their escape.

The ensuing three-week ­manhunt was one of the costliest and most intense in New York history — and riveting source material for a TV dramatization. In production now, Escape at Dannemora stars Benicio Del Toro as Matt, Paul Dano as Sweat, and Patricia Arquette as Mitchell. (The teleplay is co-written by Oscar-nominated scribe Michael Tolkin, who penned Robert Altman’s savage The Player, and Mad Men‘s Brett Johnson. The men brainstormed the idea for the series while Matt and Sweat were still on the loose.) Check out exclusive images of all three actors in the first look photos, below.

In an intriguing twist, the eight-hour Showtime limited series (set to debut in 2018) is directed by Ben Stiller, whose behind-the-camera credits include comedies Zoo­lander and Tropic Thunder. “This is ­definitely not a comedy, in terms of what people expect from me,” Stiller says. “It’s all about how the escape happened, and also how we reacted to it. News and entertainment have really become one thing lately, so a story like this is fodder for exploring a lot of ideas.”

Credit: Christopher Saunders/Showtime

Among those ideas Stiller refers to is the dispirited economy of upstate New York, where the director is using actual locations and has cast some of the real-life people, such as cops, to play themselves. “You see how challenging it is up there just to make a living,” Stiller says. “And this story takes place in the same time, literally the same week, as when Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president. A lot of these factors are what this story is about. It’s very current.”

Arquette explains, “[The series] is a way to look at what’s happening in America right now. There are four major prisons in that area where this all took place. Almost everyone you meet works at a prison or is married to someone who works at a prison. And when you see these small towns with all the shops closed down, and to hear about the factories that were once thriving and are now gone, you can feel the seeds of unhappiness and concern and hopelessness in America.”

Credit: Christopher Saunders/Showtime

For Arquette, Dannemora offers the actress her weightiest role since winning an Oscar for Boyhood — and not just because she’s gained a few pounds for the part. “Whenever I’m eating a cookie on the set, I’ll see Ben nodding and laughing,” jokes Arquette, who starred opposite Stiller in 1996’s Flirting With Disaster.

She was drawn to the complex duality of a character like Mitchell. “She might be a woman who doesn’t fit into ­society’s ideals of what beauty looks like,” she says. “But her sexual appetite was very healthy, and she was rather unapologetic about it. As an actress, I don’t get that type of opportunity very much. She’s a femme fatale in a strange way. That’s fascinating.”

The real-life Joyce Mitchell is currently on the other side of the prison bars, serving a seven-year sentence for her role in the escape. Arquette points out that she is not portraying Mitchell as a folk hero of any kind, however, “When we first meet her she’s in a very unhappy time in her life and I’m trying to understand that,” she says.

Credit: Christopher Saunders/Showtime

“She just got turned down for parole again a couple weeks ago. I really think they’re gonna keep her in prison for all the seven years. They’re so mad at her up there, because she really changed the whole system. Guards used to cook lunch together and now they’re mad that their lunch is getting X-rayed every day. These are incredibly proud people and this event brought shame to them.”

Stiller praises Arquette’s dedication to creating a flawed, human character. “What I love about Patricia is that there’s no veneer of artifice in her or her performances,” he says. “Joyce Mitchell is a hard person to figure out. I don’t think I fully understand her or ever will. But you put this in Patricia’s hands and no matter what she’s going to give the character a sense of humanity.”

And that is what Stiller, who will be shooting Escape at Dannemora until next March, hopes comes through the most. “There are some black comic qualities that emerge in the writing,” he says, “But the tone of this sort of story defines itself. It’s the interactions between people and the context of the place that are so interesting.”