Ben Stiller has been working on Escape at Dannemora for so long, he’s begun to forget his own work. “I’m editing scenes that we shot literally a year ago,” the director (Tropic Thunder) marvels to EW on a break from tweaking the series’ finale in August. “It’s just such a bizarre thing, to remember on one shot, ‘Oh, we did three takes on that,’ and then on another, go, ‘I don’t even remember doing that!'” he says with a sigh. “I honestly have never experienced anything like it.”
It has been an unusually long shoot — nearly eight months, in fact. But Stiller — and executive producers/writers Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin (Ray Donovan) — had much to adapt from the real-life prison break on which the drama is based. In 2015, Richard Matt and David Sweat, incarcerated for murder at a maximum-security facility in upstate New York, dug their way out with the help of Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, a married prison employee who — in a twist the New York Post gleefully dubbed “Shaw-skank” — had sexual affairs with both. It ended three weeks later with Mitchell arrested, Matt dead, and Sweat recaptured after a manhunt that reportedly cost the state $1 million a day.
“It was crazy,” recalls Benicio Del Toro, who plays Matt. “It was like out of a movie.”
Or an eight-hour miniseries. The report investigating the breakout contained hundreds of pages of tantalizing details — gold for the writers. “As we were coming up with story threads, we would go diving into the material,” Tolkin says. “We just kept getting richer and richer, becoming experts in different aspects of the story.”
So did the stars. Del Toro, Paul Dano (who plays Sweat), and Patricia Arquette (who’s unrecognizable as Mitchell) spoke to Sweat, visited the facility, and even shot on location at times in the middle of winter, immersing themselves in the suffocating atmosphere firsthand. “People are starved for connection when you have a limited cast of players trapped in this place together,” Arquette observes. “I couldn’t wait to get out.” Adds Dano, “It was a hard shoot on all of us, because the intensity of the prison starts to take its toll.” He pauses. “I have not acted since, I’ll put it that way.”
But the cast and crew toiled for a clear purpose: Stiller’s vision to craft Dannemora like a ’70s thriller and evoke the “gritty realism,” as he puts it, of films like Dog Day Afternoon and The French Connection. The drama’s most interested in examining how the setting created these characters and catalyzed such a warped tale. “Whenever you’ve got guys who escape from prison, there’s a David-and-Goliath aspect to it,” Johnson says. “We made a great effort to make sure that nobody finishes the series feeling that these guys are folk heroes.”
Striking that balance, though, has meant more than a year of “being constantly afraid that I was going to f— it up,” Stiller admits. “It’s all Cary Fukunaga’s fault,” he quips. “He went and did it with True Detective and made this amazing show. When you go into it and you haven’t done it, you go, ‘Oh, I can try that!’ And the reality is…” He laughs. “It’s tough.” Hey, reality bites.
Escape at Dannemora debuts Sunday, Nov. 18, at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.