Ben Stiller has done a dramatic detour from his usual comedy stints. He directed the new limited series for Showtime, Escape at Dannemora. It’s about the stranger-than-fiction prison break in upstate New York the summer of 2015.
Richard Matt (Benecio Del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano), both convicted murderers, are aided in their escape by Tilly Mitchell (Patricia Arquette, totally unrecognizable in the role). Tilly works in the prison and has affairs with both men.
Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette attended the TV Critics Association tour to talk about this real life drama that premieres on Showtime on November 18th, 2018.
Ben, this seems like an unusual project for you. It’s a drama, a limited series and it’s on television. Tell us a little bit about what made you decide to want to work on this?
I just was interested in the story. I was fascinated by it. I’d seen a little bit about it on the news, but actually wasn’t in the country when it was all happening, so I wasn’t that familiar with it.
The more that you delve into the story, the realities of the story are so interesting. For me, what I wanted to try to portray was the reality of what prison life is like. The reality of what it was like for the people who lived there and had to work at this prison. How something like this happens and what the human relationships are that contribute to an escape.
The escape itself is really interesting. The relationships that Richard Matt was able to form with people in the prison were the key to being able to escape. And so that backdrop and trying to tell that whole story in as real a way as possible, within the genre of the prison escape story, was interesting to me.
It does feel like there’s a ‘70s dimension of Escape from Alcatraz. Could you talk about the influences you had there?
Ben: What’s interesting about a prison is that you can’t have cell phones in a prison or cameras or anything. So all of a sudden, the communication is different, which harkens back to the era that I grew up in and the movies that I saw and loved growing up. So it felt to me like it lent itself to that kind of storytelling.
When you went there to film, what was the response you got from people who, I’m sure, remembered all too well how they felt while the actual situation was happening?
I think at first they were a little bit trepidacious of what we were doing there, to be honest. How we were going to portray the story. Probably knowing that I was directing it, they assumed it was going to be comedic or attempting to be comedic. So it took a little bit of time to explain to them what we were doing.
How did you think of Patricia for the role of Tilly?
Wouldn’t you think of her? She’s one of the best actresses we have.
So why not go to the best, right? It was a no brainer.
(We tried) to get inside the mind of these people and not glorify them in any way, but show them as real multilayered people who aren’t just one thing. A lot of the performance is the choices and the ideas that they (the actors) came with that are then integrated into the script and story. And that was very much a part of all their performances.
Patricia, Tilly talks in such an unusual way. Does the real person sound that unusual? And what is it like to create someone who just sounds damaged, every word she speaks?
Well, I’m damaged, every word I speak so that part wasn’t added. (she laughs)
We had a great dialect coach that we worked with, and there was video footage of her that we (used) as a starting point. Going up there, the local sound was very interesting. Some people really sounded like they were from Minnesota, but they’d lived there their whole lives. Some people had a very strong New York sound.
And then there was this other sound more like her. The dialect coach had pulled out specific sounds that became kind of rules. Oftentimes, you don’t get that kind of support that we got on this to work with someone and have them there on set all the time It’s a great luxury to have as an actor.
Can you tell us what you discovered about Tilly?
(She’s) able to be mean; (she) puts (herself) at the top of the list. She takes care of her damn needs before anybody or anything else. And I didn’t experience that growing up. I haven’t had a lot of models like that in women. I’m not saying we should do that.
Tilly is not the saint of all people. But it was interesting to live in that and see her mechanisms, her making other people subjugate; when she’s in a relationship with a man that is an alpha male, how that changes things for her. It was just a really interesting part.
What excited you most about playing Tilly?
I was excited to explore a lot of themes. I think that this part, this great writing and working with these great actors, gave me a (wonderful) opportunity.
I started off as an ingénue, as a young actress. That’s a certain limitation of a box that you can work within. And then I started to play mothers. To be able to do character work and to show a woman who enjoys sex, who doesn’t have the type of body that we think of in Hollywood (is great).
Your love scenes are very intense.
To explore needs and love and wanting to feel alive, and these different love affairs that she has with these different men, and sexually how different she is with each man, (was interesting). What does that give to her?
Who is it to be someone who triangulates relationships? All these different themes, as a woman, I’ve never had the opportunity to even really look at. It’s scary to go to that place, but also I found it fascinating when I was looking at research.
There are a million porn stars who are 20 years old, (with a) perfect body. And there’s this humongous audience for MILFs; grandmothers; big, beautiful women. People are actually looking for something else. What is it? And is it sexy and is it not sexy when someone is into their sexuality?
So that was also a big part of it, in a society that I think makes women often apologetic about their sexuality, to have an opportunity to look at these themes. It was scary and exciting, and a part of Tilly I really wanted to look at.
Benecio Del Toro Soundbyte
Benecio Del Toro was also at the press conference and someone asked him how he developed the psychology between himself and Paul Dano.
Behind-the-Scenes on Escape at Dannemora with Ben Stiller