Stiller escapes from comedy in prison break tale

By Bill Brioux

CANNES – Ben Stiller had to know this question was coming.

You’re known for such films as “Zoolander,” “Meet the Parents” and “Tropic Thunder,” suggests a reporter from Italy. Now you’re directing a dark, true life, prison drama. Are people going to go, “Hey, he’s a funnyman; he can’t do this?”

Stiller is sitting on a comfortable chair in a posh hotel on the Riviera, facing a jury of 9 or 10 international journalists. He has directed before, but never a TV drama, and certainly nothing as intense as the eight hour Showtime limited series Escape at Dannemora (premiering Sunday, Nov. 18 on CraveTV).

So people are curious. A famous comedian directing a prison drama? How will this be perceived worldwide?

Stiller gets it. “Look, even when you go out with something you think is funny,” he says, “there’s always curiosity because you never know how people are going to react to it.”

Besides, he says, “I want to be able to do the things that I want to do. I want to have the opportunity to not be typecast as just directing comedies or just acting in comedies.”

Stiller, who turns 53 later this month, has earned the right to stretch as an actor and as a director. His films so far have earned more than three billion dollars in box office returns.

The New York City native also has good role models to point to when it comes to diversifying his career: his parents. Jerry Stiller and the late Anne Meara were well established as a comedy team on Ed Sullivan’s long-running variety show before son Ben was even born. They also made their marks as single acts on Broadway and on television, in comedy and drama, with Jerry – now 91 – breaking out late in life as a go-to laugh getter on both “Seinfeld” and “The King of Queens”.

A health scare also no doubt played into Stiller’s decision to accept new challenges. In 2016, he revealed for the first time that, a few years earlier, he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Following surgery, he was declared cancer-free in 2014.

So when the opportunity to direct “Escape at Dannemora” was presented to him, he was open to it – especially because it was based on a true story.

Stiller was in Italy in the summer of 2015 shooting “Zoolander 2” when the headline-making prison escape occurred. Two convicted murderers, Richard Matt and David Sweat, became the first two prisoners to break out of the 170-year-old Clinton Correctional Facility in Upstate New York.  They did so with the help of a prison seamstress named Tilly Mitchell that they had each seduced. What followed was a three week manhunt and investigation that made headlines throughout North America.

Two writer/producers – Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin – approached Stiller and asked if he would direct a series based on the escape. Stiller was intrigued but felt unqualified and begged off at first, especially after learning the early draft was based on a great deal of conjecture. Then a detailed, 160-page official report on the escape was released that, in Stiller’s words, “read like a novel.”

“I called them up and said if you guys are still looking for a director on this, let’s get everything as real as possible.”

Stiller then spent months at the actual penitentiary, talking to both inmates and prison personnel. He knew that the people in this small town, who pretty much all worked at the prison, would be skeptical of a comedian helming this project. Was he going to make laughing stocks out of them all?

“Everybody wanted to basically say, ‘Hey, don’t screw this up, don’t portray us as these inept people who didn’t know what we were doing. There’s a bigger picture here.”He also wanted to avoid glorifying the criminals at the heart of the series.

“It’s hard when you’re doing a prison escape story to not identify with the protagonist because you just naturally want them to get out,” says Stiller, reminding reporters that even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were criminals. “When you watch the series it plays with your head a little bit. You have to realize that these people you are rooting to get out at a certain point are not people who should be out of jail.”

Benicio Del Toro, Patricia Arquette and Paul Dano were tasked with playing these true-life characters. Bonnie Hunt and David Morse are also featured. Stiller has directed himself in projects before, including “Tropic Thunder” and “The Cable Guy,” but had no interest in getting locked up in Dannemora. “I was very happy to not act in this” he says, revealing that he tried to get out of acting on “Tropic Thunder,” offering the part “to other actors.”

As for directors who have influenced his career, he singles out Steven Spielberg, who directed him in one of his very first films, 1987’s “Empire of the Sun”.

“Spielberg was always the guy I looked up to. The thing I got from him was how much he loved filmmaking; that joy as if he was a kid. He was as into it as ever.”

He also saw “Escape at Dannemora” as an opportunity to be involved in the type of project that reminded him of the great movies he saw growing up in the ‘70s.

“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 movies that I loved growing up,” he told reporters earlier this summer in Los Angeles. “It felt to me like it lent itself to that kind of storytelling.”

The project involved 118 days of shooting, most of it in and around the actual prison. “In the winter time it’s pretty oppressive. It’s really isolated, and very close to the Canadian border in the middle of the mountains. There’s nothing around. The prison is much bigger than the town itself.”

In October, Stiller got a big kick out of seeing the first episode projected up on the big screen in Cannes at the Palais des Festivals. He does believe, however that television – especially cable channels such as Showtime or on streaming services such as Netflix – is now the place “to tell interesting stories in the way movies used to.”

As for concerns about whether comedians should be allowed to direct dramas, well, Stiller will leave those worries to the critics. “For the general audience,” he believes, “they’re just going to want to turn it on and hope this thing is good.”