Comedian Ben Stiller directs prison-break series

Escape At Dannemora's director Ben Stiller (second from left) at a press event in Beverly Hills, California, with the show's cast, (from left) actors Paul Dano, Patricia Arquette and Benicio Del Toro.
Escape At Dannemora's director Ben Stiller (second from left) at a press event in Beverly Hills, California, with the show's cast, (from left) actors Paul Dano, Patricia Arquette and Benicio Del Toro.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • In 2015, the escape of two murderers from a prison in upstate New York riveted the United States.

Now, Ben Stiller, better known for his comedies, has hunted down this story to make his own directorial breakthrough through a TV drama.

Last week, he chose Mipcom, the world's top television and entertainment showcase in Cannes in France, to show the first of eight episodes of the show called Escape At Dannemora.

A stellar cast that includes Benicio Del Toro, Patricia Arquette and Paul Dano fleshes out the fascinating tale of a woman - Tilly Mitchell - who helped the men escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility at Dannemora.

The incident sparked a three-week manhunt.

Interest in the dash to freedom heightened when it was reported that she was a supervisor in the jail.

She had sex with both men and also smuggled hacksaw blades to them.

Stiller, whose films have grossed nearly US$3 billion (S$4.13 billion), said it would have been impossible to "do all the nuances of (prison) reality in two hours" on the big screen.

"You wouldn't have been able to tell the stories of all the characters... Or have the chance to lay out their world and build the tension," he added after the screening.

"Television is now the place where you can make the kind of movies we are not making anymore," he noted.

Imagine, he argued, trying to get over the reality of Mitchell working with a lone guard in a room "full of 40 murderers and rapists, each with a pair of shears, working for 35 cents an hour" for an outside company that was making a fat profit off their efforts.

Stiller, 52, spent nearly two years working on Escape At Dannemora, visiting the surviving escapee David Sweat for five hours and shooting in the actual prison where the latter plotted the break with Richard Matt, a talented painter who wrapped other inmates and prison guards round his finger.

The prison setting freed up an instant atmosphere.

Trade publication Variety quoted Stiller as saying: "There's something about prisons that are timeless.

"You can't bring your phone in, people are forced to pass notes or give a nod or a look."

He pointed out that the script, based on an anti-corruption report written by New York inspector-general Catherine Leahy Scott, "read like a novel".

"It is hard not to identify with the protagonist in a prison escape, but we wanted to show who they were as people and why they were in jail," Stiller added. "It is the kind of story I have wanted to tell, but I've never done until now."

The first episode will get a release on Showtime in the US on Nov 18.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2018, with the headline 'Comedian Ben Stiller directs prison-break series'. Print Edition | Subscribe