Escape at Dannemora: like Prison Break, except it’s the real deal
But unlike iconic action thriller Prison Break, you won’t need a bodysuit of tattoos. You won’t need to forge alliances with other unsavoury convicts. You won’t even need pants… because the two main men David Sweat and Richard Matt (Paul Dano and Benicio del Toro) used the power of seduction to break free, luring volunteer supervisor Joyce Mitchell aka Tillie (Patricia Arquette) down the veritable path of temptation.
“It’s just a page-turner,” says show executive producer Ben Stiller, having read the 150-page Inspector General’s investigation into the real-life escape.
“I was looking at it and it was like a novel. That was the jumping-off point. It was so juicy that it was practically a script treatment looking for a cast and team to make it.”
Cookies & cream
As the story goes, Tillie wasn’t just smuggling cookies and dirty private snaps of herself to David and Richard (on top of random quickie sex when no one was looking).
She was bringing in the very tools that they needed to escape – hacksaw blades, chisels, hammers, a steel punch… even concrete drill bits that the pair used to dig their way out of the Clinton Correctional Facility.
“I believe that I helped inmate Matt and inmate Sweat escape because I was caught up in the fantasy,” confessed the real-life Tillie when she was arrested in 2015.
She ran the prison’s sewing shop where convicted killers Richard and David worked, earning an honest living behind bars. “I enjoyed the attention, the feeling both of them gave me and the thought of a very different life,” added Tillie, hinting that she was going to flee the state of New York with her escaped lovers.
While Ben and his team claim that they stayed true to reports and accounts of what happened, Tillie insists that the executive producer “is an idiot. He doesn’t care about the truth. All he cares about is making millions off me. It was not nearly as vulgar as he made it out to be”.
Standing by his show, Ben says that Tillie isn’t nearly as innocent as she claims: “Sex for her was sort of a currency. It’s something that she used to manipulate people for her own ego. She’s the only woman that these inmates are around, and she would flirt with them, and she liked that.”
David and Richard used every resource available to them – including their talents that they’d honed as regular citizens on the outside.
Painter-by-trade Richard would take photos of his fellow inmates and paint reproductions for money or prison favours (cigarettes, most often). They even talked corrections officers into bending the rules for them.
Eugene Palmer (David Morse) can be seen giving them paints, pencils and other art supplies, as well as a TV and tools like screwdrivers, plus giving them a heads-up before cell searches so that they could hide their gear.
FYI ,the show cast a number of the real guards who were at the prison either as themselves in this series, or as other guards.
Bad boys, bad boys
Make no mistake though, unlike Prison Break, where the main characters were in the wrong place at the wrong time when they were arrested, David and Richard were really bad guys.
Richard’s prison record is as long as his arm, filled with kidnapping, murder and extortion, on top of cutting his former boss to pieces (which is why he’s in prison).
David was a drug dealer, a dead-beat dad and an armed robber. He’s in prison because he shot a sheriff and repeatedly drove over the man until he died after the cop stumbled upon David and his friends breaking into a fireworks store.
“David feels he was wrongly convicted, but I think it has to do with the fact that while he shot that officer multiple times, his friend also shot him a couple of times, and so in some way, he feels that he’s not solely responsible,” reveals Ben.
“By episode 6, I feel like we show who they are in terms of what they’d done, and then I wanted to just show them as two people who have a natural instinct to survive, and what that must’ve felt like for them as individuals.”