anatomy of a scene

How Ben Stiller Made Escape at Dannemora’s Heart-Pounding Prison Break

Paul Dano in Escape at Dannemora.
Paul Dano in Escape at Dannemora. Photo: Christopher Saunders/SHOWTIME

To pull off the thrilling, nine-minute opening sequence in Escape at Dannemora’s latest episode, director Ben Stiller and his crew traveled to three different cities in two states, choreographed relay race-style cameraman handoffs, and asked actor Paul Dano to squeeze into an eight-inch pipe. (Yes, that was a real, claustrophobia-inducing pipe.)

The opening scene from Sunday's episode.

The Showtime limited series tells the true story of Richard Matt and David Sweat’s 2015 prison break from New York’s largest maximum-security prison, the Clinton Correctional Facility. Their elaborate plan, months in the making, involved power tools given to them by prison employee Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell (Patricia Arquette), with whom both had been sexually entangled: Matt (Benicio del Toro) and Sweat (Dano) cut holes in the back of their cells, went on to a catwalk which was about six stories high, and drilled through walls, pipes, and tunnels before making their escape, which sparked a three-week manhunt. Sunday’s episode opened with Sweat doing a test run of the escape route from beginning to end.

To make the series as realistic as possible — and to recreate Sweat’s test run for the escape — Stiller and creators Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin pored over an 150-page Inspector General’s report, read interview transcripts, and met with Sweat himself. In an interview with Vulture, Stiller revealed that the inspiration for the ambitious opening sequence came from a GoPro video shot by investigators. He also explained how the scene (which he affectionately called “Sweat’s Run”) wasn’t continuous at all: It was shot in different pieces and places over six months, then stitched together in post-production. “It was pretty, pretty wild,” Stiller said.

The opening of “Part 5” is heart-stopping and fascinating to watch, all nine minutes of it. What inspired it and how you did you plan it out?
It’s all based in the reality of what happened. In talking to David Sweat directly and looking through the IG reports, David did break through the night before. He got through the pipe and got to the manhole cover. And he actually went further down, all the way to the power plant, and decided that that was too dangerous a place to come out. He opened up the manhole, broke the chain on it, popped his head up, and was free. He could have gone. He could have left, which was fascinating to me. That question of why he didn’t go was something we thought about a lot.

One of the pieces of research that we found early on was a GoPro video that investigators made a few days after the breakout. They went through the hole in the cell and they retraced his steps with a GoPro on the forehead of one of the investigators. You can look at it online. It’s a 17-minute video of the path through the hole in the back of the cell all the way to the manhole. When I saw that, I was like, This is crazy. This is incredible. And so we thought, Wouldn’t it be great to start out the episode with a version of that GoPro video?

Where did you film it?
We did it in two different states and three different cities. [Laughs.] When he pops out of the manhole cover, he’s coming out of the real manhole cover that they came out of in front of the prison. That was up in Dannemora. But the scene starts in the cellblock, which was a set that we built at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens. We built a whole cellblock and the catwalks.

It’s actually 17 different pieces to make that shot. We were handing the camera off through trap doors in the side of the cell, so the camera could be carried in one shot through the hole and then coming down the catwalk and starting to go down the pipes of the catwalk. We shot the second part — him actually getting into the basement — in Pittsburgh at an actual prison, in the tunnels underneath this 150-year-old prison. And when he’s in that laundry room area when he gets to the first brick wall, that’s in Yonkers, New York, at a waste treatment facility underneath the Saw Mill Parkway. We had to find great tunnels.

You know that part of the shot where Sweat comes around a corner and he’s running down the tunnel and starts to go into a full run? To get that shot, it was kinda crazy. We were in the tunnels underneath the prison in Pittsburgh. And we had the camera handed off to a grip who was on the back of a motorized mini-bike that someone else was driving because they had to keep up with Paul while he was running. And then he had to jump off the mini-bike and hand off the camera to another grip as he turned around the corner to begin the next part of the shot. So each time we did it, it was figuring out how to stitch it together. Phosphene was our visual effects company and they did an amazing job with the stitches, which is where we connected each shot together. It was pretty involved.

It’s a great trick. The first time I watched it, I wondered if it was possible that it’s a single continuous shot because it feels that way. But that seemed impossible.
Our goal was to never go to total black or total darkness so that you could go, Oh, that’s where they cut it together.

It’s a super exciting sequence. But when Sweat squeezes into the pipe, it’s anxiety-inducing.
The pipe was challenging. We cut a channel over the pipe — the camera was on a pole, so the person holding the pole was outside of the pipe — that’s how they were able to get the camera actually into the pipe. Again, it was just a lot of people working together. We had a bottle of champagne on the set when we did the final piece. It was a big round of applause for Paul ‘cause Paul did so much of it. He had to get it right. Usually, we would have these shots scheduled, but we didn’t have all the time in the world, so every time we’d have one of those shots come up, we’d be like, We gotta do a Sweat’s Run. And it took a lot of rehearsal. The cameramen would be rehearsing for three or four days while we were shooting other stuff. So, by the time we got to it, they had figured it out. It was a real team effort.

Was Paul part of those rehearsals?
Yeah. We wanted to make sure that Paul was okay with getting in the pipe. And he did amazing work in the pipe. That scene in episode four where he has the claustrophobia attack, that’s him in a real pipe. It was an eight-inch pipe, so he was just in the pipe with the camera, which was probably even more claustrophobic. But he would go through it with the camera crew. He would rehearse with Jessica Lee Gagné, our cinematographer, who really was responsible for creating the approach to it. Or he’d go off with Matt Pebbler, our camera operator, and would work on the shot. It was really a coordination of everybody having to work together.

To me, stylistically, it also dictated the style of the whole episode. I thought it would be great to keep the feeling of continuous shots as much as possible for the first part of the episode. And, as the tension ramped up, then it would start to intercut so the tempo would rise. And then it ramps up to this tension moment. At the end of the episode, it comes back to them coming out of the manhole. Which is, again, a single shot.

What was your direction to Paul Dano for Sweat’s Run?
The challenge was the continuity because we shot it over an eight-month period. Like, making sure that his headband was in the same place. Or reminding him, “Just remember you’ve been doing this for the last eight minutes, so you’re a little out of breath.” I mean, it wasn’t much. Paul had a very specific approach to how he wanted to do it — he’s got such an interesting face, you watch what’s going on in his eyes. To me, the shot also works because you’re with him.

When his head pops out of the manhole, it’s actually beautiful. What was it like to include the actual manhole that Sweat and Matt escaped from?
It was so important that we were able to film in the real place. Up until about a month before shooting, we didn’t have access to the prison. We just didn’t have it. So when we were able to get the cooperation of the Department of Corrections, that was such a huge moment for us. At that point, we had been working for over a year on the project. I had first come to the manhole in June of 2016. For me, to come back with the crew and be able to film there was really exciting—to actually go down into the manhole and see the path that these guys had taken. It was a pretty fun night. People who lived in those houses right around the corner were watching us film. It was a really nice feeling with the community.

When you see Sweat pop up, it’s tough not to think, “Run!” Why didn’t he just leave that night?
That’s the question! It’s a question that gets asked in the last episode, so I won’t put it out there now, but I thought that was really interesting. When that gets addressed later, that comes from talking to [Sweat] about it. He really could have just gone.

And you had to film that whole journey again with both Dano and Benicio del Toro.
If you read the transcripts, Sweat talks in a very derogatory way about how Matt was overweight. He couldn’t slide through. He said his pants came off in the pipe because it was so tight for him. But I don’t know if that’s real or not — when I talked to him a couple of years later, he seemed to have very fond memories of Matt. So, we thought it would be too much to do that, and we didn’t know if it was true or not. But for Benicio and Paul to spend that time in there, that was challenging.

For that last shot of the episode when they finally come out, that’s the actual path that [Sweat and Matt] walked when they got out. That whole scene is based on what Sweat told us happened that night when they got out and Tilly wasn’t there. They walked around the block a few times looking for her and she didn’t show up. They were freaking out and Sweat was like, “Look, we’ve got six hours, nobody knows we’re gone. Let’s just walk and have a cigarette ‘til it gets light out and then just go up and hide in the mountains.”

Did you meet Tilly?
I made a choice not to meet her. I wanted to meet Lyle [her husband], but he didn’t want to meet. I read all of the transcripts of her interviews, and it felt to me that I could get what I needed to get out of watching her and reading. There was a part of me that was curious, but I was more curious about David Sweat because of the details of the escape.

He’s super smart.
He’s technically a very savvy person and he was very friendly to us and forthcoming about any details we would ask about. So, I was appreciative for that. But in terms of understanding what was the total truth from him, I don’t know. He claims that he’s a target in jail all of the time because he’s known as a cop killer. He claims that he was misrepresented in that crime, though the fact is that he was convicted of killing a police officer.

The next episode is one of my favorites. It’s such a reality check. It’s so easy to root for them to escape, and then you give us this powerful episode where we learn who they really are and you feel so guilty.
That was the goal. I felt like we had a responsibility that you had to understand who these people were. That was one of the problems in the prison — you could go on the honor block, where you get these special privileges based on good behavior. It wasn’t based on your crimes on the outside. You could be a rapist or a murderer, but if you had good behavior in the prison, you could have all these privileges. The prison itself is already an inhumane place, so I’m not advocating that they should not be treated better. The rules were lax and that allowed these guys who did have these records of doing really bad things to be able to do things that they shouldn’t have been able to do.

This is the first time you do serious drama and it happens to be in the true-crime genre. Do you think you’ll do more?
I loved working on this project. As a director and filmmaker, I always wanted to try different kinds of genres. I just had never done it. And to not act and to just direct, for me, felt good. It was really great to not have to do both because I felt like I could really work as a director more. It made me appreciate how hard the actors were working. And I’d love to do more of this kind of stuff. It’s great to have all this research about the real thing because whenever we went back to the real story, it was just that much more interesting. We really tried to focus on those details that felt human. So, yeah, I’d love to keep doing it. I feel like I learned a lot.

How Ben Stiller Filmed Escape at Dannemora’s Prison Break