Ben Stiller Unlocks An 'Old-Fashioned' Prison Break In 'Escape At Dannemora'

Jan 8, 2019
Originally published on January 9, 2019 12:47 pm

Ben Stiller loves a good escape story. So when he heard about Richard Matt and David Sweat, two convicted murderers who used tools provided by a prison employee to break out of a New York state maximum security prison in June 2015, he was intrigued.

"What really interested me was how they were able to do this, how they were able to get away with this," Stiller says. "It seemed like such an old-fashioned sort of escape, and I thought, 'Wow, how can that happen in today's prison system?' "

Stiller explores the nuts and bolts of the escape, which involved sledge hammering through brick walls and cutting into and shimmying through an 18-inch steam pipe, in his seven-part Showtime series Escape at Dannemora. The series also dives into the complicated relationship between Matt and Sweat (played by Benicio del Toro and Paul Dano) and Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell (Patricia Arquette), the civilian prison worker who enabled their escape.

In the series, Stiller shows Mitchell exchanging sexual favors with both Matt and Sweat prior to the escape. Mitchell and Sweat maintain that their relationship was not sexual, but research and interviews with David Sweat made Stiller feel that it was a relationship "beyond the bounds" of what they claimed. And Stiller chose to dramatize it: "I wouldn't have put that in there if I didn't feel that that was closer to the truth," he says.

Stiller says that shooting on location at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., from which Matt and Sweat had escaped, helped him tell the story.

"For me, going into that prison and spending a very little amount of time in that prison, the first thing I thought about was getting out," he says. "It doesn't shock me that anybody in there would want to get out — even if you knew that the odds were against you."


Interview Highlights

On filming at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora

The first trip that we took in there we got ushered into a permanent trailer ... and a bunch of people who were administrators at the prison gave us a talk and told us what we were going to be doing and the tour we're gonna be taking. And basically said, "This is a dangerous environment," and they were going to do everything they could to keep us safe and keep things as low-key as possible. But the reality is you're in a prison, and so you don't know what could happen. ...

About 12 of us from the crew, we all kind of jammed into [a] little office while they let the inmates go out for lunch ... and that was a really strange experience, because here we were all jammed at this little office and then the inmates were looking at us [and] we were looking at them. ... I'm sure they had their thoughts about, "What are these visitors up to?" And then you just see that the reality of life for these people, which is very regimented and obviously they're all there for a reason, but ... in terms of the human condition of it, it's pretty heavy.

On interviewing David Sweat, who was captured and returned to prison on June 28, 2015

I wanted to meet with him, mainly because I'd spent so much time on the research. I wrote a letter to him, and then the Department of Corrections, when they decided to start helping us, offered us access to go meet with him if he agreed to meet. So I just wanted to sit across from him and see what he had to say about the escape, especially. I mean the details of the escape are really the most interesting thing to me about talking to him and why I wanted to talk to him. ...

My experience with him was that he was very affable and he had a sense of not really wanting to boast about [the escape] in a way that seemed like he had accomplished something that was good. I think he really made it clear that he knew that he had done something wrong, and didn't want to seem that he was kind of proud of it. At the same time, he offered up all the details that I could ask for and was really specific.

On waiting until late in the series to reveal the gruesome murders that landed Sweat and Matt in prison

Director Ben Stiller says he was intrigued by Matt and Sweat's escape story: "What really interested me was how they were able to do this, how they were able to get away with this."
Wilson Webb / Showtime

I had to kind of go off my own subjective feeling about what was important to see about what [Sweat and Matt] did. It came down more as we were editing it, got less and less [graphic] in terms of what we saw. But it's very brutal, and I mean the intention behind it was hopefully, as an audience, you are jarred because ... you've developed this sort of impression of who these guys are based on who they've been for the last five hours of the series ... just guys in prison trying to get out, which is what your experience would be of them if you met him the way I met David Sweat, as a guy just sitting there across from me. But the reality is that they did these brutal crimes, so that's why I felt it was important to have it be shocking and brutal, as a viewer after sort of being lulled into the reality of who they were now.

Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You probably know my guest Ben Stiller for his work acting in and directing film comedies and, lately, for playing Michael Cohen on "Saturday Night Live." But now he's getting praise for directing the seven-part Showtime drama series "Escape At Dannemora." Yesterday, he was nominated for an award from the Directors Guild in the category TV movie or limited series.

"Escape From Dannemora" (ph) is based on the true story of two inmates who escaped from a maximum-security prison in upstate New York in 2015. The series is not just about planning and executing the escape. It's also a character study of those two inmates and the woman who worked at the prison who helped them escape. Both inmates, Richard Matt played by Benicio Del Toro and David Sweat played by Paul Dano, worked at the prison tailor shop where prison uniforms were made. They convinced the civilian employee who ran the shop, Joyce Tillie (ph) Mitchell, to get them the tools they used to dig through the basement walls and steam pipes of the old prison to escape. They were able to manipulate her through sexual relationships with her. They told her they wanted to be with her after they escaped. What they really wanted was for her to be with them just long enough to get the getaway car and get them to a safe place.

She's played by Patricia Arquette, who just won a Golden Globe for her performance. The series opens with Arquette's character, Tillie Mitchell, in jail, this time as an inmate not an employee. She's being questioned by the New York state inspector general who's investigating the escape. The inspector general is played by Bonnie Hunt.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ESCAPE AT DANNEMORA")

BONNIE HUNT: (As Catherine Scott) Nice to meet you, Joyce.

PATRICIA ARQUETTE: (As Joyce Tillie Mitchell) Everybody calls me Tillie.

HUNT: (As Catherine Scott) Tillie it is.

ARQUETTE: (As Joyce Tillie Mitchell) Joyce is my mother's name. When you call me Joyce, I feel like you're talking to my mother.

HUNT: (As Catherine Scott) Is your mom still with us?

Good. I love knowing my mom's just a phone call away.

ARQUETTE: (As Joyce Tillie Mitchell) I already talked to the cops.

HUNT: (As Catherine Scott) Four times in seven days, I understand.

ARQUETTE: (As Joyce Tillie Mitchell) Yeah. So what is this?

HUNT: (As Catherine Scott) Let's not get into any details until the stenographer gets here. I mean, even though it's all taped, it's actually more accurate. This girl, especially - she's been with me 15 years. I did a comparison.

ARQUETTE: (As Joyce Tillie Mitchell) I was right. Are you with the state police?

HUNT: (As Catherine Scott) Please - no, I'm the inspector general for the state of New York.

ARQUETTE: (As Joyce Tillie Mitchell) Oh. So the post office?

HUNT: (As Catherine Scott) No, the post office is federal. I'm state. So if there's any corruption in the state agency, it's my job to find it and stop it, whether it's a state park or the Port Authority, and I report directly to the governor.

ARQUETTE: (As Joyce Tillie Mitchell) Am I going to lose my job?

HUNT: (As Catherine Scott) Should you?

GROSS: Ben Stiller, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on "Escape At Dannemora."

Were there aspects of this story that most interested you?

BEN STILLER: Well, yeah. I mean, there was the actual escape part. And I really was into that. And as I learned more about it and read more about the prison itself, what really interested me was how they were able to do this, how they were able to get away with this in 2015. It seemed like such an old-fashioned sort of escape. And I thought, wow - you know, how can that happen in today's prison system? - which, you know, when you think about the prison system in the United States, you think of it as being sort of - it's not - it seems sort of depressing, obviously. And you think of these institutions; they don't seem like they're state of the art.

But to actually, you know, have people be able to do something like that was fascinating to me, that they could get away with it in this day and age. And so that part of it and then the relationships that developed, I guess, in the prison that allowed them to be able to get the tools which led to Tillie and the fact that she was actually having this interaction and relationship with these two guys, which then led to the environment, the tailor shop, and what exists in that place and how that works, which was really, really interesting and something I had no idea existed.

GROSS: You're talking about the prison tailor shop where both of the inmates and the woman who helped them escape worked. And they make prison uniforms there. So what was so surprising to you about that?

STILLER: Just the fact that it was - so I don't want to say loose but open in terms of just the way the actual physical setup of it, which was 40 or so inmates who were in a maximum-security facility for, you know, committing violent crimes in a room with one civilian supervisor and one corrections officer. And that's it. And these men are, you know, working with scissors and shears and, you know, all sorts of instruments that could be, you know, used for bad things, and it's just sort of like an honor system that's going on in there. And how low-tech it was - really low-tech, you know? Really, no video cameras - there's the backroom that they would go into - that Tillie would go into with...

GROSS: Where she had, like, like covert sexual relations with the inmates.

STILLER: Yes, yes. And just how the whole thing was sort of kind of like operated - first of all, it's a business. Corcraft is a for-profit business that's - so you know, the civilian supervisor is overseeing these inmates who are working for something like 35 or 40 cents an hour, and they have to meet a quota. And it's kind of a strange situation, you know? It's just - it's - 'cause, you know, when you think about that, you know, the civilian supervisor has to fill quotas. And these workers have to be motivated to do that when they're prisoners who are working for basically, you know, hardly anything. It's just kind of a screwed-up dynamic, I think.

GROSS: You were able to actually shoot at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, where the story is set. Did you have any protection when you were shooting in there? Did you feel like you needed any? Did the correctional facility feel like you needed any?

STILLER: The first trip that we took in there, we got ushered into a little trailer that - sort of a permanent trailer. They had set up a meeting room in there. And the superintendent and the deputy superintendent and a bunch of people who were administrators at the prison gave us a talk and told us what we were going to be doing and the tour we were going to be taking and, you know, basically said this is a dangerous environment and they were going to do everything they could to keep us safe and keep things as low-key as possible. But the reality is, you know, you're in a prison, and so you don't know what could happen.

And they tried to walk us through spaces at times when prisoners weren't there in the spaces. So like, we were actually ushered into sort of this small little office area when you first walk in where the corrections officers can lock themselves in to, you know, turn on lights and things like that. And because the timing was off, they had all - there were probably about 12 of us from the crew - we all kind of jammed into that little office while they let the inmates go out for lunch because they were behind schedule. And that was a really strange experience because (laughter), you know, we're all jammed into this little office.

And then, you know, the inmates were looking at us. We were looking at them. And you know, they're human beings. They're people. But you know, I'm sure they had their thoughts about - you know, what are these visitors up to? And then you just see, you know, the reality of life for these people, which is very - you know, it's regimented. And obviously, they're all there for a reason. But as - you know, in terms of, like, the human condition of it, it's pretty heavy.

GROSS: So one of the things that you depict in the film which was in news stories, you know, about the escape and also in the inspector general's report is how sex was traded for favors and how the two inmates and the woman who Patricia Arquette plays, who was assigned to supervise - you know, the civilian employee assigned to supervise the tailor shop where the two inmates were - the two inmates who escaped were manipulating her. She was manipulating them (laughter). It was a kind of complicated game that they were playing.

But because of the sex for favors thing, she ended up, you know, helping to smuggle in to them the tools that they needed to escape. But you know, you also depict some of the sex that they had. And you had to decide, like - how are you going to depict that? It's a key part of the story. It's a key part for, like, the motivation. It's a key part for how the inmates got the tools they needed. The inspector general's report makes it clear that the inspector general concluded that the character that Benicio Del Toro played, Richard Matt, did have sex with Joyce Tillie Mitchell. But David Sweat, the inmate who survived the escape and is back in prison, it's unclear whether he definitely had sex with her or whether it's just people saying that he did - because he denied it and Tillie denied it, too.

STILLER: That's correct.

GROSS: So you had to decide, should you depict that or not? But - so let's start with there 'cause it's definitive in your version of the story that they actually did have sex and that even when he wanted to stop, she kind of wouldn't let him.

STILLER: Yeah. I mean, we decided to make that choice because of the evidence that we saw in reading the reports and reading the interviews and the transcripts and even for me talking to David Sweat, who still denied it when I talked to him. And look; I'm not saying that it definitely happened. But in our estimation from looking at the evidence of how many notes were passed between him and her, how he was kicked out of the tailor shop for going in the back room with her, how he - she, you know, was taking pictures of herself - naked pictures of herself and her private parts and giving it to him. And he gave her his undershirt, as we depict in the show, and also, we really felt that there was a relationship going on there that was going beyond the bounds of what they both say was happening.

Now, it could - we could be wrong. And I - you know - and I know that Joyce Mitchell, you know, spoke out about it. And you know, I was clear in saying this isn't a documentary, but I wouldn't have put that in there if I didn't feel that that was closer to the truth than what they were saying. But that is our stipulation.

GROSS: Yeah, she called you a liar and an idiot (laughter) and...

STILLER: I think a son of a bitch, idiot and liar and - yeah (laughter).

GROSS: ...And accused you of exploiting her story for millions of dollars.

STILLER: Yeah, which is not - I'm not - that's not happening, at least in terms of the monetary aspect (laughter). That wasn't my motivation. That was - that's not what's happening. I was fascinated by the story, and she's - you know, she has stuck to that story the whole time. But it's - you know, it's also clear that she was not truthful when you look at her multiple interviews with the state police and then with the inspector general and how many times she contradicted herself and changed her story. So you know, I said I have - I don't have any ill will towards her, and I can understand that it's probably not a great experience that she's having right now.

GROSS: You chose not to try to meet with her. Is that right?

STILLER: Yeah.

GROSS: You did meet with David Sweat, the survivor of the two inmates. He's the one who's played by Paul Dano. Why did you want to meet with him, and what was that meeting like?

STILLER: Well, it was really interesting. I wanted to meet with him mainly because I'd spent so much time on the research, and I wrote a letter to him. And then the Department of Corrections, when they decided to start helping us, offered us access to go meet with him, and he agreed to meet. So I just wanted to, you know, sit and - sit across from him and see what he had to say about the escape especially. I mean, the details of the escape were really the most interesting thing to me about talking to him and why I wanted to talk to him.

GROSS: Was he really proud of what he accomplished by figuring out how to escape from a maximum security prison?

STILLER: I think he had a - my experience with him was that he was very affable, and he had a sense of not really wanting to boast about it in a way that seemed like he had accomplished something that was good. I think he really made it clear that he knew that he had done something wrong and didn't want to seem that he was kind of proud of it.

At the same time, he offered up all the details that I, you know, could ask for and was really, you know, specific. And yeah, I think - you know, I think he does feel like he did something, but he never once boasted about it in a way that he thought it was something good that he had done. You know, I don't think he was trying to sort of, you know, bask in that.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here before we go any further. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ben Stiller. And you probably know him from starring in and directing comedies, but he directed the seven-part Showtime series "Escape At Dannemora," which is based on the true story of two murderers who escaped from Clinton Correctional Maximum Security Facility in upstate New York. The escape was in 2015. And so this is based on that story. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Ben Stiller. And he directed the seven-part Showtime series "Escape At Dannemora," which is based on the true story of a 2015 prison escape from a maximum facility prison in upstate New York.

So David Sweat, who you met with - so he had, on July 4 - I forget what year it was - July 4...

STILLER: 2002.

GROSS: Thank you. He and some friends had robbed a fireworks - was it fireworks and munitions store?

STILLER: Yes. I think it was a fireworks and gun store, something.

GROSS: And so they stole a lot of stuff, and they're going through what they got when a police car - well, it was actually a deputy sheriff - pulls up.

STILLER: Right.

GROSS: And do you want to describe the crime? It's pretty horrible.

STILLER: Yeah. I mean, it is. It is. Yeah, they were a bunch of, you know, teenagers. I think he was - I'm not sure how old he was - maybe 20 or something like that. And he'd already had a record and had been in detention before. And they had, yeah, robbed this store, and they were transferring these guns from a pickup truck into his car or the other way around.

And this deputy was on patrol in Broome County, N.Y., and he just happened upon seeing them in this parking lot. He saw something was going on, and he pulled into the parking lot. And he got out of the car and started to draw his weapon and, you know - and announced that he was police. And David Sweat shot him, I think, 13 times and then ran him over with his car. And then his friend came over and picked up the officer's gun and shot him two more times. And you know, it's a horrible crime and kind of a senseless crime. And that's - you know, that's what he did to be sentenced to life imprisonment.

GROSS: And the really - it's absolutely horrible that he shot this deputy sheriff. The fact that after shooting him 13 times, then he gets - then the killer gets in a car and runs him over. That's just twisted. I mean, that's just sadistic and twisted. And here you were talking to him. So how much of that did you keep in your mind? How much of it did you try to block out while you were talking to him and trying to get as much information and insight from him as you could?

STILLER: You know, well, to me, that's what the interesting thing is about incarceration and kind of this story that we're telling in how people act in life. And they can do a horrible thing, and then life goes on. And then, you know, they're - and then they act normally, or they, you know, are not - you know, they don't act like a monster, which is why these guys were on the honor block. They were - you know, Matt and Sweat, who both committed really, really horrific crimes, were - had totally, you know, good behavior in prison the whole time. That's why they were given these privileges. So it's that strange thing of trying to reconcile somebody who's done something really bad, and yet you're sitting across from them, and they're acting normally, and they're being nice.

So I think that's just human nature that you don't kind of go to that unless the crime has been somehow affected you - and this is just me being honest. You know, if it's affected you in a personal way, you know, you're going to have that feeling. But if you don't know this person, and they're just across from you, and they're acting normally, and they're, you know, trying to, you know, be cooperative, it wasn't in the forefront of my mind, but it was obviously the reality of what had happened. And that's what's so disturbing in a way, I think.

GROSS: So...

STILLER: Do you know what I mean? Like, it's a strange thing where it was - if I'm just being totally honest, it was easy for me in the moment with him to let that go as I was asking him details of the escape. I'm not saying that's a good thing. You know, it's not something I'm proud of. But the reality was that since I didn't have as per - and then as, you know - so as I learned more about what he had actually done and actually when we filmed it - when we filmed the scene to, you know, have a small feeling of what that reality was of what happened, you know, it actually, you know, affected me much more.

And then as the reality of the show came on the air and the fact that the officer's relatives were going to see this, you know, all of that brought it much more home to me. And I just say that in that it's trying to, like, illustrate that I think it's easy sometimes for human beings to disconnect. And I think I was probably a little guilty of that when I was sitting across from him.

GROSS: My guest is Ben Stiller. He directed the seven-part Showtime series "Escape From Dannemora." After we take a short break, we'll talk about shooting some scenes in the prison from which the two inmates escaped, and Stiller will talk about playing Michael Cohen on "Saturday Night Live." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Ben Stiller. Yesterday he was nominated for a Directors Guild Award for his work directing the seven-part Showtime series "Escape At Dannemora." It's based on the true story of two inmates who escaped from a maximum security prison in upstate New York in 2015. Both inmates, Richard Matt, played by Benicio Del Toro, and David Sweat, played by Paul Dano, worked at the prison tailor shop, where prison uniforms were made. They convinced the civilian employee who ran the shop, Joyce Tillie Mitchell, played by Patricia Arquette, to get them the tools they used to dig through the basement walls and steam pipe of the old prison to escape.

We've been talking about the crime that landed one of the two escapees in prison, David Sweat. Let's talk about the crime that landed the other escapee in prison for murder. And that's Richard Matt, who's played by Benicio Del Toro, in the series. And, oh, man, talk about gruesome.

STILLER: Yeah.

GROSS: He killed his former boss. He came to the boss's house, kind of forced his way in, asked for - why don't you take it from here?

STILLER: Yeah, yeah. He was - his boss was older in his 70s, and he had somehow heard that he had - what he says in the - it's in that police report - he said that he had heard that he had $10,000 stacks. He kept on saying these, he has these $10,000 stacks. And he was going to try to, you know, get them from him. And he ended up, with a friend of his, tying him up, putting him in the trunk of his car and driving around for 24 hours and basically torturing him and then eventually killing him and dumping him by Lake Tonawanda up near Buffalo. And then - I think that's actually in Buffalo. And then he came back a few days later and severed the body after it had basically been frozen out there and then threw the body parts out into the lake and hid them. Yeah, that was his crime.

GROSS: I mean, that is really...

STILLER: Yeah, I mean, I think Richard Matt was really much more of a cold-blooded killer - it feels like when you read about what he did and versus what David Sweat's impulse killing - it feels like that was what that was. But he had - you know, then he killed somebody else in Mexico. Richard Matt was in a Mexican jail for eight or nine years and then got extradited back for this crime before he went to jail for the murder. So he is a career killer and criminal.

GROSS: I have to confess. I had trouble watching the scenes of the murder and torture. So I'd like to know how far you wanted to go with it because you really - I know you really wanted to convey the horror of this crime, the brutality of this person, who you might have had some sympathy for in previous episodes because you don't show the murders till the end of the series. So you had a lot of decisions to make about how detailed to show the murder and the torture.

STILLER: Yeah, I mean, it's sort of a judgment call in terms of what is too much. And I do - I know there are certain people who I would show it to, when we were in the editing process, who felt that they couldn't watch certain parts of it, thought it was too much. I had to kind of go off of my own subjective feeling about what was important to see about what these guys did. But that's always - you know, that's always a - it came down more as we were editing. It got less and less in terms of what we saw.

But it's very brutal. And, I mean, the intention behind it was - hopefully as an audience, you know, are jarred because you've - it's what we were talking about earlier - develop this sort of - I don't know - impression of who these guys are based on who they've been for the last, you know, five hours of the series, who are just guys in prison trying to get out, which is what your experience will be of them if you met him the way I met David Sweat, as a guy just, you know, sitting there across from me. But the reality is that they did these brutal crimes. So that's why I felt it was important to have it be shocking and brutal as a viewer after sort of being lulled into the reality of who they were now.

GROSS: Something I kept wondering watching "Escape At Dannemora," like, didn't these guys ever watch a prison break movie? Like, no one - it never works out.

STILLER: (Laughter).

GROSS: Like, even if you escape, like, you're shot, or you're brought back to prison. It never works. Like, did you think about that?

STILLER: Well, no. I mean, I didn't think - I would - here's what - I mean, for me, going into that prison and spending a very little amount of time in that prison, the first thing I thought about was getting out. That was - you know, like, I was so happy to leave. You know, after a while, it was fascinating. Or even when we were shooting at the end of the day, I was - you know, I felt so fortunate to leave. So it doesn't shock me that anybody in there would want to get out even if, you know, you knew that the odds were against you. I mean, I think you have to have a certain type of personality to actually say, I'm going to go for this because the, you know, the flip side is if you get caught, you know, you're in worse shape.

But these guys were aware of "Shawshank Redemption." They actually even made a joke when they got to the outer wall where Sweat saw the wall, and he said, you know, this is like "Shawshank Redemption." It's going to take us - it took them 20 years. And, like, Matt said something like, it's going to take us 10 or something. And we actually had that dialogue in the show, and I took it out because it just seemed to self-referential. But that actually - but Sweat says that interaction happened. So I think they definitely knew about - you know, I mean, they knew, you know, movies and pop culture and all that, but I think they just had a desire to really get out of that place. And they did.

You know, the other thing is that Sweat did do this dry run the night before when he finally cut through the pipe on the other side of the wall and got, out and he got to the manhole cover at about 3:30 or something in the morning. I guess it was Friday night before - Thursday night before 'cause he left on a Friday night. But he could have left without Matt, and he didn't. And when I asked him, he said that, well, they just had this plan because Tillie was going to meet them. But he said if he hadn't waited - if he had left, he could have just stolen a motorcycle, and he probably would have gotten very far. And he could easily have gotten to Canada in the middle of the night and gone through, and it would have been much tougher to find him.

GROSS: So one of the ways they escaped is that David Sweat found this like giant hot water pipe that was turned off for the summer. He cut a hole in that, crawled out of that. It led to a manhole cover that he was able to open, and that ultimately led them to escape. There were a lot of steps along the way. But did you literally shoot in that pipe?

STILLER: Well, we shot in a pipe. We shot in an 18-inch pipe, which is what they were in. It wasn't that pipe. But we basically recreated the set based on the actual dimensions of the area that they were where they got to - they basically - he went down through that catwalk, got down into the bowels of the prison and found his way underneath all the buildings to the outer wall - the base of the outer wall of the prison. And there in that - going into that outer wall was a steam pipe that was coming from the power plant that was about - I don't know - about a 1,000 feet away from the prison.

So he knew that that steam pipe led to the power plant. But this wall was in the way. And it was a 7-foot thick wall. So that - we recreated that pipe and that area where the outer wall was where he did all the cutting. And then we found locations - we found a prison in Pittsburgh that was about 150 years old - even older than Clinton, and we shot in the actual underground area of that prison. And we also shot in waste treatment facility tunnels in Yonkers, N.Y. And then we also built pipe sections also. So it was a combination of all those.

GROSS: My guest is Ben Stiller. He was just nominated for a Directors Guild Award for directing the seven-part Showtime series "Escape At Dannemora." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON PARKS' "SMALL PLANET")

GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with Ben Stiller. He directed the seven-part Showtime drama series "Escape at Dannemora" based on the true story of two murderers who escaped from a maximum security prison in upstate New York in 2015.

So some of your shoot was at Clinton Correctional Facility, where the story actually happened. And you were first denied permission. Then you got a personal meeting with Governor Andrew Cuomo, and he gave you permission. What did you have to do to convince him that this wasn't going to be another version of "Oz?"

(LAUGHTER)

STILLER: I didn't have to do anything. I mean, we reached out. And I talked to his chief of staff, and she talked to him. And we told her - I told her what we were doing because we weren't able to get access to any prisons in New York. And I felt that as the governor and the New York State Film Commission, they would want us to have at least a chance to shoot more of the show in New York just for - you know, for the revenue and for - since it's a New York story.

And so I think that was part of it. And he was like, yeah, we want you guys to be telling the story here and to bring - bringing the business to New York. And he was also really fascinated by the story. So when I talked to her, she got us in touch with the Department of Corrections. And I think they talked to them and asked them to be helpful to us. And they said they would open up the manhole for us and let us shoot outside the prison. And then he said, do you want to have a meeting 'cause I'd like to hear what you're doing?

And so I sat and talked with him. And he wasn't in any way questioning me as to what we were - you know, what was going to be in the story. He never once asked to see the script or, you know, make sure that they approved of what we were doing. He surely wanted to, I think, just hear what I was interested in in the story.

And then he - at the end of the meeting, he said, well, what can we do to help you? And that was the moment where I (laughter) - I was thinking of, like, the hundred people back at the production office who were - you know, we didn't have a location. And I was like, well, can we shoot at the prison? And he looked at his chief of staff. He said, well, you got to shoot - you got to shoot at the prison, right (laughter)? And I was very happy. But really, the fact that they allowed us to shoot - like, any of those scenes where Tillie and Lyle are going to work and you see people going in and out of the prison or even just shooting the prison itself and all the exteriors and the aerial shots and the manhole - that they unsealed the actual manhole for us and the...

GROSS: During the escape? Oh, oh, so you filmed the escape with the real manhole.

STILLER: We filmed - when they come out of the manhole, that's the actual manhole. And that's the actual street, and that's the actual - that's basically what happened when they came out of the manhole in Episode 5. When they walk around the block and decide to walk down the street and, you know, have a cigarette, that's, you know, according to Sweat, exactly what happened. And that's the place it happened in.

GROSS: So Benicio del Toro plays the convicted murderer and prison escapee as both charming when he wants to be and just really terrifying and crazy at other times - threatening, out of control. Did you give him any suggestions or any insights into what you wanted him to bring out?

STILLER: Yes, 'cause I'm going to tell Benicio del Toro how to be intimidating and scary.

(LAUGHTER)

STILLER: I really felt like he hadn't achieved that, and I could help him out with that.

(LAUGHTER)

STILLER: You know, he - I loved working with him. He had so many specific ideas about how to approach this character and make - you know, make him a full character that was obviously very, very manipulative and able to intimidate and operate in that world. And so I relied on his instincts a lot of the time that I would then kind of go back and forth with him on. And in certain scenes, I would have more of an instinct of what I felt should happen. But he always had a very, very strong point of view.

I mean, one of the things that he suggested that I thought worked really well was - in the first episode, we originally had him doing something violent to somebody on the north yard to show that he was a dangerous guy because violence happens out on the north yard. People get shivved. You know, people get beaten up. Things happen out there. And he suggested that we cut that scene and not show Matt being violent until the sixth episode when we see the flashback. And I thought that was a really bold choice on his part because what he was basically saying is, I can be intimidating and scary without having to show any violence. And I think our show is probably like the least violent prison show ever made, you know? I mean, it's really - except maybe for "Stir Crazy" or something. You know, I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

STILLER: It's not - there's no - there's really - there are no scenes of - you know, they're - you don't see any - except for, you know, obviously the graphics...

GROSS: Not in prison. But outside of prison, there's...

STILLER: Well, in that one episode.

GROSS: Yeah, that one episode. Yeah.

STILLER: But that one episode.

GROSS: Yeah.

STILLER: But other than that one episode, there really isn't anything else. And so that was his choice, you know? He said, I think this will be much more effective to see the violence of this guy, you know, that deep into the story.

GROSS: So Patricia Arquette gained around 40 pounds to play the prison employee. And what issues does that create for you as a director - 'cause there was also, you know, scenes that are shot when she's in prison or jail. And so her weight changes depending on what the time is that you're shooting.

STILLER: Right.

GROSS: So it takes time to gain weight, and it takes time to lose weight. So just as the director in that situation as opposed to being the person who has to eat a lot or stop eating (laughter), what are the issues that you have to deal with?

STILLER: Well, I was concerned about it, first of all, 'cause the shoot was so long. The shoot was eight months long. And I really felt like she needed to gain the weight to - you know, you can't just wear sort of, you know, a suit to make you look heavier. You know, it changes her face and all of that. And she was also wearing teeth and contact lenses to make her eyes brown because she has these piercing, blue eyes.

And so it was a whole bunch of things, but the weight was really, really important, I felt, because she has such - you know, she's a very classically beautiful woman who has these movie star looks. And she was trying to sort of get away from that for this character. And it was tough because I kept on encouraging her (laughter) to eat. So - and Paul Dano was working out with a weight coach because he's, you know, not as built as David Sweat was because David Sweat built up in prison because he was afraid of getting beaten up. So all of them had to commit to changing their bodies.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here. And when we come back, we'll talk about playing Michael Cohen.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ben Stiller. And he directed the seven-part Showtime series "Escape At Dannemora," which is based on a real prison escape from 2015. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEYONCE'S "BONNIE & CLYDE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Ben Stiller. He doesn't act in his latest production. He directed the Showtime seven-part series "Escape At Dannemora," which is based on the true story of two prisoners who escaped from a maximum security prison in upstate New York in 2015. And if you missed the series when it was shown on Showtime, it's still on on demand on Showtime, so you can still see it. And this week, Patricia Arquette won a Golden Globe for her performance in the series.

So we have to talk about playing Michael Cohen on Saturday Night Live. So let's start with a clip. And so this is from December 1. And President Trump is feeling lonely at the G20 summit in Argentina. So he calls Michael Cohen. And while on the phone, of course, he wants to talk about - he wants advice about how to handle the Mueller probe. So here's Alec Baldwin as Trump and my guest Ben Stiller as Michael Cohen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

ALEC BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) All alone again. No one understands me. Who can I call? - someone who I know will always answer.

STILLER: (As Michael Cohen) Yes, hello. Michael Cohen speaking - I'll tell you anything you want.

BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) Michael, it's Donald.

STILLER: (As Michael Cohen) Mr. Trump, I'm not supposed to be talking to you.

BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) Come on, Michael.

STILLER: (As Michael Cohen) No, I'm going to get in trouble.

BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) But Mikey, Mikey Coco - I need a bowl of my Mikey Cocoa Puffs.

STILLER: (As Michael Cohen) Oh, OK, fine. I can't say no to my Donny Trumpaluffagus (ph).

BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) There's my guy. You got to get me out of this. Who can I give up to the feds? What if I put my son Eric in some old-age makeup and a fat suit and say it's me?

STILLER: (As Michael Cohen) Not sure that'll work, sir.

BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) Trust me. Eric will never catch on.

STILLER: (As Michael Cohen) I'm sorry, Mr. Trump. It's over.

BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) Well, Michael, at least there are some things they can never take away from us - our late night talks...

STILLER: (As Michael Cohen) They got them on tape.

BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) ...Our vacations to Moscow.

STILLER: (As Michael Cohen) They seized the records.

BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) And what about our hairstylist? - the blind man with the shaky hands.

STILLER: (As Michael Cohen) He died, like, months ago.

BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) I'm sad you're going to prison, Michael. You were like a son to me.

STILLER: (As Michael Cohen) Then why'd you make me do so much illegal stuff?

BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) Because you were like a son to me. Goodbye, Michael.

STILLER: (Laughter).

GROSS: That's Alec Baldwin and my guest Ben Stiller on Saturday Night Live. How did you become Michael Cohen on SNL?

STILLER: I got a call from - I got an email from Lorne Michaels. I actually was emailing Lorne to tell him that I wanted to bring my daughter to the show for the first time, who's 16. And it was the week, I guess, that this came up. And he sent me back an email and said, oh, that's great. Yeah, yeah. Definitely, you can bring her. And, oh, by the way, do you have a Michael Cohen lying around? - meaning, do I have a Michael Cohen impression lying around? - which I, of course, didn't. And that was it.

And then I, you know - I tried to - I YouTubed him in trying to come up with some version because he didn't really talk that much. You didn't hear him talk that much. And that was it. And, you know, that's the way it works on SNL. They'll write the piece, you know, maybe on Thursday, if you're lucky, but usually on Friday or even be written - rewritten on Saturday up until the show. So sometimes, I would get the call like on Friday night. But that's how it happened the first time.

GROSS: And you're in New York, so - are you in New York?

STILLER: Yes, I'm a New Yorker. And it was pretty convenient. And also, I was in the - sort of, like, in the midst of editing "Dannemora." So it was a pretty funny experience to kind of jump into basically, like, the opposite experience of editing. Editing is, you know, where you're sitting in a room with an editor and just kind of, you know, not in any mode other than sort of watching and looking. And then all of a sudden, you're, like, being thrown into live performing in front of a national audience, which is not my favorite thing (laughter) to do.

GROSS: It must be so much fun for you the first time you walk onstage as Michael Cohen and hear the audience's response. Like, the audience goes crazy.

STILLER: I mean, there's nothing like being on "Saturday Night Live" and the craziness of it. I mean, it's really - you know, there's nothing like that feeling of - I don't know - that feeling in the pit of your stomach. And it's just - you know, it's an iconic show. And it's live. And I was actually just talking to one of the cast members last night about how that's a gene that certain performers have, which I don't. I don't enjoy that. I don't sort of, you know, live for that. I'm much happier doing multiple takes, you know, making a movie or, you know, having a few shots at it.

But there are certain performers who are so brilliant at it, at doing that live - I think a lot of the cast members that are on now. But so yeah, there's nothing like that feeling. I find it incredibly exciting-slash-stressful. And then it's really fun. I mean, it's really, really fun when - you know, when something works. And you're in that - you know, it's, like, a one-of-a-kind sort of experience.

GROSS: So I know award season is mostly movies, and the Emmys are in the fall. But is "Escape At Dannemora" - does that qualify as a movie for award season?

STILLER: We qualify for - like, for the Golden Globes, we were nominated for best limited series. And for the Emmys, will be in the best - yeah, the best limited series category. And then there's - yeah, there's other - there's all sorts of categories (laughter) that you can stress out over. But yeah, that's what it'll be under.

GROSS: So is this a stressful season for you?

STILLER: You know what? I've never really been in the mix in terms of award season for things I've done, honestly. I mean, we won an Emmy back in, I guess, '94 for the sketch show "The Ben Stiller Show" that Judd Apatow and I did. And we won that nine months after we were canceled. And we were the most surprised of anybody.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STILLER: So after that, you believe anything is possible, I guess. But, you know, over the years, it just hasn't really been in - been my thing, so it's very nice right now. Like, the fact that we were nominated for a couple of Golden Globes and that Patty won was so - I was so grateful to be in the mix with all of those shows, which were so accomplished and so good. And so, you know, on that level, I'm proud that we've gotten some other nominations. And I'm just - you know, it's really fun. And it all sort of feels like, OK, great. You know, this is happening for this show. I'm, you know, very proud of the work we've all done.

GROSS: Well, Ben Stiller, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

STILLER: Yeah, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: Ben Stiller directed the seven-part Showtime series "Escape At Dannemora," which is available on demand. Yesterday Stiller was nominated for a Directors Guild award. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Rachel Maddow and Mike Yarvitz about their podcast "Bag Man." It investigates the bribery and extortion scandal that led to the resignation of Nixon's first vice president, Spiro Agnew. The podcast reveals some new twists in that story. It's a story that has important parallels and lessons that relate to the current investigations into President Trump. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "PERSIAN RUG")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "PERSIAN RUG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.