There is age-old adage that “truth is stranger than fiction,” which can definitely can be said about Showtime’s upcoming limited series, “Escape at Dannemora.”
But when trying to craft a scripted narrative from real-life events often finds the writers and directors behind it take creative liberties for dramatic effect (as critics of the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” can attest to). But for Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin, who co-created the Showtime series that is based on a famous 2015 prison break, they didn’t have to veer too far from the real-life events.
“Once you get into the reality of the story, the pieces are just more fascinating than fiction can deliver sometimes,” Tolkin told TheWrap. “We definitely researched it a lot… Sometimes through the looking glass, in terms of research,” added Johnson.
The limited series, which is directed and executive produced by Ben Stiller, is based on the 2015 prison break from Clinton Correctional Facility by Richard Matt and David Sweat. The two escapees — both convicted murderers — broke out of the Upstate New York facility, aided by a married female prison employee Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, who reportedly carried on affairs with both men while supervising them in the tailor shop. It spawned the largest manhunt in the history of New York State. The series stars Benicio Del Toro as Matt and Paul Dano as Sweat, while Patricia Arquette plays Mitchell.
While (spoiler alert) Matt was shot and killed after the escape, Sweat and Mitchell were both still alive, and Johnson and Tolkin got to speak with Sweat, and many of the people whose real-life escapades are depicted in the series, which debuts on Sunday. Along with Sweat, they also got to speak with Major Chuck Guess, the officer who is in charge of the manhunt, as well as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
“Me and Micheal Imperoli [who plays Cuomo in the show] went and had like a two-hour meeting with [him],” said Johnson.
Sgt. Jay Cook, who shot Sweat and put him in the hospital, was a technical advisor for the series. “He didn’t want to play himself because he was camera shy,” said Johnson. “But he actually hand-picked the guy who did play him.” Christopher Voss, who shot and killed Matt, also helped on the series, but he actually played himself. “They actually lent their [U.S. Customs and Border Patrol] team to us, the same team that took down Richard Matt,” continued Johnson.
But there was one key person who they decided themselves not to speak with: The woman at the center of the story.
“We decided early on to not meet with Joyce, for various reasons,” said Johnson, choosing instead to rely onher interviews with New York Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott (Bonnie Hunt). “There was so many thousands of pages of transcripts of police interviews and interrogations that we had access to,” added Tolkin.
“Escape at Dannemora” premiers Sunday, Nov. 18 on Showtime at 10 p.m. ET/PT