When Ben Stiller set out to direct his first dramatic series with Escape at Dannemora, he was intent on telling an unbelievable true story with as much authenticity as possible, capturing every minor detail of life within New York’s Clinton Correctional Facility, while diving deep into the psychology of the men who escaped it only four short years ago.
At Stiller’s right hand throughout a long and laborious shoot was production designer Mark Ricker, who was instrumental in bringing the series to fruition, and returns to the Emmys race this year in his second go-round.
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Excited by the material and the prospect of working on his first “water cooler limited series,” Ricker had plenty of resources to turn to, in his recreation of Clinton Correctional. Combing through the New York State inspector general’s 150-page report on the escape, Ricker also examined the handful of photos of the prison at his disposal—which offered helpful glimpses at its catwalks, steam pipes and tunnels. Subsequently, the Showtime series’ creative team was invited to tour the prison; however, no photography was allowed within the prison’s walls, which meant that Ricker was left to “fill in blanks.”
Of all of the series’ sequences, the most challenging was Richard Sweat’s dry run of the prison escape, which had the appearance of a oner, but was really a carefully stitched-together amalgamation of disparate environments within different states, captured over an extended period of time. Here, historical recreation extended thrillingly beyond what was documented on the page, as art, science and due diligence came together.
On Escape at Dannemora, what went into your design and build of the Honor Block, and the catwalk that sits behind it?
When Governor Cuomo released six or eight photographs, there were a couple that just showed the interior of the cell, the outside corridor, the catwalks and some tunnels. Then, I had two photographs that I got from the Dannemora Historical Society, probably from the ‘40s, of what the cell block looked like. And Erik Jensen was a technical advisor on the film who had actually been an inmate, in prison with Matt and Sweat, and was in the tailor shop, knew Joyce Mitchell, the whole nine yards. So, some of it came just from verbal descriptions and napkin drawings that he would give us, and I came up with a scenario of what that honor block would be.
We knew fairly early on we’d have to build it, just because you can’t shoot in prison cells without being able to remove the walls, in order to give room for the camera—[though] there was a brief consideration for trying to find a location to shoot all of the wide stuff, just to be able to be in an active prison. I’ve worked in lots of prisons across my career, but the physical space didn’t drive the narrative of the story as it does in this project.
[Matt and Sweat] literally cut through the back of the wall, so the prison cells had to be steel-constructed, and the Honor Block in the real Clinton Correctional had bars that spanned the width of the cell, so that they could literally talk to each other. The closest cell block that I could find that came close to theirs was this place in Connecticut—a decommissioned prison cell—and we could have shot there, except for the fact that the only opening was the width of the door with bars, and the rest of the cell blocks were brick.
We couldn’t even shoot wide shots in there, because it just didn’t match the details of what we needed to do, so it became clear fairly early that we would just end up building the entire cell block. And because of what [the characters] do, where they cut through the back and go into the catwalks, we built three stories of catwalks as well. So, it was a pretty monumental build that we were doing the entire time that we were prepping the rest of the series.
Was that whole build done with the same materials you would find in the actual prison?
Probably 90% of the cells were built out of wood, but we welded real steel bars for the hero cell, just for the actors to have that clang, and the weight of it. For the actual panels where they cut through, we had charts, and maps, and diagrams of every single cut. We had to prep all of that stuff, because we didn’t have the luxury to wait for it—to cut the things ourselves. So, we had one section where one of the lines was cut for the hole, and one where two were cut, and another where three were cut, and we would pull them out and switch them, as per where we were in the continuity of the storyline.
So, we had steel plates for those, and steel bars, and the catwalks were replicated with real cast iron plumbing everywhere, because we had to climb on it, and it was too much to deal with the scenic work that it would take to turn PVC pipes into cast iron pipes. We literally had the plumber who was rebuilding LaGuardia Airport advising us on how to deal with all the plumbing and the catwalks, because we had such an expansive amount of it. It was a real learning experience, all of it. Then, I made some flourishes, redesigned some things. We couldn’t build the thing as big as the real one was, so we made some adjustments that fit the size of our stage and what we needed to do.
Could you explain how you pieced together a portrait of the entire prison out of different pieces?
We built the entire Honor Block on stage in Queens, New York at Kaufman Astoria [Studios], and sections of the tunnels too—the hero section of the steam pipe, where they’re cutting into it, and crawl through, and get back out. We shot outside the prison walls at the real Clinton Correctional, and in the town of Malone where it is, and we shot inside the North Yard in the prison grounds, which was that vast, exterior yard where they had all these picnic tables, sort of terraced, and gardens, and a football field, and all of this stuff.
For a while, it was a process to get permission. When I started the job, we had zero cooperation from the Department of Corrections in New York, because they just wanted nothing to do with us. For obvious reasons, [the 2015 escape] was a blight on their history. So, we slowly tiptoed into it all. Then eventually, the governor got us permission to open up the actual manhole and to shoot there, and to get inside the prison, and we got this fantastic tour of all of the hero areas—the cell blocks, the tailor shop, and all of that.
We shot in a decommissioned prison, which was everything that was inside the prison walls, the exterior stuff of the prison, the walkways and the chain-link fences, and the cafeteria. We also built the tailor shop in an old warehouse in Brooklyn, so that was an entire other gigantic set that we built. We had the entrance where the first valley port was, where they go through the metal detector. That was in Staten Island, and then we also shot some of the basement tunnels in Pittsburgh. We built tunnels within tunnels, using elements that they had there, but making them shorter and turning them into what we needed them to be. A lot of that was seen in that single shot in the series [depicting Sweat’s dry run of the prison escape] where we sort of stitched it all together, which was a whole movie all by itself. The Yonkers [Wastewater] Treatment Plant was a whole other section of the catacombs of the tunnel that added up to one single prison.
Was it surreal to shoot within locations like the manhole, where the real events depicted in the series took place?
Oh, completely. In doing what we do, when I’m replicating elements that really happened, I’m staring at photographs, and it becomes my life. Then, all of a sudden, you’re in the place that you’ve been staring at the photographs of. I was literally the first person to go down into the manhole after they unwelded it, and Ben was soon after me. It all sounds so stupid, but [a location] becomes somewhat mythologized when we’re trying to recreate it. It really does become your every focus. So when you’re suddenly standing in the real places, even down to the spot in the swamp where they killed Richard Matt…And that trailer was also the real trailer where we was. We found that through the advisors that we had, so that was there.
But there was a moment when I was in the woods by myself, trying to find the spot where they actually killed Matt. I was told to look for a sawed-off twig, and suddenly, I’m standing there and I found that twig. All of that stuff is really fascinating and incredible to experience.
Could you explain your approach to the dry run oner, which was actually filmed over the course of an extended period, in disparate locations, within a handful of states?
It started with the real places. We had this desire to shoot in the real manhole, but even before we knew that we were allowed to do that, we knew that we could shoot outside, because we had permission from the town. But dealing with getting inside was going to involve vast visual effects. So, it started with the manhole, and the cell block on stage, and we had to just connect all the dots within that.
We had elements of the tunnels in Pittsburgh. At one point, I thought we were going to try to shoot all of it within the tunnels, but I had to survey them all to figure out what the map of that would be, so we got to work doing that. But we found that [Yonkers] location, and then all of a sudden we’re finding our favorite moments within tunnels, and how to build underneath the laundry, which was a big section that was in Yonkers.
It got to the point where we just had to figure out the beats. It was all inspired by this GoPro video that we had access to that actually did track the entire run of the thing. That video showed me what it all looked like, and that’s what inspired the building of tunnels within tunnels, to try to get that look.
But some of it, we just had to stitch together, so we had a previz built of the entire sequence that we just studied, and we had that thing memorized by the time we were building it. At one point in a meeting, I said, “There’s Sweat’s run, and then there’s the rest of the eight hours that we’re dealing with,” because so much focus and attention was put into the build of that that sometimes, I would have to remind myself that we had additional scenes in these tunnels and some of these spaces that weren’t Sweat’s run. I had to literally remind myself, “Oh sh*t, I have to build the rest of this. It’s not just the angle that we’re seeing within the previz.”
So, it was figuring out how to get from the cell we designed within camera ports, so that we could do as much as we could organically. There was a little trap door that the camera operator swung through to get from inside the cell, and follow [Paul Dano’s Sweat]; that was one part that was not digitally fixed. Then, we got into the end of the catwalk, he started to drop down the pipes, and we had the set built so that we could have safety lines and camera rigs that got down.
What we couldn’t do was build a basement in the stage floor, so that part was the first bit that we did in Pittsburgh. We actually jumped from one side of the catwalk to another section, where we replicated getting to the first floor. Then, we had to build a ceiling in Pittsburgh within a tunnel to drop them into the basement, and all of a sudden, we’re on the run in that section of the tunnels.
At one point, there was a huge camera crane just to get them to go from one elevation down to another elevation. We designed the set so that it could accommodate the crane, and got them all the way down to the steam pipe. The camera came off of that crane, was handed to an operator who we then had a slot in the steam pipe [for], so that all of that was organically done, too, where they just followed him through. Then, parts of the set closed up, so that by the time he came back out of the steam pipe, it was a complete set. We tried to do that as much as possible so that we could limit the amount of digital stitches that were in there, unless they were absolutely necessary.
Then finally, when he was on that long run where he’s come out and he’s underneath the town, and he climbs up the ladder and comes out the manhole, the irony is that popping out of the manhole on the streets of Malone, New York was the very first shot that we did, because we started shooting in August to get all of the scenes that happened when they escaped in June, and we had to work backwards, seasonally. So, we had to shoot the very first part of that entire sequence, and then we just worked backwards.