The Big Break
A new miniseries brings Hollywood to an Adirondack prison town
by Kate Messner
“Numbers 95 and below, please come up front!” a young woman called into a microphone, and a scattering of people rose from their seats in Plattsburgh’s Strand Theater. They lined up and shuffled forward so a young man with an iPhone could snap their head shots before sending them to another holding area in a different section of the theater.
On a Saturday in late July the process of auditioning for Ben Stiller’s Showtime miniseries Escape at Dannemora was a full day for the 1,000-plus locals who showed up for the open casting call. (According to Variety, casting of primary roles took place last spring, with Patricia Arquette set to portray Joyce Mitchell; Benicio del Toro, as inmate Richard Matt; Paul Dano, inmate David Sweat; David Morse, a correction officer; and Bonnie Hunt, the New York State Inspector General who heads up the investigation.) The first in line arrived at the Strand at 6:30 a.m., three and a half hours before the event was scheduled to begin; by 8:30, the line was around the block.
Two years ago the mountain towns surrounding Dannemora’s Clinton Correctional Facility found themselves featured on national news night after night following the escape of two convicted killers from the maximum security prison, prompting a three-week manhunt. Inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat were discovered missing on the morning of June 6, 2015. While hundreds of state troopers and correction officers scoured the woods searching for the men, investigators pieced together how the two killers pulled off what many had thought impossible—an escape from inside the wall. Investigators believe that Matt and Sweat, with tools smuggled to them by prison employee Joyce Mitchell, cut through their cell wall, climbed down six stories to a tunnel of pipes, sliced into another pipe through which they belly-crawled more than 400 feet, and then cut another hole to surface via a manhole several blocks away.
Hillary Boyea, who auditioned for the miniseries, knows plenty about that manhole and the events surrounding it. If she’s cast as an extra, it’ll be the second time she’s been in the middle of the story. When the inmates were at large, she was employed at the Stewart’s Shop just down the street from Clinton Correctional Facility. Boyea remembered working long hours to serve officers who would squeak in just before the shop’s midnight closing time to order 50 hamburgers and four boxes of coffee. “They needed the stuff,” she said, “so we stayed open late.”
Perhaps the strangest thing Boyea encountered during the manhunt was what she called “prison-break tourists.” One family from Massachusetts—parents and three young kids— stopped at Stewart’s to get directions to the manhole. They told Boyea they wanted to take pictures.
At the Strand, Boyea said she was hoping for a part in the miniseries—maybe as a court clerk—and thought she’d be a helpful addition. “I was kind of in the background of it anyway,” she said, “so if I was an extra it’d be pretty neat because I’ve already lived through it.”
Like Boyea, many at the theater were eager to talk about their connection to the real prison break.
“You wanna hear about Mitchell?” Ron Noreault called out from the seat where he was waiting his turn to audition—acting in a movie or on TV was on his bucket list. He said he’d worked with her when they were both teaching assistants in a North Country school, and that Mitchell wasn’t “a good person.” He said, “The teacher in our room had to talk with her several times.”
Maureen Stacey, from Peru, recalled babysitting for her grandson during the manhunt. She got stuck at a police roadblock when she tried to bring him home. “There were helicopters and officers walking around with big guns,” she said. “That was pretty dramatic.” Stacey was auditioning because she thought her first-person experience would provide authenticity. She was hoping the directors would ask her to reenact the roadblock scene.
Despite the casting company’s call for local corrections workers, police officers, news reporters and camera people, few in those fields made an appearance. Television station WPTZ sent a memo prohibiting its news department employees from auditioning, and some members of law enforcement said they had more than enough of the prison break during the real thing. Still, an officer who asked to remain anonymous because of his undercover work for the New York State Police auditioned. Two years ago, while Matt and Sweat were on the loose, he followed up on tips, searching houses and camps. “A lot of the leads we had were dead ends,” he recalled. “When they finally captured David Sweat, there was a sense of relief in the community. It was all done.”
Retired correction officer Douglas Case, from Utica, arrived at the theater around 9:45 a.m. He auditioned at 4:30 with a group of 15 or so other hopeful actors. The casting director spoke to them one at a time. “She’d stare at you,” Case said, “trying to decide what part you’d be good for.” He was pleased that he was asked to read lines from a script—a scene from the capture of David Sweat near the Canadian border.
As Case left, the next group of would-be actors moved to the front of the theater. This crew included Scotty Drew and Cameron White, from Elizabethtown. Drew had been hanging around since 10 a.m. He said he was hoping to be cast as Joyce Mitchell’s son—“I feel like I could fit the role because we’re around the same age.”
Cameron White recalled the roadblocks during the manhunt. At the time, he was delivering for Champlain Valley Electric Supply Company, so state troopers constantly stopped him to check the back of his van. White said he’d be happy with any role.
Gina Lindsey, who teaches at Clinton Community College, in Plattsburgh, and advises the school’s drama club, auditioned to play the role of a Dannemora shop clerk. She tried out with a line about jelly donuts: “They’re 39 cents. Would you like one?” She got a callback and worked with the film’s casting director, Rachel Tenner, reading the same scene. “She had me do it half a dozen times,” said Lindsey. “Try it this way and that way. Natural. Sarcastic. Angry. Tired.” Later, Lindsey returned for a second callback, and walked in to find director Ben Stiller in the room. Stiller ran this one himself. Lindsey said the experience was a highlight of her life, whether or not she got the part.
On September 13, Gina Lindsey showed up to work in Dannemora, part of a multi-day North Country shoot. (Other locations would include Chestertown’s Main Street and the woods surrounding Natural Stone Bridges and Caves, in Pottersville.) Ben Stiller and his crew had taken over a stretch of Cook Street to film a sequence that involved Joyce Mitchell, played by Patricia Arquette, climbing from a Jeep and walking into Maggy Marketplace for the jelly donut conversation. The scene involved multiple cameras, one mounted on the side of the Jeep.
“Cut! Reset!” was repeated over and over until, finally, after more than five hours of retakes, director Ben Stiller was satisfied.
Meanwhile, New York State Troopers directed traffic. (The production company reimbursed the state for the expense.) One of the troopers on the scene was Sergeant Jay Cook, who played a starring role in the real-life prison break when he ended the 23-day manhunt by shooting David Sweat. Stiller’s crew consulted with Sergeant Cook when they filmed that scene. “I took them through the whole part of my involvement,” said Cook. “When you see it in the movie, it should be pretty close to how it happened. They’re really doing their research.”
Dannemora residents had mixed feelings about the project. “It’s cool that they’re making a miniseries about my hometown,” said Alison Davis, as she tried to get to Stewart’s during the shoot. “But it’s inconvenient. You can’t even turn down a street without being redirected.”
Jeff Rock, a former Clinton Correctional employee, said he worried the miniseries might show the area and prison employees in a negative light. “I’m hoping they do a positive portrayal of the rest of the staff that go in every day and do a good job,” he said. “We don’t need this opening old wounds.”
Ben Stiller seemed to understand those concerns. “If we’re going to tell the story, we owe it to the people here to be as authentic as possible,” he said. “I really wanted to shoot this story here. There’s nothing like this prison. There’s nothing like this area, that’s incredibly beautiful but also has an economy that’s centered on prisons.”
Stiller and his crew plan to return to the North Country in January to shoot winter scenes for the miniseries.
Eight episodes of Escape at Dannemora will run on Showtime in 2018.
Kate Messner is the author of more than 30 books for young readers. Her next novel, Breakout (Bloomsbury, June 2018), inspired by the Dannemora escape, is about a small-town prison break and manhunt that changes the way three kids see their neighbors and the place they call home.
Read more about the Dannemora prison break in Brian Mann’s award-winning article, “Manhunt” (December 2015), at www.adirondacklife.com.