TV series produced by Middlebury graduate tells real-life prison tale

Photo courtesy of Showtime
In a scene from ‘Escape at Dannemora,’ David Sweat (Paul Dano) and Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro) plan their prison break.


“I haven’t been to Route 7 in a long time,” lamented Michael Tolkin, who was quite familiar with the road and its rural setting before his 1974 graduation from Middlebury College. “In the spring, you could smell the manure.”

In the 48 years since then, he’s become a successful novelist and Hollywood wordsmith, perhaps best known for 1992’s “The Player.” Recently, that filmmaking career brought him only as close to Vermont as the New York State side of Lake Champlain.

Tolkin is an executive producer and co-writer of “Escape at Dannemora,” a Showtime television mini-series that began Sunday. The seven-part production traces how two Clinton Correctional Facility convicts and their enablers kept Americans riveted for three weeks in 2015.

Even as far away as California. While otherwise busy with the Showtime drama “Ray Donovan,” Tolkin and his colleagues — writing partner Brett Johnson included — were watching the extensive news coverage. “Someone asked me, ‘Are you following this prison break?’ At first, we were laughing, riffing on it,” he recalled. “By day five, we had started making outlines for a script.”

But Tolkin’s agent was skeptical, believing that the story would not garner any interest from the movie industry.

“So, we did the first two episodes on spec,” he said, referring to an expectation that a project eventually will attract the right people.

One of those right people was actor Ben Stiller, whom they approached as a possible director of “Escape.” He didn’t want to tackle a fictionalized saga, however.

“And all we had at that point was the public record,” Tolkin explained. “But, a year to the day after the breakout, the New York State government released its 175-page report on the Dannemora events. That became our bible.”

A Freedom of Information Act request also got them transcripts of interrogations and interviews. Thousands of pages worth, in fact.

The plot was clear-cut. Two murderers, Richard Matt and David Sweat, were in a maximum-security unit. During the day, they used sewing machines to make clothes in the prison’s commercial tailor shop. A married civilian supervisor named Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell was having sexual encounters in the supply room, at first with Sweat and later with Matt.

In their respective cells at night, the men shared a hobby of painting portraits or landscapes on canvases. Once the lights were turned off, though, they started the laborious process of sawing through steel walls and underground steam pipes with contraband tools provided by Tilly — some of them hidden in a package of ground beef.

“Both of these guys were artists,” Tolkin said. “That’s what really got to me. They had talent. They were vicious killers, but still retained some spark of creativity. There’s a universal human need to express ourselves.”

Expression? Sure. Redemption? Not so much, apparently.

Benicio Del Toro portrays Matt, 48, a quietly manipulative character. Paul Dano was cast as the younger and more effusive Sweat, 34. Patricia Arquette appears as Tilly, a 51-year-old Dannemora resident who thinks they will liberate her from a humdrum marriage and dead-end employment.

The correctional facility comes across as a brutal dungeon, where the guards are as menacing as the inmates. One of them, played by David Morse, is an unwitting accomplice in Tilly’s scheme to help Matt and Sweat vamoose. These are not dumb criminals. They’re smart, though not quite smart enough to avoid capture.

Tolkin sees the pathos in their situation. “The Tru Stitch shoe factory where Tilly worked shuts down and those jobs are shipped overseas. Her pay is low at the tailor shop, but prisoners only get three cents an hour.”

His sociological perspective seems bleak. “This is a violent society,” Tolkin suggested. “People have hair triggers. They act on their impulses. We used Google to see Dannemora from above. It’s two halves, the prison and the town, a mirror image of each other in some ways.”

Getting into Middlebury ‘saved my life’

The town of Middlebury and the college there could also be considered reflections, albeit probably far more sedate than those in Dannemora.

Tolkin met his future wife Wendy Mogel when both were attending Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. She subsequently transferred to Middlebury. He dropped out and worked at a school for disturbed children about 200 miles away from her. That proved to be unsustainable for the couple.

“Wendy went to the dean of admissions, crying ‘You’ve got to let my boyfriend be a student here,’” Tolkin recounted with a laugh. “They did. I came in as a second-semester sophomore in 1995. It saved my life.”

Amid all the turmoil of the early 1970s, he had been finding it difficult to focus, but was able to graduate magna cum laude after two years as an American literature major at Middlebury.

During that time, one of his professors in that field was Horace Beck, the late husband of folklorist Jane Beck. They befriended Tolkin, who rented a house from them in Cornwall. “It wasn’t Vermont in quotes back then,” he observed, underscoring his affection for the ‘pre-Ben & Jerry’s’ bucolic nature of the state.

Tolkin’s next stop was the antithesis of a pastoral environment: New York City, where he freelanced for the now-defunct Village Voice, among other newspapers. “It was still possible in those days to get by on $7,500 a year. But then I remembered I wanted to be in movies.”

After he married Mogel in 1978, they relocated to Los Angeles, where she’s a noted psychologist and author. Tolkin’s endeavors on TV shows and theatrical films were low-key, until he adapted his novel “The Player” as a cinematic venture for director Robert Altman in 1992.

‘The wind hits heavy on the borderline’

Blood is not on display in most of the “Escape at Dannemora” episodes. But tension remains high, never more so than in a mesmerizing eight-minute sequence when the camera tracks David Sweat’s trial run along the elaborate route the convicts have devised in order to flee. He burrows or runs, crouched, through the prison’s heating and cooling system, with a headlamp that furnishes a ghostly dim light.

There’s a tight synchronization of Jessica Lee Gagné’s intensive cinematography and the eerie music composed by Ed Shearmur: a horn, maybe an oboe, then a guitar, followed by a drum and finally a flute. “That’s expert filmmaking,” Tolkin suggested.

Although ostensibly about Minnesota, the Bob Dylan-Johnny Cash duet of “Girl from the North Country,” which accompanies the opening credits, seems equally well-suited to the story. The series is set in a region known as the North Country, and “the wind hits heavy on the borderline” there as much as it does in the upper Midwest. Ditto for snowfalls.

And Tolkin pointed out that Tilly is indeed a girl from the North Country. Although desperate to leave, she’s dismissive of flatlanders who want to gentrify the area her family has called home for 200 years. A line from another soundtrack melody — “In the Beginning” by Emerson, Lake & Palmer — hints at a cosmic inevitability for anyone who yearns to get away: “You were meant to be here.”

‘Escaping from their life’

The “here” in Dannemora happens to be an ugly place of punishment built in 1844 that’s juxtaposed with a stunning vista. “Nobody’s ever taken such care to shoot the Adirondacks as we did,” Tolkin said of the scenes in which Matt and Sweat are relentlessly pursued through the mountains by heavily armed police, state troopers, U.S. marshals, ATF agents, the FBI and even forest rangers.

At one juncture, the media reports that the fugitives had planned to head for Vermont.

Ben Stiller secured permission from an initially reluctant Gov. Andrew Cuomo to film in parts of the prison and on the streets of Dannemora, according to Tolkin. With a proverbial cast of thousands, many extras were people who had participated in or witnessed the real-life manhunt.

Tolkin scouted some locations for the series and later visited the set intermittently. “We all got souvenir baseball caps with the words, ‘118 days and counting…,’” he said. “But principal photography took place from August 2017 through March 2018, with a few additional shoot days in June 2018.”

Brett Johnson, Patricia Arquette and Paul Dano were able to meet with David Sweat, serving a life sentence at the infamous Attica Correctional Facility, near Buffalo. Richard Matt did not survive their furtive trek in the wilderness. Now incarcerated at Bedford Hills in Westchester County, Tilly Mitchell finally got her wish to depart from the North County.

Tolkin waxed philosophical about the motivations that drove those culprits to such extremes: “Everybody fantasizes about escaping from their life.”

Be that as it may, perhaps instead we all should stop and smell the manure.

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