Ben Stiller on ‘Escape At Dannemora’ Flashbacks: “The Hope Was to Punch You in the Stomach”

Ben Stiller, who directed all seven ‘Escape at Dannemora’ episodes for Showtime, also discusses the method to Benicio del Toro’s madness.

Last week’s episode of Showtime’s Escape At Dannemora was a breathlessly paced hour focusing on the escape that gives the show its title.

Viewers tuning in to Sunday night’s episode expecting to see convicts Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano) interacting with the outside world got what they wanted, but not in the way they expected. The season’s sixth episode took a step back and showed viewers the crimes that got Matt and Sweat thrown behind bars in the first place, also flashing back to a key moment in Tilly (Patricia Arquette) and Lyle’s (Eric Lange) relationship.

Ben Stiller, who directed all seven Escape at Dannemora episodes, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about this dramatic change of pace, the decision to hold back on violence until this episode and why Benicio del Toro’s acting choices can be both terrifying and also grounded.

This episode, as much as it’s about the characters, I feel like it’s at least as much about the audience and the assumptions that we’ve made over the first five episodes about these characters and our instinctive desire to root for them to escape. Do you want us to feel guilty, uncomfortable?

I’m hoping that it catches you by surprise, and that you’re not expecting this. It’s definitely a misdirect, and we’re taking advantage of that moment where people are naturally going to be rooting for them to get out, because they’re the protagonists even though they’re these bad guys. You can’t help but root for the guys getting out on some level, and I think intellectually, the audience knows they’re bad guys, but the hope was to punch you in the stomach a little bit and really confuse you.

You think about these guys and you think, “Well, of course I’d want to get out of jail if I was in there too,” but who are these people? What’s the reality? Are they people that are worthy of any sympathy at all because they’re human beings? That’s what’s I think fun as an audience to experience and not be told what to feel.

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