Escape at Dannemora Writer Michael Tolkin Interview

In 2015, Richard Matt and David Sweat broke out of Clinton Correctional prison in the town of Dannemora, with the help of Tilly Mitchell. Matt was having an affair with workplace supervisor Mitchell and convinced her to help them escape. They probably never imagined how the breakout would bring them down, let alone become a Showtime miniseries starring Benicio del Toro as Matt, Paul Dano as Sweat and Patricia Arquette as Mitchell.

Ben Stiller directed the eight hour series Escape at Dannemora, written by Michael Tolkin and Brett Johnson (Jerry Stahl is also credited on two episodes). Johnson came from reality TV and worked on Castle, Mad Men and Ray Donovan. Meanwhile, Tolkin was a Hollywood screenwriter in demand in the ‘90s, and penned the definitive Hollywood fiction The Player, which became a landmark Robert Altman movie.

Tolkin spoke with /Film before Showtime’s Television Critics Association panel for Escape at Dannemora. In addition to the Showtime series, we discussed his transition from film to television, and some of his early industry work like the Christian Slater skateboard vehicle Gleaming the Cube and the short-lived Animal House TV series Delta House.

Escape at Dannemora premieres Sunday, November 18 at 10pm on Showtime.

I went to see Gleaming the Cube at The Egyptian over the summer.

There was a screening of it? Nobody told me. I would’ve worn my crew jacket.

You didn’t know? I never saw it in the theater when it came out.

You know, I haven’t seen the movie in a long time. I haven’t seen it on the big screen in 1000 years. Did it hold up?

Yeah.

Was there a crowd for it?

There was. It was a triple feature with North Shore and supposed to be Rad but Rad got replaced with BMX Bandits.

That makes my day.

At the end when they visit the brother’s grave, Steven Bauer says, “It happens, you know?” Was that in your script or a Steven Bauer improv?

I wish I could remember. I don’t remember.

I also saw you did a Delta House TV series based on Animal House. I’ve never seen that.

No, nobody has.

How did that come about and what was your take on how to do that every week?

I had been hired by Matty Simmons, who was the publisher of the National Lampoon. I was based in New York at the time and moved to LA to help find writers for a show that he was producing. He hired me and my brother as story editors and he didn’t understand that story editor was writer. He thought that somehow there was going to be somebody else to write the show and I would then edit in. So we were given the run of an ABC television series without having much experience. I was a journalist in New York for four years prior to that. So it was really film school at Universal for the half season we were on the air. It wasn’t a successful show but it was a lot of fun.

Animal House was such a big movie. Was it not as much of an era where franchises succeeded in other media?

If they’d understood how to translate that show, they wouldn’t have hired rank beginners to do it. One episode we did was really one of the most fun things I’ve ever written was the Deltas convince the Omegas that World War III has started. The Omegas have a bomb shelter so they convince them it started and they build a diorama of scorched nuclear zone around the periscope the Omegas have. So the Deltas are outside this perimeter in lawn chairs drinking beer and having a good time while the Omegas are convinced that the world has ended. Michelle Pfeiffer played Bombshell. I remember that. That was a long time ago.

With Escape at Dannemora, did Ben Stiller want to do something a little more serious since Hollywood paints him in the comedy box?

Yes, actually Brett [Johnson] and I wrote the first two chapters on spec. We were looking for a director and Ben read them, was interested and met with us, was intrigued by it. Then backed off because he wanted something more dramatic. Then a year to the day after the breakout, the Inspector General of New York, Catherine Leahy Scott, released her report on how it happened. When we gave that to him, he said, “Here’s the template for the script. This is the real story. This is how it happened. These are the players. These are the people involved.” With that, we were then pointed in the direction of the transcripts of the interviews. He then encouraged us to write this as accurate as possible and truthfully as possible.

Is the Catherine Scott (Bonnie Hunt) interview of Tilly from verbatim transcripts?

A bunch of that is verbatim.

As a director, what kind of notes does Ben give? How does he work with screenwriters?

I think the way any director does. “Make it better. Make it more truthful. What’s going on in the scene? What are the characters really feeling? How can we make this more suspenseful? How do we limit the scene to a certain amount of information?” He’s very technical.

Did you embellish at all Tilly’s relationship with these two men?

Everything is either off the record or educated suppositions we can make based on their personalities and what we knew about. There were so many reports about them that we dramatized it as much as possible.

Even with eight hours, were there things you had to leave out?

That’s a great question. Because the community of Dannemora is so interesting and the north country is so interesting, we could have expanded into more about the lives of the other guards, the other corrections officers. We might have done more on the childhoods of Matt, Sweat and Tilly. It’s an infinitely rich story.

Did your relationship with Showtime begin with Ray Donovan?

Yes. Ann Biderman asked me to come on Ray Donovan the first season but I had another commitment, so I came on for the second and third season. Brett and I wrote an episode together on the second season and then the third season, which is how we came to write this.

When did you become aware of this story and pitch it as a series?

While they were on the run. Bryan Zuriff who’s one of the executive producers of the show, started talking about it with Brett and Brett started talking about it with me. So we started making it up and filling in the blanks or taking new pieces of information and adding that to our understanding of it. After they were caught, we talked to our agents doing it. Our agents recommended that we not do it and Brett and I said, “You know, we write really quickly and we write together well, so let’s write the first two chapters on spec and see what happens.” That’s what led to Ben and led to Showtime.

Escape at Dannemora - Paul Dano Benicio Del Toro

Why did your agents think it wasn’t a good idea?

You’d have to ask them. I don’t think they appreciated the nuances of the characters the way we did. The thing that made me most excited about doing this was that Matt was an artist. When we looked at his drawings from Martin Luther King and Hilary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, they’re not quite sidewalk caricatures. They’re very sentimental and very earnest. That earnest sensitivity of the artist, married to a vicious murderer, seemed like a really interesting character to explore.

Did the true story have natural chapter breaks for each episode?

I think we found them, yes. You sort of have a chapter break or the end of a scene, the end of an episode where you build to that dramatic moment. The outline of a show like this is first you outline as much of each episode as you can, then outline the main breaks from every episode and then you can shift things around.

How soon does the escape begin on the show?

They break out of the manhole cover at the end of chapter five. Tilly has had her panic attack in Chin’s Wok Chinese restaurant and goes to the hospital, leaving them, knowing what she’s doing leaving them to their fate. So chapter five ends with the two of them walking down the road and heading up into the mountains. Chapter six begins with a cop on the highway speeding. You think it’s the present and it turns out that chapter six is a flashback episode to how each one of them ended up in prison, the crimes they committed and what happened with Tilly’s relationship, how she came to marry Lyle. Chapter seven and eight which will be done as a single two hour event is the manhunt.

Is your process different between TV and film, and working alone vs. with a partner?

Yeah, Brett’s a brilliant writer. We had a great time working on Ray Donovan. Ray Donovan taught us how to work together which is doing a single episode, each of us would take a different run of scenes with a different character. Then we would switch after we got to the end of that and collate our sections. I’d never worked with anybody on a feature like I have on television. Television is obviously a group effort.

Did you have any classic prison movies in mind?

There’s a Bresson movie, A Man Escaped, that I really liked. We didn’t want to be Shawshank Redemption. The Great Escape as a model of energy.

Do you ever get over hearing actors like Benicio del Toro, Paul Dano and Patricia Arquette saying your lines?

Never get over it. It’s really exciting. Somebody once said, “Where the writer leaves off, the director begins. Where the director leaves off, the actor begins. Where the actor leaves off, the audience begins and takes over.” You write a piece of dialogue and you hear it in your head. You know exactly how it’s supposed to sound. Then you see the actor do it and they do such an original spin on it that it doesn’t even sound like my dialogue anymore. It belongs to them. It’s a really great feeling.

Was doing a finite miniseries very different than keeping Ray Donovan going?

It’s very different. First of all, it’s based on something so you know the outcome. I think it suits me as a novelist to work on something which is closed ended rather than something which drifts into continuing, where nothing comes to a hard conclusion.

Do you usually know the end of your stories when you begin?

I try to. When I’ve written my novels, when I’m not exactly sure where I’m going, usually 25, 30 pages in, I finally figure out where it should end and usually I follow that path. With this show, we knew exactly where it was going to end. The challenge was the structure. How to tell the story so that the foregone conclusion is interesting. What’s surprising?

Hollywood has evolved so much, do you ever think about updating The Player?

Well, I wrote the sequel to the novel, The Return of the Player about four years ago. So I pursued that and we’re actually developing a series based on it for Warners television. That’s in the early stages.

Was it still Griffin Mill?

It’s Griffin 15 years later and he’s down to his last six million dollars and he doesn’t know what he’s going to do. He’s in a panic about his future.

And you see that more as a TV series than another feature film?

Yeah, yeah.

Tim Robbins has done television. Do you think he would reprise the role?

We’re not at the casting stage yet. It would be fun. It would be wonderful to have him.

That’s where I learned that every movie is described as something meets something else. Is that still how Hollywood pitches?

I don’t think so. I don’t think so. It’s a really interesting point. It’s not. I don’t think you’d say, “It’s Aladdin meets Infinity War.” I think movies now are so strictly genre oriented, you wouldn’t think in terms of the title. You’d think more in terms of a mashup of genre.

And there are so few originals, they’re not even looking for things that are like something else. They just do the comic book.

Right, exactly. That’s why I’m in TV now.

Was Ray Donovan the turning point?

I’d had some pilots shot but Ray Donovan, yeah, that was the turning point for me.

You would get jobs writing big tentpole scripts like Deep Impact. Could you not still do that if it were a comic book movie or whatever Hollywood is making?

I haven’t been approached to write one. The last big tentpole I did was the comet movie, Deep Impact. That was the last big super tentpole I did and my interests changed into other directions. I wrote three more novels after that. I shot a pilot at HBO about an outlaw motorcycle club and Kurt Sutter beat me to the punch. That was a big blow. We had been working with a lot of interesting people but HBO said they’re not going to follow FX.

So Hollywood would do two asteroid movies but TV won’t do two biker shows.

I guess not.

Is The Player next up or what else is in the works?

Without saying any more, I’m working on a musical, an original musical.

With a composer?

Not yet although there are some that are interested. I’m writing a script and fitting the music in.

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