Locals Respond To New Prison Drama
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
A small community in northern New York gets a lot of national stage time in Ben Stiller's new seven-part prison drama, "Escape At Dannemora." It's the real-life story of Richard Matt and David Sweat, who broke out of the Clinton Correctional Facility in 2015. Zach Hirsch covered the prison break for NPR back then. He was also an extra in this new series. And for him, seeing his community on the big screen was exciting and a little weird.
ZACH HIRSCH, BYLINE: I'll never forget the real manhunt for Richard Matt and David Sweat. It was a stressful, exhausting time. Constantly getting stopped and searched and meeting plenty of anxious residents like Linda Carpenter. She was under lockdown on her front porch.
LINDA CARPENTER: Just waiting for it to be over like everybody else. The ending to this horrific movie.
HIRSCH: The manhunt did come to an end, with Richard Matt dead and David Sweat captured. But those movies were just getting started. Ben Stiller - who's famous mostly for comedies like "Zoolander" and "Meet The Fockers" - said this project was met with serious skepticism.
BEN STILLER: And I understand that people are still skeptical who work at the prison probably, who know what we're putting out there. But my goal was always to try to tell the story in a real way.
HIRSCH: New York's North Country is a pretty remote place, where Clinton Correctional Facility is a big part of the economy. So how the prison and the community look on screen matters a lot. Stiller visited the area off and on for about a year before filming. He got the state's permission to film at the prison itself. He cast locals like me as extras and hired real inmates and law enforcement officers as consultants.
STILLER: It just felt like the right thing to do because the community was so much a part of this and went through so much when it first happened in real life.
HIRSCH: That turned out to be a good strategy. Almost 700 people came to the local premiere in Plattsburgh, not far from the prison. Some were ambivalent. One person said it's a sore subject, and he was worried the story will be sensationalized. But most were pumped, like Candie Webb and Warren Klopsch.
CANDIE WEBB: Yeah, I'm very excited. Very excited. Yes, I am.
WARREN KLOPSCH: Ben Stiller? He'll knock it out of the park, yeah. He'll do great.
HIRSCH: Stiller gave a brief introduction. And then the first episode of the series came up on the big screen. Episode 1 is dark and serious with some humor. And people laughed a lot.
That's me, that's me, that's me.
OK, full disclosure - I think it was me. My cameo is quick and pretty blurry. Out in the lobby, after the lights came up, it was a who's who of people who experienced the manhunt firsthand. And they gave glowing reviews. Retired State Police Maj. Chuck Guess led the search, then consulted and acted on the film. He said it felt authentic. A former prison guard at Clinton Correctional, Jimmy Meaghar, said the portrayal of correction officers was fair and accurate. Erik Jensen was an inmate at Dannemora who worked a prison job with David Sweat and Richard Matt. He was an actor and consultant on the film, working with Stiller and the crew.
ERIK JENSEN: Like, when I see it, I feel like it's real, so real that I just told somebody the other day that when we were doing the tailor shop scenes, I actually had to get up and excuse myself and go use the restroom. And I threw up because I felt like I was back. I was in state greens. I was in the tailor shop. And it kind of is like a form of PTSD. It kind of, like, messed with my head.
HIRSCH: And when he first saw Benicio Del Toro as escapee Richard Matt...
JENSEN: I had to do a double take because I thought Richard Matt came back from the dead.
HIRSCH: It was definitely a self-selecting audience. But everyone I talked to on the way out loved it. They said the depiction of our area was respectful and freakishly accurate. The first episode airs nationwide tonight on Showtime. For NPR News, I'm Zach Hirsch in Plattsburgh, N.Y.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELTON JOHN SONG, "TAKE ME TO THE PILOT")
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