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Ben Stiller on His Favorite Prison Movies and Whether Netflix Is Helping or Hurting Filmmakers

The director and executive producer of Showtime’s ‘Escape at Dannemora’ weighs in on the streaming debate

Ben Stiller Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Best known for his comedic films, actor turned director Ben Stiller joined The Watch this week to talk about his foray into television with Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora. From discussing his favorite prison movies to weighing in on the Netflix filmmaking debate, Stiller gave Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald the inside look at his creative process.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

On Movies That Influenced Escape at Dannemora

Chris Ryan: You’ve talked a little bit about the influence some of those ‘70s American cinema movies had on this work that you did here. We throw around All the President’s Men or Dog Day Afternoon as something everybody aspires towards, but what do those movies mean to you, and what was it that inspired you and influenced you when you were making Escape at Dannemora?

Ben Stiller: Well, those movies mean a lot to me just because that’s my generation. Those are movies I watched growing up. So Dog Day Afternoon, or The Godfather, or Marathon Man, … The Towering Inferno, Planet of the Apes … are the movies that I went to see over and over again as a kid, and I guess just maybe it’s the age you are when you see films that they really have an impact on you. But I think those movies—maybe not Planet of the Apes or The Towering Inferno—but those movies have this really amazing texture and reality, both visually and in terms of the acting and the story. It’s not glossy. It’s pre-glossy, it’s pre-test screenings, I think, in terms of how main characters were allowed to be in movies. Straight Time is a good example. I remember my first time seeing Straight Time. I just really was not expecting that story to go where it went. I thought, “OK, there’s this guy. He’s getting out of jail. He’s putting his life together,” and it just goes off a cliff and goes the other way. And that was just so surprising and exciting to see, because you just didn’t know where it was going to go.

And Dog Day Afternoon is probably one of my top five favorite movies, and that’s because the characters are just very, very real. … They’re real people, and there’s humor, and there’s seriousness, and there’s no specific genre that it falls into, which is why it would probably never be made today, or be a successful film today. And, then visually, for me, those movies … they’re a bunch of different cinematographers, but those guys were just working with natural light and figuring out these looks. One of those movies that I really, really love is The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Owen Roizman, the cinematographer who shot a lot of those great films ... talks about trying to figure out how to shoot in the subway tunnels, and that they had to find faster film, and they had very few lights they could bring down there. Now what everybody does, at least if you have that aesthetic, is just try to figure out ways to make it look like it used to when that was just organically how it looked because of the film stock, and the lenses, and the approach to the lighting.

On Moving Between Film and Television

Andy Greenwald: This is the first time that you’ve engaged with these new opportunities available on television. A story like this in the past would have been a two-hour movie. Now you can get these incredible stars, Oscar winners, to do a seven-hour piece. Did this experience—being able to tell a story like this at this scale, this scope, for this service—excite you about these possibilities? Or is it more a feeling of freedom that you knew you could do this and go jump back into bigger-budget films when and if the time is right?

Stiller: You know, it wasn’t really a big conceived idea. I think it was just that this story came up, this opportunity came up, and it was just a product of the fact that this is the kind of thing that they’re doing now on television, as opposed to in a movie. As you were saying, it’s harder to get a movie made like this nowadays. And so there’s the opportunity to do it in this format and this medium. …. I think the opportunities are there in television now, because there are just so many more places to do things that are doing interesting stuff. I hope it comes back in the movies. I think Netflix—they talked about it a little bit when we were doing The Meyerowitz Stories, but Netflix is one of the few places that is making movies that are in different genres that are interesting like that. The catch is just that you don’t really get to see them on the screen.

Ryan: We talk about that all the time. It’s such a mixed bag. I think it’s going to be such a huge issue going into the awards season this year. Roma will probably get nominated for Best Picture, and it’s something that, on one hand, people are going to get to watch all over the world as soon as they want, but, on the other hand, a film like that … you would want to have that reverential experience of going to the theater.

Stiller: Yeah. I honestly think filmmakers really want that, and I don’t have any inside information. I just know that’s what we went through on Meyerowitz, because it went to Cannes, and then we got some sort of backlash a little after that. To me, the filmmaker’s always going to want to see your movie up on the screen. You’re always going to want that. And I think the same way everybody said film was going to disappear, or shooting on film was going to disappear, I think there’s just too many filmmakers who really insist on doing it that way, because they feel that’s the way you should make a movie. [Netflix chief content officer] Ted Sarandos is a pretty smart guy who really does love movies, but he obviously has figured out this amazing model for his business. But I think he’s going to—I hope—eventually realize the screen experience is really important for an audience and for the filmmaker. So it feels like it might come around in some way. I don’t think it’s ever going to totally go away.