PLATTSBURGH — Ben Stiller’s toughest audience left episode 1 of “Escape at Dannemora” ready for more.
“Kind of whetted the appetite,” said Sandy Desso, 75, of Plattsburgh, as she left Cumberland 12 Cinemas after the screening Thursday night.
Gesture of thanks
The seven-part Showtime limited series begins airing this Sunday, but the director/producer brought the first installment to Plattsburgh in a gesture of thanks to the North Country for hosting his film crews and putting up with the disruption caused by filming in Dannemora, Malone and Plattsburgh.
More than 1,000 requests for free passes to the event translated to a crowd of 675 for the screenings, Cinema 12 Manager Craig Cather said.
Showtime had reserved six of the 12 theaters but ended up using just three.
Even so, he said, “they were more than excited about the turnout they had.”
Along with the free screening, audience members got free popcorn and soda — the theater served about 550 16-ounce drinks and more than 800 bags of popcorn.
Excited locals lined up starting around 4:30 p.m. to grab the best seats, waiting in premature winter cold in the high 20s.
With the doors opening at 6 and the first screening set for 6:30, a much bigger crowd had gathered by 5:30, with cars packing the lot in front of the movie theater and a large field at the side.
Kristen Osborn of Malone had a few bit parts in “Escape” — as a nurse, a bar patron, and behind the wheel of a pickup truck.
“Hopefully, with four scenes, one of them made it,” she said, waiting outside Cumberland 12 before the screening.
All eyes on them
Plattsburgh City Police Chief Levi Ritter said he was looking forward to the historical aspect of the story.
“It seemed like Ben Stiller really tried to stay true to what was going on during that time period and capture that,” he said.
“It was a memorable time for a lot of people.”
Ritter hoped Stiller’s attention to detail would make those involved in the search feel better about being featured in what became a notorious saga.
“I know that they’re feeling very sensitive about it all, so portraying them in a positive way is a hopeful thing for this,” he said.
“I walked a lot of those woods with CERT teams (of correction officers), and they were hard workers and wanted nothing more than to just redeem themselves.
The escapes didn’t result from “anything that they did personally, but all eyes were on them.”
Amy Fellion-Rock, a native of Dannemora who lives in Morrisonville, won’t ever forget the date Richard Matt and David Sweat broke out of Dannemora.
Her nephew Lewis Andrew turned 2 on June 6, 2015.
“My sister is a New York State trooper,” Fellion-Rock said as she waited her turn to get her pass for the show. “She had to miss her son’s birthday.”
Guests collected their tickets from one of a dozen will-call attendants armed with tablets on which they checked names.
Temp agency ETS provided its own staff and some clients to check them in.
“They gave us a call based on our very good Google reviews,” ETS Business Development Manager Chloe Ballestas said.
Cinema 12 staffer Amanda Larebie helped guide the crowd but had a moment to share her own memories of the prison break and aftermath.
“I live in Dannemora, so I kinda lived through it,” she said.
It wasn’t frightening, Larebie said, “because a lot of the law enforcement and correction officers were there and made everybody feel really safe.”
When Stiller was shooting scenes for “Escape,” with news trucks and police cars filling the village once again, it was like deja vu, Larebie said.
“I think he did a better job (on “Escape”) than the Lifetime (movie about it)” she added. “I think he really researched it.”
As the time for the first screening drew closer, some audience members made their way to the refreshment counter to buy snacks; others picked up free popcorn and soda on a table.
Then they were directed to the theater noted on their passes.
“We’re here because it’s kind of intriguing,” Mandi McKee said, sitting in the front row of Theater 2, waiting for Stiller to enter and introduce the show.
She remembers exactly where she was when she heard two killers were on the loose.
“I was doing home health care in Chazy,” the Plattsburgh woman said. “I thought, “They can’t get too far.”
Sitting behind her in the next row, Lori Morin wasn’t exactly there to see “Escape.”
“Honestly,” she said, “I’m a big fan of Ben Stiller. I really love his movies.”
A realistic way
The director/producer of “Escape” entered to cheers and “Oh, my God,” from Morin.
“You’re going to be my toughest audience for this,” Stiller told the crowd.
His goal, he said, “was to tell the story in as realistic a way as possible and still make it engaging and entertaining.
“Nobody wants stories about what goes right,” Stiller said, winning laughs.
He took questions from the crowd, as he did in each theater when he introduced the episode.
“How did you convince (Showtime) to let you shoot it in Plattsburgh?” someone called out.
“We kept telling them we wanted to shoot it in Plattsburgh,” Stiller said to more laughter.
“Do you mind if I shake your hand?” asked Morin’s daughter, Heather Ondras.
“No touching,” Stiller told her, deadpan, then stepped forward with hand outstretched.
To the strains of acoustic guitar, “Escape” filled the screen with familiar scenes as an SUV rolled along a North Country road, past turning wind towers, a tractor working in a field ...
“You see it’s all clear, you are meant to be here,” are the lyrics as the view shifts to Clinton Correctional.
The faces seem so familiar, too — Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell in a prison jumpsuit of horizontal zebra stripes, correction officer Gene Palmer — even Matt and Sweat.
The audience settled down to watch, chuckling here and there when a humorous line lightened the dark atmosphere behind the prison walls.
“It was amazing,” Jordan Phaneuf said after the show. “Very true to detail. It really caught the energy of the area.”
The West Chazy man attended with his sister, Jennifer Phaneuf — their father is a correction officer at Clinton.
He would have been there, they said, but had to work.
“It was really jarring to see places that you knew so specifically, but also really cool,” local bartender Deb Hovis said.
She said some explicit scenes made sitting next to her 14-year-old daughter slightly uncomfortable.
“But so much of it is filmed very raw,” she said. “It is what it is.”
Theresa Venne, 87, of Plattsburgh was taken aback by a sex scene early in the episode — she wished “they’d deleted that raunchy part of it,” she said.
“I loved the scenery,” she added. “The photographer is fantastic.”
Hovis, of Plattsburgh, was happy to see such an honest portrayal, though.
“It didn’t seem like it was degrading about anybody who works in the prison or the prison system,” she said.
“It just seems like a story about people.”
Buffy Little of Rouses Point left the theater on Cloud 9.
She’d told Stiller she thought his parents must be very proud of him.
“Such a change of direction from what you normally do,” she told him.
“He said, ‘Thank you — so much,’” and squeezed her hand, she said.
Elaina Barnaby liked how the first episode served to introduce the protagonists — Matt, Sweat, the Mitchells, Palmer.
“Gives you more of an insight,” Little agreed. “I want to see the next one now!”
— Staff Writer McKenzie Delisle contributed to this report.