How ‘Escape at Dannemora’ DP Jessica Lee Gagne Created Tension with the Camera

Jessica Lee Gagne was surprised when she received an email that Ben Stiller wanted to meet with her to discuss “Escape at Dannemora,” a limited series based on the infamous 2015 prison break that he was directing for Showtime. The then 29-year-old Canadian cinematographer had not worked in the U.S., nor shot a TV series, and had no clue what had even put her on the famous actor-director’s radar.

“This was so far fetched – when I read the email I was like, ‘What is this?’” said Gagne, who appeared at IndieWire’s Consider This FYC Brunch earlier this month. “Why is he interested in me? What is he trying to achieve? Normally when you meet with directors you know which film of yours they liked.”

It turned out Stiller had been impressed by “Sweet Virginia,” a yet-to-be released indie Gagne had shot in 2016. Gagne came into the meeting armed with a book of Todd Hido’s photography and a pitch about trying to make things as natural looking as possible. The two future collaborators instantly bonded as they talked about the gritty realism of their favorite ’70s films.

Instead of outlining a specific look, Gagne believed it was more important to talk about how she would approach the unique production and address its specific needs. “A big part of this show was to give Ben the shots he needed to tell this story and not be too much of a selfish cinematographer,” said Gagne. “How do you tell this seven episode series with a director who is very demanding and has big ideas, but having to prep it simultaneously while shooting? I knew I had to be flexible.”

Only after she got the job and arrived in Dannemora, the New York upstate town and setting of the real-life prison break, did Gagne realize just how flexible she would need to be. Just a handful of weeks out from shooting, Stiller still hadn’t even gained access to simply walk through the Clinton Correctional facility or the grounds around it. Gagne, though, had already started work on establishing the look of the series.

“As cinematographer I always look for movies, and now TV shows, that have locations with lots of visual potential,” said Gagne. “That’s something that stimulates me creatively. So when I read ‘Dannemora,’ I thought, ‘Wow, these prisons and sets, you know you can do something textural and interesting.’”

When the “Dannemora” team finally got to walk through the prison the texture of the 1930s prison only fortified her initial instincts. “This prison is insanely cinematic,” said Gagne. “The way the light went through those windows, these giant windows with old glass and painted to keep the heat out, the way the sun would hit the ground and would bounce around, there was a very magical quality to it. It had these old fluorescents and old fixtures, so all of this stuff as a cinematographer, you love these things.”

Gagne worked closely with production designer Mark Ricker to build similar lighting into the prison sets that were being built on a stage back in New York City. Meanwhile, in her collaboration with Stiller, Gagne created varied and dynamic camera movements to fit the story.

“Movement was important, the energy of the camera was important,” said Gagne. “We didn’t want things to feel locked off just because we were in a prison. Tension was something we were trying to build in a lot of scenes, so the movement and that anticipation and that speed of the camera was an interesting balance. You are dealing with these prisoners who are stuck in these cells and working on this project [while plotting their escape], so you want to feel like the camera is constantly moving or lurking forwards.”

Gagne decided to shoot with anamorphic lenses because she wanted compositions that always situated and highlighted the characters’ prison setting. She wanted to visually emphasize how their environment dictated how they lived and moved.

“I think, for me, ‘Dannemora’ was the first time I had the opportunity to be given all the tools to do something amazing,” said Gagne. “As a young female DP I am so thankful to Ben and Showtime. It just goes to show that if you’re surrounded by the right people and given the right tools, that’s where you see if you can be a good cinematographer or not.”

Jessica Lee Gagne is eligible for “Escape at Dannemora” in the Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited Series or Movie category. 

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