You'll be kicking yourself if you don't see “The Stanford Prison Experiment” in theaters. Seriously. And, no, I'm not just saying that because I happen to know director Kyle Patrick Alvarez socially or that it's a Sundance Jury Award-winning movie or that it depicts one of the most shocking events to occur at one of America's greatest Universities over the past fifty years.* The real reason is that besides the questions it raises about the human condition and our ability to descend to abject cruelty, “Stanford” features a once in a life time cast that will dominate Hollywood for the next 15 to 20 years.*
*It also has earned strong reviews to date including a 71 grade on Metacritic and 78% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
Based on true events, the new drama chronicles the 1971 psychological experiment that found Stanford University students sorted into the roles of prison guard or a generic prisoner. In theory, the study was meant to take place in a controlled environment but it went so off the rails so quickly that it had to be stopped after just six days and brought a mountain of criticism towards the man who conceived it, Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup). The fact this took place in modern times will be disturbing to many viewers and to ease the shock of it all Alvarez has recruited an incredible ensemble that wonderfully brings it to life.
The cast includes some of the most promising young actors working today such as Ezra Miller (“Trainwreck”), Thomas Mann (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”), Michael Angarano (“The Knick”), Logan Miller (“I'm in the Band”), Johnny Simmons (“The Perks of Being A Wallflower”), Tye Sheridan (“Mud,” “X-Men Apocalypse”), Ki Hong Lee (“The Maze Runner”), Keir Gilchrist (“It Follows”), Nicholas Braun (2015's “Poltergeist”), Moises Arias (“The Kings of Summer”), James Wolk (“Mad Men”), Gaius Charles (“Grey's Anatomy”), Matt Bennett (“Victorious”), James Frenchville (“Animal Kingdom”), Miles Heizer (“Parenthood”), Callan McAuliffe (“I Am Number Four”), Benedict Samuel (“The Walk”), Chris Sheffield (“Aquarius”), Brett Davern (“Awkward,” “Love & Mercy”), Nelsan Ellis (“True Blood”) and Olivia Thirlby (“Juno”) among others. Yes, “among others.”
Again, this isn't something you see everyday.
Alvarez, who is previously helmed “Easier with Practice” and “C.O.G.,” took some time earlier this month to sit down and chat about the difficulties of telling this unique story, working with Zimbardo and the reaction to the movie so far.
HitFix: How did you come on board the project? How did you find out about it?
Kyle Alvarez: Well, I knew the script was sort of beloved. It was one of these famous scripts that people always talked about. It was one of these scripts like around town [that] almost got made like 13 years ago, ten years ago or so and it didn”t happen. And then Brian Geraghty actually, who starred in 'Easier with Practice,' was friends with Brent Emery who had held onto the rights over the years and he had sort of incited this iteration of this project. Because people had been trying to do it for 40 years.
And they were talking once and he was like, 'Oh yeah, I”m looking for a director.' He”s like, 'Oh, I should send it to Kyle.' So, Brian sent it to me and then I read it and then met with Brent. That would have been about like three years ago or so. But then 'C.O.G.' came together. So, I went and shot that and then jumped on board 'Stanford' to really hunker down and make it happen.
What about it appealed to you? Was it the true story itself or did you just like the screenplay?
It was a combination of things. It was partly that on the narrative level the screenplay didn”t embellish much. I was aware of the experiment, but I didn”t know the details of it. So, when I was reading it I kind of thought, 'Well, they probably made a lot of this up.' And then when I read about it and looked at YouTube clips and watched the documentary and it was like, 'Oh no, they didn”t at all. This is actually really how it went down.' So, I thought it would be cool to make a film and the rare opportunity to make a movie where while you”re watching you”re kind of like 'this could not have happened.; And then you go back and you kind of watch it and you”re like, 'Oh this really kind of did.'
That was sort of the narrative impetus but for me it was also the [aesthetic] challenge of shooting a whole movie in a hallway basically. The whole thing in just a tiny little single location kind of thing and how to pull that off. And the other challenge was building an ensemble. You don”t see a lot of low budget entities have 25 lead ensembles like this does.
Is that one of the reasons why it hadn”t got made over the years?
Well, I think part of what happened was that they were trying to make it as a bigger film. I don”t think it was a studio film, but it was certainly a way, way bigger budget than what we made it for. And they had the cast to back that budget up, but the problem is when you have that big of a cast you”ve got to get everyone there in the same place, at the same time and it becomes this weird impossible puzzle. Part of what I said when I first got involved was that no matter what you do, no matter how you make this movie or how little or how much you make it for it”s always going to be a bunch of white guys locked in a white hallway. That”s what it is. So, why don”t we find the most economical way to make it? Not make it a cast contingent film. Make it younger, exciting actors because with the iteration before? I mean you can look it up. It had well-known actors, but a a handful of them were too old to be in college. And for me I was like, 'College kids look young.' I mean, these were 17-year-olds and stuff. We needed the Tye Sheridans and those kind of guys. For me it was a combination of all those things. This was like a casting dream come true to be able to try to get all these great kids tougher.
How quick was the process of actually going into production?
Well, it got delayed because 'C.O.G.' came together.
Ah, so this was beforehand.
Yeah, so that was before and then afterwards it was weird. If you really look at when we really committed [it was] like two years from the movie premiering. So, 'C.O.G.' premiered at Sundance and then two years later I”m there with 'Stanford.' The time dedicated to just getting it done took, I mean, forever, but also smoothly for what an indie movie like this normally takes. We got some cast involved. Then we got the money. Then we got the rest of the cast. There was some speed bumps along the way. Any project with this long of a history and based on real people? You hit some legal stuff you”ve got to get sorted out. But, you know, I remember there only being a few months of 'What”s happening? Why aren”t we making this yet?' As opposed to my previous films [where] I”m used to a couple of years of that.
You talked about the fact that the previous version didn”t necessarily come together quickly because they had actors who were doing so many other big things.
Then the director got pulled off to go produce something else for a studio and that fell apart.
How was it to sync up everybody together for this version?
It was consistently heartbreaking where you”d lose someone from scheduling or someone you were interested in. For instance, we couldn”t even afford to bring in kids from the UK. Really, we couldn”t even afford to bring in people from New York.
Oh, wow. That's a tight budget.
That combined with, I mean, [it was] down to the wire on some of these guys. Actually I probably shouldn”t say this, but Miles was shooting 'Parenthood' as we were shooting this. So, he would go spend like the first half of the day on 'Parenthood' and then come and shoot the second half of the day with us.
With such a large cast and short schedule were you able to do any rehearsals before shooting began?
No. We had one day and we did a table read. And then we worked with the stunt coordinator because my biggest fear were the days that we had some stunts. I didn”t want us to be figuring that out on set the day of. Even just for 'How are they going to tie Johnny up?' That could take an hour on set. So, we did that on our one day of rehearsal and that was it.
Did that make you nervous or were you…
Oh yeah. I mean you don”t have any other option.
Are you a 'rehearsal guy'?
I”ve never been able to afford to because 'C.O.G.' was Jonathan [Groff] working every day. [It was] the same with Brian Geraghty. We just went through the script and every scene and really talked it through. But, you know, the rest of the cast was only coming in for a few days on those first two movies. On ['C.O.G'] Denis O”Hare showed up Sunday night and started shooting Monday morning and I”d never even met him before. I think we talked on the phone briefly once. It”s just like at some point you just have to put your head down and hope it all works out.
One of the many interesting things about the movie is Billy is playing a living public figure, Dr. Philip Zimbardo. Did you have any interaction with Zimbardo before the movie started?
Oh, I had a lot. After Brent sort of brought me on board the next thing was introducing me to Phil, going up to Stanford, spending a day with him there, talking through with him. I think he came down here a couple of times. I Skyped with him and his wife who Olivia [Thirlby] plays in the movie every few months or something. They would get a new draft of the script and give their thoughts. He was very involved which is a different experience for me because ['C.O.G.' author] Dave Sedaris was just like, 'Oh, do whatever you want.' But this was more of a historical film too. So, we wanted that involvement to make sure we were getting things right. It's hard because you want to do that person”s life justice, but the priority needs to be to make a film, to make an engaging movie.
Did he understand before the movie started that this would spawn a whole new generation of people who thought he was a crazy person?
I think he”s faced like a lifetime of people saying 'It wasn”t real' or questioning him or challenging him. I think he”s just always faced that. I do think to a degree he”s always been a divisive figure and, so, I don”t think the movie was ever going to serve him any differently than that. And one of the things I liked is he”s the first guy to say 'I did wrong.' I mean he said it back then. I mean he never says, 'Oh my god, it was totally great.' His exact quote I believe from his interview that happened a month after the experiment was, 'I was both the superintendent of the facility and the lead researcher and I should have never done that.' And that”s almost verbatim. What I thought was interesting was is that he takes responsibility for how it went down, but at the same time that he doesn”t necessarily say, 'Well, that doesn”t mean that what happened wasn”t important.' There are important things that happened there. I mean even now The New Yorker just wrote a piece arguing about the merits of the experiment or not. I mean 40 odd years later we”re still discussing what it meant and what it said and what it was. And so that”s why I was interested in making a film that didn”t really tell you this experiment was right or wrong or it was about this or it was bout power or it was about…
But Billy plays him a a pretty myopic guy. I feel that until the end there”s very little concern about what's going on from his character.
That's because the way Phil [describes it] was that he just got wrapped up in it. I mean at the beginning of the film he seems pretty formal and following protocol. And then I think that there was a sense of 'Something really exciting is happening here.' I think if you read Phil”s book he kind of talks about [how] he fell into the role playing just as much as the kids did. That was sort of interesting to me was this idea that the role playing was powerful enough [to cause these events to occur]. I think as adults it”s easy to say, 'I could pretend to do that for a bit' when the reality is you”d say, 'I can pretend to be this warden and it”ll probably hit you just as strong.' The malleability of both the people inside the prison and outside was really interesting.
Where there other people involved in the experiment that you wanted to meet that were still alive? Any of the other participants?
No, you know what it when Tim wrote the script Phil was writing his book at the same time. So, Phil was sent to do new interviews [and] look back at his old research when he was writing 'The Lucifer Effect.' I kind of felt like that heavy lifting had been done beforehand and I accessed all the material behind the experiment, all the interviews. I got to see all the raw footage of the experiment. But I felt there”s so many characters that if I decided to get involved with each of them it would have been problematic. We were trying to take inspiration from the action some of them took, you know, like 'John Wayne' [Michael Angarano's character] did put on that accent, but [we didn't want to be compelled to cast] a guy who looks like him. You can look at the footage. Michael doesn”t look like the real life guy. We weren”t trying to recreate every little bit.
Have you heard from any of the original subjects?
Not at all?
I suspect we will soon. But, you know, I wouldn”t be surprised if some of them were like 'No, it wasn”t really like that' or 'It wasn”t as intense as that.' Because, first of all, everyone was told this story defined [Phil's] life, for a lot of them. I mean, some of them went on to be prison psychologists. A lot of them went on to study psychology. But I think anything that”s such a defining story and you repeat it over and over and over again and it becomes legend, you know? Look we rebuilt the hallway exactly the same. We took a lot of the dialogue straight from the transcripts. The series of events and the orders of events is very true. But in a weird way you also are dramatizing it or trying to involve the audience [to feel part of it], right? The whole time I”m like, 'Why is this going to exist as a feature?' How could those kids really have lost their minds? And did they really? How did that really happen?
I feel like after you watch the movie you can at least get a little bit of, 'O.K., I understand how this element and that element and that character and that person all contributed to these people getting lost into it.' For me a priority for the film is for it to not be the definitive telling of the story. That”s what the book and the documentary are there for. It”s tricky because I”m sure people will say 'It wasn”t really like that.' But at the same time we had a lot of footage to show. The Frankenstein walk really happened. The camel humping really happened. But, as soon as you introduce a camera and the camera has a point of view it becomes fiction.
*As of this article's publication date Alvarez still has not received any feedback from the original participants.
Right, so it's been six months since it debuted at Sundance. I don”t know how many screenings you”ve had.
Are you surprised at the reaction afterward? Do people become adamant that this could never happen again?
I know I wanted the last ten minutes to be really brutal, but I was working so hard to work against some of the inherent tension. Like in real life by the end of day one I think they were stripping them down. And in the film it”s not until like halfway through day two. I thought the really easy version would just be to make this really glum dark depressing movie like dark right off the bat. And so I think because I was working so hard to bring levity to it when we could I was worried I had maybe made a kind of bland movie. So, I think the first question at the premiere was [something along the lines of] 'Do you feel like this movie itself was like an experiment on the audience?' I was kind of like almost taken aback because I didn”t think the reaction was going to be as intense as it was. And I think it helped or hurt or whatever you want to say that this year was a particularly like light year at Sundance.
Yeah it was.
A comedic year, you know? Movies with a lot more levity and ours was one of the only like really serious dramas. Because even 'Me and Earl,' has its [humor]…
'The Witch' was really dark.
'The Witch' was really dark, but it”s a horror movie though. This was like the only really intense drama. The Q&A”s since have been more challenging than I expected, but I also welcome it, I”m glad for it because it means people have responded.
What do people ask?
I mean I”m just used to people being like, 'What was Jonathan Groff like?' or 'Where did you get all those dildos from?' (Laughs.) I”m not used to being asked 'Is it the nature of man or is it the way that they were treated?' People don”t get angry at me. I think it”s different than like what Craig [Zobel] experienced with 'Compliance' because the [viewing] experience actually [prompted] lot of vitriol. People were mad at him.
For making the movie.
For the story even existing. What I think we had in our favor – and Craig and I talked about this on a YouTube interview – was that people were more familiar with Stanford. So I feel like most of the audience are thinking, 'I know this was a thing that happened' as opposed to Compliance.' I think what his film did so strongly was sort of remind people – I don”t think really a lot of people knew that had really happened.
But, the events in 'Compliance' weren't that long ago.
It was more recent. Yeah, exactly.
Your movie takes place 40 years ago.
And what we had in our favor though is when the movie starts and they go 'O.K., I know this is a real thing. With 'Compliance' it”s the story that is so intense. I mean in our movie there”s not even a single drop of blood, you know” Our movie is more psychological.
What”s the rating?
I”m assuming it”s R.
I didn”t know if maybe you got PG-13 because there”s no blood.
Oh yeah, there”s definitely a lot of [expletive]'s. Because the very first movie I went to when I was 17…
Wait, you have a movie that coming out in a few weeks and you don”t even know what the rating is? (Laughs.)
I”m not sure. Well, because ever since 'Easier with Practice' got a NC-17 as long as it”s not NC-17 I”m happy because that was brutal. I mean that”s why in real life they weren”t wearing underwear. I mean you don”t see underwear in the movie, but in real life they were just given those dresses so that they would have to cross their legs to hide their junk.
I just don”t understand why that was part of the experiment.
I think it was about separating them, taking away individuality, making them comfortable. Making them feel vulnerable like you would as a prisoner, you know.
I”m not sure. I”m sure there”s something a little more succinct in his book that describes why.
It”s interesting because even one critic who wrote an O.K.-mixed review on the film at Sundance said something [along the lines of] 'the film is too on the nose of this imagery aligning the experiment with Abu Ghraib,' probably referenced the scene where they”re all walking down the hallway with paper bags on their head. There”s a photo of it and we just recreated the photo. They all had paper bags on their heads standing in the hallway. But because it”s so similar to the shots of Abu Ghraib it”s almost unbelievable that the same exact image could have existed 35 years, 40 years apart from each other but it did. I just don”t think saying, 'Well, it really happened' is enough. [With] stranger than fiction kind of stories is you have to try to bring the audience to understand how it happened. I don”t know if we succeeded on that or not but I was thinking about that all the time. I don”t want to just say – I never wanted it to be like well that”s what really happened to be enough of a reason. I wanted to always understand why someone was doing what they did.
“The Stanford Prison Experiment” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.
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