"Nothing like this had ever really happened before," says director Kyle Patrick Alvarez. "No one knew it would go this way, and that's why nothing like this will ever happen again. You have this really specific moment in time where the events could collude in a way to create a scary situation."
The event Alvarez is describing is the August 1971 experiment at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., where Philip Zimbardo had students agree to become prisoners and guards for two weeks. Zimbardo halted the study after a mere six days because the guards became abusive and the prisoners rioted. Some of the playacting convicts had genuine breakdowns when placed in solitary holding cells in a campus basement.
Zimbardo's research has been thoroughly studied and hotly debated ever since. Zimbardo's book on the event, The Lucifer Effect, was a best-seller, and a 2001 German film Das Experiment incorporated the ideas revealed in Zimbardo's findings.
Nonetheless, Alvarez maintains that little embellishment is needed to obtain fresh insights or a compelling film. The Stanford Prison Experiment earned Alvarez the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize in January at the Sundance Film Festival and opens in Arkansas today.
"[Das Experiment] becomes a movie about someone's going to die. This is not a slam against the movie," Alvarez says. "It goes fundamentally against exactly what the experiment shows. Really, none of these guys left with a lot of physical damage. No one had even as much as a bruise. We're talking about it was all psychological damage that was being done. It was all psychological complications. As soon as you say, hey, the mind isn't enough of a stake to tell a story? People's lives need to be at stake for a story?"
Many of the oddest things that happen in The Stanford Prison Experiment are simply re-creations of what the guards and prisoners did in the photographs and videotapes from 1971. The lead guard (Michael Angarano), despite being a Californian ,really does imitate Strother Martin, who played the Captain in Cool Hand Luke.
"It's so surreal to think it all really happened. You really did have this guy who took on a Southern accent," Alvarez says. "These people really turned into their roles so quickly that it's hard to believe now, even years later."
When asked why he thinks the young men in the experiment took their roles too seriously, Alvarez speculates, "I think it was in the middle of the summer, and it was a summer job for then. They were like, hey, 'I just get to make some money.' And then you've got the guards kind of just starting to enjoy their job. At first the attitude was just like, 'We'll just sit back. Everyone will do their work. They're going to watch us do our thing.' And really what it quickly turned into was that everybody started to enjoy their roles because roles are a very powerful thing. In turn, then prisoners started responding with their own roles and behaviors. They thought, 'Well, if you're going to mistreat us, then we're going to revolt.' And then you just get this potboiler of a situation."
Another factor may have been how young the men were. Some were just starting college, and Alvarez says that he had a unique qualification for making the film and understanding his characters. Although The Stanford Prison Experiment is his third feature, he's only 32.
"I'm old enough to maturely ... make a film, but I'm still young enough to remember what it was like to be in college and like to remember that energy," he says. "To me, I accessed more of what I experienced in high school. I was sort of like this bullied kid. I thought a lot about what is it that causes even good people to become bullies, the groupthink of it all. Remember the youngest kid was 17. Being able to clearly remember a lot of that stuff was helpful when you're thinking about the tone and the performance and how far to push things or not."
Nonetheless, Alvarez said the unusually large cast and a cramped location provided a challenge for a two-hour film. "It all takes place in a tiny hallway. It's inherently uncinematic. I'm sort of a glutton for punishment in that way because I'm trying to solve a puzzle like that."
A Question of Ethics
Possibly the most troubling aspect of the incident is that it might not have been scientifically rigorous enough. Any science textbook will tell you a control group is necessary to determine if the results happen naturally or through manipulation. There was no such group at Stanford. Furthermore, repeating an experiment where real violence occurred to check its validity would be folly.
In addition, Zimbardo (played in the film by Billy Crudup, Almost Famous) has repeatedly expressed regret for how he went from being an observer to an active participant in the brutality. He has spent the rest of his life trying to determine why normally moral people can behave terribly under certain situations.
"The question of the value of the science is a really valid one. I don't think it is one that the movie is particularly interested on purpose with engaging. I kind of feel the more I read about this experiment, the more I realized that everyone has their opinion on this," Alvarez says.
"[Zimbardo will] say, 'I got lost in this just like everybody else did. I was not better than the effects of this experiment. I fell victim to it, too.' I think that to me was one of the most compelling things about this story."
Just as it would be pointless to repeat the actual Stanford Prison experiment, Alvarez, despite devoting so much effort to the film, isn't going to be making another like it soon. His previous movie, C.O.G., was adapted from humorist David Sedaris, and he's currently preparing to bring the Graham McNamee's young adult novel Acceleration to the screen.
"The filmmakers that I love aren't the ones who are making the same kind of film," he says. "Of course, I love Alfred Hitchcock. You know when you're watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie. But I also really admire filmmakers like Ang Lee. You can't pull a frame from a movie and know it's from an Ang Lee movie. He changes to the material. That's interesting to me.
"I don't really see myself as the definitive author of something. I see myself as the person that's trying to translate what's on the page or find the way to change what's on the page and make it cinematic and make it visual. That means I'm going to change things up, and I love telling a lot of different kinds of stories."
MovieStyle on 08/21/2015