Kyle Patrick Alvarez and Dr. Philip Zimbardo on ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’
Kyle Alvarez’s The Stanford Prison Experiment depicts the controversial study that saw 24 male college students assigned roles of prisoner or guard in a mock prison environment. Overseen by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the experiment was shut down after only six days, as the students began falling into their roles to a disturbing, unhealthy degree. Despite its divisive ethical implications, Zimbardo’s findings went on to greatly impact the field of psychology, specifically guiding the conversation of how good people can be influenced to do bad things in certain environments.
Avarez’s film is chilling in its unadorned depiction of the events that took place in the basement of Stanford University. It boasts cast of rising young actors including Tye Sheridan, Michael Angarano Olivia Thrilby and Ezra Miller, along with screen vets Billy Crudup and Nelson Ellis.
In San Francisco, I spoke with Alvarez and Dr. Zimbardo, who was the primary consultant on the film. The Stanford Prison Experiment is in theaters now.
What’s the biggest misconception about the experiment?
Alvarez: I think people are misled when people speak about whether it was ethical or not. They confuse the issue of ethics versus the value of the experiment. In making a film, part of you is inherently endorsing it. You’re saying, “This is worth looking at.” The critics dismiss the conversation around the experiment because they get lost in the question of ethics. That’s not to say the question of ethics isn’t important; it’s just a different conversation as far as I’m concerned. Obviously, this set in motion a lot of review board changes about why an experiment like this could never happen again. But that doesn’t say that we shouldn’t still be talking about it. That’s where I actually get kind of upset now that I understand the experiment on a deeper level. Don’t say we can’t have a conversation about this because you wouldn’t be able to stage the experiment today. That’s the misconception: to discuss the Stanford Prison Experiment is to discuss it as ethical or non-ethical. That’s a much lesser conversation to be had about it.
Zimbardo: To me, one misconception is that the study proves that everybody is evil. Lots of people say that. I think there was a New York Times piece that says, “Zimbardo Believes Everyone Is Evil.” No. I believe everyone is capable of evil. I believe, actually, that people are born good and can be corrupted by being put in certain situations. That’s a very different thing. We picked people who are good on every dimension we could figure, and we put them in a bad place and the bad place dominated them. We brought out the evil within, and we were able to switch their ordinary, good, wholesome orientation into a cynical, pessimistic, negative one if they were guards, and a helpless one if they were prisoners.
The experiment was of course a pivotal moment for the field of psychology. Talk about the importance of representing its events accurately.
Alvarez: It was a huge part of the initial inception of this iteration of the film. People have been trying to make it for ten years. Phil came onboard and worked closely with a screenwriter, Tim Talbott. Tim was the first one of the many screenwriters who tackled this project to say, “What happened here is enough for a movie.” To me, that was the defining thing for me. That’s not a criticism of Das Experiment, which is a form of entertainment in itself. But in terms of that movie being a representation of the Stanford Prison Experiment, what’s unfortunate is that it’s only cinematic in that it ends with someone killing someone else. That the message is only clear if we take it that far.
I fundamentally disagree with that. We talk about representing specifics of the experiment, but how about the broader things? I made sure that we hired kids to play the roles. These weren’t 35-year-olds playing teenagers. We have a 17-year-old on the cast. Part of the power and effectiveness of the story is their vulnerability and how impressionable they are. In other versions, they’re adults. They have backstories and you learn about their girlfriends and wives. You lose a universal quality to it.
I think there’s actually a stakes problem happening in filmmaking in general. It’s happening with our blockbusters especially. It used to just be, “Peter Parker has to save Mary Jane.” Then, it’s “Peter Parker needs to save New York.” Then, it’s “Peter Parker needs to save the world.” Then, “Peter Parker needs to save the universe.” It’s this thing where you engage less and less. I’m interested in how you make the audience engaged in something where the stakes are [more intimate]. Devin Faraci wrote a great piece about why Inside Out was so important because the stakes were mental well-being of an 8-year-old girl. There’s not a drop of blood in my film. No one dies in the end. How do you make that intense without the things we normally rely on? That was the challenge that was really exciting.
I was incredibly riled up after watching the movie. I was with a friend and I felt bad because I was not fun to be around after the movie.
Alvarez: You’ve got to give that to the actors. They really, really threw themselves into it. Chris [Sheffield] doing the push-ups, Michael [Angarano] being so committed to that guard and understanding how it would go from fun to disturbing to evil. The amount of work they put in to creating that mood was a big part of it.
Dr. Zimbardo, I think one of the keys to the film is the progression of your mental state, as portrayed by Billy Crudup.
Zimbardo: Billy does a beautiful job of being me. There are several points of key transformation where I become the prison superintendent and not the researcher. One of the points is when the parents come to complain about how bad their son looks when they visit him. I never say, “I’m sorry.” Instead, I flip it around and say, “What’s wrong with your son? Does he have insomnia?” Essentially, I turn it to say, “There’s nothing wrong with my situation; there’s something wrong with your kid.” The mom says, “He told me you wake them up at all hours of the night,” which was true. I say, “Well of course, lady. This is a prison. Guards have to account for everybody to make sure no one’s escaped.” She says, “I don’t mean to make trouble,” and that’s a red light. If she says it, she’s going to do it. And she’s right; her kid broke down.
I turn to the husband and say, “Don’t you think your kid is tough enough to take it? That’s a sexist thing. I know exactly what he’s going to say. “My son’s a leader,” blah blah. I shake his hand, eliminating the wife. She’s not going to make trouble now. As soon as her husband starts talking, she shuts up. A woman would never talk over her husband back then. It’s not until I looked at the video of that exchange afterwords when I thought, “Oh my god. You’re the thing you hate.” I work hard never to be a sexist, and here I am, saying these things. That was one of the first times I remember being aware of myself moving towards being a prison superintendent.
Talk about how your findings, specifically within the prisoner group, can be used to benefit other, larger groups of oppression, like the black community or the gay community.
Alvarez: The gay community is starting to achieve equality via exposure. A huge part of the misconception of the gay community is how it’s being portrayed. Suddenly, you start portraying gay people with families and things like this, and that’s where the media portrayal plays a big part. Me being more of a pacifist, I’ve always appreciated people being more aggressive. It’s Martin Luther King Jr. versus Malcolm X. Sometimes I find the gay community isn’t angry enough. Prop 8 took too long. When you look at the Stanford Prison Experiment and the revolting prisoners, specifically Ezra Miller’s character, it takes Nelson Ellis’ character to say, “He was just a part of the system. By revolting, he wasn’t revolutionizing the system; he was allowing the system to grow more powerful.”
Zimbardo: The consultant, Carlo Prescott—who’s maybe the most articulate person I know—he didn’t finish high school. I was teaching a Psychology in Prison course at Stanford and I brought him on as co-instructor. I got him a business card. Suddenly, he’s all the things he never was. He comes into the experiment thinking he’s the only black guy, and here’s this other black guy, a graduate student who’s much younger than him and very talented. Clearly, Carlo went, “That could have been me.” There was instant resentment. “You got all the breaks. I was in prison while you went to school.” There’s a little bit of that in the movie.
Alvarez: The scope of what happened was so hard to capture. So much happened in six days. Some of the most painful stuff on a writing and directing level was, “What do we lose? What do we cut?” The challenge of making a film in 25 weeks is that each moment needs to really count. Gaius Charles was so studious. He had notes for himself on scenes he wasn’t even in. It was great to work with Nelson Ellis as well. Olivia Thrilby only worked on the movie for three days. It’s almost embarrassing to work with such great talents.
The movie put me in the headspace of those boys, which was difficult, although that’s definitely a good thing. What I found most interesting was how unadorned the story was, cinematically.
Alvarez: Sometimes people want more of the director’s influence or more of a moral center, but in this case I was just interested in taking that kind of voice out of it and letting the events speak for themselves. So then you say, “Where am I the director on this?” With this film, it was really shot selection. Me and the DP said, the movie’s going to start of where you’re really aware of the geography of this space. You’re always going to see these two walls and everything is going to feel cramped in. This group of people fills the frame. Then, as the movie goes on, the individual people fill the frame. The claustrophobia changes. Reading the exit interviews from the experiment, a lot of the guys felt like it was a real prison. But it was just a back hallway of a building; they were grad student offices. My goal was to have the audience forget how small of a space it was. It’s very rigid early on, but then I deliberately didn’t care if the camera went out of focus near the end. Sometimes it’d go out of focus for five, six seconds.
There’s that shot where Michael is walking away from the camera.
Alvarez: That was not planned, but I saw it in the edit and I was like, that looks so good! I’ve done that twice in movies, where something goes out of focus in a “wrong” way, and it comes directly from The Graduate, where [Katharine Ross] realizes he’s been sleeping with her mother, and she turns back to him, and she’s totally out of focus for a good one-and-a-half seconds before we see her face. When you see it, it’s the director saying, “this is a film, and someone’s pulling a knob.” But because it’s so motivated by the experience the character is going through, it works.
Speaking of Billy Crudup, there’s a great deleted scene where he and Patrick Fugit have a conversation about how they love the mess-ups on a Marvin Gaye record. Marvin does a “Woo!” or “Ow!” on the song, and it’s their favorite part of the song. Sometimes the errors or roughness can be the texture of the movie as much as the clean cuts.
Zimbardo: I couldn’t be more happy with the movie. I can remember sitting at Sundance and saying, “Finally! The wait was worth it!” The acting is brilliant. The directing, the editing. Even the sound. Billy does a great job of being me, and Olivia Thrilby, although she has a small part, really has the charm my wife does.
Alvarez: If I had more time, that would be the character I would give more definition. But if the character’s only going to have three scenes in the movie, you need someone like Olivia to carry it.