Even after his arresting debut “Easier with Practice” announced that Kyle Patrick Alvarez was a director of thought-provoking films, he has endured many of the same festival post-screening discussion questions as his peers, queries ranging from “What camera did you shoot on?” and “How many days was the shoot?” Not so, however, with his latest, “The Stanford Prison Experiment.”
“This has always started off with [questions] like, “What do you think the nature of evil comes from?” laughs Alvarez, who can consider the film a success, if for no other reason than the fact he offers no easy answers.
He has a habit of doing that. Whether it was the aforementioned “Practice,” based on Davy Rothbart’s autobiographical GQ article about a connection made between strangers over a phone sex line, or “C.O.G.,” inspired by the notoriously unadaptable David Sedaris’ autobiographical short story about a young man coming into his own, Alvarez has drawn on source material that doesn’t lend itself naturally to the movie treatment and wrestles it into compelling drama, the tension often resulting from the ambiguity that lingers in the air during their runtime and well after. This, among other qualities, made him the ideal choice to pull “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” based on the disastrous 1971 psychological study of a group of teens barely out of high school who were divided into prison guards and prisoners, out of development hell, taking a script by Tim Talbott that was every bit as celebrated as it was intimidating to potential backers with its lack of a central protagonist and created a sweaty paranoid thriller.
Presiding over an exceptional cast of young actors, Alvarez is able to turn Dr. Phillip Zimbardo’s infamous experiment into a tinderbox, with the camera roaming in and out of the makeshift prison cells as if entering the psyches of those who have signed up for the study. At first, loose and curious, the focus gradually constricts to a nearly suffocating degree as Dr. Zimbardo (played here by Billy Crudup) waffles over what he’s wrought just six days into the planned two-week study when guards (Michael Angarano, Miles Heizer and Keir Gilchrist, among their number) find themselves empowered to humiliate the prisoners (Ezra Miller, Johnny Simmons and Thomas Mann, to name a few), who in their helplessness begin to demonstrate varying levels of madness.
Alvarez’s steady hand guides “The Stanford Prison Experiment” towards being a litmus test, renewing the questions that Dr. Zimbardo asked himself about impressionability and the power of authority for audiences that hadn’t been born when it had occurred, and shortly before the film is released, the director spoke about helming the first script he didn’t originate himself, giving a talented ensemble the attention they deserve and being inclusive of the people whose stories he’s telling when bringing them to the screen.
I’ve always written and I’ll continue to write, but it’s not the thing I’m motivated for — I’d be happy if I could find other people’s scripts and books or whatever it might be, but for me, the writing comes out of, “Okay, it’s adaptation.” If I find a book I really like and I’d pursue the book, then it’s like, “I should write that because I know what I want to do with it.”
When you read other people’s scripts, it’s hard to find good ones because most scripts are written with a certain commercial aim in mind. It’s hard to find ones that have uniqueness or authenticity because the script market isn’t designed for that. In this case when I read [“Stanford Prison Experiment”], what I liked that Tim did with it so much — and I had been familiar with it because it’s been the beloved scripts that had been around town, but had never gotten made — was that it was just presenting the events [as they happened]. That’s a really hard thing to do — to look at all the research, transcribe out all the videos, all that really heavy lifting. Then started the real trick to writing the movie, which was pulling things away — what do we not need to show? When I got involved, I had to do a little bit more that with Tim too, saying “Do we really need this? Because we were shooting on such a tight budget.”
When it came to me, the script was written more in the way of, “let’s shoot everything.” You see all the guys come into the experiment, which at the time when you have the money to do that, you could do that. When I got involved, it was like, “No, no. Let’s try to cheat this as much as we can.” That was me almost speaking more as an editor than a director, because I cut my own films. I know in the editing room, it would nice to get those and put the actors through it, but if we don’t have enough money, that luxury goes away, so a lot of the script work that was done between Tim and I was just doing that kind of editing ahead of time, in a way.
There does seem to be a link between the three films you’ve made in terms of having characters at the center who either think they know who they are and then they discover that they’re somebody else or they’re looking for an identity. Is there something to that or just coincidence?
What I was really drawn to and still am is with how the experiment means something different for everybody. There are a million pieces with someone saying, “This is what it was about.” What that says is that there’s something very universal about the experiment that people just respond to. What I responded to is this idea of how we define ourselves. We define ourselves by our personalities. Like I say, “I’m a nice guy. I like to do good for people, I like to work hard.” But how much of that really exists? If you are locked in a room by yourself or with these other guys in a prison, how easily do those things fall apart? How fragile our identities really are is really fascinating to me and makes you appreciate the people who survive horrific incidents, institutions, or situations. I’ve never faced anything like that before, but my hope with the film would be to try to put people on the position of thinking, “Maybe I would react that way too. Maybe I would lose my mind. I’ve never been in that situation,” as opposed to when you read about it on an academic level, [where] it’s a little easier to [think], “I wouldn’t have done that.”
Because the Stanford Prison Experiment is well-known enough to become a cultural shorthand, were there things that actually surprised you once you delved into it?
Of course I immediately I thought of the other films that had been made about it. I also just thought why don’t I just make a documentary about this? Those are the questions I had to ask myself. Then I read it and I thought, they probably embellished a lot of this, but after I did my own research about the experiment, I realized, “Oh wait. He didn’t really didn’t change that much. Most of this really, there really was a guy who put on a fake Southern accent and two kids really did try to escape.” All these really fascinating things that just seems too good to be true really happened.
So it was about being true to that and making a film that isn’t stepping on the other movies that exist, but to say, “Look, this story was fascinating enough that it deserve its own version that was true, that can work alongside the book” before there were [fictional stories involving] shady government conspiracies and people are stabbing each other to death at the end. To me, the whole point is that they didn’t stab each other to death at the end. It’s something more nuanced than that. Then when I thought, “Why not just do a documentary?” I got access to all the raw footage and audio stuff and when you watch it, everything is so distant. They didn’t have cameras in the rooms with them and there were some talking head interviews at the time, so I thought there was an opportunity to get inside of it and show that emotional context where it wouldn’t replace the book or the documentary, but work in tandem with them, hopefully.
I’ve never shot on a soundstage before, so we went to Stanford, measured out the space — the hallway – and we rebuilt that in the soundstage here [in Los Angeles]. If you didn’t have walls to move, you would have three angles you could get and the movie would be dead in its tracks. What was exciting was trying to find a way, especially in the first half of the film, because the second half is where it gets more handheld, more subjective, and there’s a lot more shallow depth of field, was [to have the] audience to be aware of the set in a way. Not so much that it feels like “Dogville” or to the point of artifice, but enough where you understand the geography of it.
There’s three or four shots in the movie where the camera goes through something [like a wall] that it wouldn’t be able to in a real place. Also, just being able to get a wide shot of all the guys lined up against the wall, you can only get that in an actual hallway, but getting those shots and being able to see more people in the frame together was really important early on, so we had somewhere to evolve to. It was scary though. Shooting on location, most of the decisions you make are dictated by the location — by how big the room actually is or the fact that it’s raining outside, for instance. Here I was handed essentially a blank slate, so it was really intimidating.
You’ve said because you were able to shoot this on a RED Dragon digital camera, you were able to find the shot you wanted sometimes after you already shot the film – higher resolution allows for that. But did it change the way you actually went about composing a shot while on the set?
In a certain way. Studio films are starting to finish at 4K, but indie films typically can only afford to just finish at 2K. We were shooting five-and-a-half K and finishing at 2K. There’s some wonky math in there, but arguably, you can actually go in on an image quite a bit. On a movie like this, we had very little time to do coverage. You always want to work as hard to get exactly what you want in camera and not messing with that afterwards, so I never really depended on [the ability to zoom in during post-production], but there were times where I thought, “Okay we got that two-shot. If I really need that to be closeup just on you, I can do that.”
You could never take any wide shot and then go to closeup, especially in a movie like this that was so confined. You just get a little bit more latitude. For instance, it would just be like, “Would this be the shot? Do we want it to be a little bit closer?” And I would just say, “Let’s make it a little bit wider because we can always move in.” I did that a little bit on “C.O.G.” and felt a little more comfortable doing it on this film as an editor, knowing when I could use those things and when I shouldn’t.
When you had the Stanford scientists observing the experiment from another room, what were they able to react off of?
We actually shot all the experiment stuff first. Every time we were going to do a scene, we would set up an old ‘70s video camera that we had, shoot the scene through that, and then we’d take an old monitor and pump that image [through it]. Whenever you see the image is on the monitor, there’s no green screen on that. That was all actually on set and done in camera. Even when Billy [Crudup’s character] is watching that stuff at the end, my assistant editor and I pulled together a montage of the scenes to form that final bit [of] really, really brutal stuff for him to react to, because the camera’s so distant — I bet if you zoomed in really, really close, you can see my laptop in his cornea. That was important to me, because if not, then you have a bunch of actors [without anything to react to]. Brian Geherty, who’s a producer on the film and starred my first movie [“Easier With Practice”], was the one who said, “You shoot the stuff. You’ve got to have an image there [for the actors to see].” You don’t want these guys saying, “Look, look what’s happening.” and they’re pointing to a green block.
You have a really impressive cast as it is. Was it difficult to get all these guys?
It was tough. Scheduling was like a Rubik’s cube. Part of what had happen before with the project 10 years ago was that they had all these casts attached and the promise, once you get all those people and then the financing, was that it would be a more expensive film. But the financing was dependent on all of those people, so you lose one and then you have trouble. When I first got involved, I thought we can’t make a movie that’s dependent on anyone first. If so, it’s never going to happen.
Part of it was luck, part of it was some really fancy scheduling and some tricky shooting that we could work everyone’s schedule around and part of it was just also saying, “Hey, I’m sorry if you can’t make these days.” Sometimes it came down to a matter of hours with some of these guys. Miles [“Heizer”] was shooting “Parenthood” at the same time as we were shooting. They were very generous and we worked with each other’s schedules. But because we couldn’t move anything around for any one person, it was a very, very difficult movie to schedule.
Once they were on set, what was it to serve an ensemble that this big?
It was a lot of trusting them and saying ahead of time, “Hey look, I’m sorry I’m not going to be able to give you the time I like to get.” On my other films where there’s really just one lead in every frame of the movie, you can talk through each line with the actors. On this film, I told them, “I’m just not going to have the time, so you have to trust that if you’re not hearing from me, that you’re doing a good job and you have to have just confidence and don’t feel un-taken care of.” You’re conscious of the insecurity that can come from being one of many.
Fortunately, all these guys were so professional. It’s almost like the younger the actor, the more professional they are…no, that’s not true. That implies the older actors are very unprofessional. But I was really impressed with these guys. If you expect good work and professionalism from them, they’ll almost always give it to you.
Did having Billy Crudup there result in a dynamic similar to the one onscreen, given the respect he likely commands?
I always wanted him for that part. I’ve always wanted to work with him and he’s one of these actors that always makes interesting choices, he’s never given a boring performance and he’s one of the names that a lot of other actors really respect too, so I knew all these kids were going to know and really respect him, and they go, “Oh, Billy’s going to be on the other side of this camera,” so everyone steps up a bit, which was great.
Even though it’s in a different way, you’ve mentioned Dr. Phil Zimbardo has been involved closely with the project and in both “Easier with Practice” and “C.O.G.,” you seem to get to be really inclusive of the person who is somehow directly involved in the story you’re telling, rather than keeping them at a distance. Why is that important to you?
It depends on the project. [On “Easier with Practice”] Davy Rothbart was really interested in filmmaking, so he wanted to be there and spend time on the set, but not out to police the movie. Part of my whole pitch [to him] was, we’re going to make a fictional movie out of this. We’re going to change characters, we’re going to add characters, it might not look like you and Davy was like, “Okay. I know what you want. Go make your film.” David Sedaris, on the other hand, was like, “Go do whatever you need to do.” He loves movies, but not interested in Hollywood at all or in being on the set. My whole pitch to him was the same thing [as Davy] – “I’m going to make a fictional movie based on your memoir, which is a fictional version of your own memory.”
This case, though, was different. Since this is real experiment that took place and it’s well documented, and these are real people who are still public figures, we’re not telling a fictional version..actually, once we turn the camera on, it’s fiction. But on a fundamental level, the movie is mostly true and [Dr. Zimbardo’s] involvement was more crucial because he was the creator of this whole thing and he’s been the figurehead of it for 40 something years, so it’s a tricky balance where you want to make that person happy. You actually want to make them more satisfied than happy.
There were times where you, as a director, have to decide, “If I’m making a change or doing something in opposition to what they want, I have to make sure I really know why I’m doing it.” I have to really say, “This is why we need this. That part is interesting, but it can’t be in there for this reason.” So there was even more responsibility as opposed to the other films. As a writer even, I was just removing the responsibility from [the films I’ve made], especially with [C.O.G.]. I look back and I think, “That was brazen to do.” Because I was saying, “I don’t care what you want David Sedaris to be. I’m going to give you this thing I want to give you.”
In this case, I needed to stay truer to it. [Dr. Zimbardo’s] involvement was always part of this, but at the same time, it was never about pacifying him. The film shows that. It’s not heralding anybody. It’s really accurate to what they described their experiences like and I’m grateful that [Dr. Zimbardo] has the humility to be both the protagonist of the film and the antagonist. That takes a lot to do.
“The Stanford Prison Experiment” opens on July 17th at the IFC Center in New York and the Arclight Hollywood in Los Angeles.