You think you know yourself. You think you know what you are, and what you can be. You see others in power and scoff at their seemingly gross abuse of it. You see others in submission and bemoan their weakness. But the reality is that we have not an inkling of our capacity to change behaviors if the circumstances call for it, and that’s what Dr. Philip Zimbardo discovered, rather accidentally, when he began The Stanford Prison Experiment.
Ever since its short six-day run in 1971, Dr. Zimbardo’s controversial study has sparked increased curiosity and conversation about the effect of environment on the human condition, and it really only makes sense that a director like Kyle Patrick Alvarez (C.O.G.) would find it a luscious topic to capture on film. To him, The Stanford Prison Experiment and the story about what happens when college kids are cast into a simulated prison environment, where some were to take on the role of guards and while the others donned the chains of prisoners, was rife with creative potential, mostly because it is a madly implausible tale of non-fiction.
“Apparently at Sundance, people were talking on the shuttles, being like, ‘That was bulls**t! That would never happen at Stanford’ and things like that. So, in a weird way, you wanted the movie not to be unbelievable, but to create that sense of, well hey maybe that happened a little bit, but then you go and read about it and see there was really a guy who did a fake southern accent. They really did chant ‘Prisoner 819 did a bad thing.’ A priest really did come and send all these kids further down into the hole of it all,” says Alvarez.
And he’s not exaggerating; screenwriter Tim Talbott (South Park) worked for thirteen years with Dr. Zimbardo himself, going over his own meticulous accounts and footage to grasp the complex and unexpected impacts of environmental influence. From the guards’ uncontrollable sense of megalomania to the prisoners’ pitiable relinquishment of pride and individuality in the face of sadistic power—it’s all there, fully recorded in the light of history.
So for Alvarez, who’s past films like C.O.G. (2013) and Easier with Practice (2009)—both of which were based on memoirs—dealing with real stories and the people that lived them is familiar territory; however, The Stanford Prison Experiment is also his first time adapting someone else’s script, rather than writing it himself. But for this particular film, he thinks it was a necessary blessing.
Alvarez explains, “I felt with those movies, I was making fictional narratives based on memoirs, which in and of themselves are arguably fiction. So deliberately, with those two writers [David Sedaris and Davy Rothbart], I told them that I was going to cast people who didn’t look like them, not on purpose, but just in terms of casting the right people. We were going to treat them like fiction. In this case it was the opposite. In some ways, not having written it, I think it helped me give the distance and the objectivity that it needed.”
That kind of detachment is a key angle of approach for this narrative, which is richly dependent on the ensemble rather than the individual, because while the study was interested in the varying ways that each person grappled with their role within the simulation, what was more interesting was to see how the increasing tension and instability influenced group dynamics, and that’s precisely the mentality that Alvarez wanted his cast to embrace.
“That was something I told each of the guys: ‘Look, even if you’re not speaking in the scene, you want it to be that you could train the camera on any one of them and it be their story… Those guys really worked hard to grab some of those little moments—like when [Ezra Miller is] getting stripped down in the corridor, and the look that Logan [Miller] gives. Those are my favorite moments in the movie, just those little things that we had to work really hard to grab,” says Alvarez.
These moments of minutia, these moments when these young men string together glances, trying to make sense of themselves in a situation that they know was once fake but has since taken on the air of horrific reality, these are the moments where we start comparing The Stanford Prison Experiment to the polemics of today’s social and political culture, even if decades have since passed. Not only is it a fascinating examination of extreme human behavior, but it is also relentlessly pertinent to the psychologies of our lives; however, if you think that Alvarez timed the project in congruence with our current state of affairs, where it seems too pertinent to be coincidence, you’d be wrong, because simply put, it will always be.
“I think the reason it feels [timed with the political climate] is that this experiment is always relevant," Alvarez explains. "Every three or five years something happens and people say its like the Stanford Prison Experiment. It happens all the time. You can go back, whether it’s Abu Ghraib or now police brutality. So I was more interested in making a film that embraced those universal ideas in a really non-didactic way. I never wanted to make a movie that was like ‘this is what the experiment told us about humans,’ because we’re still arguing about it to this day.”
The Stanford Prison Experiment opens in select theaters Friday, July 17th.