The Stanford Prison Experiment’s Kyle Alvarez | Experimenting on Young Actors

Alvarez 75“I was always grateful for the opportunity to make this film, because I was never deliberately trying to be ‘the comedy guy’,” says Alvarez.





Alvarez 500

You’ve surely heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted at Stanford University in 1971 by a Dr. Philip Zimbardo—that’s the one where 24 student volunteers were paid to conduct an experiment where some were assigned “guards” and some “prisoners,” and Dr. Zimbardo would observe them enacting their respective roles for a period of two weeks. After six days, Dr. Zimbardo had to call the experiment off and send everyone home because it had already devolved into psychological one-upmanship, and, eventually, straight-out psychological torture. One would expect any filmmaker to tackle such material to be intimidating in some way—dark, impatient with stupid movie reviewers, impenetrably smart. But looking into the writer, Tim Talbott, and director, Kyle Alvarez, of the new film The Stanford Prison Experiment, you find that their background is in… comedy. (?)

“I was always grateful for the opportunity to make this film, because I was never deliberately trying to be ‘the comedy guy’,” says Alvarez, whose last film prior to Stanford was C.O.G., which was based on material by David Sedaris. “Filmmakers I really admire, like Ang Lee, are constantly changing things around; they’re constantly doing wildly different kinds of work.” As for Talbott, who previously worked as a staff writer on South Park for a couple of seasons, Alvarez enthuses, “I love that Tim wrote for South Park; I could probably reference anything in life in comparison to South Park! I live for it. I would always quiz him, and figure out which gags were his in which episodes. It was revelatory for me to talk about South Park with him.”

As you might have gathered from the above mention of the fact that the experiment involved 24 students (not to mention those conducting and monitoring the experiment), The Stanford Prison Experiment has a big cast, and that’s one of the most noticeable things about the film—it features an exceptional group of actors: Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Michael Angarano, Billy Crudup, etc. Looking closer, though, you start to notice that many of these actors have appeared in films together prior to Stanford; one pictures Mr. Alvarez hungrily watching something like The Perks of Being a Wallflower (three actors in common) or Snow Angels (two) like how Kane looks at the picture of the staff of The Chronicle in Citizen Kane. “Casting drives everything for me. It drives whether I want to do a project or not… It’s the first thing I think about, sometimes even beyond story.” Generally if you watch, say, the Oscars, you’ll find that prestigious lead actor roles go to older men, and lead actress roles go to younger women. But the industry’s leaning toward more experienced actors didn’t faze Alvarez in the slightest: “There’s just so many good young actors in this age range… I was interested in people who had done camera work; I wasn’t interested in totally blank-slate discoveries for this movie. You realize, oh these are guys making a decision to become actors. They’ve probably been acting as kids because their parents encouraged it, or because they thought it would be fun, or because someone told them they were good at it. But once you hit 18, you’re deciding if this is actually something you want to do or not.”

This discussion leads to a potential disparity in the likely audience for The Stanford Prison Experiment: those who see the movie because they’re familiar with the experiment, and those who see the movie because they’re a fan of one or more members of the cast. Will the film play differently to these two crowds? “I would imagine that younger people will be brought into it to see the cast, where older people might be more familiar with the experiment. I hope the younger people coming in to see these kids because they love Perks of Being a Wallflower or whatever it might be, that they start hearing this story and start watching this story, and maybe they’re loosely familiar with it… I hope it leads them to learn about it more. I hope that when the film ends they start looking it up and they have the realization I had when I first read the script: ‘Oh wait, they didn’t make this shit up! This all really happened! They didn’t even exaggerate it!’” But what about the people who are familiar with the experiment? “I hope they have the feeling that we got it right! Zimbardo himself is saying we got it right; I hope they have that feeling as well.”

One curious thing about the movie is that Dr. Zimbardo himself, now 82 years old, has been doing press for the film, has overall been very positive about the finished film, and even worked on the project long before Mr. Alvarez ever got to it. But a common reading of the film is that Zimbardo is the villain; did the real Dr. Zimbardo have any input on that mechanic one way or the other? “I always saw his character as both the protagonist and the antagonist, right? I never saw him as a mad scientist trying to hurt these kids; I saw him as someone who got wrapped up in this experiment, just like these kids did too. To me that was really fascinating—who’s to say that just because he was running it doesn’t mean he didn’t become one of the subjects?”

Of course Mr. Alvarez and Mr. Talbott had a responsibility to the truth of the actual experiment, and couldn’t easily dickie with the facts of the case. All the same, one picks up on a 12 Angry Men-style testosteroneyness to the proceedings, and it’s hard not to wonder how different the film (let alone the experiment) would be if it were, say, gender switched. Indeed, beyond the quite manly cast, nearly everyone in the film is white—one of Dr. Zimbardo’s advisors on the experiment, a man named Jesse Fletcher (played by Nelsan Ellis), is about the only significant character of color. So how would it change the experiment and/or the film if it were more integrated in terms of gender and/or race? “It would be wildly different! I couldn’t tell you how… Someone told me something the other day, ‘Why was anybody surprised [at the results of the experiment]? It was a bunch of white kids in a room together!’ We had a joke while we were shooting the movie that it was called White Kids in a White Room.”

Finally, it’s easy to let your mind wander to a fantastical idea of what the production of the film must have been like; in some ways the filmmakers were doing an experiment of kids doing an experiment, and one wonders if the production mirrored the reality at all, such as, say, the actors playing prisoners having a much harder time of it than the actors playing guards. “I worked really hard to prevent that kind of response. In a lot of ways it would have been so much easier to let it go down that path, but I was actually really determined to keep it a good experience…It was actually a really fun film to make.”

The fact that this is hard to believe speaks a lot to the effectiveness of the film. “I know that there’s a disappointment sometimes in people hearing that…We already have the evidence that that [the “prisoners” and “guards” turning on each other so rapidly and severely] happens; we don’t need to redo that again.” | Pete Timmermann

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