'Stanford Prison Experiment' director still hasn't heard from the original subjects yet
You'll be kicking yourself if you don't see "The Stanford Prison Experiment" in theaters. Seriously. And, no, I'm not just saying that because I happen to know director Kyle Patrick Alvarez socially or that it's a Sundance Jury Award-winning movie or that it depicts one of the most shocking events to occur at one of America's greatest Universities over the past fifty years.* The real reason is that besides the questions it raises about the human condition and our ability to descend to abject cruelty, "Stanford" features a once in a life time cast that will dominate Hollywood for the next 15 to 20 years.*
*It also has earned strong reviews to date including a 71 grade on Metacritic and 78% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
Based on true events, the new drama chronicles the 1971 psychological experiment that found Stanford University students sorted into the roles of prison guard or a generic prisoner. In theory, the study was meant to take place in a controlled environment but it went so off the rails so quickly that it had to be stopped after just six days and brought a mountain of criticism towards the man who conceived it, Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup). The fact this took place in modern times will be disturbing to many viewers and to ease the shock of it all Alvarez has recruited an incredible ensemble that wonderfully brings it to life.
The cast includes some of the most promising young actors working today such as Ezra Miller ("Trainwreck"), Thomas Mann ("Me and Earl and the Dying Girl"), Michael Angarano ("The Knick"), Logan Miller ("I'm in the Band"), Johnny Simmons ("The Perks of Being A Wallflower"), Tye Sheridan ("Mud," "X-Men Apocalypse"), Ki Hong Lee ("The Maze Runner"), Keir Gilchrist ("It Follows"), Nicholas Braun (2015's "Poltergeist"), Moises Arias ("The Kings of Summer"), James Wolk ("Mad Men"), Gaius Charles ("Grey's Anatomy"), Matt Bennett ("Victorious"), James Frenchville ("Animal Kingdom"), Miles Heizer ("Parenthood"), Callan McAuliffe ("I Am Number Four"), Benedict Samuel ("The Walk"), Chris Sheffield ("Aquarius"), Brett Davern ("Awkward," "Love & Mercy"), Nelsan Ellis ("True Blood") and Olivia Thirlby ("Juno") among others. Yes, "among others."
Again, this isn't something you see everyday.
Alvarez, who is previously helmed "Easier with Practice" and "C.O.G.," took some time earlier this month to sit down and chat about the difficulties of telling this unique story, working with Zimbardo and the reaction to the movie so far.
HitFix: How did you come on board the project? How did you find out about it?
Kyle Alvarez: Well, I knew the script was sort of beloved. It was one of these famous scripts that people always talked about. It was one of these scripts like around town [that] almost got made like 13 years ago, ten years ago or so and it didn’t happen. And then Brian Geraghty actually, who starred in 'Easier with Practice,' was friends with Brent Emery who had held onto the rights over the years and he had sort of incited this iteration of this project. Because people had been trying to do it for 40 years.
And they were talking once and he was like, 'Oh yeah, I’m looking for a director.' He’s like, 'Oh, I should send it to Kyle.' So, Brian sent it to me and then I read it and then met with Brent. That would have been about like three years ago or so. But then 'C.O.G.' came together. So, I went and shot that and then jumped on board 'Stanford' to really hunker down and make it happen.
What about it appealed to you? Was it the true story itself or did you just like the screenplay?
It was a combination of things. It was partly that on the narrative level the screenplay didn’t embellish much. I was aware of the experiment, but I didn’t know the details of it. So, when I was reading it I kind of thought, 'Well, they probably made a lot of this up.' And then when I read about it and looked at YouTube clips and watched the documentary and it was like, 'Oh no, they didn’t at all. This is actually really how it went down.' So, I thought it would be cool to make a film and the rare opportunity to make a movie where while you’re watching you’re kind of like 'this could not have happened.; And then you go back and you kind of watch it and you’re like, 'Oh this really kind of did.'
That was sort of the narrative impetus but for me it was also the [aesthetic] challenge of shooting a whole movie in a hallway basically. The whole thing in just a tiny little single location kind of thing and how to pull that off. And the other challenge was building an ensemble. You don’t see a lot of low budget entities have 25 lead ensembles like this does.
Is that one of the reasons why it hadn’t got made over the years?
Well, I think part of what happened was that they were trying to make it as a bigger film. I don’t think it was a studio film, but it was certainly a way, way bigger budget than what we made it for. And they had the cast to back that budget up, but the problem is when you have that big of a cast you’ve got to get everyone there in the same place, at the same time and it becomes this weird impossible puzzle. Part of what I said when I first got involved was that no matter what you do, no matter how you make this movie or how little or how much you make it for it’s always going to be a bunch of white guys locked in a white hallway. That’s what it is. So, why don’t we find the most economical way to make it? Not make it a cast contingent film. Make it younger, exciting actors because with the iteration before? I mean you can look it up. It had well-known actors, but a a handful of them were too old to be in college. And for me I was like, 'College kids look young.' I mean, these were 17-year-olds and stuff. We needed the Tye Sheridans and those kind of guys. For me it was a combination of all those things. This was like a casting dream come true to be able to try to get all these great kids tougher.
How quick was the process of actually going into production?
Well, it got delayed because 'C.O.G.' came together.
Ah, so this was beforehand.
Yeah, so that was before and then afterwards it was weird. If you really look at when we really committed [it was] like two years from the movie premiering. So, 'C.O.G.' premiered at Sundance and then two years later I’m there with 'Stanford.' The time dedicated to just getting it done took, I mean, forever, but also smoothly for what an indie movie like this normally takes. We got some cast involved. Then we got the money. Then we got the rest of the cast. There was some speed bumps along the way. Any project with this long of a history and based on real people? You hit some legal stuff you’ve got to get sorted out. But, you know, I remember there only being a few months of 'What’s happening? Why aren’t we making this yet?' As opposed to my previous films [where] I’m used to a couple of years of that.
You talked about the fact that the previous version didn’t necessarily come together quickly because they had actors who were doing so many other big things.
Then the director got pulled off to go produce something else for a studio and that fell apart.
How was it to sync up everybody together for this version?
It was consistently heartbreaking where you’d lose someone from scheduling or someone you were interested in. For instance, we couldn’t even afford to bring in kids from the UK. Really, we couldn’t even afford to bring in people from New York.
Oh, wow. That's a tight budget.
That combined with, I mean, [it was] down to the wire on some of these guys. Actually I probably shouldn’t say this, but Miles was shooting 'Parenthood' as we were shooting this. So, he would go spend like the first half of the day on 'Parenthood' and then come and shoot the second half of the day with us.
With such a large cast and short schedule were you able to do any rehearsals before shooting began?
No. We had one day and we did a table read. And then we worked with the stunt coordinator because my biggest fear were the days that we had some stunts. I didn’t want us to be figuring that out on set the day of. Even just for 'How are they going to tie Johnny up?' That could take an hour on set. So, we did that on our one day of rehearsal and that was it.
Did that make you nervous or were you...
Oh yeah. I mean you don’t have any other option.
Are you a 'rehearsal guy'?
I’ve never been able to afford to because 'C.O.G.' was Jonathan [Groff] working every day. [It was] the same with Brian Geraghty. We just went through the script and every scene and really talked it through. But, you know, the rest of the cast was only coming in for a few days on those first two movies. On ['C.O.G'] Denis O’Hare showed up Sunday night and started shooting Monday morning and I’d never even met him before. I think we talked on the phone briefly once. It’s just like at some point you just have to put your head down and hope it all works out.
One of the many interesting things about the movie is Billy is playing a living public figure, Dr. Philip Zimbardo. Did you have any interaction with Zimbardo before the movie started?
Oh, I had a lot. After Brent sort of brought me on board the next thing was introducing me to Phil, going up to Stanford, spending a day with him there, talking through with him. I think he came down here a couple of times. I Skyped with him and his wife who Olivia [Thirlby] plays in the movie every few months or something. They would get a new draft of the script and give their thoughts. He was very involved which is a different experience for me because ['C.O.G.' author] Dave Sedaris was just like, 'Oh, do whatever you want.' But this was more of a historical film too. So, we wanted that involvement to make sure we were getting things right. It's hard because you want to do that person’s life justice, but the priority needs to be to make a film, to make an engaging movie.
Did he understand before the movie started that this would spawn a whole new generation of people who thought he was a crazy person?