One of the more intense films to emerge from the Sundance Film Festival, Kyle Patrick Alvarez‘s gripping “The Stanford Prison Experiment” (read our review) is a dramatization of a notorious 1971 psychology experiment that went very, very wrong. It’s a potent piece of work, featuring a terrific ensemble cast (Michael Angarano, Ezra Miller, Logan Miller, Keir Gilchrist, Tye Sheridan, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Mann, Moises Arias, Johnny Simmons, Olivia Thirlby and Billy Crudup), taking the filmmaker into different territory following his first two pictures, “Easier With Practice” and “C.O.G.”
Like any filmmaker who can easily switch gears, Alvarez’s cinematic tastes are wide ranging. In the latest entry in our series Movies That Changed My Life, Alvarez discloses how films as diverse as “Vertigo,” “Showgirls” and “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” left an impression.
“The Stanford Prison Experiment” is now playing in limited release and is available on VOD.
1. The first moviegoing film experience you can remember
Strangely, it’s hard to remember exactly what movie I saw first, but I do remember the first movie I ever saw in the theaters, which was “Big.” I distinctly remember asking my Mom beforehand if there would be any scary parts, and subsequently of being terrified by the fortune telling machine. I don’t have a lot of clear childhood memories, but that one certainly stuck. I think maybe I’d seen some kid’s films beforehand in theaters, but I think I remember that one so clearly cause it was just me and my Mom, and it was a movie she wanted to see while bringing me along, as opposed to the other way around.
2. The best moviegoing film experience you ever had
I dragged my parents in 1996 to take me to see “Vertigo” in 70mm. They struck a brand new, restored print which had a ton of audio remastering done to it, and for some reason it was playing for one weekend in Sacramento. I’d seen the movie many times before, but only on VHS. So seeing it projected on a big screen (nevertheless in that format) truly changed me. I felt the power of that movie on such a deeper level than I had before, because of seeing it that way. I will never forget that and will always be grateful for my parents indulging me. We got ice cream afterwards too, which only made it all the better.
3. The first film you saw that made you realize you wanted to be a filmmaker
Not to stick too much to Hitchcock, but I remember seeing “Psycho” at maybe 9 years old — I was way too young, but don’t hold it against my parents). It was the first time I was scared by a movie, but I was also totally intrigued at the same time. It wasn’t just effective to me —I could also see why the movie was the way it was. I saw how he was using shots, cuts and music and all of these tools to create the suspense. That movie pulled back the curtain for me and really started getting me into watching all kinds of films, and from there I really started digging into film history and watching things. I didn’t care any more if they were old, or in black and white, or subtitled, or silent; I just wanted to see as much as I could.
4. The first film you saw that you realize you could be a filmmaker
This came much later. I’d gone to film school, moved to Los Angeles, and I was working as a runner at a production company. I knew I wanted to direct, I knew it was all I wanted to do, but the first movie that really allowed me, nearly demanded me, to feel “damn it, I need to go do this” was “Brick.” I saw it the weekend it came out in theaters, and it was so clever and so inventive and really felt like it singularly came from Rian Johnson, yet it was made on such a low budget, one that seemed almost attainable. I’d certainly had that feeling before, but it never really struck me in my gut until that film, because I’d taken all the steps I should’ve as a student and that movie pushed me beyond that to actually go and do it.
5. The movie that always makes you cry (or the movie that is your emotional comfort food)
The last scene in “Before Sunset” will always make me cry. I can’t even talk about it without getting misty. There’s these two beautiful, intense movies that all build up to that one line from Ethan Hawke: “I know” (after Julie Delpy’s “baby, you’re gonna miss that plane”). It was so simple and so powerful, and I remember the first time I saw it in the theater, I sat in my seat while the credits ran, because I was absolutely bawling my eyes out, which never happens otherwise. I truly think that scene should be considered one of the great scene of all time, and that last exchange is as good as anything in “Casablanca.” It’s perfect. To know a movie that good came out during my lifetime, and I got to see it in theaters its opening weekend, felt to me like I’d witnessed a part of film history.
6. The movie that always freaks you out/makes you scared
This is a bit of a cheat, as I rarely get scared by films, but when I was a kid, I was completely terrified of the cover for “Dead Alive.” Whenever I would walk through Blockbuster Video, my eyes would land on it and I would have to look away. I was scared for years to rent it. I had no idea it was as ridiculous as a comedy as it was. Once I finally saw it, I fell in love with it and watched it over and over.
7. The film you’ve rewatched more than any other
Well, it’s easily “Vertigo,” but a really close second is “Waiting for Guffman,” and just behind that is “Wet Hot American Summer” and then the aforementioned “Dead Alive.” It’s not just that they’re funny —that’s not what holds up in repeat viewings. It’s the spirit and the heart with which the movies approach the humor. I think that’s what helps a comedy stand up over time, and I really love those characters. I’ve liked Christopher Guest’s movies afterwards, of course, but I feel like they all have a heavy dose of cynicism that ‘Guffman’ entirely avoids. That movie is as tragic as it is funny.
8. The movie you love that no one would expect you to love
Well, being that I’m gay, this might not be totally unexpected, but I love “Showgirls,” and not in the “so bad it’s good” kind of way. I think it’s one of the most fascinating movies to watch because it’s absolutely awful, misogynistic, overlong and poorly acted… but it’s so well staged and directed. No one does coverage like Paul Verhoeven. He milks every line and beat in all of his films and his angles cut together so well. Even in a movie like “Showgirls,” that’s so woefully miscalculated. Missing Elizabeth Berkley show up at the screening at Cinespia last month was crushing for me.
9. The movie that defined your coming-of-age/high school experience
“Welcome to the Dollhouse.” Easy. I could see the film for the absurdity that it was aiming for, but I was in junior high when it came out, and I don’t know if I ever related to a movie so distinctly. As you can imagine, I was going through awful times with bullies in school and the way Dawn Weiner so horribly handled her life in school and how poorly kids treated her rang so true, even through the comedy of that film. I was also learning piano at the time, and that scene where she plays for Steve always gets to me.
10. The movie that defined your childhood
“Terminator 2.” I remember watching it over and over again with my friends when I was way too young to be watching it. It was just so badass and ambitious and unlike anything I’d seen before. The tape was legitimately worn down until the movie was nearly unwatchable.
Bonus: listen to a few podcasts with Alvarez talking about “Stanford Prison Experiment”