Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is the kind of drama that leaves you anguished with questions once the credits roll. Based on the infamous 1971 experiment by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the film chillingly recounts the turmoil and violence that gradually erupted when 24 male students were split into guards and prisoners so that Dr. Zimbardo could study the psychological effects of imprisonment. All of the ethically challenging questions that surrounded the project so many decades ago are alive and well in Alvarez’ dramatization, which makes the movie quite a tormenting experience.
Luckily for the crowd at the drama’s New York City premiere Wednesday night at Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas, some of the film’s more polarizing issues were explored as Dr. Zimbardo joined Alvarez and cast members Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano and Nicholas Braun for a post-screening discussion. Moderated by “Psychology Today” Editor at Large Hara Estroff Marano, and advised by psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, the panel proved to be a hot-blooded discussion on the film’s stimulating themes, enhanced further by some audience members’ clear distate for Dr. Zimbardo’s controversial project.
Below are some of the highlights from the nearly hour long conversation:
It was always about emotion for Kyle Patrick Alvarez.
Considering there have been countless books and documentaries already produced on the experiment, it was ultimately the unique emotional angle that compelled Alvarez to give a feature film version of the events a go. “I felt there was still room for a certain emotional access in getting literally inside of the prison,” he said. “When you’re watching the [existing] footage, there really only was that one camera at the end of the hallway as you saw in the film, and I thought there was an opportunity to move inside of that and get a little bit closer to who these people were. I was less concerned, and I say this with the upmost respect for the field of psychology, but I was more concerned with the emotional context of the experiment because I felt the academic side of it and the studious side of it had been so well handled already, so I thought the film could handle the emotional access in a way that maybe hadn’t been covered before. That was what drew me to it.”
Improv was welcomed, but a majority of the script was taken directly from the real experiment.
“Most of the dialogue you see was scripted, but it’s really about creating an environment where something can happen that you or the actors don’t expect,” Alvarez continued. “There are certain moments and feelings and emotions where that’s the freedom you want to give the performer. Most of the dialogue though was taken right from the transcripts. All that stuff in the hallway was verbatim. It’s even eerie afterwards; after we shot the stuff you’d go back and watch [the real footage] and even the pacing between the lines of dialogue was the same, which is stuff we weren’t even engineering. That just came from trying to be truthful and honest.”
The film ends rather memorably as Miller and Angarano’s characters sit together in a debriefing session and reflect on the roles the experiments forced them to play. In a testament to Alvarez’s points, Angarano confirmed, “That very last interview is verbatim, beat for beat and word for word, the debriefing they went through. You can watch it on YouTube that interview.”
Bringing Zimbardo to the screen was Alvarez’s biggest burden.
“There’s an inevitable conflict that will exist. Here I am taking someone that is alive, taking an incredibly important part of their professional career and trying to dramatize it, and it comes with its burdens that you have to be able to carry,” said Alvarez, looking directly at Dr. Zimbardo at the end of the panel. “One thing I was always really clear to Dr. Zimbardo about, and he had the humility to understand this, was that we were trying to make ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ and not the Philip Zimbardo story. That story is incredibly rich and compassionate, but we were only covering six days.”
“It’s even grueling for me to get to the other people involved because you can only include certain things about them and elements of who they are,” he continued. “In this case, I had to let the experiment guide it entirely. Any of the diversions we took from real life, as slight as they are, there was always a clear, calculated nature of why we did it. To me it was about trying to make sure it could stand up to as much scrutiny as it probably would face. I wanted a film that represented what Philip had gone through, and that was the ultimate goal. That’s where I tried to get the most from him.”
The actors didn’t find their abusive guards to be “villains.”
Angarano has one of the most hostile roles in the film, but taking on one of the experiment’s guards allowed him to see why they weren’t necessarily the monsters they came off as. “I don’t think any of the actors, or Kyle or Dr. Zimbardo, ever thought of any of these guys — and the guards specifically — as bad people,” he said. “They were all college educated. To me it was always important to remember that he was acting. What delineated him from the rest of the guards was that he was the one to take on a persona and a role and he was really convicted in that choice. He was the only one, really, or the first one at least, who was able to detach himself emotionally to what he was putting these guys through. He did feel remorse at the end because he felt he was instigating the results of the experiment, which he was getting paid to do.”
Nicholas Braun spoke more to the psychological effects he had to explore while playing a guard: “For this role I thought about the days I bullied kids when I was a kid. I got bullied and I bullied. I felt that sort of power drunk thing when you have other kids watching you and you feel like, ‘I said that and got away with it,’ so you say something a little worse and then a little worse, and then one day the kid cries on the bus and you feel like you’re the king. I thought about those things. These kids are young in the movie too, they don’t have the sensibilities that adults have yet, so you don’t have that filter and threshold.”
Miller relished the “subtle dynamics” of playing a prisoner.
“I think I was interested in some of the subtle dyanimcs that were present for my character being someone who was reinforcing the structure but from the other direction, reinforcing it from the side of the prisoner and someone who is adapting this model of resistance that is ultimately, certainly, futile,” the actor explained. “I was interested in the ways the character is power hungry. He is actually someone who is deeply uncomfortable with being powerless, and who is trying to fight against that reality so quickly and so immediately. At the same time, he’s reinforcing a bunch of other power structures of the time, so he’s appropriating ideas from other movements that, in my opinion, aren’t cool for someone in his position in the experiment to be appropriating, something like how he says, “Power to the people,” and uses stuff from like Huey B. Newton or someone. It was the idea that he actually does a lot to create and to substantiate the feeling that the experiment is real and that the prison exists, that the guards are in control.”
Zimbardo admits he became apart of the experiment himself.
“The study should have ended after the second prisoner broke down. I should have ended it. It was unethical,” he boldly said. “When the first prisoner broke down, I believed he was faking. The mistake I made was in becoming the prison superintendent in addition to being the principal investigator. The transition into that role was gradual, it was day by day and hour by hour, so you’re never aware that you are becoming part of the system that you created. I was in a room that said ‘prison superintendent.’ When the parents came to see me they called me ‘Sir’ or ‘Doctor,’ so I became that in my mind. When I saw the suffering that evening when the prisoners were going to the toilet, it was nothing more than a checkmark on my list — it was their 10pm toilet run. When Christina finally confronts me and says, ‘How can you not see their suffering?,’ I’m just like, ‘What suffering?’ To me it just became the guards doing their job. As a prison superintendent, you lose sympathy and empathy for the prisoners because it’s you and the guards and the institution that is the important thing”
Valerie Purdie-Vaughns summarized the thematic moral of the film best when saying, “Roles are powerful and subtle. Whenever someone is watching you — whether you’re in the control room or you’re a guard watching the prisoner — something happens: You try harder — so if you’re a person who is obedient you’re going to try and be more obedient, if you’re a person who is worried about saving face and being a tough person, you’re going to be more tough — so there are so many little things that get augmented and enhanced that really reinforce the whole system all the way from the top to the bottom, to the point where there is no top and bottom anymore.”
“The Stanford Prison Experiment” opens in select theaters tomorrow and will be available On Demand starting Friday, July 24.