'Stanford Prison Experiment' Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez Reveals The Most Shocking Thing About The Scary New Drama
The story alone sounds like a plotline crafted by a Hollywood writer: 24 young men are gathered up from their homes, thrust into a makeshift prison, and randomly assigned the roles of either prisoner or guard. It is a carefully-constructed study at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, but after just a few days, things begin to spiral out of control. Sounds like fiction, right? Yet these were the actual circumstances of the Stanford Prison Experiment, a study conducted by Dr. Philip Zimbardo in 1971. For the first time in history, an authorized narrative film has been made based on the experiment: The Stanford Prison Experiment , out July 17. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez explains to Bustle how he balanced his desire to portray the study's events as truly as possible while still giving the film the intensity and suspense that any good drama should have.
"It's interesting because part of what drew me to the movie was [that there's] gonna be there’s so many challenges," Alvarez says. "You’re talking about a film that mostly takes place in a small hallway, a big ensemble cast...you just have to have a lot of faith in the material — that feeling you get when you first read the script, which was 'these actions and these series of events are compelling and challenging and that makes them inherently cinematic.'"
Elaborating, Alvarez says that he felt that the story was rich enough on its own that it didn't need embellishment. He also wanted to emphasize that the most devastating effects of the experiment were psychological, not physical.
"I think it’s ultimately part of what has stayed with people so much about the experiment; that it took on this sort of larger-than-life capacity because it was more about the imagination. It was more about what drove them to these places on a psychological level and how fast that happened," he says. "And, yes, physicality was a big part of that, but there was something deeper, something more complex going on beneath that."
The director therefore focused on creating a subtle feeling of terror without resorting to physical violence — a surprising decision that's a significant departure from the route taken by other films based on the events at Stanford.
Says Alvarez, "There’s not a single drop of blood in the film. There’s one punch thrown....Something that had always really disappointed me with previous movies inspired by the experiment was that they relied so much on violence, or they relied so much on literally life and death in order to dramatize it. And you look at this and you go "Well, you don’t you don’t need to do that, you don’t need to have that; the [real] story is so compelling and so rich."
One aspect of the experiment which Alvarez chose to emphasize was that the participants were all very young, college-aged. Casting actors of that age was a challenge, but the director felt that the youth of the participants was an important detail to drill into the audience's minds.
"These were young boys, these were young kids, these weren’t adults," Alvarez says. "So for me one of my number-one goals was to keep this cast as young as possible. It’s a bit of a fight because the little bit older you get the more exposure you get, but we had someone as young as 17 in the cast, and many were under 21. That was always the goal, because there’s something about that fragility of the young male, these young faces."
The age of the boys is referenced at a pivotal point in the film, in which the experimenter Dr. Zimbardo (played by Billy Crudup) is confronted by his girlfriend about his treatment of the study's subjects. This was a real-life occurrence, and was carefully recreated in the film to clearly communicate the significance and weight of the moment. Reflecting upon the interaction, Alvarez says, "That for me was connected back to that idea of the drama was there, and was sort of real already, so that was one of the best scenes to shoot in the film."
By relying upon the strength of the story to convey the drama as it unfolded, Alvarez has created a film which is both true to real life and as gripping as any fictional narrative. Stanford reveals to audiences that psychological prisons can be just as horrifying as physical ones.
Images: Getty Images (2), IFC Films