Film Spotlight: The Stanford Prison Experiment

"A lot of the directors I admire were famous manipulators," says Kyle Patrick Alvarez, director of The Stanford Prison Experiment. "Hitchcock and Kubrick and directors who almost seemed to hate actors in a way. I love their work, but I also love actors and I wanted to be able to talk to these guys without engineering the film through method."

The film, which opens Friday at the Cedar Lee, is a recreation of the infamous 1971 psychological experiment held at Stanford University. In it, 24 male students were randomly assigned the roles of guard and prisoner in an attempt to study the relationship between them (with military prisons in mind). The study went south in a hurry. The guards enthusiastically embraced their roles and implemented a brutal regime, demanding allegiance and punishing all those who questioned their authority — the transcripts are now required reading in just about every undergrad psychology curriculum out there.

"I sort of thought the easier version of directing this movie would have been to encourage people to become the experiment, to make the actors eat separately and only interact in the way they would in the experiment," Alvarez says. "But I tried to work against that actually."

The film stars Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, It Follows' Keir Gilchrest, 18-year-old Tye Sheridan of Mud, and a sea of other 18-to-25-year-olds, all convincingly portraying college students thrust into the basement of Stanford's psychology wing, initially treating the experiment like a kind of summer job. Alvarez said many of the young actors had worked on projects together in the past — many of them were good friends — and he suspected it would have been foolish to try to disrupt a natural chemistry.

"It would have been a waste of my time," Alvarez said, "sort of an eye-roll inducing example of what 'good directing' should be or something. Even though the material was really intense, we were all having a strangely good time."

Not to say that the shoot was blissful. Alvarez says that with an extremely tight budget and shoot schedule, the days were often long and intense with basically zero time for rehearsal beforehand. And though the film occasionally testifies to the thin resources — there is, in certain segments, a lashed-together quality — there is also a raw energy inherent in a group of young actors sinking their teeth into work about authority and psychological violence. The film serves the iconography of the original experiment without dressing it up with gore as in, say, the Adrien Brody Netflix garbage chuter The Experiment.

"I didn't want to stretch it too far," says Alvarez.

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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