Four “inmates” and one “guard” in Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” | IFC FILMS
“The Stanford Prison Experiment” is gay filmmaker Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s take on a 1971 study conducted at the northern California university designed to observe the effects of incarceration on the behavior of both inmates and their keepers. Dr. Philip Zimbardo divided 24 male students into prisoner and guard roles in a mock jail. Though basic rules were established to prevent physical abuse, the guards were instructed to keep control over the prisoners. In time, the experiment became overwhelming for the prisoners, who struggled and rebelled.
The story has been told before as “Das Experiment,” a 2001 German film, and “The Experiment,” an American remake in 2010. However, those previous versions were done in prison facilities. Alvarez sets his intense, tightly wound film in the hallways and offices of the Stanford psychology building to increase the emotional and physical claustrophobia. The decision is effective as the director uses his camera to unflinchingly record the characters’ breakdowns and breakthroughs.
Kyle Patrick Alvarez reexamines the mayhem created when college students play inmates and guards
Alvarez, whose previous films include “C.O.G.” and “Easier With Practice,” spoke with Gay City News about “The Stanford Prison Experiment.”
GARY M. KRAMER: What prompted you to tell this story, which has been told before both in books and films?
KYLE PATRICK ALVAREZ: I asked myself that a lot, actually. This script was well written and taut. I went back and read the Wiki page on the story, and it wasn’t embellished. The [film’s] dialogue was created from transcripts, and the staging was taken from the event. I was familiar with “Das Experiment,” but I didn’t want the other films in my head. They took it too far — people were dying, and they never showed the other side of the story. I felt the story was so important and compelling. We rebuilt the basement of Stanford down to the square inch. We presented the historical version and that was gripping, so it deserves this take on it. Hopefully, it’s more relevant.
GMK: You are drawn to films that portray the complex male ego. “The Stanford Prison Experiment” also deals with that and the use and abuse of power. Can you comment on this theme that runs through your work?
KPA: I’ve made three films exclusively about men. It’s not my MO. I keep falling into them. It’s easy to hear the Stanford story and think they got drunk with power. I thought there is some truth to that, but there is a way to blur those lines a bit, and the final interviews are recreated nearly verbatim. They can look back and see themselves being abusive. The experiment is not about turning evil, but it is tied to the human condition, which is a lot frailer. Becoming these roles and role-playing is powerful, and we can get lost in that. It can happen to any of us.
I tried to approach the story as a character drama. These kids were college age, not adults. This film needs to be told this way and tap into the grayer areas and what institutions serve us and how do we punish people.
GMK: Let me ask you a question that Zimbardo’s team asks the students: Have you ever given into an aggressive urge or impulse?
KPA: [Laughs.] I don’t think I have. I’ve never thrown or taken a punch. I tend toward passivity at times. Maybe I shouldn’t. It’s easy to say I wouldn’t act like those guards. Movies become potboilers in themselves, and pressures and anxieties boil up. Making this film, it was hard to keep the morale up.
GMK: How, as the director of the film, did you control the actors in this situation and did they ever rebel against you, saying that they would not do something?
KPA: No. An easy approach to the film would be to invigorate that. It was low budget and we had a tight schedule, so I tried to spend time with the guys beforehand, so they are acting as guys who are acting this position. There’s a meta characteristic and I wanted to work against that, not kindle it. There are 15 people on set and we had to give everyone their space, so we worked at creating a community.
GMK: The film is about the power of stripping away the individuality of the men, to “feminize them” as one character says, to show how institutions affect individuals’ behavior. I see a parallel here to how gay men are sometimes treated. As a gay man, how did you approach this film?
KPA: In some ways, my other films were about homosexuality. Sexuality exists in gendered ways here — the woman saves the day. There was a heightened awareness about the role of homoeroticism at play in the experiment. What I thought was relevant was the sexual humiliation in the last night. When you take away everything from someone, sexual humiliation is all that left. It’s worse than physical humiliation. That’s what’s so upsetting. For me, it’s realizing that sexual humiliation is a sub-human state.
My gay sensibility — being bullied as a kid — might have given me a heightened sensitivity. This film wasn’t as intensely personal as the other films I’ve made, though.
GMK: There is a clinical, detached approach you take to telling the story.
KPA: Yes. Even aesthetically, I thought: How are we going to shoot people watching the experiment? There are no close-ups until a character has a bag pulled off his head. There are no handheld shots until a character flips out, so there are no subjective shots. And that’s how I wanted to feel about the film. I didn’t want it to be didactic: You’re supposed to feel this!
GMK: Did making this film force you to confront something difficult inside of you? Or did you, as the characters indicate, become what you hated and enjoy it?
KPA: No. [Laughs.] Every time I am shooting something grueling, like the push-up scenes, I felt sympathetic. The challenge for me was technical: How will I do this and keep it compelling and keep 25 guys engaged as actors? But that’s what drew me to it, the ambition to juggle it all.
GMK: Would you have been a guard or a prisoner?
KPA: [Laughs.] I thought about both. I don’t think I’d want to be either. I think if I was eager I would challenge myself, and my tendency is passivity. So who are the people who stand up in trying moments and say, “This is wrong,” and “Stop this?” What are the qualities that make people do good? I’d rather be a guard in the hope that I can run things kindly and smoothly.
THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT | Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez | IFC Films | Opens Jul. 17 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St.; ifccenter.com