‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ Will Imprison You, Too

Kyle Patrick Alvarez's new film is based on the 1971 psychology experiment that went so horribly awry, it's been compared to Abu Ghraib.

by Ben Blum
Jul 21 2015, 7:00pm

Still from 'The Stanford Prison Experiment.' Photos by Jas Shelton. Courtesy of IFC Films

Research psychology was a wilder and woolier discipline in 1971, the year a 38-year-old professor named Philip Zimbardo built a mock jail in the Stanford University Psychology Department and stocked it with guards and prisoners drawn from young male respondents to a newspaper ad. It took only five days for that nondescript hallway in the basement of Jordan Hall to become a crucible of psychological abuse so powerful that it would one day be cited as a point of reference during the court martial of the ranking non-commissioned officer supervising the "hard site" at Abu Ghraib.

The shocking results of the Stanford Prison Experiment have been a staple of undergraduate psychology textbooks for decades. However, the first detailed explanation of how a pile of khaki suits, mirror shades, night sticks, and white cotton smocks turned a couple dozen Palo Alto youngsters into guards who thought they had license to abuse and prisoners who thought they couldn't get out only appeared in 2007, in Zimbardo's bestselling book The Lucifer Effect. The tale has now been brought to the big screen in Kyle Patrick Alvarez's dramatic reconstruction, The Stanford Prison Experiment, whose masterfully claustrophobic rendering of the interior of the experiment imprisons the viewer just as thoroughly as the subjects.

Watch an exclusive clip of 'The Stanford Prison Experiment':

It all begins in a spirit of playfulness. Hanging around a mock jail for two weeks at $15 per day (good money at the time) seems like a pretty decent summer gig. Role assignments are made at random, though everyone hopes to be a prisoner—as one unwitting guard-to-be put it in the intake questionnaire for the real-life Stanford Prison Experiment, "people resent guards." At first, guards and prisoners alike giggle at the awkwardness of their new jobs. Tension begins to mount as the prisoners find themselves denied basic privileges they thought they would receive, including access to their medications. Then a guard reflexively clubs a prisoner to the ground during a lighthearted scuffle, an act whose undeniable reality appears to shock the perpetrator just as much as it does the victim and the audience. From there things only get scarier.

Any of the thousands of students who have encountered Dr. Zimbardo as host of the Discovering Psychology series of introductory video lectures will do a double-take at Billy Crudup's dead-on impersonation, but the real standouts are the experimental subjects themselves. For a gaggle of young men in identical white smocks with no backstories, the prisoners pop out as surprisingly vivid characters, responding with a range of resistance, confusion, and submission to the nightmare in which they find themselves. The standout is Ezra Miller, who plays rebel leader Daniel Culp with smoky intensity. Michael Angarano is brilliant as a sadistic guard nicknamed "John Wayne," whose Southern accent and Cool Hand Luke-inspired guard persona melt off with uncanny speed as soon as he leaves the Stanford County Jail, revealing a polite, even nebbish young student. Most disturbing of all are the guards who follow his lead. Their incremental shift from playacting to enjoyment of their abusive power is frightening to behold—and frighteningly relatable.

I sat down with Alvarez in the lobby of the W Hotel in midtown Manhattan to talk about when role-playing becomes reality, what standards of historical accuracy might obtain in reconstructing a science experiment, and the lessons he has drawn from the Stanford Prison Experiment.

VICE: How did you get involved with this project?
Kyle Patrick Alvarez: It's been kicking around for a long time, arguably since the experiment happened. Each decade, it kind of took a different form. In the 90s, DiCaprio was in it. In the early aughts—is it OK to call it that now?—it was the Chris McQuarrie version, which he and Tim Talbott wrote. That was the version that shifted over to what became this film. When the script came to me, I had never read the script before, but I knew it existed and I certainly had studied the Stanford Prison Experiment, as probably most people do.

I think that's why it sticks with people: You are talking about people from primarily white, privileged, upper-middle class areas who did this, not troubled kids or inner-city kids, so you can't make the kind of excuses the media makes for criminal activity. –Kyle Patrick Alvarez

So did you read The Lucifer Effect ?
Oh yeah. Dr. Zimbardo was heavily involved in the movie. The Lucifer Effect was being written at the same exact time the script was being written, so Tim and Phil [Zimbardo] were passing each other notes and research. Phil was recollecting a lot of stuff, digging back through old notes, putting everything together and creating the book, which to me is the foundation of the legacy of his work and the experiment and what it means. Phil was an integral part of the movie. What I liked about the script is we didn't have to embellish it. Of course there are things in there, just like in any movie there are. But we [were able to] get access to all this raw footage and audio, and talk to the people who were actually there, Phil and the people who were his grad students, and try to make a film that I think, in many ways, is more accurate than your usual "based on a true story." I was even trying to think, like, Is there some other phrase? Because "based on a true story" now means nothing. I remember a year or two ago, there was a movie where Eric Bana is a cop in New York fighting demons [2014's Deliver Us From Evil], and it was "based on a true story." So I think the ideology of what that means has kind of gone away. And for me, I wanted to make a movie that—I'd make a documentary if I wanted it to be totally factual—but that could at least feel like it existed in a context of Phil's work, like you could watch this and it wouldn't feel like you were watching something that came from totally out of left field. Because that's been done already with Das Experiment.

Billy Crudup as Dr. Philip Zimbardo and cast in 'The Stanford Prison Experiment.' Photo by Jas Shelton. Courtesy of IFC Films

There's been all this controversy around Selma, its departures from historical accuracy. Do you anticipate any kind of controversy around the minor departures that you guys made?
Controversy, I don't think so. I'm sure people who were involved in the experiment—I've never met any of the subjects—I'm sure they'll see the movie, and they can say, "Oh, it didn't play out anything like that." All I can say is we watched raw footage, and it was always from that hallway where most of the movie takes place, and we legitimately rebuilt it. We went to Stanford, measured it, and we rebuilt it. You can't really tell the difference between the photos from our movie and the photos from the experiment. The scene when Ezra [Miller]'s in the closet, where he's like, "I'm burning up inside" and hitting the walls—that's a real audio clip. Ezra listened to it. The goal wasn't to mimic this character that he was playing and created, but the manner and the style of it. I think that's the truthfulness that we were trying to achieve. Like, the escape is a real thing that happened. Two guys tried to escape. I think they got the lock undone and maybe stepped out, but they never made it out into the hallway. So there's things like that, but none of it broke the fundamentals of what the experiment was or what happened. And it was important, but to say, "Oh, was it 100 percent truthful"? I mean, there's no way. The Selma thing I think was inspired by a different kind of vernacular that was less about historical accuracy.

I mean, look, no one was upset that they changed the American voting record to create more suspense in Lincoln. That's actually recorded fact, and they changed it. It didn't bother me. It didn't bother anybody else. Yet Selma, they were upset about idiosyncrasies of conversations. Well, they were more than idiosyncrasies—it sounds like I'm trivializing it. But it felt like that backlash came more from people concerned about its Oscar campaign. Usually, that's where that stuff comes from.

I'd make a documentary if I wanted it to be totally factual. —Kyle Patrick Alvarez

Over the course of the film, the prison becomes more real to everyone. In the beginning, prisoners kind of laugh at what they're made to do.
And I pushed really hard for that. It was really important that the first hour of the film or so is actually kind of fun in a weird way because I feel like, A) it gets so miserable. You can't do two hours of that. And B) when I watched the footage they really are laughing.

So when does it turn for you? When does the prison become real?
I think Ezra's character is kind of the one that turns it. He's the rebellious one who's like, "This isn't what I signed up for." That's what I think is kind of interesting, that his character starts to instigate a little bit more.

Do you think by the end the prisoners really thought they couldn't get out? Yeah.

Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez with cast. Photo by Steve Dietl. Copyright Stanford Prison, LLC. An IFC Films Release.

One of the things that really impresses me about the film is how incredibly frightening the violence is. For a modern moviegoer, it's a lot less violent than a typical movie. There's no shooting, there's no stabbing, there's very little in the way of physical violence. And yet it's an incredibly violent film.
One of the things that I'm really proud of and happy with is that no one does die. There's no blood in the film, there's no real what we call "violence" in the movie, but it feels very violent because we don't want to accept that these things happen in this kind of environment. People are like, "That wouldn't have happened at Stanford." I think that's why it sticks with people: You are talking about people from primarily white, privileged, upper-middle class areas who did this, not troubled kids or inner-city kids, so you can't make the kind of excuses the media makes for criminal activity. I think that's why it's still very upsetting to people. Before you saw the film, when you heard the story, maybe you would say, "Why would this have gone so bad? People would never really do that." By the end of the film, my hope would be that you would look at yourself a little bit and be like, "Well, I don't know how I would be. I've never been given that role."

Now that I've spent a lot of time with it, I can with all humility say I'd probably be one of the really passive people who would just let time pass and be like, "Let's just let this go and it'll work out. It'll be OK." Being a filmmaker now for like six, seven years, it's been the challenge of working against that natural part of me, because you can't be passive as a filmmaker. Filmmaking is really hard. You bring 100 people together that have never worked together ever, who suddenly have to work together for four weeks incredibly quickly and effectively. It's designed for conflict. At some point you have to be confrontational or set things right—not to be a difficult person, but to be more demanding or exacting. That's not in my nature. The challenge of making movies is challenging myself to be more like that.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is now playing at the IFC Center in New York and theaters nationwide.

Ben Blum is a writer and data scientist. His first book, a nonfiction account of a bank robbery conducted by Army Rangers in Tacoma, Washington, in 2006, will be published by Doubleday in 2016. He lives in Brooklyn.