Kyle Patrick Alvarez is an independent filmmaker. His 2013 film C.O.G. was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize in drama at Sundance, and he recently directed two episodes of Netflix’s original series 13 Reasons Why. He also directed The Stanford Prison Experiment, which premiered at Sundance and won the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Award. Here he sits down with us to talk about how, after decades, that film finally got made.
Lunacy: Getting The Stanford Prison Experiment made wasn’t easy. It was one of those project where people say, “Well, that thing’s been kicking around forever.”
Kyle Alvarez: Yeah, people had been trying to make the movie for 40 years, since the experiment happened, really. There were different directors along the way, and it just never happened. Everyone was trying to make it on a bigger scale.
In the ’90s it was going to star Leonardo DiCaprio. Then Titanic happened, so things stopped there.
That was actually the fourth or fifth iteration of people trying to make it. At one point the film had been cast with people who were unknown at the time, like Channing Tatum, Paul Dano, Charlie Hunnam, and Giovanni Ribisi. I think Ryan Phillippe was the only real big name. That’s what they were getting financing off of. It was a huge cast. They were going to shoot it up north and try to isolate the actors. It just had a different approach with a much bigger budget, like 15 million dollars.
Anyways, the script had been around forever before I got involved. We got financing relatively quickly for how these things normally work. C.O.G. took three to four years, where this only took two years, which is not that bad. I mean, it was miserable, but it wasn’t that bad.
LU: Did you film at Stanford?
KA: We were supposed to, but they wanted to charge us quite a bit of money. At one point the producer was like, “Are we going to get a drone shot of the Stanford campus?” I was just thinking it was going to be one or two scenes outside the school. We were just going to go up with minimal crew. We thought about flying them up and even back on the same day to save money, but you can’t do that because every time you fly at SAG it’s a whole other travel day. It would make a one day shoot, a three day shoot.
I was three weeks into pre-production, so I wasn’t going to scrap the whole movie, but we did have to scrap being at Stanford. Plus, it was supposed to be a thirty-day shoot, and about a week and a half before production it got cut down to 20 days. I wasn’t allowed to cut pages from the script, so it was really like 140 page script in 20 days. There was maybe one or two reasonable days, but otherwise we were shooting 10 to 15 pages a day. That’s like 80 to 98 setups a day. It was a really miserable shoot and really, really intense.
LU: Seems like that’s pretty typical of independent shoots.
KA: All indie movies have been hard. A lot of it is improvisation and using the resources you have. I’ve always felt like there was willpower fueling my shoots. “I want to get this done, so I’m going to get it done.” This was the first time I saw past the limits of willpower and saw that I was just coasting on pure luck. It’s the scariest thing in the world.
LU: What was it like shooting in such a short time?
KA: All the observation room stuff was shot in one day. The first half of the day was shooting whatever scenes through the end of the film. The second half of the day we’d come back and costumes were literally just there handed to the actors. They’d be like, “What are we shooting? Where does this come in the movie?” I’d tell them, “Don’t worry about it. You’re going to look here…” We just had to hurry and shoot. It was one of the hardest days of production I’ve ever had. I think we did 25 scenes in one day and all spread throughout the movie. By the end of it, I remember Billy Crudup saying, “I do not envy you in the editing room.” I just said, “It’s going to work out. It’s going to be okay,” but you go home and you think, “I’m not sure if it’s going to be okay.” You hope it is and you feel like it’s going to be, but who knows at that point.
LU: How difficult was it from a directing standpoint to be at that pace with that many actors?
KA: Really tough, but I met with the actors ahead of time. Normally I’ll choose talent over personality any day, but on this film I knew there wasn’t going to be the option. I spent a lot of time meeting with these guys, sometimes even before they auditioned. There were some very talented guys who wanted to talk about method acting. They wanted to sleep in the prisons for example, but I just knew there wasn’t going to be room for that. This is a movie about amateur role players. Something I told them was “You are a professional role player portraying an amateur role player.” That’s the person who gets out of control.
Once we cast them I said, “Look, I’m not going to have the time to be one on one with you.” My first two films I had a lead actor in every single frame of the movie and now they’re two of my closest friends because of how closely we worked. On this film, I was like, “You might never hear from me during the day. If you don’t, it’s not because you’re not doing a good job. It’s not because I don’t like you. It’s because there’s so much and so many people. Please understand that now.” I think it was good to alleviate that pressure, because actors get self conscious, especially if another actor in a scene is getting more notes than they are. They get worried they’re doing a bad job.
Someone said to me, “What do you want for your next film?” I told them, “I want to be able to look an actor in the eye and say, ‘Take your time,’ and not be lying to them.” I say that to every actor on every movie I’ve done in hopes it calms them enough to get it right the first time. It’d be nice for that to be true. But I don’t think we ran any more than three takes ever on this movie.
LU: Your film definitely has a distinct look. The brightness, the color, and how you gradually change to wider shots in the hallway. How did you and your DP arrive at this and what were you trying to get across?
KA: It came from two things. One was trying to make sure the movie stayed fresh even though it was always in the hallway. Second, how do you shoot in such a tight space? I’d never shot in a sound stage before, or anything with the camera like meta-textural. I never put the camera in a place it couldn’t be. My first two movies are much more naturalistic. I knew we couldn’t do that with this, because every scene is basically a prisoner gets abused and gets locked up. Next scene. A prisoner gets abused and locked up. It’s the same scene over and over and over again.
When I read the book people kept saying, “It felt like a real prison.” I thought, “Okay, how do we show that cinematically?” The idea was if they lost the context of the space, this tiny hallway would suddenly be actually really scary to them. To me the way to show that was through context. At the beginning of the film we went well out of our way to always make sure you knew where people were standing, the geography of the space. That’s why the camera moved past walls or overhead. We know who is in what cells, where they are, and where they’re standing in relation to each other. The goal was that by the end we would taper off through the film.
At the beginning of the film, you also hear the really loud buzz of the fluorescents. It’s even in the soundtrack. Really, really in there. Normally you would increase that to create more of a sensory, but we actually did the opposite. We took it away. That last bit, the last 10 minutes it’s just their sound. I even told them to take the treatments off of it, so there’s a lot less echo. It feels like it’s right in your face and the sound is almost an organic. Then with lighting, they slowly dim to the built-ins over scenes.
The colors did such a good job that it’s only if you show the last frame and the first frame in the hallway you can really see those differences. I think it was a combination of all those things. It was also that we were aware that the story was monotonous, that part of the narrative was the fact that it was monotonous. That’s what broke these guys down. We had to figure out a way to do that without the movie falling victim to it as well. That was the number one challenge on a writing, performance, and shooting level.
LU: In terms of interpreting the script against the story, what was that process like?
KA: It was the first time I hadn’t written what I was directing, so there was definitely some figuring out to do. In this case usually it wasn’t about figuring out what the film was about, but more fundamentally what it is that you understand about it. We needed to understand the guards. Understanding Nick at the end, his remorse as he says something like, “You think you can know what it feels like, but you don’t know. And now I know what I’m capable of.” It was about understanding what the guards were going through with something actually traumatic, even though they were villainous. That was really important to me.
I read a lot of the interviews of the guys from the actual experiment. They kept saying it started to feel like real prison to them. Most of the dialogue in the movie is taken straight from the transcripts. And all the interviews at the end are verbatim. Even the shots in some of the cuts are in the same exact place.
The thing with this, is that the experiment means so much to so many people in so many different ways. People use it for prison reform. People use it for psychological studies, some for social sciences, others for the Abu Ghraib trials. It’s been used in so many different capacities. Because of that, I felt the film needed to maintain that place. It needed to respect the experiment by following it as closely as we could down to the looks of the sets, the words that were being used, the series of events. Everything was made with approvals from Stanford to Zimbardo. Because it was about so much, it was about trying to actually leave the movie broad enough so it would guide you in the conversations. It was these things I thought were the most important, but I didn’t want to tell you exactly what it was about. This way the movie could have as much meaning to people as the experiment did.