“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The quote from 18th century social and political philosopher Edmund Burke is one that director Kyle Patrick Alvarez took to heart when making the independent film The Stanford Prison Experiment. The film is the true story of a psychological experiment conducted at Stanford University in 1971, where researchers studied the dynamic between guards and prisoners, roles assigned to paid volunteers who participated in a controlled prison simulation on campus.
Although the controversial experiment was scheduled to last two weeks, Stanford psychologist and professor Phil Zimbardo, who headed the study, stopped the experiment after only six days, when he observed participants adapting to their roles all too realistically. In some cases, the guards began to use physical and mental abuse to control the prisoners. Prisoners began to accept the treatment exercised by these authority figures. For Alvarez, the story was compelling because it proved to him that everyone, to some degree, is capable of treating someone poorly or looking the other way when they see injustices taking place.
“That to me was revelatory,” Alvarez, 32, who is of Cuban descent, told Remezcla during an interview last week. “It must’ve been scary to be that guard and look back and think, ‘Oh, God, I’m capable of being a pretty bad person.’”
Alvarez, whose other films include Easier With Practice and C.O.G, came into the film long after the script had already been written. His initial thought before reading the script was that this could be a film sensationalized for dramatic effect. After reading the screenplay, however, and familiarizing himself more with the true-to-life story, Alvarez said he was impressed with how authentic it was to the events that occurred during those six days in 1971.
“It must’ve been scary to be that guard and look back and think, ‘Oh, God, I’m capable of being a pretty bad person.’”
“Zimbardo himself says the movie is 90 percent accurate,” Alvarez explains. “I’m actually quite proud of that number. I think if you look at most films [that are] considered historical – like Argo or Lincoln – we’re talking about 10-15 percent accuracy. Here we’re actually pulling dialogue from transcripts. I think with any kind of historical movie that takes license, you have to decide where that line is where you’re not embellishing the truth of what was behind the story.”
For someone who considers himself a pacifist, Alvarez said he has never really experienced a power struggle like the ones between the guards and prisoners in The Stanford Prison Experiment. Especially on the set of a movie, Alvarez knows he’s in charge and has the final say on many decisions, but would rather work through any disagreements and not butt heads with someone during production.
“As non-confrontational as I am, filmmaking requires you to be,” Alvarez said. “A challenge for me has been learning to access that in a way that is both confident and collaborative. I don’t really believe in altruism that much. I think filmmaking is about getting the best out of everyone and not just getting people to do what you want.”
“Filmmaking is about getting the best out of everyone and not just getting people to do what you want.”
Along with giving audiences a film they will enjoy (despite the hard-hitting themes), what Alvarez wants from moviegoers is for them to think about the issues at hand. With a broken U.S. prison system that incarcerates record numbers of nonviolent criminals every year, Alvarez hopes people take notice of a topic that has become more and more relevant in recent years.
“As a filmmaker, I’ve always maintained a deliberate lack of a point of view on issue like this,” he said. “It wasn’t until the movie started playing publically that I realized this narrative needed to be talked about. There are people who have spent their life working on prison reform, so I’m not going to say I can speak as strongly about it. But, for me, one of the goals was to make a movie that reflected the times we are in at this moment and ask questions like, ‘What really happens to people when we give them this power?’”