The simulation was supposed to last two weeks, but in one of the most astonishing melt-downs in the history of academic research, Dr. Philip Zimbardo had to shut down a “prison” mocked up in the basement of a Stanford University building after just six days.
As recreated in Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s disturbing new movie The Stanford Prison Experiment (opening wide July 24 following a limited release last weekend), students were paid $15 a day to populate “Stanford County Prison” in August, 1971. Eight randomly selected students were given dark glasses, billy clubs and khaki uniforms to role-play “guards.” Eight students wore smocks and ID numbers. These were the “prisoners.”
Within a matter of hours, one guard hit a mock prisoner with a billy club, two students were stripped naked, and a “trouble-maker” spent two days in “the hole”–a hallway closet–where he suffered a nervous breakdown. Zimbardo and his staff watched the students’ behavior deteriorate through video monitors without intervening.
Alvarez started researching the actual experiment after his friend, actor Brian Geraghty sent him Tim Talbott‘s screenplay about the incident. “I wasn’t sure how many details of the script were real, but as I started doing my own research, I realized Tim didn’t fabricate anything,” Alvarez recalls. “The story is so strange it’s hard to believe it’s true. I wanted to make a film where the audience sees it and thinks ‘Surely this can’t be real,’ but at the same time, you know that everything in the movie really did happen. I really wanted to re-create the feeling of that original experiment.”
Alvarez recruited costume designer Lisa Tomczeszyn and hair stylist Emanuel Millar to recreate period looks for the characters, culminating in a moustache-and-spread collar transformation of star Billy Crudup into a doppleganger-like embodiment of Dr. Zimbardo, as pictured in an earlier .
Alvarez also traveled to Palo Alto with production designer Gary Barbosa to study the original “prison.” The site still exists, largely unchanged, on the campus of Stanford University. Barbosa recalls, “I was in there with my measuring tape and taking photos to document as much as I could of the floor plan.”
Barbosa built a replica “prison” on a soundstage in Burbank, California, working hard to make the pedestrian space cinematically compelling. “The challenge for me became about how to translate the original space into a functional set for 20 actors plus the crew and still have it feel like the real thing,” Barbosa explains. “It’s tricky because almost the whole movie takes place in one hallway, so I had to figure out: ‘How do I make this blank, white wall room look interesting?”
To keep the moviegoer’s eye engaged, Barbosa obsessed over color. “Working with white, I went a little crazy,” he says. “At one point, I had literally like 50 shades of white to pick from. It couldn’t be too warm, couldn’t be too cool.”
The spare backdrop needed to complement the oatmeal-colored prisoner gowns. “I realized the stars were really the costumes and the makeup and hair. After I got samples of everything that was going to be in that hallway and put it all together. When I held up the smock fabric against the white, I could see the texture really popped, so that’s when I finally picked the right white.”
Barbosa persuaded director Alvarez to leave slabs of plywood unpainted as a match-up to original setting. He zoomed in on camera serial numbers in archival photographs so he could furnish Zimbardo’s control center with period-perfect video gear. And most importantly, he lobbied for the idea that the “prison yard” where mock prisoners get abused by the “guards,” should be every bit as narrow as the real thing.
Barbosa says, “It was a weird instinctual thing for me because the original hallway was six feet wide but when we taped the outline hallway on the floor on the production office, everybody said ‘This seems a little narrow.’ They wanted me to build it eight feet wide to give the actors a little more room, but I stood my ground because I felt that visually, the narrow hallway would really sell the idea of this cramped space. Once we added the table where the characters gather to eat their meals, one of the producers said ‘We can barely fit all the actors around here,’ and I was like, ‘I think that’s kind of the point.'”
Grounded in meticulously researched period detailThe Stanford Prison Experiment extends its obsession with authenticity to an unflattering portrait of mastermind Zimbardo. As portrayed by Crudup, the psychology professor comes across as a borderline-sadistic scholar with minimal regard for the harm his research might inflict on the subjects. “It’s very rare to find people who take ownership of their actions to the degree that Dr. Zimbardo did,” says Alvarez, who made the movie with active cooperation from the recently retired psychologist. “I appreciated being able to make this film with the support of someone who owned up to the kind of portrayal we were going to be doing. Billy Crudup and I talked a lot about what it means to get unwittingly wrapped up in something that becomes larger than you and the ambition that motivated this man.”
After documenting–and encouraging–the abuse of authority in his landmark study, Zimbardo became a champion of prison reform. Alvarez says, “I felt a great responsibility in making this film about the ways people abuse their authority. I want this film to engage people in this conversation not in a didactic way but in a way that allows the audience to make their own judgments about what happened.”
The movie’s “absolute power corrupts absolutely” theme continues to play out in American cities and foreign countries with disheartening regularity. While Alvarez and his team took pains to dress the narrative with an exacting eye for period detail, he says the underlying issues remain disturbingly timeless. Alvarez says, “The experiment has survived in the public consciousness for so long because it’s an incredibly important story that remains relevant time and time again.”