Kyle Patrick Alvarez wrote and directed the films C.O.G. (from David Sedaris) and Easier with Practice. His new film, scripted by Tim Talbott, adapts Dr. Philip Zimbardo's book The Lucifer Effect:: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil into the film The Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo conducted the original research project in 1971 and subsequently testified as an expert witness in an Abu Ghraib-related court martial. A professor emeritus at Stanford University and publisher of over fifty books, Dr. Zimbardo has spent fifty years teaching and studying psychology, and currently lectures worldwide. "A" and "Z" sat down to chat with me at the Laurel Court restaurant in San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel.
Groucho: All right, so I thought I'd start by asking Dr. Zimbardo about your inspiration for the original study. What was the moment...do you remember the moment when you came up with the idea and what did you expect?
Philip Zimbardo: There are actually two moments. One moment was when I first read the research by my high school classmate from James Monroe High School in the Bronx, Stanley Milgram, that I was so impressed with you know what he found, how he did it, the imaginative creativity in creating that drama. And then, I don't know if you know—he was a filmmaker. Did you know that? He was a filmmaker.
Kyle Patrick Alvarez: Oh wow.
Philip Zimbardo: He made the film "Blind Obedience." He made it himself, and then later he did a number of other films. And so I was impressed, but at the same time I challenged the idea that this was what evil is all about. It's so rare that one individual in power held somebody else to do a bad thing. I sense more often when when we're in a group. We're playing a role. We're in an unusual setting. We look around...see what other people are doing. So what I wanted to do was amplify Milgram's finding that good people can be led to do bad things by not having anyone tell anybody what to do but creating a setting in which the behavior would evolve from the roles, from the interaction. The other thing that happened was in the Spring term before I engaged my whole class, which is Social Psychology, at Stanford to do original projects, and I said I'm interested in the impact of institutions on people. There's a lot of evidence that within a short time of somebody going to an old age home, despite being healthy, they get sick and die. So I want some of you to study old age homes, that is, go there, pretend you're going to send your grandmother or whatever and then make a report and present it to the class. And then I had a few other things, and one of them is I'm interested in what happens, you know, when somebody goes to prison as a guard or a prisoner. How is that insitution transformed? And so a group took that project and studied it and studied prisons, and then the last weekend they said, "We would like to do a mock prison in our dormitory." I said, "Great. All you need is different costumes." And then that group presented on Monday in class. And what they presented was extraordinary. Kids began to cry and said, "You cannot be my friend anymore because when you were playing the guard that was the real you," and the kid said, “No no no, I was just playing the role,” and he said, “No that was you.” And then describing some of the terrible things—this is co-ed—terrible things some of the male guards did to female prisoners. And they were all students in the same dormitory. And so I met with all of them in my lab afterward, after class, to try to figure out how could this be? How could this be so powerful since it was role-playing? So then I decided, “Oh my God. We really have to do this systematically, you know, to get ordinary people assigned to these roles and to be able to observe what was happening." And so that was the inspiration of the study.
Groucho: So Kyle, what was your cinematic inspiration in approaching this material?
Kyle Patrick Alvarez: Threefold. Threefold. One, it was casting. You know, on low-budget movies like this you don't normally get to pull 25 lead actors together. It's really uncommon. So there was sort of this mountain, this task, of finding a way to bring all these kids together, and then pull together the best talent you could in that age range. And that was really exciting to me. The other was the challenge of shooting a whole movie in a hallway. How were you going to do that? What ways were the ways to solve that and keep it fresh and exciting. And then lastly, but most importantly, was the story itself. It sort of felt like if there was a way to tell this and make it cinematic even though so many parts of it are inherently uncinematic, like i.e. you are in this tight space, the pay off would be—if you do it right...really wonderful—and I like being scared, you know, of telling a story. You know, something should be scary about it. If you kind of know exactly how to do it and what to do and you think you could do it with your eyes closed, you probably shouldn't be doing it. And I was terrified of doing it.
G: And so to follow up on that, I was heartened to read that, in working with the actors, you were wary of a Method approach. I don't know if you got any push-back from any of the actors on that.
KPA: No no no, because I had met...usually, you know, you cast, you find the best and right person for the part, and in this case I was doing that but also finding the best and right people to be in an ensemble and the best and right people to not lose themselves in it because we were a very, very tight shooting schedule, and in addition to that I wanted it to be a collaborative environment. I didn't want to pit the actors against themselves. The characters are pitted against each other. So the actors didn't have to be. But so I did a sort of vetting process, probably not too unsimiliar to how they vetted the kids for the experiment, but of making sure that I wasn't bringing in people who only knew how to act that way. I like the method approach. I don't mind it at all. But you know, it's—there's a time and a place for everything, and this wasn't going to be the film that had the time and the place for it. So some of the actors in the film might prefer Method acting, but in this instance everyone who jumped on board understood that this wasn't going to be the film for it, you know?
G: Right. Well it seems to me that the line could be so easily blurred...
KPA: Yeah. And that's why it was inevitably going to happen, so therefore you had to work against it...
G: I see. Yeah.
KPA: And not encourage it. But I know there were certainly other filmmakers before me who tried to do this, who wanted to encourage it, who, you know, had this almost like a kind of brazen attitude of “Ooh it'll be fun..." I just think...it might be my Achilles heel, though, you know? I like actors too much. I may be a little too nice to them sometimes?
KPA: In this case I think it worked to the film's benefit, so...
G: The original experiment was not unlike a piece of theater itself, I think. And one of the things I thought watching the film, too, was that this would make an exceptional stage play. I don't know if the screenwriter's considered...
KPA: You know I thought that the other day for the first time because of you [Zimbardo] talking about how making the experiment was like, in a weird way not too dissimilar from theater or film.
PZ: Actually, what's interesting is there's a theater compnay in Milan called òyes that just produced a play that I saw in Corleone, Sicily called The Lucifer Effect, and essentially it's—there's a storm and people run down a basement—six guys—and they run down a basement and they don't know how long they're gonna be there, and they don't have any clothes, they had just wet clothes. And each of them is sitting on a box, and they open the box and in the box are overalls—orange overalls and blue overalls—three are blue and three are orange. And then what you see is they evolve into antagonistic roles—the blues start dominating the others...very powerful, so it's based on it very loosely, but it's the same thing: in the end power corrupts.
G: Well, the student who took on the kind of Strother Martin role from Cool Hand Luke was a drama major, right? You talk about playing roles, and of course...
PZ: Well, he was only a freshman, so he's just starting drama, so he's not a skilled actor at all.
G: Yeah. (Chuckles.) But you talk about how there are these roles in society, and I guess it's like Shakespeare's “all the world's a stage,” right? When we play roles in real life as well. But to what extent do you think the reactions of the students in the experiment were based on what they thought would the roles they were meant to play in terms of what they had seen of prison in films and so on?
PZ: Yeah. I think aside from Cool Hand Luke everybody had seen a prison movie or read of some, and in those movies, you know, guards always are power-hungry, power-mad, dominate and in every movie the sympathy of the reader, the audience, is with the prisoner, and so, you know, guards have to be powerful, and guards are going to be disliked, and you have to say, "Who gives a shit? It's my job." You know, so they all had that...we didn't have to say, “Oh, you're a guard, and therefore you gotta do 'a,' 'b' and 'c'. You're a guard and again, nobody wanted to be a guard. Since 1971 everybody hated policemen. They hated prison guards. So essentially it was getting into a role that they knew vaguely about in a setting where that role had meaning. It was the most important thing anybody could do in that part is to be a guard. Most powerful.
G: Yeah. Kyle, can you talk about your read on the character of Dr. Philip Zimbardo and Billy's? What you kind of came to as an agreement on how to play him...was that a discussion you had?
KPA: A large part of it is...you start filming and it becomes a character. So in this case it's a little blurrier because Phil is here and working on the film and a consultant on it, so there is more duty, right? And in the past—my past films for instance cast as someone to play David Sedaris. Our agreement—my understanding with David was I'm gonna make a film that was based on your story. It's not gonna be...it's not following your story. It's not historical. I'm trying to make a fictional film. Here we're trying to make a narrative fictional film that is very “inspired by.” So there was a certain, at least on the page and on the script, duty to that. For Bill, you know, and it's what I told a lot of these guys who had access to the materials, which is take inspiration from it. So Billy and I said, "Okay. Don't..." Billy changed his voice some, but didn't go all the way. You know, you can only capture the distinction of someone so much. We, of course, matched facial hair and looks and feelings, and Billy actually ended up looking strikingly similar to him at the time, but you know, at the same time, you also have to be able to work with an actor, to talk about it individually as a character, but I think what we really focused on was two things: the change, right? To see someone...for him to be drawn into it and feel a duty to this space as if it were a real prison and become drawn into that in a way just exactly like the guards did, you know? He's never evil, that he feels a stronger sense of duty to the prison, and then the other thing was talking about him, like I said: him as a character, as a very ambitious person. You're talking about someone who is very young, and a very popular professor at an incredible institution, and there's inherent ambition into that, and so for Billy it's not something that is ever really spoken in the film, but for him it gave him the tools, the access to kind of say the realization that this experiment starting off as just what we talked about, you know, it's why—the line is what we added to the film is that this was just going to be a routine experiment. It was maybe going to be a boring two weeks to then seeing something that a) you're drawn into and b) also acknowledging, being able to acknowledge that what's happening is actually really groundbreaking and really important. And I think that when you're committed to that kind of work, you don't want to see that—you inherently don't want to see that end. I think that is something anyone can relate to because what is happening is fascinating, and so um the way...there's this one line on the script, on page, didn't have power to me, and on the film I think it's Billy's best moment, where he says, he says, “This could be great.” And the way he said it was I think is really relatable. You really understand that there's a true passion for the field. And we talked a little bit about it earlier today...on one hand the standards that are in place now are a good thing because they prevent potentially bad things from happening. But on the other hand, there's so much great research that can't happen because of it.
KPA: (Laughs.) There's no way to say that without it sounding kind of—(Laughs.) But there is truth to that and there's something really interesting to me about that truth.
G: Well I wanted to ask Dr. Zimbardo about that exactly. You couldn't do this study today, and you've talked about that partly for that, for the legal reasons. We are so much more litiginous today. If you could, though, would you? Knowing how it went, would you do this study again? You've had to kind of be on the defensive for decades just for those people who viewed you as a sadist and an exploiter—
PZ: Yeah, yeah, evil guy.
PZ: No, I wouldn't do the study again because—or let me put it differently. What we did would be the experimental condition. And what we want to compare it to conditions in which you would predict something very different would happen—not the violence. So, for example, what would happen if we had a group of guards trained in meditation and compassion and mindfulness? Let's say they go through a two-week training, and then we start the study. Would that make a difference?
PZ: If it did, then you would want that to be put into the guards' training.
PZ: Or we thought about having all women guards and prisoners. And again the comparison would be are all guys, for instance....so those could never be done.
PZ: You see? I'm saying the kinds of things I would like to do is, you know—or suppose you had all African American kids, you know, as guards and prisoners. Would it be any different?
PZ: You know? So there are many interesting questions that not only I have, but anybody who thinks about it: what would you like to know about prisons that we don't know?
PZ: And the answer is: you will never know. That's the sad thing.
G: I guess the last question I'll ask is the term "evil" is used a lot in relation to your work, the book [The Lucifer Effect], the film. It's a very loaded term, and I wonder how maybe both of you define it?
KPA: I mean, for me, I'm more interested in the greyer sides of it, I guess. I mean, in a lot of ways there is actually a lot of dichotomy in the experiment, right? There's a very clear issue of the guards doing wrong. There's very little of the prisoners doing wrong, you know? But you try to—which is, I think, part of the point of the study, but when you make a film you try and bring in as much grey. So for me, it's something you do lose in making a movie that is delberately so constrained. You do lose a sense of oh, like for instance "John Wayne," Michael's character. You get a little bit towards the end. And we had to lose a scene when him and Christina interacted, which happened in real life. But you can only then trust the performance of the actor in those few moments you have to show like oh no, this guy probably went home and was taking care of his little sister, or something, you know? He was a good guy...
KPA: But that's—the greyness is gone, which is fine. I'm okay with that. I wanted that. I think the benefit of being a sticking-to-the-yard and to the experiment so closely far outweighs the oh-this-guy's-actually-maybe-a-good-guy-in-real-life. So, I mean, evil to me I just think is always more fascinating when it's grey, when you can sort of understand—I mean, I am thinking more even broad villains. The villains in movies are always—and in this case something that's interesting was in part of the way in which we approached the character of Phil was like—when you look at the movie and that sense of story structure, he's both the protagonist, right? He's invented this experiment. We want to see it succeed, and then we ultimately want to see him stop it. He's also the antagonist, because he's perpetuating it.
KPA: And so that's an interesting thing to me but, you know. The term "evil" you can speak much more clearly on.
PZ: So for me "evil" is the use and abuse of power to intentionally harm and hurt other people. When you can use that power, it's the opposite. You can use it to make life better for people. Teachers use their power to inspire, to educate, so it's using the power that is given to you or the power you have because of your social position, your physical strength size, the fact that you have money or family connections—to use it in a negative way to make life worse for other people.
G: Do you ever get any pushback on that from a clinical perspective, though, the use of that term?
PZ: Yeah, I mean the problem with clinical psychologists and psychiatrists is when they focus on "evil people," they always mean psychopaths and sociopaths.
PZ: That's some label. And, in fact, most psychopaths and sociopaths never do evil behavior. I mean, it's the people who don't feel empathy, who don't feel guilt, but there's no solid evidence that they represent a higher percentage of people who do crimes or bad deeds.
G: Alright, we'll have to end it there. Thank you both for talking to me.
PZ: Thank you very much.
KPA: Thank you.