Finding a Good Middle Ground

Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez on the compromise and claustrophobia of The Stanford Prison Experiment

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Kyle Patrick Alvarez has only made three feature films and he’s already worked with David Sedaris, Corey Stoll, Ezra Miller, Jonathan Groff, Olivia Thirlby and Billy Crudup. He came on the scene in 2009 with Easier with Practice where he featured newcomer Brian Geraghty, who would soon go on to star in The Hurt Locker. But Alvarez really surprised cinephiles when he made C.O.G., an adaptation of one of David Sedaris’ short stories. Sedaris had been vocal for years about never wanting his writing turned into a movie, but somehow Alvarez convinced him—we’ll get to that.

Most recently Alvarez opened The Stanford Prison Experiment in theaters this summer after premiering it at Sundance. The film not only features a stellar cast, including Crudup, Thirlby and Miller but also a handful of on-the-rise young actors. Alvarez was excited to cast the indie project, pulling talent from all over, even Nickelodeon and MTV.

The film is based on true events. In 1971, Stanford University conducted an experiment to analyze the psychological repercussions of becoming a prisoner or a prison guard. They simulated a prison in a school hallway and employed a handful of male students to participate. Philip Zimbardo (Crudup) headed the study, and the film follows the emotional and mental effects that he also undergoes during the process.

Alvarez puts his own spin on the situation, while sticking close to the actual events. Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Jack Kilmer, Chris Sheffield and Logan Miller along with the rest of the cast provide truly captivating performances.

Paste had a chance to chat with Alvarez once the film press tour had calmed down and he was back at home in L.A. How did he get here so quickly? He was handed a dream cast and incredible script, and created a film that was both intelligent and surprising. We saw it twice and we’re still puzzled—as we should be. Zimbardo and subsequently Alvarez uncovered an event that explores the fascinating roots of human behavior.

Alvarez opens up about his own roots, his thoughts on the film school debate, and how he balances humility and confidence. He also discusses the importance of understanding your actors on set, taking risks, and how his gut always tells him when he should make his next movie.

Paste: How are you? How’s L.A.?
Alvarez: This was my first week back to normal life in a way. I think yesterday was the year anniversary of starting pre-production [on The Stanford Prison Experiment]. It feels like my first chance to catch up on real life!

Paste: A year turnaround is insane. You’ve come so far in such little time and I want to go back to where you started. I read an article and it surprised me that you weren’t that kid making movies on his Super 8 camera.
Alvarez: I’m embarrassed that I wasn’t! I feel like everyone has that good story. I loved watching a lot of movies. I never really made them. I would make some as a kid, me and my sister, but I don’t feel like those were the building blocks.

Paste: Did you absorb things through osmosis, then? When making your films were you like, Oh, that’s something I saw in The Goonies?
Alvarez:For sure. I watched The Parallax View when I was really young because I loved The X-Files. I remember reading an interview with Chris Carter and he said one of his biggest inspirations for The X-Files was The Parallax View. I was like, Oh, I’ve got to watch this movie! Definitely with Stanford it was that and All The President’s Men; obviously the first shot in the movie and several things in the movie are taken from that. It was old classic films for sure but also the boom of independent cinema in the ’90s, loving Alexander Payne. For me studying film was more of the game than practicing making a lot.

Paste: Is that why you chose to go to film school? There’s this debate right now where I feel like some filmmakers are like, Fuck film school!
Alvarez: There are two sides of it. There’s film school specifically and then there’s college in general. So many people are facing financial struggle in a way that the frame of college has gone away. For me, college was four years I needed between real life and high school. It was an opportunity to be around other people who love film and spending all day talking about it. I can say, “Okay well, had I gone straight from high school to L.A. it would have been disastrous.” The city would have swallowed me up at 18. There are so many reasons why there is value in college—taking time to figure out what kind of filmmaker you want to be. There’s a lot of value in learning what it takes technically to make a film. I love theory, and that plays a big part of it, but that was so much of my college experience as opposed to Hey, how do you get a movie made? How do you build a business plan? What is it like being on set? What does an AD do? Simple things like that that I didn’t learn until my first day of being on set. There’s an amazing story about Anthony Minghella when he was shooting Truly, Madly, Deeply, his first movie, where they shot the first scene and the DP was like, “Did you get all the coverage you wanted?” And he’s like, “What’s coverage?” Intuition, skill, talent, education—the access point between all those things [is] at different places for different people.

Paste: For sure.
Alvarez: I’m never going say, “Fuck film school!” It comes down to funds, really. Like if a 25-year-old came to me and was like, “I love films. I won $100,000. Should I spend that going to film school or making a feature?” I’d say, “Spend it making a feature. You’re going to lose the money either way!” Spend it making the feature.

Paste: You really prioritize actors. How did you come to be an actor’s director?
Alvarez: It’s just wanting to really understand actors. It’s such foreign work to me. I would never be able to do it. The people who really have something to lose when you’re shooting is the actors. It’s their humility at stake; it’s their body, vanity. When you have a white room even with a shitty camera, not that great of a script, if you have good actors who understand themselves you can make a good film. I hear these stories all the time of actors saying, “Hey, I don’t feel comfortable saying that line.” Sometimes an actor needs pushing, don’t get me wrong—but there’s something, too, just about recognizing that they have the hardest job on set and appreciating that. It goes such a long way with actors. I think they’re used to being not really cared for.

Paste: Continually in your films you really do find these gems. Jonathan Groff! I mean sure, he’s Jonathan Groff, but putting him in a role like that…
Alvarez: And Brian [Geraghty] too. I don’t have a lot of confidence in life, but the one thing I do now, after these three movies, is casting. I mean, Brian had just shot The Hurt Locker. No one knew that was going to blow up. Jonathan didn’t have Looking. He was taping Frozen. Corey Stoll had shot House of Cards but it hadn’t come out yet. The story I heard that always stuck with me—I don’t know if it’s true or not—David O’Russell discovered Jeremy Davies from a car commercial! There’s so much in that when you hear those stories. So many people are looking for the best audition. No, you’re looking for instincts or watchability. I wanted to do Stanford because I wanted to cast it. I love that some of the kids are from Nickelodeon shows or MTV shows, had never really done stuff like this before.


Paste: Well also, both times I saw [The Stanford Prison Experiment] I kept thinking, How the heck did he make this visually interesting? It’s all basically in one hallway. Tell me about working with your DP [Jas Shelton] to find the visual language.
Alvarez: That was part of the trick of the film. I remember reading the script and I looked up the photos—it really is a tiny, shitty hallway. What are we going to do with this? The trick was that the movie was about how this prison became very real to these guys. I said, “We have to build this set!” The first half of the film you set rules, and then you break them. The first half of the film is much wider shots. There’s a lot of wide establishing shots, there’s longer one takes, trying to fill as many people in the frame—[you’re] painfully aware of the geography. When Ezra freaks out and goes and throws himself against the wall, that’s our first handheld shot in the movie. The big raid scene is the first time you see over the shoulder. We laid in order the things we would do to create claustrophobia. By the end, we deliberately wouldn’t move walls. We shot in this room like we could if it were real. I don’t think we really knew if it would work or not.

Paste: Was this something you shot listed, especially given your super tight timeline? Or did you work in the moment?
Alvarez: It’s a combination. There was so much to shoot on this movie, something like 170 scenes. I grew up on the Hitchcock notion which is you storyboard everything—you’ve made the movie before you get there. But I find—and he’s my favorite filmmaker so I’m not saying I’m above this by any means—but I find that that precludes actors too much. For me, it’s knowing how I want to shoot it but I let the actors show me first what feels right. I either try to bend my actors to my boards or bend my boards to my actors. You find that good middle ground. Then there are some shots that had to be planned months in advance.

Paste: You are also involved in the editing.
Alvarez: I started as an editor. I think that understanding editing is a huge part of it for me. I think a lot of what people think is the tone of the filmmaker is actually in the editing, even the cuts that aren’t there. On C.O.G., I switched to [editing with Adobe] Premiere for the primary one thing—I’ve shot my movies on the Red camera and they were the only ones you could bring the Red footage directly into. I can be cutting scenes on my lunch break and the tools provided allow that.

Paste: How did you go about locking in the script for C.O.G. and also Stanford, convincing David Sedaris and then Tim Talbott to trust you with the visuals side of things? Are you just super confident or more vulnerable?
Alvarez: It’s been different in each case. With Davy [who originated the story] on [Easier with Practice] it was being honest. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I love your story and I really want to try. It was humility. With Sedaris, he didn’t want a movie to get made out of his work. I went to him and really laid out why it was going to be mine. I wasn’t trying to utilize his brand or what he does as a writer at all. I feel like I stayed true to what I emailed him with the final film, for better or for worse. I made the movie I told him I was going to. I respected that he trusted me a lot. With Tim, this producer had this script and Tim had been through the ringer a lot. My thing was, This is how we’re going to try and do it differently. This is what I know from making independent films. Tim was also really open-minded. He was really good about understanding we needed to make changes together. Just make sure you’re never arrogant, especially with people who’ve been at it longer than you have.

Paste: I’ve thought a lot about this piece I read from Matthew Weiner about Mad Men and how it took so long to make. It’s this balance of going into a room and being confident but also having a voice of hope for yourself. I know it’s sort of a psychiatrist question, but how do you stay confident?
Alvarez: It’s a hard question. It’s a little different now. This is the first time I feel like after making a film I might get a chance to make another film. I’ve never felt that before. In the past I’ve been like, I’ll probably never make another movie again. It’s part insecurity and part Who will trust me with their money again? I feel a little bit more confident about that now than I did before. I use that as my litmus test for when I should be making something. Because I’m rarely confident, that when I do feel confident about something, that’s when I know I should do it. Even though I admire David Sedaris so much—he’s a hero of mine; I was so nervous to meet him and email with him—I still felt I knew why he should let me do this movie. If I don’t feel that with something then I’m like, Maybe this isn’t the film I should be doing. Maybe my gut is my confidence—I just rarely feel it.

Paste: I do see this common thread in your work that perhaps your gut instinct also draws you to. I think of the scene in C.O.G. when Corey Stoll’s character takes Jonathan Groff back to his apartment. It’s so weird, but I understand it. I feel like you’re drawn to odd human behavior, maybe?
Alvarez: That was the scene I wanted to make that movie for. For Stanford, I wanted to make the Frankenstein scene and also the one where Chris [Sheffield] has to do the push-ups. Howard Hawks said, “A good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes.” There’s something cynical about that, but there’s something true. You build sequences and you make sure you’re building to those moments—the first phone call, the final phone call with C.O.G., the last scene with Cory in his house. With Stanford it was earning that ending and the John Wayne character and understanding why he was doing what he was doing, being on the floor with that character doing the push-ups after giving into the bullying. Those moments, they resonate with you. I think it’s a David Fincher quote where he said, “Making a movie is about falling in love with a script and doing your best to remember why you fell in love with it.” There are so many moving pieces and you forget it. Wait, I’m making the movie for that scene! I can’t let go of that.

Paste: We’ve got independent filmmakers right now preaching that younger filmmakers should make something they can just make with their friends and low-budget. But what if you don’t have friends that are willing to let you borrow their Red camera and their gaffer? Then it’s like, How do you do it? But what you’re saying is more achievable. Find something you can shoot with those kernels of truth in there.
Alvarez: Film is overwhelming and it’s just about trying to ignore how hard things get when making a movie sometimes. Filmmaking is compromise in so many ways. That’s one of the things that I would say, when I go speak at film schools, I want to be encouraging but I also what to be able to say, “You have to know what these realities are that you’re facing. Don’t shut down because you didn’t get the shot you thought you were going to get.” Michael Bay probably didn’t get all the shots he wants to get! That’s not true—maybe like Michael Bay, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg. There are probably a handful of guys that get whatever the hell they want. But you’ve got to have a lot of arrogance to think you’re going to be one of those guys. You have to accept that’s part of the process and not feel like you’re victimized by it.

Paste: What projects do you have coming up?
Alvarez: There’s one that was announced in a little blurb in Variety. It’s a teen thriller, much more commercial movie. It’s me trying to make a more commercial film but still trying to think of all the things I just talked about, but in that landscape. It’s called Acceleration and was brought to me by Peter Safran and Theresa Peters. Safran produced The Conjuring and when he read this book he thought of me. I came in with my writing partner on it and we put together a pitch and that’s what we’re taking out now. It would be really fun to do chase scenes!

Paste: I think It Follows has paved the path for this indie, intelligent teen horror. You’re in a sweet spot.
Alvarez: I reference that a lot! There’s an appetite for something that feels different than you’re used to. It doesn’t follow beats in the same way.

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.