I met screenwriter Tim Talbott at the Austin Film Festival in 2010. It was my first festival as a panelist; the movie I’d co-written, Machete, had opened that August, and Tim had been a writer on South Park and Medium and had also written a popular script that year entitled Balls Out with his partner-in-crime Malcolm Spellman under the pseudonym of The Robotard 8000.
In January, in the middle of his third season writing on the hit TV series Chicago Fire, Tim won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for The Stanford Prison Experiment at Sundance, which subsequently was picked up for distribution by IFC. The film, directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez (Cog), also took home the prestigious Sloane Award in Park City and will reach theaters later this year.
The Stanford Prison Experiment chronicles the groundbreaking psychological study undertaken by Dr. Phillip Zimbardo in 1971 in which ordinary average young men were randomly assigned to be guards or prisoners in a mock prison in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University. The experiment was supposed to run for two weeks but the situation devolved into chaos and the experiment was terminated after only six days.
AR: What was the genesis of this project?
TT: Basically, Maverick Films, Madonna’s company, got the rights to Phil Zimbardo’s life story and it was suggested that I might be a good fit for it. At first, I didn’t buy (the concept of the experiment). I thought, “There’s nothing you can do to me in five days to make me believe that a classroom is a prison.” Then I watched the short videos of the experiment and saw that there were so many components – dehumanization, sleep deprivation, humiliation – and I realized you actually could break someone this way. People had been trying to make a movie out of it for twenty years, but it was always a matter of trying to make the stakes higher – life or death. One draft I read had the main characters as two best friends, one who becomes a guard and the other a prisoner, and I thought, “This is not the way to do it.” In talking with Chris McQuarrie (Valkyrie, The Usual Suspects), who at one point was attached to direct the movie, we decided that the way the story actually unfolded was more than compelling in its own right. We didn’t need to force anything else onto the story.
AR: So you wrote your draft after doing the research, reading the transcripts, watching hours of actual footage from the experiment.
TT: Yeah, and my first draft was something like 265 pages long. I was certain I was going to be fired, but I handed it in to McQuarrie and said, “I don’t know what this is, but this is everything that happened.” He read it and said, “This is the movie we’re going to make, but we can’t hand this in at this length.” So over the course of the following week or so, we put our heads together and managed to cut more than 100 pages from the script.
AR: And that was several years ago, correct?
TT: Yeah, I finished that first draft in early 2005. We came close to making the film a few times in 2006 and 2007. Then Maverick went out of business around 2008 and the script became entangled for many years. Multiple different chain-of-title items had to be cleared so we could make the movie and one of our producers, Brent Emery, who brought me in while he was an exec at Maverick, spent almost 6 years doing that. At the same time, he started talking to director Kyle Alvarez, who is an exceptionally talented director who had a strong vision for the project. So in 2013, I did a polish for Kyle, in August 2014, we started shooting, wrapped in September, and premiered at Sundance in January 2015.
AR: In all those years in between, did you think the script would ever be made?
TT: After Maverick went under, I thought this project would never happen, not in a million years. It’s amazing to me that something can be dead, stuck in a drawer or whatever, and then years later, seemingly overnight, it’s suddenly in production and the next thing you know, it’s accepted into Sundance and you find yourself watching the finished film in a huge auditorium with 1400 people. Nothing is ever truly impossible.
AR: How did you come about creating a structure for the screenplay? Was it something that came about in the cutting down of the original script?
TT: That was one of the byproducts of cutting the script down to 128 pages – it revealed an interesting structure that wasn’t quite apparent in the longer draft. While Zimbardo is a central character throughout, he’s not really the lead character. The lead character changes throughout the course of the film. Without giving too much away, the story is told through a shifting perspective that sort of constantly challenges the audience with the question of “Who am I supposed to care about?” until you realize that the so-called lead character eventually becomes the entire group of people stuck in this experiment.
AR: At one point in the process, Channing Tatum was attached to the film, but you were able to make it without any big stars.
TT: He was attached on the basis of the success of the first Step Up movie, and gave us a much higher budget. But when the project fell through, that disappeared. When we started up again, our producers and investors chose not to rely on foreign presales, so we were able to get the best actors for the roles versus one that would get us a bigger budget. People have remarked that in ten years, Stanford will be looked at like The Outsiders, because there are so many great young actors – Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Michael Angarano and so many others – who are all breaking out now.
AR: Was there anything that surprised you in the process of writing and rewriting this screenplay and seeing the finished product?
TT: I had never done a true story before, and I felt a heavy responsibility to the truth. But I realized that in dialogue and in the script, you can take the truth and slightly bend it to fit the needs of a cinematic narrative. In telling someone’s life story, particularly the story of Dr. Zimbardo and his wife Christina, I was always conscious of the fact that we were making a record of their actual lives and there’s a strong sense of responsibility that comes with that. At the end of the day, they were the only audience I cared about, doing right by them, so I was really elated and happy that they both loved the film. I also came to really appreciate the power of editing – how to take a whole lot of factual history and boil it down it down to two hours or 128 pages without losing the essence of the story. How to keep the soul alive while taking most of its guts out.