Premise: Based on a true story, in 1971, a Stanford professor initiated one of the most controversial university experiments of all time, recreating a simulated prison environment with volunteers. Within hours, the experiment spun out of control.
About: The Stanford Prison Experiment is a 2006 script written by Christopher McQuarrie and Tim Talbott for McQuarrie to direct. McQuarrie had assembled a great cast that included Channing Tatum, Giovanni Ribisi, Ryan Phillipe, Jesse Eisenberg, Paul Dano, Jamie Bell, Ben McKenzie, and others, but just as the project was getting ready to go, Valkyrie emerged, and McQuarrie had to make a tough decision on whether to produce that film or direct this one. It was a difficult choice but he ultimately went with Valkyrie. You might remember I reviewed a more recent McQuarrie screenplay, One Shot, a couple of months back.
Writers: Tim Talbott & Christopher McQuarrie
Details: 122 pages – August 7, 2006 Draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).
So I’d been hearing about how good this script was for-evvvvv-er but the reason I hadn’t picked it up is because I’d seen “Das Experiment” (A German film covering the same territory - it was pretty good) and figured I already knew the story, so what was the point? But this script had a nasty habit of not going away. It just kept popping up on my radar. And due to the recent slate of less than stellar scripts here on Scriptshadow, I decided to read something I knew was going to be a quality screenplay.
Whereas Das Experiment took the subject matter and went all “creative license” with it, Chris and Tim seem to be more interested in exploring how things *really* went down on that fateful week in 1971. The event centers around an arrogant Stanford Professor named Dr. Philip Zimbrado who thought it’d be interesting to study the effects of how prisoners and guards interact with one another in a prison setting.
So he put an ad in the paper and narrowed the applicants down to 30 people, most of them in the 19-25 age range. 9 of them were made guards and the rest prisoners. Zimbardo then set up a make-shift jail and began the experiment.
Immediately, things started getting weird. The volunteers were led to believe this was going to be a fun little experiment they could leave at any moment. Zimbardo had another plan, however. His goal was to strip away every “prisoner’s” humanity, make them feel like dirt, and study how this affected them. So right when they arrived, the prisoners were literally stripped naked and de-liced. They were then given smocks that barely covered anything. The experience was humiliating but they still went along with it, figuring things would get better.
One of the guards, a cocksure 18 year old sociopath named David Eshleman, decided to take his role very seriously, to the point where he changed his Northeastern accent to a Southern one. He took on the persona of a meaner creepier version of himself who didn’t take shit from anybody. He began harassing the prisoners with a vengeance. And if any of them got out of line, he’d send them to “the hole,” a box so tiny you couldn’t even stand up in it.
One of the prisoners, 22 year old Doug Corpi, quickly realized that if the prisoners didn’t stand up for their rights, they were about to experience two weeks of torture. So he began rebelling, refusing to eat food and barricading the cell entrances so the guards couldn’t get inside. Eshelman didn’t back down. He told the other inmates that unless Corpi started abiding by the rules, they wouldn’t eat. They wouldn’t get bathroom breaks.
It was a standoff. A hatred began building between the two sides, fueled by Corpi and Eshelman, and it was clear that only 48 hours in, things were out of control. But did Zimbardo stop? No. He was too fascinated by the interaction. He wanted more.
Soon, the psychological exhaustion of dealing with the relentless guards began to take its toll, and the prisoners started breaking down. They went to Zimbardo, begging for help, but since they never specifically asked to leave, he wouldn’t let them go. He’d force them right back into their cells to endure more psychological terror.
His biggest fascination, however, was Eshelman. He wanted to see how far he would go. The problem with that was Eshelman wanted to see how far he could take it. So he just got worse and worse and worse until he was a bona fide monster. But since no one was telling him to stop, he kept going. He devoted his entire shifts to torturing the inmates.
At a certain point, things became so ridiculously out of control, that Zimbardo had no choice but to stop the experiment, a mere six days in. It was not due to any sympathy on his part. It was only because his staff couldn’t bear it anymore. And just like that, it was over. The prisoners were released from their cells and told to go home.
Man, I don’t even know if I can talk about this script in screenwriting terms. I was just so fucking…..ANGRY at Zimbardo and Eshelman. These people were tortured for six straight days and there were no consequences for their torturers! They just got to smile and shrug their shoulders at the end and call it a day.
I think this is why this script leaves such an impression. There aren’t many movies where the bad guys get to mercilessly torture the good guys without any payback. It just feels so…unfair.
Especially in the case of Zimbardo, the smarmy piece of shit who came up with the idea. He just watches the whole thing with this evil little grin on his face, allowing these men to be berated and humiliated. I wanted to find out where he lived and conduct my own little experiment on him.
And you want to talk about a script with awkward mechanics. You know our hero? Corpi? Yeah well he goes insane and leaves the movie at the 65% point. So our main character is just gone. It’s a little like Psycho in that sense. After Corpi leaves, we’re sitting there going, “Who is it we’re now supposed to follow? Whose story is it now?” And at a certain point we realize it’s Zimbardo’s. We’re stuck with this manipulating douche-bag monster for the rest of the film.
You’ll also notice the script has a ton of characters, which I thought I’d bring up because last week I went off on Cities of Refuge for having too many characters. First of all, it’s important to remember that McQuarrie was directing this himself. So the only person who had to remember all these characters was him. But he and Tim also do something unique with the characters at the beginning of the screenplay. They tell you they're going to name them, but to pay no attention to their names. Because they’re not people in this movie. They’re rats in a maze. They’re nobodies.
Truthfully, the only people we have to remember are Korpi, Eshelman, Zimbardo, and a few minor characters.
This isn’t a GSU movie either. The driving force behind the movie is not a goal – it’s a question. What’s going to happen to these people? What’s going to happen in this situation? And because the situation is so compelling (every single scene is packed with conflict), we want to find out.
The thing about the script that baffles me most, though, is the lack of stakes. Going into this, I thought for sure I wouldn’t care because the stakes were so low. It’s just an experiment – and an experiment at a prestigious University at that. You knew nothing could get *too* bad. I mean any of the prisoners could get up, say they had enough, and walk out without any consequences.
And yet despite this, I was still riveted by their predicament. I’m still not sure how Talbott and McQuarrie managed to do this. I think part of it may be that humans always respond passionately towards a) people being taken advantage of, and b) people abusing their power. Since both of those scenarios were on full display here, we were invested in the story from the moment those prisoners walked into their cells.
I’m still pissed off there were no repercussions for Zimbardo and Eshelmen though. I wanted somebody to go down at the end of this. But you’ll have a tough time finding another screenplay out there that pulls you into its story as effectively as this one.
[ ] What The Hell Did I Just Read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: A lot of writers are looking for that perfect “save the cat” moment, the thing that’s going to make the audience fall in love with their main character. They forget, however, that an often more effective way of making us like the main character is to “kick the owner.” If we see the bad guy beat down our protagonist, a much stronger “sympathy” bond is created between us and the character, resulting in our steadfast support of him for the rest of the movie. You see that here in spades (you also saw it in The Shawshank Redemption). So remember, saving the cat isn’t your only option. Kicking the owner creates a similar – and often – more powerful effect.