By Randi Altman
College students in a 1971 social experiment at Stanford University tried something new, with horrifying results. For writer/director/editor Kyle Patrick Alvarez, changing roles has been a much more positive experience. His third and most recent film as director is The Stanford Prison Experiment, released nationwide in mid-July but screened at Sundance in January.
The movie, based on the book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by the professor who ran the experiment, shows how power can corrupt. This is the third film that Alvarez has helmed (2013’s C.O.G. and 2009’s Easier With Practice), but the first he didn’t write. The screenplay by Tim Talbott, says the director, was one of those well-regarded but un-produced scripts that was known around town.
“I had known of the experiment, but not to the great detail and exacting qualities featured in the script,” explains Alvarez (@kylealvarez). “I thought it was fascinating, this challenge of being able to make a film that stayed true to the real events and still worked and functioned as a piece of cinema.”
Alvarez, who also edited The Stanford Prison Experiment, spoke to us about directing and cutting the film.
How did you transition from editing to directing?
When I first moved to LA, I was picking up editing jobs, but during that time I was also trying to get my first film off the ground. So there wasn’t necessarily a time period where I stopped being an editor.
When you’re directing, are you also wearing your editor hat? Does it influence the way you direct?
Yes, one hundred percent. I’m usually shooting 10 to 15 pages a day. I love getting coverage and love to have more options in the editing room — but many times that luxury doesn’t exist. In a lot of cases it’s thinking ahead and knowing I need certain pieces.
Really what it comes down to is being conservative and mindful of how much time we have to shoot. There was a particular day on this film where I turned to the script supervisor and said, “I’m working as an editor today more than a director because we just need to get these scenes in the can, and we have very little time to do it.”
Even if I don’t cut my films in the future, which is a likely possibility, I think there’s some part of me that’s always going to be thinking that way.
So it’s essentially muscle memory?
Yes, I also think of writing when I’m a directing, because I wrote my first two films. Sometimes you have to say, “What part of this scene isn’t working? Is it the directing? Is it the editing? Is it the writing?” Then I try to gather what piece needs a little bit of work and figure out where that is.
It works the other way as well. I try to think about editing while I’m writing because I’m thinking, do I need that, do I need this piece, how are these scenes going to really fit together? I feel like that’s a large part of what I do.
What camera did you use?
The movie takes place in the ’70s, and we explored the possibility of using film, but it was not a financial option for us. I then chose the Red Dragon, for many reasons. Part of it is the post process, part of it is being able to cut on set and work with the raw footage. For a movie like this, where I knew we were going to have really tight timelines for shooting, I liked knowing that I would have a massive amount of data.
I wanted to shoot in 5.5K — I’ve always been happy with the latitude and how it works and the color correction. It’s something I’m really comfortable with. So after that decision was made it was just a question of lenses. We shot on some vintage Leitz lenses, and that ended up playing a big hand in the look of the film, maybe even more so than the camera.
What was the look you wanted from the film?
We didn’t want to re-create what a movie from the ’70s looked like. We didn’t want that weird Grindhouse thing where you’re breaking down the image for no reason or putting in colors that shouldn’t be there or doing camera moves that are unmotivated. For me, it was more about the feeling of it. It’s like looking at Alan J. Pakula’s films. We associate that with the ’70s a lot. All the President’s Men and The Parallax View, to me that’s the kind of feeling I wanted.
We ended up with a combination… a movie that felt like it was from the ’70s but using techniques that were a bit more contemporary. It was a balance — looking at each scene and seeing what felt the most right.
Talk to me about being on set. What was the workflow like?
We had a DIT, and we had a guy who I’m close with running dailies. He was ingesting stuff through an Atomos Ninja, and I would go and watch playback there really quickly. The DIT was really working a little more closely with the cinematographer Jas Shelton.
There was also an assistant editor logging the footage. I was able to look at stuff and try some brief assemblies on lunch breaks to see what was working and what wasn’t. We were on the same location for two weeks of the shoot, so there was time to go back. Not a lot of time, but enough that I felt like if there was an insert needed to help bridge moments together we could get it. For me the goal is to overlap the post-production mentality with the production mentality and the pre-production mentality. I find the best stuff comes from when you’re able to get those things to collide as much as possible.
Let’s dig into the post. When did you start editing and on what system?
I started right away, and I used Adobe’s Premiere Pro on an iMac. We wrapped in October and had to show the film to the Sundance programming committee, so that gave us about a three-week turnaround. It premiered at Sundance in January. There are 25 characters in the film and it was a challenging edit. Because I’m the director as well as the editor, usually the first cut is pretty close to the first edit, but I panicked because this came in at three hours. I had to lose an hour of movie. It was a totally different feeling.
Kyle Alvarez at Sundance this year picking up the Sloan Feature Film Prize for ‘Experiment.’ Photo: Calvin Knight.
What else was challenging about the cut?
Almost every scene had at least 12 people in it, and everyone had mics on them. We had an extraordinary amount of audio tracks. My assistant editor, Susan Kim, would manage those as I started rough edits of scenes. If you saw the timeline, it was absurd: every track had massive, massive amounts of audio. Obviously we didn’t want to hear all those in the final edit, so it was just about going through and narrowing down those lines. That played a big part in prepping the movie for post delivery too, which also moved incredibly quickly.
Why did you choose Premiere Pro for the edit?
I learned Final Cut in college and I cut my first film with it, but I hated the transcoding process you had to go through at that time. I was shooting digital, but had to wait to cut stuff! When preparing for my second film a couple of years later, I found Adobe Premiere. They were the first ones to offer native R3D editing. I tested it on my laptop, a standard consumer level laptop, and it worked. It was sort of a revelatory moment for me.
Can you talk about the creative process of editing?
We had scenes with a lot of people, so it was about narrowing in the story or narrowing the scenes into the fundamentals of what they were about… and who they were about. You try to chip away at what’s there and see what’s working. Because we had to cut fast, I used line breakdowns where it gets delivered to me in a timeline that has every line of dialogue from every take put next to each other.
For me you start with the best performance of each line. You put that together and sometimes it’s, “that line doesn’t work with that line, because even though those two are the best individual ones, they don’t work together in the right way.” Then you go through and start swapping some out and you get the pieces, the selections of the dialogue, right. Then you go through and start to shape it and put those pieces together and figure out when you’re going to cut other people — when they’re not talking — and at a certain point it boils down to instincts. It has to feel right.
Can you point to an example?
There is a moment at the end of the film where a character walks ahead of the camera and goes totally out of focus for a good three or four seconds. As soon as I saw it I thought that really fits that moment. If you’re following some of the rules, that would have ended up in the trash bin, but for some reason as I was cutting, it captured something real. You don’t want to just follow those line breakdowns because you might miss that. It’s making sure no diamonds get lost in the rough of it all.
Any other moments like that?
Not exactly like that, but with this film — thanks specifically to the speed and power of the Adobe system — I did a lot more cropping and zooming in the edit. It wasn’t because we didn’t get what we wanted but because it takes 10 minutes to swap a prime lens out for a zoom. We didn’t have 10 minutes on this movie. If we had primes and I wanted zoom, I knew I was going to have to build it in post.
Thanks to shooting in 5.5K I was able to turn two shots into singles and insert moments when I needed to. I was able to extend zooms so there’s a couple of times where it’s pushing in on or zooming in on a character and the character’s emotions still went on a little bit longer. I was able to just keep that zoom going all the way through. I was doing a lot of that with no render times, and that was massive to me on this movie.
What about the color grade? Who did it and where?
We colored at Light Iron in Hollywood with Ian Vertovec using Quantel Pablo. We never transcoded — we cut straight from our R3Ds and those went straight to Light Iron and they colored straight from that.
What about the audio post?
We used Formosa Group’s Martyn Zub and Paul Carden, both of whom worked with me when I was doing C.O.G. and when they were at Wildfire. They really did an amazing amount of work in a very short period of time. My previous films were these very naturalistic dramadies. This is a movie where the sound was changing, and there’s this crowd and scenes with a lot of people creating chatter. It was a much heavier creative sound endeavor than I was used to. It was definitely an undertaking, but one they tackled head on.
Photos by Jas Shelton