Skip to main content

Line Between Good & Evil: Tim Talbott on Writing 'Stanford Prison Experiment'

Script Magazine chats with screenwriter Tim Talbott about 'Stanford Prison Experiment,' his extensive research, rewrite strategies and navigating a beast of a project that took decades to get made.

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script Magazine and a screenwriter, having written the narrative adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which was honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition, and the 10-hour limited series a PAGE Awards finalist. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.

Click to tweet this interview to your friends and followers!

Any regular reader of my articles knows I’m a big fan of therapy and crawling inside characters’ heads. No way was I passing on the opportunity to interview Tim Talbott, screenwriter of the Sundance Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize-winning film, Stanford Prison Experiment, for which Talbott also won their Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.

Haven’t heard of Stanford Prison Experiment? Oh, get ready, because this film demonstrates how delicate our psyches can be if placed in a perfectly crafted, stressful environment.

The dramatization chronicles Dr. Phillip Zimbardo’s real-life psychological experiment conducted in 1971 in Stanford University’s psychology building. A few classrooms and a single hallway were transformed into a mock prison where twenty-four undergraduate men volunteered to be either prisoners or guards for a period of two weeks. After only six days, the lines were so deeply blurred between experiment and reality that the “prison” was closed.

I watched the film with my daughter who’s a Psychology and Criminal Justice major, familiar with the experiment. Despite having Internet issues, and taking four hours to watch the film in its entirety, we were still on the edge of our seats. We were that griped, that disturbed, that enthralled. We had no choice but to keep rebooting our modem – and yes, feeling disturbed is a glowing review.

Even days after seeing it, I kept pondering every character and scene. What would I have done? Would I have snapped? What does it say about society in general and the ability of an average, well-adjusted person to cross the line between good and evil and abuse power?

I spoke with Tim about the film, his extensive research, rewrite strategies and navigating a beast of a project that took decades to get made. I could have picked Tim’s mind for hours, but I'm pretty sure his PR team would have called the cops on me. No way was I going to prison after seeing this film!

Note: One section of the interview contains spoilers, but it’s marked with a warning label.

JVB: I read an interview you did with Alvaro Rodriguez (yes, I stalked you). Did you have any reservations taking on a project that seemed to be stuck in development hell?

Tim Talbott: I first met on the project in 2002 with Maverick Films and was hired in 2003. I wrote it in the last six months of 2004 into January 2005. Once the company finally closed all the deals, I had six months to write it.

JVB: Six months is somewhat of a long time for a first draft on an assignment, isn’t it?

Tim Talbott

Tim Talbott

TT: They wanted it done, but there was no real time pressure. In the interim years, I was doing research, so when I sat down to do it in late summer 2004, I had already transcribed 20+ hours of videotape of the actual experiment and gone over all of Phil Zimbardo’s notes, the man who conducted the experiment [played by Billy Crudup. I had great access to Zimbardo and all his material.

People had been trying to make this movie for 40 years. The approach before was to make the stakes bigger – make it more of a life and death thing. When I was first approached, I was skeptical. I didn’t feel you could take a sane and rational person and make them believe a classroom with bars on it is a prison they can’t get out of. I didn’t buy it. I also had never taken a psychology course in college. This was completely new to me. Once I started doing the research and realized how they were using these different techniques to break these people down, I was fascinated.

I came back to Maverick and asked why fictionalize this? This story, as is, is fantastic! My goal was to tell everything that happened of importance during those five-and-a-half days. The result was a first draft of 260 pages long that literally covered everything. When I handed it in to the director we had attached at the time, I thought I was going to get fired. He said this is the script we’re going to shoot, but we needed to cut it down. At the time I thought it was impossible and that every single word needed to be there for this story to make sense. He proved me wrong because in the next 10 days, we cut over 100 pages and didn’t lose any of the important stuff.

This was the only time I’ve ever handed in a script to a production company when they said, “Fine, let’s do this.” But we wanted to keep working on it to make it better and explored different avenues. By Sept 2005, it was in a form we were ready to shoot.

JVB: I know you got to talk with Zimbardo, but did you get to speak with any of the other people involved?

TT: I spoke with his wife, Christine [played by Olivia Thirlby, and spoke with Zimbardo a number of times. In writing the first draft, I had to fictionalize some things just because I didn’t know. So, we went up and interviewed Zimbardo and his wife, both together and separately, because over the course of 40 years, telling the same story over and over, they sort of got away from it. It was funny because he was writing his book at the same time I was writing the script, and he was sending me chapters of it. I was actually in the position where I made corrections, explaining he was confusing these two people because I had his original stuff right in front of me.

JVB: That is so cool!

TT: Yeah, he’s an awesome guy and a really interesting character. He was completely forthright about the mistakes in the experiment, how he was very much responsible for what happened and just couldn’t see it at the time because he was so involved with the experiment himself. He’s done a lot of really good work after that, learning from this experience and making sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.

JVB: That’s what was fun for me – watching it through the eyes of a psych student. It’s a very different perspective. Did you feel a responsibility to stay within the lines of historical accuracy or was Zimbardo comfortable fictionalizing it at all?

TT: I wanted this to be as true to what actually happened as possible because that true story was what was fascinating to me. Zimbardo was really supportive through the entire process. If we got something wrong, he’d let me know. Even up to the final release of the film, we even changed some stuff after Sundance that Zimbardo had a problem with.

For me the most gratifying day of this entire endeavor was the day we finally showed the film to Zimbardo and his wife. They both loved it. They had only a couple of tiny things they wanted to change, but other than that, they were thrilled someone finally got it right. For me, they were the only audience I was worried about. It’s their life and legacy. I wanted to be sure we were staying true to it. Zimbardo is going to the premiere.

JVB: That’s great. When I watched it, I was wondering if you got to talk to the kids who were actually in it. Or are they still “numbers” and no one really has access to their identities?

TT: In the aftermath, Zimbardo reconvened them, first every month, then every six months, then every five years, to make sure there was no lasting damage. Everyone turned out to be fine. Some of them have popped up in the press doing interviews in the last 20 years, but I kind of felt that this was more Zimbardo’s story, at least at the onset. The only other person I wanted to talk with was the convicted felon who contributed to the experiment. We were scheduled to talk with him, but he had a heart attack on the day we were pulling up to see him. He didn’t die, but he was hospitalized for a while and up in San Francisco, and we couldn’t get back up there.

JVB: Do you know if he’s seen the film?

TT: I don't know if any of them have seen it yet other than Zimbardo and his wife.

JVB: I had a visual of all the guys in the room – the original guards and prisoners along with the actors – that would be such a cool screening!

TT: I think Phil [Zimbardo] is setting something up. They’re doing a screening for Google and Apple up in San Francisco, so I don’t know whether those people are attending or not, but I’d be curious to see what their reactions are.

JVB: The cast. Can we just talk about them for a second? I first saw Ezra Miller in We Need to Talk About Kevin. He is incredible, as are the rest of the cast.

TT: When you watch the actual footage, the people cast to play the guards and prisoners don't look like the actual guys. That’s the thing that’s most impressive to me about Michael Angarano’s performance. He is not a big guy, yet he is totally intimidating in this movie in a way that’s frightening. He’s such a nice guy too, and the fact that he was able to turn that on and off in such a powerful way was really impressive to me.

In 10 or 15 years, people are going to look back at this cast the way they look at the cast of The Outsiders. Their talent is incredible.

Tim Talbott

Photo IFC Films

JVB: Did you have to change the prisoner numbers from their original ones?

TT: Part of writing process that was confusing was keeping track of the prisoner names and numbers, but now their burned into my head. The odd thing is when I wrote the script, I used the actual names of the prisoners, but for legal reasons they changed them. I didn’t find out what the changed names were going to be, so when I got on set, Kyle was referring to them as different names. I had no idea who he was talking to. I actually know the characters more by their numbers than their names.

JVB: I found those changes in personality and characters to also be part of the film’s structure. As moviegoers, we’re trained to root for someone specific. Obviously, we’re rooting for all the prisoners. But I loved how with every 8-hr switch of the guards, there was a new antagonist. We literally were like, “Oh my god, I hate this guard... but wait… I hate this guard too!” It raised the stakes every time the guards changed. You’d see that brief moment of them rehashing their shifts at the changing of the guards. We were holding our breath, wondering what they’d do now. I had no idea how far the guards were going to push their power. It added so much to the tension. Did you realize that was going to happen with the structure and was it intentional?

[Warning: Some minor spoilers are revealed in this next answer.]

TT: You’re the first person that’s pointed that out to me. That was something that came from cutting the script down. Structurally, it’s an interesting film in that not only are the antagonists changing every eight hours, the protagonist changes three or four times. First we go in with Ezra Miller’s character, and we follow him as the main character. Then all of a sudden he’s gone, and we think who are we supposed to root for now? I guess it’s 819, Tye Sheridan’s character. We follow him and then he cracks and we’re not sure what’s going on. It kept happening until when we finally have the kid that gets tricked into saying the word, “bastard,” all hope was lost. Then the experiment itself becomes the main character of the movie. That was something that happened in real life, but it didn't reveal itself structurally until we started paring down the script.

JVB: It was brilliantly done. The little details the director, Kyle Patrick Alvarez, did – the blurring at certain moments, and Zimbardo sitting there, flipping the coin. Brilliant. I don’t gush about films often, but I loved this film.

TT: I am blown away by what Kyle was able to do. We shot this film in 21 days, with all those actors in a confined space. It was the most relaxed film set I have ever been on. Everyone totally got what Kyle was doing. There was no ego. Everyone wanted to be there. Always in the back of my mind I was wondering how could a director make this interesting with only a hallway and three classrooms? What can someone do with that?

Kyle and our DP [Director of Photography], Jas Shelton, made it work. One of the smart choices Kyle made was, once the experiment started, he tried to never leave it. So you get that feeling of isolation and timelessness. I was talking to people after the screening and one audience question was about the running time of the movie. They were shocked it was two hours and two minutes. There was sense of timelessness. Once you’re in there you’re in there and it doesn’t let you out of it for most of the running time.

JVB: I loved the decision not to follow the guards home and that the film stayed in the experiment. He didn’t give the audience a break from the discomfort.

TT: It’s interesting seeing it with an audience in a theater. There were moments when it elicits a response you don't expect. At Sundance, when that title card came up that said, “DAY 2,” all the air was sucked out of the room. People couldn’t believe it was just the second day. It’s a testament to the tension Kyle was able to build. So much happened in that first day, and you can’t imagine it can get worse than this, but of course, it does.

billy crudup

James Wolk, Billy Crudup and Gaius Charles in “The Stanford Prison Experiment" - photo IFC Films

JVB: The first draft was 260 pages and you cut it to what, 128? Can you give us some quick general slashing tips?

TT: With this particular story a lot of what happened was due to sleep deprivation and repetition. I had written a lot of different accounts. The guards got creative on how they worked the prisoners. Each scene had something interesting about it, but these counts were sort of endless and went on way too long, so we condensed it, and said something in the description like, “This goes on forever.” We cut the repetition.

Some of the really bad stuff that happened didn't even make it into the movie. What did make it into the movie was what was indicative. I was trying to write as faithfully as I could. Last night, I went back and looked at my first draft. I read verbatim lines of dialogue that were in the final cut. I was really shocked thinking most of it would have changed, but there’s a good healthy dose of my first draft in this movie. That was a great discovery.

JVB: Any advice to a writer navigating the ‘hurry up and wait game’ or one who is pursuing a passion project they really believe in?

TT: Move onto the next thing while you’re waiting. Keep writing. We had this movie cast twice, and for whatever reason, it fell apart and Maverick Films folded. Even when Kyle came along, I did some work for him on the script, but I didn't think we were ever going to get to make this movie. The guy from Maverick Films who brought me into the project, Brent Emery, made a promise to Zimbardo he was going to get this movie made, and he kept championing the project for years. Our financiers and other producers came in. This wouldn't exist without them giving Kyle creative control. They didn't fight him on casting. He was able to pull all these great actors into the movie. Everyone behind the scenes did a fantastic job.

JVB: I was listening to BALLS OUT on Black List Table Reads. It’s such a rule-breaker, and I’m sure liberating to write. As screenwriters, we often get the advice to stick to only writing one genre well. Having had success in both comedy and drama what do you think about that advice and the genre issue?

TT: I could tell you from my experience, if you’re getting into screenwriting as a business move and want to make money, pick one genre and get really good at it. It’s not a malicious thing; it’s just that the people who are selling you don't know how to sell everything.

Unfortunately or not, I came into this a bit petulant with a love for movies of all genres. I liked writing comedies, horror, and psychological dramas. I wanted to be able to write whatever I wanted to write. I want to be known as a good writer – someone who can plop into any genre. But that is a very difficult thing to do in this industry. There are very few people allowed to do it.

I think I’d be more successful if I had picked one genre and stuck with it. It is a bit of a roadblock. You walk into a meeting where someone has read Stanford Prison Experiment and they’re shocked I wrote South Park.

But for me, I like all types of movies, so I’m trying to just get better at being a writer. Most of this is osmosis for me. I didn't take screenwriting classes or read a lot of books. I watched a lot of movies and read scripts, good and bad. You get a feel for what should happen in a story. It's that really strict Robert McKee methodology that is more damaging. Have a good reverence for good movies and write until you figure it out. That’s what I did, and it’s worked for me.

JVB: What’s the thing you want people to walk away feeling, not just about your interpretation of the experiment but the experiment itself


TT: Because I walked into this project not believing, I wanted the audience walking out asking themselves what would they have done if they were a guard. Would I have watched it happen or would I have taken responsibility for what I was doing?

The message of the movie is good people can do bad things if put in the right situation. It happens over and over in this story. As Zimbardo says, there are no bad apples just bad barrels. If you put a good apple in a bad barrel, they’re going to go bad. I’d hope I wouldn't act like a sadistic asshole, but I can’t guarantee anything.

JVB: After watching the film, I have no idea what I’d do either! OK, so let’s tap into a question I always end interviews with: If you could go back in time and give advice to your 18-yr-old self, what would it be?

TT: This might sound terrible, but if you want to be involved in the film industry, you’re better off taking the money you’d use for college and make films. I went to a film production school for four years and thought I wanted to be a director. All that stuff in theory was good, until I realized directing is horrible. At the end of four years, I had a short film. But this is an industry you don’t need to have a degree in. While I enjoyed college immensely, I would have been better off taking that money and making a handful of short films.

Follow Tim Talbott on Twitter @tftalbott and don't miss Stanford Prison Experiment, set for release by IFC Films in theaters on July 17th and on demand July 24th.

Get advice on elevating the stakes in Christine Conradt's webinar,
Adding Suspense to Your Screenplays