Sydney documentary maker Kathryn Millard on making her film Shock Room
Kathryn Millard's new documentary reinterprets social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s Obedience through the prism of documentary film. We catch up with Millard ahead of the film's screening at Antenna Documentary Film Festival to talk about the film, its interesting funding path and her interest in Millgram's experiments.
What is it about the legacy of the Millgram experiment that made this worthy of a film?
Psychologist Stanley Milgram's 'Obedience to Authority' experiment explores how we respond when asked to do something that conflict with our conscience. Why do people inflict harm on others? As humans, are we simply primed to obey? The questions it raises are as pertinent as ever. Staged more than fifty years ago, Milgram's experiment has had an enduring impact. It is continually drawn on to support the idea that most of us will harm others if asked to do so. I thought it was important to challenge this idea. There is lots of evidence to the contrary - including in Milgram's own experiment. Plus, the experiment is particularly dramatic. We wanted to bring it alive for contemporary audiences.
What was your personal view of the Millgram experiment before and after making the film?
Like many people, I first heard about the experiment as a student in Psych 101, ‘Rats and Stats’ we called it - via Milgram's own documentary Obedience. I found its graphic black and white images of people grappling with their consciences compelling, but I was uneasy about Milgram's conclusions. When I became a filmmaker, it was on my list of 'one day' projects. I read everything I could get my hands on and eventually approached two leading social psychologists Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher to work together. I staged the experiment with actors playing fictional characters for ethical reasons. I have also spent a considerable amount of time reviewing Milgram's papers in the Yale archives over some years. I still find Milgram's experiment compelling. Psychology experiments about human behaviour like this are almost scientific parables – they bring ideas to life. The story that we found is a much more hopeful one than usually told. When confronted with an order we all have some degree of choice. We can choose not to harm others.
The original Millgram experiment has come under increasing criticism of its methods, particularly around uniformity between the iterations, and the reporting of results. What do you think of these criticisms?
Milgram's experiment has been surrounded by controversy from the very beginning. Thomas Blass, Milgram's biographer, first opened up the Milgram Archives in his book and since then, may people have undertaken research there. As a writer and filmmaker, I was certainly surprised to find that Milgram's experiments were far less standardised than I would have expected for a scientific experiment. I would call the experiment a structured improvisation. And there are more than thirty versions. Over time, the results and explanations have been simplified. I suspect the story that we naturally obey orders resonated strongly for its times. There was probably a degree of personal ambition on Milgram's part. His explanation, I think, was only partially correct. Nevertheless, I think we should acknowledge that Stanley Milgram left all his records for us to scrutinise. He does not appear to have tried to cover his tracks. For me, Obedience is valuable as a social experiment to explore how we behave in the world. It is social drama.
You chose to recreate the Millgram experiment with actors. Why? Were you concerned that the film would feel too 'constructed' in its storyline?
In my view, it would be unethical to stage this experiment with ordinary citizens. It would cause them too much stress. Actors are incredibly skilled observers of human behaviour. I thought they could help us bring this experiment alive for contemporary audiences. I cast skilled actors with extensive experience across theatre and film and in improvisation. I worked with each of them one-to-one to develop a character. They agreed to participate in a scenario without knowing what their scenario was. DOP Calvin Gardiner and I covered the performances with three cameras behind a one -way mirror and six Gro-Pros built into the set. This enabled us to see the interaction between the experimenter (played by Simon London) victim (played by Martin Crews) and individual characters up close. These nuanced performances are central to Shock Room. Later, we added some interviews with our two psychologists and a layer of hand-drawn animation by Tess Boughton to explore some of the film’s big ideas.
Documentary projects can be particularly difficult to fund in Australia. How were you able to get your project into production?
This had an unusual pathway to production. Screen NSW provided some initial development funds very early in the piece. There was broadcaster interest but this project was not well suited to being completely pre-scripted and locked down. I saw Shock Room as staging investigative reenactments to break open this infamous psychology experiment. We needed a more fluid process that would allow us to shoot that element first and then add other layers. Another factor was that, when I began this project, many people still saw Milgram’s findings as legitimate. They accepted the notion that we essentially do as we are told.
Although people had criticised the ethics of Milgram’s experiment, there was less published research that fundamentally took issue with his findings. I teamed up with two UK based social psychologists that share my interests. The project was awarded highly competitive funds from the Australian Research Council. That enabled me to research at Yale University and funded the film to the edit. Then Gingerbread Man invested in its post-production. That also brought terrific new collaborators like Craig Deeker.
Although the specifics of each project will be different, I think partnerships between the screen industries, community organisations, philanthropic trusts, galleries and museums, universities and others are more and more important in getting non-fiction projects on screen and circulating. Indeed, I think that will become the norm. Nonfiction screen media is a vibrant and still developing form. It has demonstrated long-term social impact. It is a great way of telling stories.
What was your greatest lesson from making this film?
One of the chief things I learnt from Milgram’s experiment is the impact of the smallest gestures of resistance to make a change. If you are uncomfortable about something, speak up. That allows others to do so, too.
What kind of films will you make after this - has this film changed your storytelling worldview?
I have become very interested in staging social experiments as a way of exploring human behaviour.
What's next for you?
I am working on a book based on my research in the Yale Archives. I am interested in the stories Stanley Milgram’s participants told themselves and each other about what many of them saw as a key experience in their lives. Increasingly, too, I am interested in cross-platform projects.
Shock Room is screening at Antenna Documentary Film Festival Friday 16 Oct, 7pm, Chauvel Cinema 1, Sydney.
Watch the youtube video