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Interview: Craig Zobel on "Compliance"

by Peter Sobczynski

An interview with the writer-director of one of the most controversial films of 2012.

A leading candidate for the title of Most Controversial Film of 2012 ever since its tumultuous premiere at Sundance last January, "Compliance" is as grim and squirm-inducing as anything that has appeared on the big screen in a long time and the fact that it is based on a real-life incident only serves to make things all the more horrifying. Set over the course of one long day at a fast-food restaurant in suburban Ohio, the day has barely begun when the manager (Ann Dowd) gets a call from a cop (Pat Healy) claiming that one of her employees (Dreama Walker) has stolen some money from the purse of a customer--not only that, the same girl is also part of "an ongoing investigation. The cop begins making a series of odd and increasingly disturbing requests regarding the employee that the manager, not wanting to rock the boat in any way, immediately complies with no matter how increasingly unlikely the excuses as to why she is being asked to do them and why no cops are turning up to take charge of the allegedly serious manner. As it turns out, the caller is not a cop at all and as the employee is put through any number of physical and psychological torments, viewers are left to wonder why rational people would do such horrible things to one another on the say-so of a complete stranger, whether they would fall for such a trick and what the motivations of the mystery caller could possibly be.

"Compliance" was written and directed by Craig Zobel, his follow-up to his 2007 debut "The Great World of Sound," and he recently sat down with me to discuss the film, the real-life crimes that inspired it and the reasons why some viewers are so disturbed by its contents.

What was it that first got you interested in filmmaking?

I don't really know what first got me interested--that is kind of hard to remember. I definitely remember that my friends and I would make a bunch of movies when we were in high school. We had a camera and who mostly just run around back in the woods and almost all of the movies, someone had a gun and was chasing someone else through the woods. It was the guys from Homestar Runner--me and them in high school running around and then figuring out how to edit while making these little movies in our backyards.

Were there any films or filmmakers that were of particular inspiration to you back then?

I do remember seeing ""Twin Peaks" and then retroactively realizing that this same guy did all these other things like "Blue Velvet"--clearly, he had a voice and wasn't just doing the same thing over and over.

How did the idea for "Compliance" come about?

I wasn't necessarily looking for this project. I had encountered the true story that this was based on when I was actually reading about Dr. Stanley Milgram's experiments into obedience of authority. I was interested in that and the Stanford prison experiment and the Kitty Genovese case. I was reading about all these weird cases involving people and their weird relationship with authority and group dynamics and in doing that, I encountered these events. I immediately had the reaction that I would never do something like that and then something inside me went off and signaled to me that I was being a bit condescending to think that of all the people who had been in these situations over the last ten years. The idea that I was better than all of them and that I knew something that none of those people knew seemed kind of false to me and didn't jibe with how I knew the world worked.

I started thinking that it was funny that I had that immediate reaction that I could never fall prey to that. I would actually say that is probably the blanket reaction to everyone who hears the story. That would be the reaction to almost anyone hearing that story but statistically, that cannot happen or there would be no bad things in the world because we would all be too smart and stop anything bad from happening. I guess what I was interested in was that gap between what you know you would do and what some people clearly do. That was the question of the movie--what was going on there? For me specifically, could I tell a story that gave voice to a credible way of how this could have happened.

There have been something like 70 separate incidents over the last decade or so like the one chronicled in the film. Did you base it on one particular case or was it a sort of amalgam of different ones?

The thing about the cases that is so interesting is that there is always a police officer and there is always an employee who supposedly has drugs or who has stolen something. These things are always repeatable and in a lot of cases, what I thought was interesting for me was to be able to write what it was that the people said to each other and what the dynamics in these situations would be that could get you from point A to point B. What is the interpersonal relationship between the manager and the employee that gives it enough off an air of credibility so that there might be some genuine suspicion. What are their actual personal relationships and where are all these these people in their lives that allowed them to do this? I would look at myself and try to find things that might maybe make sense to me in the hopes that would make it believable.

For example, it is easy enough to understand why the girl submits, at least at first--she is being threatened with the loss of her job and possible arrest by a familiar authority figure standing right in front of her. However, why do you think that the manager was so eager to comply with the requests of an unfamiliar voice on the phone asking her to do things that make absolutely no sense?

It think it is kind of the sum of what that person's life has been like up until then--that is all a part of it. Prior relationships with police might have had something to do with it. There is a bit of objectivity in the film about her that is needed in trying to tell a story like this. I think that if you were called on the phone this afternoon by someone who said that they were the police, I don't think that the first thing you would say would be "Prove to me that you are the police." I think that especially with police officers, you would try to not make waves and assume that if somebody says that they are a police officer, they are. Completely unrelated to this case, there are a horrible amount of times where people wear cop uniforms and pull people over to the side of the road and assault them--they pretend to be police officers and totally abuse the uniform. The relationships between people and the police is a lot stronger than we think. We have kind of been raised on Harrison Ford movies where people talk back and are anti-heroes but for the most part, people don't want to mess with the police. I think that gets you farther than you think.

There is another intriguing dynamic going on in the sense that while the characters on the screen have no idea of what is going on, people in the audience most likely will be entering the film with at least some working knowledge of what they are in for and even if they don't, the film lets people on fairly quickly to the fact that the "cop" is not quite who he seems to be. Is there any worry that as word of the film gets out that it might wind up working against it--viewers might spend so much time parsing every word heard over the phone to judge whether they would have fallen for it that they miss all the other stuff that is going on?

I can honestly say that the first time we ever showed the movie, nobody knew what it was and they still had that same reaction. I have little concern that it is gonna be different if more people see it. It is a basic concern of storytelling--surprise vs. suspense what you know vs. what you don't know and whether can we pull this off. I fell that we got it pretty close and some people may not feel that way. That is a totally valid reaction as well but I feel like we tried to show enough human behavior to demonstrate how this could be plausible.

How exactly was the film staged, especially the scene involving the actors interacting with the voice on the phone. Was Pat Healy on the set delivering the lines or was all of his material done separately?

We shot everything that was in the back room, which is where the principal action of the second act takes place, on a set on a stage. This was in a two-level warehouse in Brooklyn and underneath that stage, we built a set that was the caller's home office. It was very important to me that the people actually be on the phone. Otherwise, it is just more difficult for the actors--it is harder for an actor to do that kind of thing because you actually have to supply the intentions of both you and the other actor in the scene. That was useful but it was also useful in a practical sense because I was shooting both sides of the scene and if we did do any improvisation, we had it recorded on both sides. In a general way, shooting both sides was useful in that it helped Pat Healy to not just be a voice on the phone. He was always on camera and so his chops always had to be sharp.

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originally posted: 09/05/12 00:44:33
last updated: 09/05/12 02:09:11
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