Breaking Down the Madness: Our Interview with COMPLIANCE Writer-Director Craig Zobel

By at August 30, 2012 | 10:31 pm | Print

Compliance writer-director Craig ZobelIt’s tough to tell if filmmaker Craig Zobel knew what he was getting himself into. He knew of news stories about seemingly reasonable people who had committed unreasonable acts, who had followed orders over the phone from an imposter posing as a police offer. In an effort to answer some of his own pesky questions about such activity — you can imagine the famous Milgram experiments getting under Zobel’s skin — the writer-director made the movie Compliance, a narrative version of real events that take place in the backroom of a fast-food restaurant where a young cashier is held captive by her peers, at the behest of the fake on the other side of the phone. Zobel’s carefully structured tale has been stirring up conversation and anger since the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. I talked with Zobel on a recent Sunday evening to see just how you build a purposefully uncomfortable film out of a single phone call.

Meet in the Lobby:
Compliance is about how far people are willing to go when there’s an authority figure patting them on the back. What about the idea that it’s also about what kind of evil people may commit when given the room to do so?

Craig Zobel:
I don’t think people ever think, “I’m going to do the evil thing.” As you’d say in acting, that’s not a playable direction. You know? It’s like you always have a noble version of what you’re doing. (laughs) Even if it’s absolutely immoral and horrible. You’re always rationalizing a version of it that makes sense. I’m much more interested in Sandra (the restaurant manager, played by Ann Dowd). Honestly, that’s sort of the root of the movie to me: These people who have this complicated power dynamic and actually do have some ability to recognize what’s happening.

MITL:
There’s a certain point in the film where the character of Becky (Dreama Walker as the young girl) stops protesting and questioning what’s happening to her. To me, that could be a question mark for some viewers, as to whether they’ll buy it. What are your thoughts on that?

Zobel:
We did struggle with that and some people feel that she should protest more than she does. It’s interesting. What you bring up is one of the problems that the real people in a lot of these cases encountered. If Becky had been in a dark alley and sexually assaulted, there’d be no question that she was a victim. There’s this weird thing in these stories, in which people were talked into doing this stuff, that the victims of assault have to explain their role in being assaulted. “Why didn’t you try harder to not be assaulted?” Weird. That’s a messed-up kind of question to consider. It’s still bothersome.

Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker in Craig Zobel's Compliance

I think it’s funny because you can absolutely watch this movie and think “Why didn’t you make her a character who would fight back more?” (Deep sigh) I just kind of think they’re in a bubble in which you can feel overpowered. And it’s not a victim’s job in that situation to stab the guy in the eyes and run out of the restaurant naked. I mean, I think it’s asking a lot of a person, that they’re in a place where they’re horribly terrified and you’d think “Why don’t you just become a hero for yourself, and get out of this type situation?” I know this is my opinion, but the odds are stacked against you, man. Becky would have had a hard time. When you’re inside this fishbowl, such a tense situation like that… it’s not that clean.

MITL:
Fishbowl is a good word for it. I thought, at some point, this is just some odd dream for the victim.

Zobel:
Yeah, you’re just outside of the whole thing. We talked a lot about that fishbowl for every character. Would a guy do that under normal circumstances? I don’t know. These situations happen only because that world is so tiny. It’s like a world of only three or four people. Human behavior can become as eccentric as I think it totally is. I think its worst qualities can flourish in that kind of situation.

MITL:
The bulk of the action takes place over the phone, of course. How did you imagine that something that static was going to be cinematic?

Zobel:
I wanted to make sure there wasn’t a visual repetition, that you’d be kind of unconsciously bored. Boredom in this situation would have been a really inappropriate feeling. So I tried to do things, like make sure there were windows in the room. When the story goes from daytime to dusk to nighttime, that changes the look in a way.

Dreama Walker in Craig Zobel's ComplianceWe picked angles so the film isn’t fully revealed until about 55 minutes into the movie — you still haven’t seen all the corners of the room. Then you start building the geography. I think this is all subconscious stuff, but the kind of thing that was important to draw out as much as possible. It wasn’t, “Oh, now we’re back on the same shot that I’ve seen the entire movie.” In a structural way, there was a difference in tone and vibe at the 45-minute mark. The first half of the movie does have different camerawork and a camera style. But once the boyfriend is in the room, then the movie is a whole different thing. And that was the plan, I felt like the movie was sort of being reinvented at that place.

MITL:
I feel the scenes definitely move.

Zobel:
It really turns into an editing thing. If you watch an episode of a TV show — there are exceptions, definitely Mad Men and Breaking Bad — they will just cut to a person as they say their lines, and then to the next person as they say their lines. It’s rare that you hear off-camera lines. This was a movie, in my opinion, where it was more important to see people react to what someone was saying. It was about having longer takes, and watching the actors in between the lines. After 45 minutes of the movie, there’s a lot more of that.

MITL:
If there were three things you could tell people about Compliance, what would they be?

Zobel:
1. I made the movie because I genuinely had a bunch of questions about this stuff, and making the movie was my intent to figure it out with a bunch of actors. As pretentious as that might sound, that was a genuine desire. I feel like it’s a totally appropriate movie to have a drink after (pauses, laughs)… and maybe talk about what you saw? It is true that you’ll have something to talk about. You won’t forget about the movie, and just move on. I think.

2. I made the movie with a bunch of collaborators and they all really gave 100%. Ann Dowd really really is amazing — all the actors, in my opinion, are really fantastic — but Dreama and Ann are really amazing in the movie, when I watch it, just as a fan. I feel like this is a performance that will stick around with you for a couple days afterward, which is cool.

3. I’m really proud of our composer for the soundtrack, Heather McIntosh. I feel like she’s done a movie score that’s really worth talking about. I found it very helpful for me in making the movie. She was giving me sketches of it, and I played them on set for all the actors, and it helped us key in on the kind of movie we were making.

MITL:
It was just announced this week that you’ll be directing the film version of Z for Zachariah. Here’s the classic question: Is this the transition into “big Hollywood” territory?

Zobel:
Well, we’ll see. It doesn’t feel like that right now. It feels pretty organic. It’s about working with a really fun actor and collaborator (Tobey Maguire) who has really great ideas. So it’s feeling really fun. The good thing is the story is not necessarily calculated, the screenwriter has created a meaty, interesting story. I’m really into all the nooks and crannies of human behavior that are inside it. It’s basically a film that has taken a love triangle and put it in a crockpot and is cooking it really intensely. It’s totally different than Compliance which I sort of needed. I’m really proud of Compliance but it’s hard a place to live for a year of your life.

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