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'Compliance' Director Craig Zobel Faces Down Creepy Criminals and Jittery Audiences (Q&A)

The director of the Sundance-approved psychological thriller speaks to THR about breaking down evil and how some audience members just refuse to believe his film is based on a true story.

Craig Zobel Headshot - P 2012

Watching director Craig Zobel's festival hit Compliance is much like watching a car crash in slow motion: You know something terrible is going to happen and you can't look away, and it's made even worse by the crawling momentum that brutally delays impact.

And it's this very torture that makes the film so compelling.

Compliance concerns a fast-food restaurant in rural Ohio, a chicken sandwich spot in the middle of a frozen highway. The manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), gets a call from a man claiming to be a police officer (Pat Healy), who says that one of her employees (Dreama Walker) is being accused of stealing from a customer. She must bring her to the back and hold her there until the police come, Sandra is instructed, and she complies despite some hesitation.

Film Review: 'Compliance'

Over time, the requests become more invasive and bizarre: strip search her to find the money, violate her private parts, give her a spanking. Sandra vacillates between uncertainty and strict obedience, even as her employees begin to raise questions about the situation. 

Despite always having an answer to set aside Sandra's skepticism, the man on the phone is in fact not a cop but a creep using a calling card. This fact is made even scarier by its basis in truth: One man is alleged to have made up to 70 of these calls to various restaurants in 30 states between 1992 and 2004.

The film has been praised by critics but received mixed reactions at Sundance; some people in the audience screamed at the screen and rushed out. As Zobel told The Hollywood Reporter, even when told it is indeed based on a true story, some people just can't handle the notion and reject the film wholesale.

The Hollywood Reporter: Was it a tough script to crack -- how to write it and turn it into a movie?

Craig Zobel: Yes and no. There was a sort of baked-in timeline to the movie. I guess you could have done it in a million different ways. To me, there seemed to be some obvious timeline I was going to stick with instead of jumping around to multiple instances of this happening. I thought, this should just be one. And there were a couple things I knew just instinctively, that it’s more interesting if it’s just one day. Especially because you get to see people struggle with the things I struggled with when I think about the movie. So in that sense, no. 

But in the other sense, I would say the first draft of the script, on the whole, had a lot of stuff in it that worked, but I was definitely pushed by a lot of people around me. I was a little scared and hesitant about, specifically the language of the caller; it took me multiple subsequent drafts to steel myself and write the kind of stuff that would normally make me uncomfortable.

THR: Language in regards to stuff the guy said they should do to her?

Zobel: Yeah, exactly. Also the language of just the way the police officers talk. I think, in a sense, when I sat down to kind of write a police officer, I was writing based more on TV shows and movies I’d watched, rather than real life. And it was just like, what do real-life police officers sound like? Does that sound like a real-life police officer? Because real-life police officers usually don’t talk in the same voice as they do on TV.

So that took a little thinking about. So thinking about that, and then also thinking about just having to go and say honestly, this was a guy who was doing this and then having to write things I think were gross, but it was things that were closer to what he’d actually said.

THR: As I’m watching, I’m thinking, "How could people do those things?" But I guess it’s not so easy to say, because it happened 70 times, that people bowed to authority. Does that say something about human nature and how we bow to authority? It’s a disturbing truth that’s hard to admit to yourself.

Zobel: I mean, that right there is essentially the reason I made the movie. It was the kind of thing, the implausibility of it, it was like I said, some internal meter in me was like, "Wow, I’m having such a quick, visceral reaction that rejects that, that I wonder if there’s something else going on." If I’m rejecting it that strongly, if I don’t believe it that strongly, maybe I’m actually not listening or something. Maybe there’s something deeper there.

THR: And you had to deal with the fact that people said, "Oh, this is implausible."

Zobel: Some people still do. Some people reject the general notion of the movie.

THR: Even though it’s true?

Zobel: Yeah, the reaction from some people has been like, they’ll just say: "Well, even if it’s true, I doubt it. I can’t imagine that’s really what happened." And then it’s kind of like well, maybe I didn’t nail it. But I did kind of wonder what version of this being true can be "imagine that."

THR: And there were some more extreme incidents you didn’t include, right?

Zobel: Yeah. Some of the other incidents. All of them are the worst. Any time there’s a sexual assault, it’s the worst. But some of them were so implausible. The types of where they went would be so hard to follow that I feel like we’d lose everybody. I even took liberties. There’s some evidence to think the persons or people who made these calls were maybe making them from pay phones for like four hours. That’s the kind of thing where I’m like, "Man, I don’t even know how to tell that."

THR: There’s an obvious bad guy, the caller, in this. And then you have the manager of the place. Was it hard to make it at all that she was sympathetic, have an objective eye?

Zobel: I think the decision to make the movie was actually to have an objective eye in looking at some of the people that weren’t the caller. That was really, truly one of the reasons that I was interested in making the movie. I found myself having a lot of empathy for those people. Obviously, at the end of the day, they did something wrong, but I think these characters at least kind of acknowledged that in the film. I feel like the idea for me is really to try to paint a sympathetic portrait of those people. That was sort of the goal, in a way. It would have been easier to have made everything very much from the point of view of the victim in enough of the way that it made all the people basically the bad guy. That would have been an easier way to tell the story. But I think the reason, for me, had to do with trying to have some objectivity toward Sandra and the other characters.

THR: Do you see this as something that comments on issues like NYC’s Stop and Frisk rules, airport searches and our general police state -- the things it compels us to do automatically?

Zobel: Well, I’m certainly interested to read everyone that draws that correlation. I have said that I was thinking truly just about the roots of human behavior when I was making the film, but it’s been interesting to hear those comments.

THR: How have you felt about some of the more difficult response at festivals?

Zobel: It’s interesting. It has not been as pronounced as it may in some ways feel. I feel like it’s a really important movie to kind of travel around with and a really important movie to talk about. I was trying to make it because I didn’t necessarily have an answer to these questions, but I thought they were worth bringing up and talking about, so one of the goals of the movie was that I made sure I spent as much time on the ground, at Q&As, discussing it. 

I’ve had really, really interesting conversations with people. And I would say most people are shaken by the movie in a way. None of the responses, even the ones that very much reject the movie, are bad. Because I think, in a way, I actually invite people that have issues with the movie. My main thing would be to understand what the issues are. Because is it that I made a bad decision about this or that thing? I’ve been able to have really fascinating conversations about people. So I think that my hope that people would talk about the movie has, for the most part, been fulfilled, which has been great. I do think that to the degree that the initial response had something to do with, at least partly had something to do with, people who really did not know what they were getting into.

Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin