Compliance writer-director Craig Zobel on his controversial new film

Compliance writer-director Craig Zobel on his controversial new film

The word “controversial” gets thrown around with little justification, but for Craig Zobel’s Compliance, it’s a snug fit. The movie’s world première at the Sundance Film Festival was followed by a combative Q&A that instantly made the film the talk of Park City. Although not every screening since has been quite so explosive, heated discussions inevitably follow the film, which was inspired by a real-life incident in which a caller posing as a police officer convinced managers at dozens of fast-food restaurants that one of their employees had been caught stealing and needed to be confined until the cops could arrive in person. In Compliance, the setting is a fictitious fast-food joint called Chickwich, where manager Ann Dowd gets a call from the initially unseen Pat Healy and obligingly locks flabbergasted Dreama Walker in her office. What follows is a harrowing depiction of how far apparently harmless people can stray from their moral centers when they’re taking orders from authority figures, or think they are. The movie upsets audiences—disturbing some and provoking all—a situation Zobel told The A.V. Club is as he hoped.

The A.V. Club: After the Sundance screening, Pat Healy made a joke about having been your puppet during the making of the movie, which someone in the audience took to mean he’d been exploited in the same way Dreama Walker’s character was. He had to explain, “No, I chose to make this movie with my friend Craig Zobel, and gave myself over to his vision.”

Craig Zobel: That has been the weirdest thing. That’s the one thing I get in interviews. I’m always like, “Really? Is that what you think making movies is?” “Don’t you think you kind of tricked everybody?” No, we wrote a screenplay and all talked about it, laughing at the table eating crappy cheese noodles. 

AVC: It does depend on the director. Werner Herzog and William Friedkin aren’t above manipulating their actors.

CZ: I guess that’s true. You’ve seen documentaries of Stanley Kubrick yelling at Shelley Duvall.

AVC: Friedkin has said that while filming The Exorcist, he had to slap the nonprofessional actor playing the priest in the face to get the proper reaction. He didn’t tell him he was going to do it, just asked, “Do you trust me?” “Yes.” Wham. It was the only way to get the performance right.

CZ: Is that the only way? As a director, it’s up to you to have a good sense of communication.

AVC: It’s a truism that the director’s job is to find a way to work with each individual actor, however different they might be.

CZ: I find myself hesitant about it. I know some friends of mine [use] to good effect some of these techniques, but “Let’s do 37 takes the same way where I’m not going to give you any direction”—that kind of stuff makes me uncomfortable. [Actors] do actually want to try to do the same thing you want. They want to make a good movie, too. If you talk about it and use language they understand… I don’t know. I feel uncomfortable with that type of stuff.

AVC: There’s a kind of dishonesty in pretending that the director is not in charge. You’re still going to be the one in the edit room, choosing takes. “Go do whatever you want” doesn’t mean much if you’re just going to use the takes where they did what you asked.

CZ: We did a lot of takes on this movie, but we would go down a road and back up, and go down another road and back up, and go down another road on purpose, partly out of—I hate to say it—hesitancy to decide what was the best choice on-set. “Maybe in this one you’re a little bit of a hard-nosed boss,” and you do that version. “Maybe this one you’re motherly,” and we try that version. In the edit room you can put half of one and half of the other, and you get to have nuance in the performance. That’s what you’re doing. That is different than, “Okay, let’s just do it again.” [Laughs.] Not giving them direction, being like, “We’re going to do 15, 27 takes of things,” which is a wearing-down of the actor.

AVC: You based Compliance on a real incident, which was one of a string presumably committed by the same person. What got you interested in the phenomenon to begin with, and why did you zero in on that particular incident?

CZ: This is part of a bigger series of events over the course of a 10-year period. I was doing a bunch of reading on the Kitty Genovese case and the Stanford Prison experiment and the Stanley Milgram experiments, specifically. That’s very closely related to this, so it was hard to avoid this. There’s one case that was more publicly well-known, and a lot of people have done documentaries about it. But I don’t think it really triggered in me anything specific until I realized it was part of a bunch of them. I looked at a bunch of the other ones and picked stuff out of two—it’s sort of an amalgamation. The fact that this happened a ton of times helped me understand that it was more than just an isolated incident; it was more of a human experience, that we all have the ability to go down these paths in some way, shape, or form. And then the movie became, like, exploring my recognition of that.

AVC: How did you go about building a fictional scenario around the real-life endpoint?

CZ: You can read a lot of different stuff about these cases. There’s snippets of knowing exactly what happened, maybe. But it’s not like there’s tape recordings of entire events that you can go listen to. In some ways it was like I wrote the script, sort of in abstract, as a writing exercise: What would these people have said to each other that let everybody be comfortable with what was happening? Trying to go piece by piece and be like, “What was the scenario that all the people said to each other at that point?”

AVC: It seems significant that you have the Officer Scott character keep repeating, “I take all the responsibility.”

CZ: Right, and that’s where a lot of that research I’d done about behavioral science came in. I’d just read random books about that because I found that interesting. “Oh, he knew that stuff instinctively.”

AVC: Or maybe it was just trial and error. Maybe he tried 30 times and failed.

CZ: Right. Even on that day, maybe. Like he was waiting for the people that didn’t see this or that, or he was able to thread a certain gauntlet. It’s funny. Me and Pat, who played the guy, talked about that a lot in the sense that we were constantly making allusions to him thinking it was a videogame—something where the worst that could happen was that they would hang up, and he would have to call a different place. The stakes were not high, which I thought was interesting because the stakes are insanely high on the other side. Narratively, that was interesting. There was the sense of trying to get something that would be believable, or maybe not even believable but acceptable, to audiences as sounding like it had some logic to it and happened fast enough that it was still in the narrative of a movie.

AVC: You said one of your initial determinations was that the movie had to be short. Did you think audiences couldn’t stand to watch for too long?

CZ: I found it to be a very fascinating thing to think about and talk about, but it’s also uncomfortable subject matter—necessarily uncomfortable. I instinctively knew, I don’t want it to be long. I don’t want to be living in that space as an audience member of this movie that long. I do think there’s something interesting about it.

AVC: In a way, the challenge is less about explaining why it happens than why people are still shocked that it does. There are so many examples throughout history: Nazi Germany, Vietnam, Abu Ghraib. The research suggests that almost anyone, or at least a significant percentage of people, can be convinced to act in ways they’d otherwise consider immoral if someone in authority tells them to. And yet we still treat these incidents like freak aberrations, rather than illustrations of what seems to be human nature.

CZ: We always cast ourselves in the role of the hero; that’s what I feel is interesting about the whole thing. Everybody wants to assume they would be better than that, myself included. I first heard about this story and totally had the same reaction: “That would never happen to me.” The movie is my attempt to at least make people go, “Am I honest with myself that I’ve never done anything like that?”

AVC: I could see myself being Kevin, the kid who sees it’s wrong and won’t take part, but then kind of shrugs his shoulders and walks away.

CZ: Kevin is the person I connect the most to, too, which ties back into these other things I was looking at: the Kitty Genovese case and diffusion of responsibility. There’s that thing where you can make in your mind the moral decision that you know that this or that thing is a bad thing, but still not do anything.

AVC: Not take part in it, but not call the cops.

CZ: Not stop it either, right. I recognize that, definitely. 

AVC: How did you decide who the manager would be? With the real incidents, the guy targeted fast-food franchises in rural areas, where people were supposedly more trusting, and where they’d be more used to taking orders from their regional managers over the phone. 

CZ: And the culture of the ginormous fast-food chain. 

AVC: Where, in some cases, you never meet the people you work for. 

CZ: The churn of employees is giant. You never really know who you work for. It’s militaristic in a weird way. It’s built to be a chain of command, and it’s encouraged to not stray from that chain of command. You put the bun down like this. You put the burger down like that. This is the way you do it every time. When we were shooting, we would be walking around looking at the rules posted all over the fast-food restaurant on how you cook the food. There were rules. There’s lots of rules. 

AVC: There’s a real Taylorist attention to detail, where human actions are automated so as not to waste effort.

CZ: You don’t have to move. It’s very factory-oriented. And that mentality, I do think, is a useful mentality to target.

AVC: There is a risk, though, of stereotyping fast-food workers as unintelligent, which lets the arthouse audience off the hook. How do you fence with that?

CZ: It’s the one thing that I feel like that’s genuinely your problem if you can’t connect. If you think this is that they’re stupider than you, this is really not my problem. I don’t feel that way. I don’t feel like it’s something that would only happen to people who work at fast-food restaurants. I just don’t. I don’t believe that. I think people who drift in that direction are excited to challenge me about that. I’m always like, “I don’t know, man. I worked at a fast-food restaurant. I stocked vending machines at a textile mill.” I’m not saying that I don’t have more privilege than people in that class. I’m a white male who’s blond and 6-foot-4. Clearly I have privilege I don’t even know about, but I don’t think that these people are dumb like that. I just don’t think that.

AVC: The primary qualification for falling prey to something like this is being sure you never would. 

CZ: Yeah, that has been expressed to me. I don’t want to say that the people who would come at the story that way necessarily are thinking that, but I certainly have heard a lot of other people say, “Is that coming from people who see something that makes them uncomfortable?”

AVC: It might be a coincidence, or just provincialism, but it seems like the studies we hear about most, from Stanley Milgram to the Stanford Prison Experiment, were conducted in the U.S. 

CZ: I wonder about that. I actually really don’t know the answer to that. We’re about to play in Locarno [at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland], and I brought that up to some people in showing it internationally, and they immediately laughed at me. “Fascism is all over the world.” [Laughs.] I was like, “Oh right.” I guess you can call this fascism. That’s not the way we’re wired to think of it. 

AVC: Abu Ghraib was mentioned a lot at Sundance, and you fill the screen with an American flag early on. 

CZ: It certainly is, but I feel like, to read between lines at what you’re getting at, how American is this? I ultimately don’t think it’s just American. But if, to go back to your former point, the people who think it could never happen to them are among the more likely to have it happen to them, I think speaks to a certain quality that is maybe modern and maybe kind of American right now. [Laughs.] I at least want to question that. I’m not 100 percent sure. I don’t know. I find it hard to talk about this sort of stuff without constantly affirming my point of view in it, which is as a man and as an American and all of these things. It’s hard to speak for any other point of view. I feel like this is not that movie that can make any sort of big generalization.

AVC: The film has a generic, Anytown feel to it. 

CZ: Good. I actually wish there could be a completely anywhere-ness to it, except I felt in some ways you had to know there were multiple places, or I would have avoided any reference to place. 

AVC: The accents place it in the South, but the restaurant itself is utterly placeless.

CZ: Intentionally. By design. They want it to be the same everywhere.

AVC: And that kind of uniform abstraction lends itself to compliance. You aren’t anywhere, and no one’s in charge, except for Head Office off somewhere.

CZ: Right, someone somewhere else said it’s okay. I haven’t thought about this too much in interviews, but initially, making the film, when we were talking about where it should happen, I kept reading articles pointing to this idea of the exurbs, like past the suburbs, but not rural. I’m from Atlanta, and Georgia’s sort of that. Atlanta, there’s no natural borders anywhere in it. There’s no river or coast or mountain, so it kind of keeps on growing. What’s interesting about that is that once you’re in those spaces, it looks the same all over the country.

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AVC: A strip mall is a strip mall is a strip mall.

CZ: Right. Same restaurants, same stuff everywhere. I felt it was important that it be there instead of in a specific place. 

AVC: More and more of the country is becoming that kind of uniform strip-mall environment, and more and more people live there. It’s depressing. 

CZ: There’s a reaction to it. But there’s a lot of people who find comfort in that universe, too. 

AVC: There are obvious parallels between Compliance and Great World Of Sound, and you’re working on yet another story about confidence men. Clearly the dynamic of trust and betrayal attracts you.

CZ: [Laughs.] I guess so. I think specifically what I get fascinated with is that we fail to recognize that human interaction and a really good pitch can actually overcome logic and your belief system momentarily. You can fool people some of the time. Everybody can be fooled some of the time, which I find to be incredibly frustrating if I think about it happening to me. I find it to be completely fascinating that we don’t really think about that or talk about that or address that or acknowledge that’s a real thing. 

AVC: Does that affect how you trust people or don't?

CZ: To be honest, that is something that I find interesting when trying to do something—and don’t kill me for saying the word “artistic,” but you know what I mean—when I’m trying to think in this creative way. But it’s not something in my day-to-day life that I’m constantly preoccupied with or anything. It’s not a neurosis, I don’t think. If it is, it’s buried enough that I’m really not noticing it. [Laughs.]

AVC: You’re not getting back at your parents for Santa Claus?

CZ: Right. [Laughs.] Maybe I am. Maybe I’m getting back at my parents for Santa Claus. 

AVC: Have you been taken aback by the way people have reacted to the film? The first Sundance screening was famously contentious.

CZ: I can say I haven’t been taken aback by all the reactions, of which I have heard a lot more thoughtful, interesting ones than I have heard harsh, critical ones. Other people, namely the press, have been much more excited to hear the negative reactions because it’s much more interesting to write about. I wouldn’t say anything has been completely out of the blue, unexpected. I made the movie, not because I wanted just to provoke people, but because I was curious about all this stuff. So hearing some of the negative stuff doesn’t fully surprise me. Because in some ways, yes, it’s hard to talk about power without talking about how sometimes men use power against women in a misogynist fashion. I was very conscious that that was part of what was going on. So some people reacting that way are people who are maybe not meeting me there about what that should mean, but it doesn’t surprise me, and it’s a totally valid response, in a way. More recently, I’ve talked to people who felt like they connected some specific experience in their life to it and that it bothered them, but it made them want to talk about that experience with me, after a Q&A or something. I don’t have any training to talk about that stuff, but I’m finding myself completely fascinated and also in a place where I’m trying to be very careful about how I interact with them. Those have been as or more surprising than some abject dismissal of the movie. It’s not always that. People are recognizing stuff. To me, that’s been the most interesting, honestly.

AVC: It’s obvious, though not stated, that Pat Healy’s character is getting off on manipulating these people. There’s a reason he’s targeting young women. And in order to discuss that, you have to depict it.

CZ: The nature of all these crimes is that they were sexual. It wasn’t just that he was ordering these people around because he said he was a cop. He was ordering them around and pushing it in that direction. I think that’s telling, culturally.

AVC: At the first Sundance screening, someone made a comment about how Dreama Walker looks good naked, which is disgusting. But without slighting her performance, did you considering casting someone in the role whom most people wouldn’t want to see with their clothes off? It adds an aspect that arguably detracts from what the film is about.

CZ: That’s a really interesting question. The more I talk about that, the more things I get into. To answer the question in a really specific way, it was a low-budget film, and there was a certain amount of people who auditioned for the role who were comfortable doing this role, and Dreama was heads and tails the best actress, and that’s why I cast her. Do you know what I mean? I think what you’re asking is something like, “Could you have cast someone less pretty in order to soften that—”

AVC: Voyeuristic aspect, yes.

CZ: And then I ask you, “Do pretty people not get exploited? Would that be acceptable?” I would much rather not be letting the movie forgive the crime because that person in some way, shape, or form… I don’t know. It seems like a very sticky, weird conversation to get into.

AVC: It is, and that’s why I asked.

CZ: The further you go down that road, you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t. I can understand a case where a pretty person is a bad person to cast in this role, and like I said, I want to be completely clear: It was a low-budget movie, and Dreama wanted to do it and was an amazing actress and that was the reason. It literally didn’t factor in. I could also make a really negative case for casting someone who wasn’t attractive as that being as messed-up a thing. That reaction I had not anticipated, although I had reflected on it posthumously, after we shot the movie. I guess I would still err on the side of saying that attractive women totally become targets of this stuff. It seems not wrong on a story level, and it also seems a bit like, “Why would it be more okay if the person was less attractive?” It just seems like a weird argument against the movie in a way that I don’t quite get. 

AVC: There might be less danger of people watching it for the wrong reasons, or feeling the wrong thing when they’re watching it.

CZ: Right, and I talked to that guy you’re referring to. He got very tongue-tied, but he was not actually saying that he was getting off on Dreama. He was actually not saying that. I don’t know about this whole “people getting off on the movie.” I would find that to be very weird. [Laughs.] Aside from casting an ugly person in the role—that is maybe the one last thing I could have done just to make it uncomfortable. I don’t know. I’m curious whether or not you think my answer to that jibes with…

AVC: I don’t have an answer. I think it’s worth discussing. 

CZ: Absolutely, and it’s very interesting. It starts to bring up how we look at women compared to how we look at men. If that ends up being someone’s critique of the movie that finds fault with the way that I did that, so be it. It’s very interesting to talk about—as long as people actually talk about it and process it and don’t just make decisions. The point of this movie is that it’s about more gray stuff like that.

AVC: In a situation like this, if you don’t show nudity, you’re hedging on what actually happened. 

CZ: You’re hedging on what actually happened, and you’re also sort of softening and distancing. You’re making it more palatable. 

AVC: Which is itself not acceptable. 

CZ: Yeah. To me that felt weird to do. But isn’t it fascinating to talk about? [Laughs.] Ultimately what we’re talking about is challenging that maybe everyone is sort of comfortable with a certain set of rules about all of this gender stuff that I don’t think that we are actually finished talking about. I think there’s a lot more levels of difference between men and women that really still need to keep being talked about. Maybe that is where that goes.

AVC: Why did you make Ann Dowd’s restaurant manager, the one who’s taking orders from Pat Healy’s character, a woman?

CZ: Yeah, I could have made it a man. It’s sort of funny. I went through, and you could’ve actually changed the gender of almost everyone in the whole movie, and in the writing process, I thought about that.

AVC: Except the caller. He has to be a man.

CZ: That’s true. I think because of that, you would be making a very different movie if you made the primary victim a man. You would be making a very different movie that would have so many things to talk about that I don’t know if you could get off square one. So I think that those two characters being male and female sort of makes sense. But literally, let’s go through it: The manager in the film, I found if it was a man the inherent gender dynamic would have popped up even faster, and there wouldn’t have been time in the storytelling of the movie for it to feel like it was about the power thing only. So that’s a good reason for me to make her female.

AVC: It adds a sense of her being frustrated in her own life or career. Maybe this is a company where women only rise so far, where they can manage a restaurant, but not a region. The way the deliveryman dresses her down for letting food spoil in the first few minutes suggests a lack of respect.

CZ: Totally. Ultimately it was a creative choice. There’s a lot more interesting things happening if the manager is a woman. 

AVC: And it gives you somewhere to go when you bring in her fiancé, which raises the stakes a notch.

CZ: I think that Kevin, one of the employees, being a man—while that could have been a female character, and then it would have been a female character who said “no” but didn’t quite say “no”—I think with the amount of chess pieces I had, I would’ve lost what I thought was an interesting layer of being in a sexualized place with someone you think is cool—and cute even—and then making the choice not to do that.

AVC: You get the sense that Kevin and Becky are, if not flirtatious, friendly in a particular way.

CZ: I would have lost a layer or a color in that. I suppose if I had made the person who grinds the entire thing to a halt, I could have changed the gender of that person, but there’s something at that point where, in making a movie, I wanted there to be some, “Oh no, what’s going to happen now?” aspect that I was able to get out of having that person be a man. So I feel creatively like I made the more interesting choice with all the decisions, or at least for what was fascinating to me.

AVC: It’s interesting the way these power dynamics develop within institutions, whether it’s the military or a fast-food chain. There was no way it was a coincidence that the ringleader at Abu Ghraib had been a prison guard outside Pittsburgh. It makes you wonder where he got his ideas.

CZ: What kind of people are attracted to those jobs? You know what I mean? I don’t know. That’s a bit of a generalization that I don’t know if I can make, but I certainly don’t like cops. I can make that generalization. 

AVC: Or what kind of people do those jobs create?

CZ: Right, what kind of people drift toward that, and what about that job makes that personality type?

AVC: With the Milgram experiments, there were people who said “no.” It’s not that everyone gives in and does what they’re told. Just most people. But it is possible to hold onto your sense of right and wrong.

CZ: And it’s weird that that’s the brave thing to do. To me, this is what is fascinating about the story I wanted to make a movie about. What seems like it should be the choice everyone makes is actually the brave or hard choice to make. That doesn’t jibe with what everybody thinks they would do. And I say everybody, but you’re right, there are people who do make that choice. It’s not everybody.

AVC: But you don’t know which group you fall into until you’re in that situation.

CZ: It’s likely that you don’t know. 

AVC: It might be the rare situation where it helps to have a problem with authority figures. 

CZ: I think it does help. I realized the other day, I was trying to cross the street here in New York. I was trying to cross Sixth Avenue down at Canal Street, which is very busy. And there were cops there. The light hadn’t changed, but the cops were sort of superseding the rules of the light, and there weren’t any cars coming. And there are two cops standing there. So I looked at them, and I said, “Can I go?” I was close enough to them that they could hear. They were in the middle of the street. One of them looked around and was like, “Yeah, yeah, of course.” The other cop said to me, “Well, usually you go when there’s a green light symbol. My 9-year-old knows that.” To which, before I could stop myself, I said, “Which is it? Do I go or not go?” And realized I’m a guy who talks back to cops, and then had to be put in my place and have to go stand on the corner. [Laughs.] I realized that I actually have a somewhat antagonistic reaction to anything a police officer says to me, which is kind of disappointing to realize.

AVC: Maybe the question shouldn’t be why do people do this or how do people do this, but why do we not know that people do this? Why are we so surprised?

CZ: And that is a much more interesting question to me

AVC: That’s the argument in Alex Gibney’s Taxi To The Dark Side about the U.S. prisons in Afghanistan. Given the lack of oversight and the intense pressure for results, it should have been a foregone conclusion that things would get out of hand. There was no excuse for not knowing that would happen.

CZ: On some kind of bigger institutional level, let’s not pretend this isn’t a phenomenon. Movies like Taxi To The Dark Side make an incredibly incisive case for that. I guess I’m interested in that, too.

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