[This interview was originally posted as part of our Sundance 2012 coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the wider theatrical release of Compliance.]
As part of our 2012 Sundance Film Festival coverage, I got an opportunity to interview Craig Zobel, the writer/director the compelling yet discomfiting film Compliance. Though it angered some audience members and caused a little controversy at its premiere screening, the film ultimately won acclaim for its boldness and the incredible performances from the cast.
We only ran a snippet of the interview previously, but we have the full interview with Zobel after the cut. Our conversation ran almost 42 minutes long, and we talked about everything from psychology experiments and artistic challenges to Homestar Runner and finding levity in dark situations. There are some mild spoilers in this full interview, just so you know.
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Compliance is based on a true story about a man who made a prank phone call to a fast food restaurant pretending to be a cop. He asked for information about a reported theft by an employee. What happened over the course of three-and-a-half hours is bewildering, disturbing, and yet all true.
Over the phone Zobel joked, “I feel like I should offer people a drink right after they’ve watched the movie.”
I spoke to Zobel prior to the premiere. He was quick to laugh and I could hear the smile in his voice. He’s got such a light and self-deprecating personality, a stark contrast to the darkness of Compliance. In fact, if you’ve seen his first film, Great World of Sound, or knew about his connection to Homestar Runner and The Brothers Chaps, you wouldn’t expect him to make this kind of movie.
What was your immediate reaction to the true story that inspired the film, and did it change while you were writing the script and directing the film?
My immediate reaction was one of disbelief — very, very initially. I discovered the story as sort of a sidebar or a thing that said, “You should check this out if you’re interested in x.” I’d been reading about behavior experiments from the 1960s, like the Stanley Milgram experiment and the Stanford Prison experiment and stuff like that. So the story was sort of like, “This is real and it’s totally crazy.” So my first introduction to the story had sort a behavioral psychology type of bent to it — I don’t know if that makes any sense. But basically I first discovered the story with the sense of “Look at how weird this is — real people did something as unbelievable as this.” I guess that curiosity was sort of what led me to the script in the first place.
And whether or not it changed while making the movie… Probably what changed was — and especially over writing the movie — during my first encounter with the true story, I think I did what a lot of people would do: I sort of dismissed it as a bunch of people working in a fast food restaurant that were just dumb or something. But that didn’t jive with me. I don’t believe necessarily that there are just tons of very stupid people in world. I think everybody has some amount of smarts, and the fact that this happened to people that are that smart forced me to reconsider and think about the movie.
I think that my perception of why those real people ended up in the roles they ended up in probably changed considerably, and especially after meeting the actors. I had done as much conjecture as I could while writing a script about it. Bringing the actors into it, there was a whole other level of other reasons why the characters might be doing what they did, things I never thought about. Like, “Perhaps the manager was jealous of the younger girl,” or something like that.
I read in the production notes that Ann Dowd [who plays Sandra] envisioned the character as someone who just defers to authority. She’s just a manager at a fast food restaurant, probably had all these decisions made for her by her parents. Did you find that those possibilities were there when you were writing the script or was that the actors adding those layers in the performance?
That was a layer that she added. I think that in some ways my imagination of the story before bringing Ann into the process and figuring it out, I’d wondered if the character was relishing the role of temporary deputy. I guess that was maybe my first instinct; maybe that woman did love being in charge. But Ann’s instinct was not that, so she went a different way, and it seemed to make a lot more sense to me. You know, once I saw her do it, I thought, “Oh, of course that’s the way that is.” [laughs] She could have done it the way I’d been thinking too, but it added so much dimension to have her bring that stuff to it.
I wanted to touch on the Milgram and Stanford experiments. Did you find those instances of people deferring to authority more realistic than this instance of people just responding to someone claiming to be a cop on the phone?
I mean, those stories are crazy. Do you know the Milgram experiment at all?
Yeah, the shock experiments.
The shock experiments, exactly. You know, he was an amateur filmmaker and he actually made a documentary that he called Obedience. I have a copy of it, but I think that someone put it up on YouTube in several parts, or at least it used to be up there. It’s just the old experiments, and it’s crazy to watch. They basically think there’s person in the other room they’re giving shocks to. There’s screaming and at some point he stops talking and responding whatsoever, and yet they still give that person a shock. So when you read about it as a boiled down experiment, it’s one thing, but to actually watch the old Milgram film — he shot 16mm film for the experiments — to actually watch that stuff is a lot weirder than you would think. But it’s also very recognizable: everyone is in pain. No one is happy to be doing it. Even when you watch the Stanford Prison experiment, those people are not happy. There’s a weird, very sad vibe to the whole thing.[pause] I kind of lost track, I’m sorry. I might be rambling, I apologize [laughs]. The question was did I feel those were more or less…?
Believable, I guess.
Did you have a hard time with the believability of the film? Is that kind of what it is?
It wasn’t the believability of the film, but when you hear about things done in a controlled setting like an experiment, it seems to have more credibility than what happened in those fast food restaurants in real life. It almost seems like an urban legend.
Right, totally, absolutely. I 100% agree with you, and that would be my first instinct as well. Oddly, given the particulars of the 70-some-odd cases that happened, the one that this is based on is tame compared to the other things that happened in some other cases.
In one of them, the manager was also a woman working with a younger woman at a fast food restaurant, and the “police officer” convinced her that there was a peeing tom, or weird voyeur — or sorry, a sex offender, a pedophile — in front of the restaurant. What she needed to do in order to trap him so that the cops could swoop in and bust him was take all of her clothes off and walk out into the front of the restaurant naked. [pause] And she did it! It really happened! You know, it’s like, I couldn’t put that in the movie because I don’t believe that. I don’t know how you make that believable. There’s some stuff that’s more ridiculous than you could even make a movie out of and no one would believe it.
So this particular version of this person playing a cop hit on most of the stuff I thought was interesting, and I think it basically set up a weird power dynamic. People suffer — you know, [everyone becomes] victims. It let me think a lot about the guy doing it and how he would talk. It’s very similar in some ways to Great World of Sound — my other film, which is about con men — in the sense that it’s about selling people something and getting some level of enjoyment out of selling something even if it’s not a good thing at all, which I found interesting.
Well, that’s an interesting thing, because Pat Healy in Great World of Sound is so much more timid. Here, he seems like a complete sociopath. Did you always have Pat in mind for the role or was it something you just sort of presented to him?
I didn’t write it with the assumption that I’d hire Pat immediately. But in starting to make the movie and cast the movie, it became a sort of fun… Well, A) I knew there’d be a shorthand between us and he’d sort of understand where as I was coming from as far as the technique of this hard-pressure sales stuff since we’d already talked about that ad nauseum in the past. And B) I also thought it would be an interesting reversal of what he’d just done. I sort of wrote it in a vacuum without anybody, but he was definitely the first person I thought of when I actually went out to make the movie.
You go to really dark places in this movie. What’s it like directing Dreama Walker in all these uncomfortable scenes where she’s just wearing an apron and she has to do all these very difficult, taxing things for an actor?
It was very difficult, to be quite honest [laughs]. It was very difficult to do. It felt very uncomfortable a lot. We had conversations beforehand enough so that I felt that I was in touch with her. Everybody involved thought it was interesting. Dreama wasn’t there just because she wanted to be in a movie. She thought that this was a fascinating movie. Everyone was on board with how bizarre the experience was. In a lot of ways, we could all kind of dial down and start thinking, “Well, what really happened in that scenario,” or reflecting on it in a way that was more… I just felt like everyone that was in the room doing it was there for the same reason, so that helps a little.
But, man, it’s very uncomfortable, to be honest, and that was good. This whole process, this whole movie, is filled with me doing things that I felt were going to be hard and that I might not be able to do well. I had been writing a bunch, but I hadn’t made a movie since Great World of Sound and I was in a place where I really wanted to do something that I felt was hard. It’s like, “Well, I may fall on my face if I do this wrong,” but that made it more exciting in some way. I can’t really explain it more than that. But that was among the things that made me make Compliance. I know that this will be a challenge that will force me to get better at my work, if that makes any sense.
That actually does make a lot of sense. Do you think you’ll continue to do that — sort of always go for something more difficult or uncomfortable to make yourself grow?
I hope so, yeah. I felt very freed after doing that. I have this crazy relationship with this movie, which is a super-dark movie, but it was a very pleasant picture to make in some ways [laughs]. Because I felt like I was constantly forcing myself to learn something. Yeah, that’s something I’d like to do more.
You know, I think you can do that in different ways. Like you could do a comedy and it’d be really hard in a sense. That doesn’t mean that I’m constantly going to be making dark, creepy movies. [laughs] I’m not interested in doing that, but I hope that the next one presents enough challenge. As least so that I’m not just making a movie so that I can have made a movie, but that I’m making a movie that makes me feel like I’m growing. I’m kind of saying the same thing, I apologize [laughs]. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, it’s not like you’re automatically going to the same thing over and over again, or that you’d only do things that were the complete opposite [of what you did last], but you could just look at challenges in different scenarios.
Yeah, deciding to make a movie because it’s challenging and has a possibility of failure is much more interesting to me than making a film that will be a softball or easy too.
You had major technical challenges because the cast was segregated basically. You had Pat making the demented phone calls in a separate set and everyone else reacting to it. How was it staging that sort of divide and how did it affect the performances, particularly when Pat had to read his lines with the rest of the cast in person [due to a phone malfunction]?
In theory, [Pat interacting in-person with the cast] was never going to happen. Early on in the movie I had decided I was going to play this major game where I was not going to let any of the other actors in the movie meet Pat. Even when they ate lunch or times that had nothing to do with the movie. They would just never ever meet him. But then I started feeling kind of sorry for Pat since he was by himself the whole time, and I lifted that embargo [laughs].
How long did that last?
The main stuff — the main phone call stuff — we shot that for about two weeks. It was like a three week shoot.
Oh, I meant the embargo.
Oh, the embargo? The embargo lasted like a day. [laughs] I just couldn’t do it. We just couldn’t really do it. Pat understood why that would be funny and fascinating and would make the game more fun, but basically that means he wouldn’t get to talk to anybody. [laughs] And I thought, okay, yeah, that’s just too mean.
But then we did have technical problems a couple of times. Like the battery on the phone ran out on like take four. It was just something that happened that was a small technical problem and Pat did have to come up and read his lines in the room, and that changed the dynamic a lot.
Any question of how a person would be able to do this, I think distance is key. People would be more cowardly if they were to do that in real life. You know, to actually dress up as a cop and go in and tell everyone to do that kind of stuff — it’s a totally different dynamic. That’s not what this guy is doing at all. It just made everyone in the room feel weird. It made the cameraman feel weirder.
I had the headphones on and I could hear both sides of the phone call, so I knew what was happening. It was a pretty quiet set. You’re just listening to one-half of a phone call for most of the day if you’re the cameraman or the dolly grip or something like that. They’re just not hearing all of it. And the actors — Dreama is just watching Ann talk to somebody on the phone and having to ask, “What is he saying?” So the days when you could hear both sides of the conversation on set, it got under everybody’s skin. It was interesting.
Writing all of the stuff makes people do as the characters, how much of it was based on the actual case and how much did you have to invent?
Basically, the most outlandish stuff I got from the court records. The jumping jacks and stuff like that, that’s real.
Oh my god.
Yeah. There’s only conjecture about what he said to get people to follow him. The whole conversation with the Kevin character [Philip Ettinger] is completely made up. The only thing I know is that another guy went back there for a few minutes and then felt uncomfortable doing it and left. Stuff like that I sort of made up fully, and the way that he sort of operates I sort of made up, but when it comes to the spanking and the blow job — the weirder it is, the more likely it is that I was actually borrowing from the real thing. Like the jumping jacks and stuff.
I mean, yeah, that’s why the story stayed with me for so long. How did he convince them that doing jumping jacks was a good idea?!
If you were in a situation where things were getting so absurd, do you think you would be able to stop the situation or would you just go along with it?
My first reaction to the story was to think of when I worked on other people’s movies as a first assistant director. I worked on small New York movies and stuff like that; I was a first AD and a production manager on a bunch of them. There were definitely times and definitely movies and situations where I knew that we were not doing it right, or I knew it was a bad idea, and I didn’t stop the bad idea from going on because everyone had just bought into the fact we had to listen to this producer or that director. I know that’s very specific to moviemaking, but that’s just my background.
I recognized that I had been situations where I have done this before. I have had the sentiment of “This is a bad idea and I’m not saying ‘no.'” And that is weird. It’s weird to recognize that you have been that guy before. And to me, it’s only a small adjustment to imagine yourself in those situations. Maybe you haven’t done that. We’ve all seen enough Han Solo and Paul Newman movies in our lives that we all imagine we’re this anti-hero who’s going to kick ass, but that’s not realistic for most of the population.
I know that feeling. Without getting into it, I can think of myself in certain situations where I wanted to speak up and do something, but for some reason I just didn’t. It’s very strange.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, and that’s what hit me. “Wow, that feels like something I recognize.” And I recognize that this is not just a stupid person. That’s not somebody who’s just dumb and gullible that they’ll just do anything. I think that’s a different dynamic to me.
There’s mention in the production notes of outtakes. Did you have to keep things light outside of filming the very dark and depraved moments just to keep the mood okay on set? What was it like?
That just kind of happened, I think, because everyone just felt you can’t live in that universe for too long. Ultimately you all have to go sit at the lunch table and eat the fish and the salad with each other all day and you can’t constantly be brooding. [laughs]Or at least I can’t, you know. So, yeah, it was actually a pretty light set. The movie wasn’t a gigantic movie or anything and it wasn’t like we were just shooting one minute of the movie per day. We were kind of hauling ass. So it wasn’t an easy movie in certain ways, but it was a happy set to a degree, for what it was.
It’s funny. I tried all this stuff — it’ll go in the DVD maybe, then again, it might not even be appropriate to put it in a DVD for this movie. There was a lot of stuff with the cops at the end, specifically with the plain-clothes detective and the other cop at the end. They’d do these scenes and I’d say, “You know what…” and then we kind of did comedy versions of some of the scenes. And everybody on set was just like, “I don’t know if this is going to work or not.” But we were just trying something — “Let’s do it kind of funny.” I mean, Jim McCaffrey [the detective] is funny. Sometimes Jim and I would watch the videos [of the scenes] and just think, “Okay, yeah, that was a bad idea.”
I was worried that it would be so dark that you wouldn’t have any levity, and I wanted to bring some levity to the end of the movie, so I kept making them improv jokes [laughs].
[laughs] Are there any that stick out actually? Like any of the funny takes of the cop material that’s notable that you almost wish you put in?
There’s one that’s still in the movie that doesn’t necessarily play as funny, it just came out of us joking. It’s the line when the cop walks up and says, “What the f*ck do they put in the burgers?” [laughs] That kind of stuff was the tail end of one big, long monologue.
[laughs] That line does work, though, because it seems like in any situation that’s so absurd, you almost have to make light of it just to make sense of it.
Totally, right. And it’s totally a natural line. I’m sure someone [at the actual incident] said that on that day and that place. It’s just like saying, “What was everyone thinking?”
I know that this is going to be an uncomfortable movie to see at Sundance. There’s sort of a sense where you’re hoping to make the audience uncomfortable and make them squirm. Ideally, what do you hope the audience will feel when they’re watching the movie?
My hope is that people will walk out of the movie and will then talk about things like you said earlier: “I recognize times when I’ve done things where I should have said ‘No, we can’t go on with this’ but I did anyway.” And that just starts conversation. That’s really what I hope for most out of the movie. I’d like it to find a bigger audience, and I’d certainly like to–
You know, it’s funny. I don’t quite know what I expect. Either people will gasp or people might just hold their breath for the uncomfortable parts. Like you said, you kind of walk out [of the movie] and it just sort of rattles you for a while. I suppose any one of those is a completely legitimate reaction to it. But the main thing is that I’d like it to spark conversation and be a movie that people talk about and reflect on.
Are you planning your next project or all you just all about Compliance right now? Is there anything on the horizon you’re thinking about doing — any new challenges?
Theoretically I was going to be finished with my new screenplay before I got to Sundance, but I’ve had to do stuff for Compliance that has kind of slowed me up.
I’m writing a new thing. I had a blast going into the aspects of Compliance that kind of felt like a thriller, and just the directing of that — where you put the camera, how to edit it, that sort of stuff. It was a blast. I had so much fun that I’m writing a sort of straightforward thriller; less of a psychological drama/thriller than this is. So I’m excited about that. And then there are other projects that I already had going that I’d really like to get off the ground.
We’ll see. I’d like to make something later, in the fall this year. That’s my goal.
Do you still talk to The Brothers Chaps [the team behind Homestar Runner]? [When he was in college, Zobel worked with Mike Chapman on the original picture book that started Homestar Runner.]
I do. One of them is out in LA — Matt, who does all the voices. Mike is still in Atlanta right now. I’m an only child, and they’re both as close to me as I am to family. They’re like my brothers. I saw both of them at Christmas and saw their parents and stuff. They’re very close friends of mine.
Do you want to know what they’re up to? Matt and Mike directed a few episodes of the last season of Yo Gabba Gabba. And they’re working two new pilots: one in development at Nickelodeon and one in development at Disney. Both animated. So yeah, it’s really cool. I’m really excited for both of them.
Nice. Me and my college friends were really big Homestar geeks.
Yeah? That’s awesome. You know, they were sort of winding down with Homestar and they sort of took a year hiatus. Even though they haven’t done it a year and have been doing these other things, it’s great because the new stuff [they’re working on] is equally funny. It’s different characters, but it’s the same vibe. I can’t wait for them to start rocking out on some of this stuff. Look for it soon.
I guess my last question is for the thriller you’re working on now, do you think Pat Healy has a part in it?
I don’t know, I got to figure that out, right? [laughs] I’ve got to write the Pat Healy part. [laughs] Yeah, I’ve definitely thought about that — I have to get Pat in there somewhere. The good thing is with each movie… I’d like to work with Ann again too. I wrote her into the first scene of the movie. I’d like to work with all of them again. I’d like to work with Dreama, Phil I thought was great — Phil was the guy who plays Kevin. And Bill Camp, who plays Van, the fiancé — that guy is amazing. He was the first guy that came and auditioned for that part and I was just like, “Uh, okay — done!” [laughs] I would work with all these people again. They’re amazing.
When Bill gets back to that truck and just says “I did a bad thing,” I just felt “Oooh, that was well done.”
It’s interesting to bring up that line. I felt uncomfortable with it, like it was poorly written. I did know that the actual guy called someone and confessed or something. So I wrote the line and though, “Well, we’ll come up with something better when we actually do it. We won’t use the line that I wrote.” And I remember being out there in that parking lot. It was like 20 degrees, freezing cold. It was my first day working with Bill on set and I was like, “Do have something better? I understand that this is not a great line. Do you want me to come up with something a little less on the nose?” I asked if he wanted to riff a bit on the line and he said, “No, I think I should just say that line.” [laughs] And then he did it and I thought, “Oh, he’s amazing. That’s perfect.”
Actually, how did Bill feel about doing everything he had to do, like with the spanking and everything? He sort of treads this line between being hesitant but also entraining these dark thoughts to really want to do this.
I don’t want to give away what his read on the character was since it was so simple and amazing, but I think he felt that this was a guy who needed to be mothered by his girlfriend. I mean, he definitely has a f*cked up relationship with his girlfriend.
And [in the scene] when he asks her “Is it okay for me to be doing this,” and she says, “What do you mean, are you drunk?” He just kind of blames her for this situation and just decides to go into a dark place. And Bill made up a lot on that. Obviously that role is going to have specific things in it, but he brought a bunch to it. He hit those extra notes.
And we kept making him more and more bothered by what he’s doing. I think that was the difference from the script. When I was writing it as a screenplay, Van was maybe the least grey of all the characters. I was just like, “Well, that guy was just this pervy guy,” when I was writing or when I was studying the real story. As we started talking about, that wasn’t an acceptable enough explanation. That wouldn’t be very fun to play as an actor, to be truthful. I recognized it worked a lot better the more hesitant he was. You know, his character says “why” and “no” and “what do you mean” way more than I initially wrote in the screenplay.[pause] I’m talking your ear off, I’m sorry [laughs].
No, no, this is all great, because I was wondering how much was being created on set outside of the script. Like, how much are you riffing with your actors? It seems like they do have to create these motivations in order to justify being able to obey.
Yeah. Well, it’s weird. These guys were theater actors so the lines wouldn’t change in a lot of ways. There were times, like with Bill, where we added to the script. Like I suggested that when the voice on the phone told him to see the girl without her shirt on, Bill should ask him why. And Bill was like, “Yeah, totally.” We would just come up with that on set. I had something to that effect in the script, but when you’re writing a script, you write a scene that’s five pages long and it’s just too long. There’s an ability to grow something out of the script while we’re on the set, if that makes sense.
A lot of lines are from the script…Except for Pat. I wouldn’t tell Pat that we were going to have Bill say “why.” We’d do a take where Pat would say, “Now you have to do this thing,” and Bill would just say, “Why?” And then Pat would just have to say, “Uh… because–” and he’d just have to make something up right there. And that got super interesting, because that made us all think, “Okay, now that’s enough; that is enough justification for him to keep moving forward.” I told everybody don’t do anything until it makes sense to your character why to do it, until Pat rationalizes that… which probably drove Pat crazy, but was incredibly amusing to me [laughs].
So all of those moments where Pat stumbles are just him trying to create the justification to force people to do things then? In real time?!
Yeah, totally, and it was really fun, that whole part [laughs].
Was that something you had planned in the script initially?
I knew I was going to do that. When I talked to Pat, I just said, “Pat, be aware. You just need to come up with a vocabulary and a way of talking.” That was my main thing with Pat. “Be aware that I’m gong to throw things at you and make you frustrated. [laughs] That is going to be what I’m going to do.”
And that was why it was great that it was Pat, you know, because he’s an old friend. I can’t imagine doing that with someone I didn’t know at all, and then them being like, “Who is this a**hole director?” [laughs] But it was good with him.