Sundance 2012: Five Questions with Director Craig Zobel


[From Jan. 19 to 29, Flixist will be bringing you live coverage, from Park City, Utah, of Sundance Film Festival 2012. Keep an eye out for news, features, videos, and reviews of some of the most anticipated films to hit the festival circuit in 2012.]

Craig Zobel’s Compliance caused a stir at Sundance over the weekend. After its premiere on Saturday the 21st, there were reports of upset audience members and an angry, testy Q&A after the film. In a lot of ways, it’s a testament to what Zobel and his cast and crew have made: an uncomfortable film that burrows under your skin.

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.

We had a good long conversation together about making the film and the nature of obedience. Here are just five questions from the first half of our conversation (a baker’s five if you count one of the follow-ups and our back and forth). We’ll post the full interview in the near future, and look out for our review of Compliance tomorrow morning.

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 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.

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 [Healy] 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 [Dowd] 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.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.