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Craig Zobel: Eliciting “COMPLIANCE”

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Making its DVD and Blu-ray debut today from Magnolia Home Entertainment, COMPLIANCE is a psychological thriller that spins a fact-based story into a skin-crawlingly disturbing exploration of human behavior. It’s a remarkable achievement for writer/director Craig Zobel, who discusses the movie with FANGORIA in this exclusive interview.

Inspired by a series of cases that took place across the U.S. in the 1990s and early 2000s, COMPLIANCE takes place at a suburban ChickWich restaurant, where supervisor Sandra (Ann Dowd) receives a phone call from a man (THE INNKEEPERS’ Pat Healy) posing as a cop. Calling himself “Officer Daniels,” he informs Sandra that teenaged cashier Becky (Dreama Walker) has been accused of stealing by a customer, and asks if Sandra could please interrogate the girl…and then strip-search her when Becky insists she doesn’t have the stolen money…and things get darker and more perverse from there (see review here). It’s a story that has outraged audiences, and will have you questioning your own views on dealing with the law…

FANGORIA: Did you ever have any experiences with the authorities that influenced the writing of COMPLIANCE?

CRAIG ZOBEL: That’s a good question. I don’t know how unique this is, but I don’t have any particular affection for any experience I’ve had with police. I definitely thought about the fact that we sort of have this—not to be highfalutin—social contract where we’re like, “OK, these people are here to protect us,” and you assume they’re not going to do anything illegal, because that wouldn’t fit. A better way to say it would be, I’ve certainly been pulled over by the police before, and one time it was because my taillight was out and I didn’t know. I was like, “I’m not speeding!” I was incredibly defensive—that was my natural instinct in that situation, which was frustrating. I certainly knew I wasn’t committing a crime at the time—why was I defensive [laughs]?

I believe we give power to the police automatically. And that’s not a bad thing; they wouldn’t be able to do their job unless we did that. But it certainly also means that there’s some accountability, for us to believe they’re not going to abuse the power. There’s been a lot of activity in the lower courts about videotaping the police and what the rules are on that. It has become a big civil-liberties case. Police don’t want you to videotape them, but it’s become an issue that that should be allowed in order to make sure honest things happen. I definitely thought about that a lot.

FANG: How much do you consider COMPLIANCE a horror/thriller genre film, and how far did you steer it in that direction?

ZOBEL: My goal was that the movie should be like a study, as if I was an alien who came to this planet and saw this weird situation: “Why is this happening?” I tried to be incredibly objective about how it happened. But I found that in conceiving, shooting and editing the film, it became important that it not feel only like an intellectual exercise, but play on the unsettled feeling you get when you think about those cases. Those stories bothered me, and I felt it was a viable and important thing to root it in that feeling. And in that sense, I definitely leaned on the psychological-thriller elements. Certainly, my background of watching genre movies of various types popped up, and it was really enjoyable to exercise that muscle—to explore this intellectual idea, but also figure out how to move the camera and edit and use sound in order to get the audience to pay attention to certain things.

FANG: The movie seems to be especially inspired by one particular prank-call case in Kentucky. How much did you study that, and how much did you bring in elements of other incidents while you were writing?

ZOBEL: There are similarities to a bunch of different events. Like, [making Becky] run in place or do jumping jacks came up in multiple documented court cases. So I looked at a bunch of these and started to process in my mind what would’ve had to happen in order to get from point A to point B, and for it to happen multiple times. For me, it’s significant that it occurred so many times.

FANG: How did you go about casting the lead roles, which required very specific types of people?

ZOBEL: Obviously, having the screenplay be as clear as possible was the first step, and then it became a two-part thing. I knew I didn’t want to use actors who would completely take you out of the story. It couldn’t be people you wouldn’t buy working in a fast-food restaurant. It was important to me that that work. Also, having actors with a similar fascination with the subject matter was important to me. So all of the casting involved questions like, “Are you curious about this?” or “What are your thoughts on these stories?” That was the first conversation we had.

Ultimately, it worked in the sense that you see these people processing things beat by beat, trying to rationalize how they can be in the situation they find themselves in, which required actors who were fascinated with that part of humanity.

FANG: The actress playing Becky was required to be put in some very uncomfortable situations. Was it difficult to find someone up to that task, and how did you work with Dreama Walker to get through those difficult moments?

ZOBEL: That’s a good question. As far as finding the actress, it was just like, they didn’t come into the room if they didn’t know what the job was, you know what I mean? People weren’t going to audition for the movie if they weren’t comfortable with the subject matter. And it was important to me to feel that Dreama Walker was very involved in how we portrayed those events. We had a lot of discussions; everything was talked over before we got into those situations.

Closed sets with nudity are always uncomfortable, even if it’s supposed to be a scene where they’re willingly in love—in some ways, I feel like this was, at least, more honest. It was not about having to be in an uncomfortable situation and pretend like it’s totally cool, so she could use that. And she wasn’t nude very much on set. There was a lot of planning the shots, which she was intrinsically involved in. Being able to have those conversations with her, as well as Ann and Bill, helped me feel more confident about how we were portraying it.

FANG: One of the key decisions, I would imagine, was how much to show of the caller, and when. What led to the decision to reveal him as more than just a voice on the phone?

ZOBEL: There were people close to the movie—very good friends of mine—who were, even up until editing, saying that it would be interesting to never see the caller. That was a decision I constantly wrestled with. And the reason I didn’t want to do that was, it didn’t feel like it would be as interesting to play with the audience’s expectation of whether the guy is a cop or not. I felt like that ultimately would be frustrating. At the end of the day, the audience would have been like, “Come on, that’s not a cop.” I wanted to do something that would take that off the table, and decided to show him. And we specifically shot it with two cameras running [on the caller and the other characters] at the same time, because I knew I wanted the phone calls to be live.

FANG: So all the phone conversations were shot live?

ZOBEL: Yeah. And once that was decided, I was like, why don’t we just shoot the caller’s side while we shot the other side, so we would save time and money? This kind of infuriated my producers to a degree, because it was much more logistically complicated, but it was great. We built two sets. Except for the very initial scene, for every other one I had footage of both sides. We could’ve cut to [the caller] at any point, but I picked the place I did for specific reasons—and without spoiling where it is, it was the time when I wanted to take off the table whether he was a real cop or not. It’s a place where a new person comes into the situation, and I felt like that person could have reacted the same way the audience would, like, “What?!” [Laughs]

FANG: One of the most striking things about your treatment of the caller is the way he’s kind of humanized, in those moments when you see him amused and surprised by how far he’s able to push things.

ZOBEL: Absolutely. That was a constant conversation between me and Pat Healy, reminding him every day, “Remember: The stakes are really low for you. The worst that can happen is that they’ll hang up.” Which was true for that person in the real-life situation. It’s almost like a video game, where he’s trying to get to the next level. That was also in part because it could have been a difficult role to play if he didn’t have some sort of rationalization, like, “They can hang up anytime they want! I didn’t do anything!”

FANG: Did you cast Healy for his voice first, or for the overall performance? Because the voice is the performance for the first third of the film.

ZOBEL: I definitely thought about that for a long time. It was one of those funny things where, with the casting director, we talked about, “Who sounds like a cop?” I started watching Cops—that’s all I was doing for research, watching episodes of Cops [laughs]—and I started to realize that they don’t sound like anybody. It’s a tone of voice and a speech pattern; it’s always saying “Sir” and “Ma’am” a lot, and trying to be as dead-flat in your delivery as possible. We didn’t want to cast a Dirty Harry-sounding voice. To me, that would’ve been hokey. Does he play as a cop to you?

FANG: He does, yeah. He’s very by-the-book, which is what makes it work.

ZOBEL: Right, and having the asides and saying, “Let me explain to you…” It’s kind of this weird sales pitch. That’s why it was fun to write him as a telemarketer, because I felt that specific job is one where you learn to keep people on the phone.

FANG: Did you intend to convey a message with this film about people and the way they behave, or were you just interested in telling a straight dramatic story?

ZOBEL: It’s very hard to talk about a movie like this and not think about the moral implications, yet it’s also very grey as to what those moral implications are. To be fair, I absolutely have my own thoughts on that; it’s very hard to explore this without bringing your own morals into it. I guess I walked away from the experience of making it with the feeling that our morals are delicate instruments, which other people can cause to be inaccurate at times. Your choices of what’s right and wrong can be influenced sometimes by other people. A certain amount of doubt is a valid and acceptable thing, and it should be culturally accepted, quite honestly. In the end, the movie is about being confronted with a life choice that can make you fall apart and have catharsis and then build yourself back up, or burrow down and defend your decisions. People can make one of two choices when they’re in that type of situation.

FANG: It’s almost too much to believe that people actually did the things they were told to do by the caller in real life, so how did you got around that plausibility issue in writing and directing the movie?

ZOBEL: It’s interesting [laughs]—I don’t know if I 100 percent succeeded in solving that problem for everybody in the audience, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to satisfy everyone’s questions. I tried to cut to the quick of the kind of decisions I recognized as being very human—protecting yourself from this or that. Your job being on the line can be an incredibly powerful motivator for a lot of bad decision-making, especially these days. Obviously, I had the real accounts, and I could’ve made the most perfect version of this with a very, very long movie [laughs], because in real life those events happened in four or five hours. In real life, the way these things happen and the way they can become, frankly, as absurd as they do in the movie, has to do with the amount of time. It’s about nudging people slowly over a long period, and it would’ve been excruciating to watch a four-hour film of that.

So I had to make some decisions and narratively cut to the chase on certain things, and I hope I picked things that make people think, “Yeah, I can see how if you were going to lose your job…” I didn’t want to lean only on the “Inspired by true events” aspect, although at the same time, I think it makes the story so much more human that there is that element.

For more on Zobel and COMPLIANCE, check out FANGORIA #316.

About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.
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