The interview you're about to read was conducted during the SXSW Film Festival back in March, the day after I saw the film COMPLIANCE for the first time and experience a Q&A with writer-director Craig Zobel that I will frankly never forget. COMPLIANCE is a film that demands extensive discussion after viewing. And if you come out of seeing it with the opinion that you simply "liked it" or "hated it," you weren't really paying attention.
Although I didn't interview Zobel again when he came to Chicago last week to do a Q&A with me and a certified psychologist after a screening of COMPLIANCE, I can't remember a post-film discussion that went quite like this one. First off, the completely full house lost about 20 viewers during the course of the film, a couple of them not so quietly. But more importantly, of those that stayed until the end, almost nobody left before the Q&A got started. Even the representative from Magnolia who was traveling with Craig made mention that she'd never seen that many people stay for a Q&A after this particular film.
COMPLIANCE has had a long road since its premiere at Sundance in January, followed by an explosive Q&A. Although the plot itself is not based on one particular instance, Zobel has taken a few elements from different similar occurrences (more than likely perpetrated by the same caller) whereby a man (in the film that man is played by the phenomenal Pat Healy from THE INKEEPERS) calls a fast food restaurant pretending to be a police officer and systematically gets various employees to do awful things to each other (usually involving/culminating with some type of sexual assault). People who leave the film tend to do so because they don't think the story is believable. I wish they were right. In fact, Zobel has given us a mild example of some of the things that did occur.
I think one of the reasons COMPLIANCE upsets so many people is that they think they would never fall for something like this, but somewhere deep inside, they're afraid they might. And it's impossible not to wonder if you would fall for a voice on the phone, or would you allow such things to be done to you because said voice was pretending to be an authority figure. In a way, the film dares you to watch it, but I think you'll come out the other side a wiser person with a clearer sense of the wicked ways of the world. It's a sad but necessary lesson. And with that, please enjoy my conversation with Craig Zobel, which could have easily gone on two or three times longer, but we cover a lot of ground…
Capone: Congratulations on this disturbing masterpiece.
Craig Zobel: Thank you very much, man.
Capone: I know Pat Healy a little bit; he used to live in Chicago, which is where I’m from. He was just there like a month or so, maybe it was two months ago when THE INNKEEPERS opened there, and we were playing poker and he could not stop talking about this movie.
CZ: That’s awesome.
Capone: So I made sure to send him a note about this yesterday after I saw this.
CZ: You said: “You’re creepy and weird.”
Capone: I know, it was a big stretch for him. I think the one question that no one asked during the Q&A, but afterwards I heard a lot of people asking it amongst themselves was, in real life, did things go as far as they go in this movie?
CZ: That’s a great question. I need to start saying that at Q&As. Yes. This was one of the softer ones. Some of them are like ones where it gets into some really gross territory.
Capone: Well, it is gross territory.
CZ: Yeah, but like worse in a way where it’s like two men both inspecting a woman. I picked one that’s actually more about the power dynamic than about the assault dynamic.
Capone: The power of dynamic material--like the strip searching and the inspection--that seems easier to believe. But when you start getting into the spanking and beyond that…
CZ: There’s like multiple blow-job accounts. There’s one where you can’t even make a movie out of it--it was a younger female manager and a male employee, and she was talked into talking him into stripping down and strip searching him, and then somehow the cop talked her into stripping nude too. Things like that, I don’t even understand.
Capone: That’s what I think is the most fascinating thing. You're giving us something that in the real world we don’t have, which is that voice on the other end of the phone. You said last night there are no recordings of this guy, but you're providing this voice. A lot of it has to do with Pat's performance, but it has to start with the writing. How did you decide what personality traits to give this guy?
CZ: That’s a good question. I guess I had just assumed that whoever that guy was was probably pretty good at that crazy dynamic of being able to be very complimentary and ingratiating and then assert authority and say, “Now you need to do this,” and then go back to soothing. It’s a sales technique really. It’s like if you read books on how to sell better or those business model books, they would teach you that technique, and so I was thinking about that. For Pat’s performance, I sent him a box set of "Cops," and you watch "Cops," and they're like [in a calm voice] “Okay, man…” They’ll be really nice to you, and then they'll say something really mean and then be really nice to you. He had to be toying with people in a more emotional way than in a logic way.
Capone: But he also has the lingo down and the rhythms of a police officer's speech pattern, which we all think we know from watching TV cops interrogate people. So if he can match what our expectations are, that's a lot of it.
CZ: Right. Exactly, yeah.
Capone: I was thinking, “If he actually called a woman or a manager who was married to a cop he might not have gotten away with it.”
CZ: I also thought about that like I imagine that the person or people who did these calls--and like I said there’s some evidence to maybe think that it was one person--but those people probably struck out like nine times before they got it right., which is weird. I’m sure that they probably made a ton of these calls, but we’ve only heard of 70 of them, you know?
Capone: Yeah. I like when the victims push back, not so much with the girl in this case, but the managers. There are little veiled threats. There was one in particular where he makes sort of a threat…
CZ: “Have you been drinking tonight?”
Capone: That’s what it was, yeah. Then also the level of patience, because you said last night these things went on sometimes for four or five hours. That is a patient guy, because he knows he can’t go too fast or it won't work, and that’s what I can’t wrap my head around.
CZ: Can I blow your mind?
CZ: There is really, really strong evidence that points toward the fact that the guy or guys who did this in real life did them all from payphones and not houses, which blows my mind. It’s like “Wow, you can stand at a payphone for four hours and talk about all of this weird stuff with people walking by?” That was a big thing that I wanted to change, just because I was like, “That does not sound believable.”
Capone: And you have an alternative explanation as to why they never could trace the calls. Something else that I talked about with some people afterwards was at the beginning of the film, you do two things. Even before the calls happen, you set up Becky [the victim played by Dreama Walker] as being promiscuous. And you set up Sandra [the manager, played by Anne Dowd] as feeling competitive with Becky when it came to their sexuality. That whole conversation between the three women where Becky is texting and she’s says she's dating three guys, and then the manager tries to match her with her little sex talk. Why did you set it up that way?
CZ: In thinking about like how to tell a story, there’s definitely the element of “I could do whatever I want.” You could make it be a male manager and a female employee. I think it’s a story about people’s response to authority first, but I also think that there are gender politics in there too, and I think that it would be important that it be a girl victim. There are all of those stories of people dressing like cops and pulling you over, so if it were a male manager, I think that quickly everybody would roll their eyes and immediately go towards some sexualized place that I didn’t want us to go to right there because it helps the dynamic be about power instead of about gender at first.
I think I probably leaned on some things that are maybe somewhat stereotypical in setting up that scene. I did that with thought in the sense that I at least wanted everybody to go and be able to say, “Okay, they have these conflicts that might come off slightly like something I’ve seen before. But at least I understand the dynamic is supposed to be between them, so that that’s where the conflict is coming from.
Capone: The competitiveness between the two women?
CZ: In my writing of it, there had to be some… My thought and Ann Dowd’s thoughts are different on that, actually. I’m on her team now. I actually think that her way of thiking is better than what I originally thought. I originally was like, “She’s probably this person who is somewhat frustrated that she’s a manager at her age and sees this person who has everything that she doesn’t have any more.” I was thinking about age and that dynamic a little bit more than Ann is. Ann’s perspective on it was like, “You're basically in a weird teacher space where you are dealing with kids all of the time, and teachers want their kids’ approval, but they also feel like they are having to do things for them” That was her read on what that was.
Capone: Ann Dowd has obviously been around a long time. She’s been in dozens of movies and TV shows over the years. I remember her from going back to "Freaks and Geeks," she was in a couple of episodes there. But she’s also worked with Clint Eastwood, Sidney Lumet, and Sodebergh, but she’s so good in this. How did you decide on her?
CZ: There were a couple of people that I was really curious about, and we were just holding open auditions truly. But she was in a play with Ethan Hawke called "Blood from a Stone" at the time that I was casting where she plays Ethan Hawke’s mom. It was an emotionally raw place, a real rough play, and she has a very cool part in it. And David Gordon Green [an executive producer on the film] saw it and was like, “You should probably see that play” and I went and saw it and was like, “We have to see if she’s interested.”
She came in and she read, and at the time the play would have conflicted with the movie, but when she came in and read I was so excited. I was like, “What is your opinion of the script?” I was like, “Do you want to do this? Is this an area of the universe that you even want to explore?” because it’s a contentious movie. And she was like, “I’m interested in you if you’re interested in me.” [Laughs] So yeah, we made it work and we pushed the shoot to make sure that she could do it.
Capone: Did I hear this right, that when it played at Sundance, there was an interesting Q&A?
CZ: Oh yeah. Most definitely, yeah.
Capone: What happened exactly?
CZ: Well, it was really the first screening, and at the first screening I think a lot of people didn’t know what the movie was at all. So people saw the film and two different people spoke up even before I got down to start the Q&A. One woman was very upset by it and felt that it was… I don’t want to put words in her mouth or anything, but she was upset. Her basic point was “rape shouldn’t be entertainment,” which to me, I agree. I'm actually trying to make a story about this; I’m not doing it because I’m not thinking about it. Do you know what I mean? I am actually trying to have that conversation, but the film can be pretty upsetting. I think she was just very upset by the movie. She didn’t want to have a conversation about it, she was just going to yell at me and leave. Then people who responded favorably to the movie were disagreeing with her in the audience, and another guy started yelling at them and said some things.
Capone: Wow. Well at least you engaged people and got them talking. When Pat was telling us about this movie, I said to him, “Wow, that sounds a lot like the Milgram experiments that I learned about in college.” I hadn’t heard of these phone call incidences before, but I had seen those tapes of those people being told to shock somebody, and they're sweating and getting so anxious about what they are doing, but the one thing they are not doing is stopping. I remember that so vividly and finding it so hard to believe that that would happen today, but of course that’s exactly what happened.
CZ: I’m glad that you recognized that quickly.
Capone: Craig, it’s great to meet you.
CZ: Thanks for your questions. They were really great.