Craig Zobel’s having a very unique Sundance year. In 2007, the North Carolina School of the Arts graduate premiered his directorial debut, “Great World of Sound,” at the festival to great acclaim. That movie, about a music industry scam, established Zobel — co-founder of popular web series “Homestarrunner” and a longtime collaborator of fellow NCSA alum David Gordon Green — as a director to watch. His success continued on the festival circuit and culminated with a Breakthrough Director award at the Gothams.
Four years and several botched projects later, Zobel is back at Sundance in a very different place. “Compliance,” his sophomore feature, follows the sensationalistic story of a fast-food restaurant manager who receives a call from a man claiming to be a police officer. Through a strange process of manipulation, the caller convinces staffers to place a co-worker accused of theft in quarantine, strip-search her and commit other invasive procedures that culminate with sexual assault. Zobel based the film on a real-life incident, but that didn’t seem to quell the audience at its premiere over the weekend, when several people accused Zobel of misogyny during the Q&A while others spoke out in his defense.
A few days later, Zobel sat down with Indiewire to unpack the startling experience and look back on the events leading up to his Sundance return.
Did you expect “Compliance” to have such a strong effect on audiences?
I mean, it’s difficult for me to watch it. I knew that I made a movie that not everybody was going to like. But I wasn’t trying to make a controversial movie, at least not in that way. I’m hesitant to say this because I don’t it to sound like it’s coming from a place of any sort of hubris, but it’s a movie that definitely affects people very strongly and I think some people weren’t ready for that. I got the sense that the people who reacted the way they did were ready to do that way early in the screening and were waiting until it was over to yell at me.
The whole movie makes you wonder how this could actually happen, so the viewing experience is active rather than passive, which may upset people.
Well put. I had a really visceral reaction to the story. I want to make plain that the stuff that seems the most absurd — the jumping jacks, the spanking, the blowjob, and even some of the lines that are hard to hear — those are from the court records I read. They made me both unable to stop thinking about it and wonder how everyone could be cool with that. It’s up for others to say whether or not it works on the level of how people did this, but it scared the shit out of me as a thing to direct. I figured I should make something that scares me.
David Gordon Green is an executive producer on the project. What was his reaction when you shared your idea for the film?
We were actually at the 10-year anniversary of “George Washington” last year, when they screened the movie and all the kids from the film came. We hung out for that. I remember walking around Winston-Salem and explaining the plot. It wasn’t a movie, but I was explaining how I could see it as a movie. I said, “It makes me super uncomfortable…I don’t know what it would be.” And he was like, “Good. You should totally make that next.”
Were you influenced at all by attending the Sundance Screenwriters Lab?
I went to the lab with a script for the movie “Canary,” which is still just a writing project, but the lab is what helped me understand this movie. That project had a thousand characters and a complicated structure. I was kind of encouraged to pursue something that had a simple structure and used genre.
“Compliance” is actually a more extreme expression of the ideas you first explored in “Great World of Sound.” You’re officially a chronicler of American con jobs now.
It’s funny. There’s a script I wrote I’m excited to get off the ground that’s based on a Wired magazine article about a con artist. It took other people to point that out to me, including Pat Healy [star of “Compliance” and “Great World of Sound”]. I didn’t recognize that.
It took you four years to get back to Sundance with your second feature. What accounts for that period of time?
It’s weird. I wrote this in September of 2010 and then we were shooting it in February. That’s short, especially compared to my other projects.
Who financed it?
Multiple people who mostly had experience with movie financing before and saw this as something that had some commercial value. Like, if I fucked it up really bad, I would make an exploitation movie they could sell. If I did it right, it would be a different type of conversation. A bad version of this still has some marketability.
Do you think you met their standards for a good version of this movie?
Well, I don’t think it’s an exploitation movie. It is a psychological thriller, though. I also wanted it to be really short. It’s interesting that there has been this meta conversation about the screening. I didn’t want to walk away saying that this was a misogynistic movie like “The Woman.” This movie is not like “The Woman.” But that’s exactly what those people were talking about. I saw a couple of people say things like that, and it bothered me, because it’s not quite accurate to what the experience in that room was. People yelled and then other people yelled back at them. It was kind of awesome; we could’ve not been there and the conversation would have happened anyway. For the next screening, we’ve hired people to come yell for us… no, I have not done that. (laughs)
A lot of people talk about the challenge of a filmmaker who makes a likable debut feature and then hits a sophomore slump, but the divisive nature of this movie makes it seem like you’ve avoided at least that much.
I haven’t said this to anybody in an interview. After I made “Great World of Sound,” and it did whatever it did–not financial success, but I felt like all I needed to do with my life was make this movie, and I did. Then after that, all it needed to do was go to Sundance, and then get bought at Sundance, and then get favorably seen by the outside world. I had been structuring my identity around all these things and then I woke up and wasn’t happy still. It was a very weird recognition to have. I read something Jay Duplass said, a very similar experience he had after making “The Puffy Chair.” I turned around and had to realize that I was responsible for making myself happy; it wasn’t going to be a thing I was going to turn around and chase. It took a while to process that. When people don’t do that, they make their sophomore slump. This movie was interesting to me for artistic reasons that have nothing to do with whatever the rest of my career is. I just wanted to make it. Whatever happened to it is whatever happens to it. I feel like I would’ve had a less healthy time if some of the things I was trying to put together came together when they did. I just wasn’t ready to do that.
For example, if you had been able to film your screenplay for “Turkey in the Straw” with Paul Rudd…
Yeah. I’m not sure if that would’ve been a good movie. With “Compliance,” I was terrified of doing it, and then I realized that’s a much better reason to make a movie than wanting people to like me. It’s more interesting this way. That was not something that just came to me. It took a second to realize it.
Your trajectory is structured around that typical Sundance narrative: You were “discovered” at the festival, written about as a breakout talent, won some awards.
I wasn’t able to translate that into a way I could hang out on a day-to-day basis and feel comfortable, trying to do something new with a movie and have a degree of risk, stay on your game and concentrate. Making this movie has been very freeing to me. I’m excited to keep going now. I don’t know if I’m always going to make the darkest movie that’s bound to cause controversy at Sundance.