The Sundance Film Festival has always included provocative films in its programming, as much to challenge attendees’ expectations as to introduce to the world new, visionary filmmakers who aren’t afraid to take risks. In 2012, the film that has caused the most controversy is “Compliance,” Craig Zobel’s fictionalization of a string of incidents in which a caller posed as a police officer asks a restaurant manager to detain an employee, kicking off a string of events that lead to the sexual assault of a young woman (our review here). Undoubtedly as much because of their ignorance of what they were walking into as the moral ambiguity of the content itself, audience members were shocked by the film at its first screening, and questioned Zobel and his cast at the accompanying Q&A about why they made it. And although attendees were better prepared to watch it at a second screening days later, they responded to its story with a mix of admiration and outrage, prompting another contentious, but much more respectful discussion of its ambitions and its impact.
The following morning, The Playlist caught up with Zobel to talk about “Compliance,” and the filmmaker was eager to discuss the process of developing this controversial story. In addition to acknowledging the legitimacy of some viewers’ criticisms, he offered a few observations about choices he made even he wasn’t entirely pleased with, and finally made suggestions about what he thinks people might take away from the film, should they choose to look more deeply at what’s happening within its unsettling story.
Where do you have to draw the line between depicting what happens in the film in an honest way, and protecting the film from criticisms of being exploitative?
I think that is an incredibly valid criticism. I think there is sort of an exploitative aspect, because quite simply it’s about someone being exploited, to be honest. Like, it’s about that. So that’s fair, but I tried as much as I could to not go in a direction where I could be accused of not having thought about what it was. I was really upset when I heard that people were comparing it to “The Woman” [Lucky McKee‘s horror film that caused controversy last year at Sundance and spawned a viral video of an audience member leaving the screening] because I feel that it’s an opposite type of movie. I feel like that movie sort of makes an exploitation movie and then retroactively had some people talking about that movie being feminist. And that was a spin put onto that movie afterwards, that was not built into the intent of it, or I did not see that intent in that movie. And I guess if you find my film to be exploitative, then either you and I come from a different moral place, or my sensitivities are different. I wanted to make a movie about acts that were exploitative and still be confident comforting that I felt okay with what I was portraying. And I do feel okay with what’s up there, but it’s a hard thing to talk about.
Absolutely – it’s like the difference between the rape scene in “Irreversible,” which is purposefully making the audience complicit by watching it, and maybe “Human Centipede 2,” where it’s just antagonizing the audience.
Those are really useful movies to use as an example, although I was playing to [Michael] Haneke a lot more than I was playing to Gaspar Noe. I mean, I think his films have a degree of coldness to them, but he is very thoughtful in his intent, more so than like “The Human Centipede” guy.
“Funny Games” was a movie I immediately thought of when I watched this movie, although it’s more deliberately artificial while “Compliance” is pretty realistic.
Actually, you kind of bring up something I forgot: My initial instinct was that this was a good play, but then I was kind of like, I don’t know how to do it as a play, and I felt that it needed to have more realism than that.
How much did you want to examine the mentality of all of these people, including the Officer Daniels character, the perpetrator?
Absolutely. I wanted to be really specific, especially with Becky, the character of Sandra, the caller, Van, the boyfriend, and even to a certain degree Kevin and Marty, the two other people that are tangentially involved. I found that for those big four, they all had very different, yet completely interesting playable roles, where these things are almost archetypal in the way that people react. So I did think about that, and I have to say a lot of the work that was done with me and Ann Dowd and me and Dreama Walker, there was stuff in the screenplay for that already. And a lot of the stuff involved with the caller was maybe me sort of imagining him as a salesperson. I mean, I think he was probably a lot different then what the real caller was, but to me it was less fascinating to take it to a place where he was like a perverted masturbator. But since the guy wasn’t seeing anything that was going on and didn’t even know who the people were, I saw him as this person who was just getting off on playing this weird video game in his head with how good he was and how well he could talk anyone into doing whatever he wanted them to do. But I’m sure inside of that guy’s mind, it’s like, what’s the big deal — I was just making a phone call. I think he was rationalizing the hell out of it, like, they should have hung up, or they were too dumb –- if they weren’t too dumb, they would have hung up, so that’s their problem. And then I think there’s probably this weird rationalization. But it’s an interesting case, and interesting behavior.
But the first one that I didn’t think that I wrote very well, and that came out in directing the movie, and making of the movie, was the boyfriend character. I never had a whole lot of interesting stuff for that character, because I just assumed, well, clearly, that guy at some point knew it was wrong, but just wanted to sleep with someone, and the screenplay for it reads like that. And it’s like one of those things that you don’t want to say, but I actually did have more sympathy or empathy, understanding with what was going on with the caller than I did with the guy in the room who just was like, “Okay, I’m going to sexually assault this girl.” But when I cast Bill Camp, that guy taught me so much. I mean, he just couldn’t act that out — like he didn’t know how to say that, and that didn’t make sense. And so he kind of pushed me and I pushed him back, and there’s a lot of stuff in the film where asks why? Why should I do that? Which he would just ask me that, and I would be like, on the next take, I wouldn’t tell Pat [Healy] on the other side of the phone call, I’d just say, on the next take, ask Pat, and I kind forced Pat to do it. And I actually think that he brought a lot of empathy to that character, which is weird, and make me understand that person, and make that character just as interesting as the other three. I even remember saying to someone at some point, that of the four main people that interact in the story, his motives are really obvious and thin. I just thought it was sort of a necessary plot device, and I look to you guys to interpret what it was, but for me it works. I feel gross because I feel a sense of sympathy for that guy, you know? [laughs]
At the screening you said at the end you didn’t want one of the characters to get away with her behavior, but the rest of it seems as if it’s being portrayed more objectively than that.
Thank you for that. I was so excited for somebody to ask me that question, because I think the point of the movie was to be non-judgmental about the whole thing, and then at the end I felt that in order to truly make something up, it’s not journalism. [The moviegoer at the Q&A suggested that the film felt like a piece of journalism.] But ultimately I don’t approve of it. I have extreme sympathy for Ann’s character, but I don’t agree with it. I do think that what that end is isn’t a harsh condemnation, but he was describing it as demonizing, which I went with kind of because it was a Q&A and it was easier than kind of talking about in even more depth. But she sort of did it to herself; the rest of her life is going to be defined by that.
Do you look at the behavior in the film as a whole judgmentally? Because that decision at the end gives the film a slightly different tone, since the rest of it was more dispassionately observed.
I guess what I can say to that is, I don’t need people to see that to have the movie work in some ways, but I think that’s what I meant to do – that sounds right. That scene was kind of how I was feeling about all of the things [that happened before then]. I mean, it was in a lot of ways an experiment. I didn’t quite know what I felt. I made the movie because I didn’t quite know what I felt. And Ann and I very quickly jumped into that last scene, and we knew exactly what we wanted to do there.
If it was an experiment, what then was sort of your central thesis? And even if you didn’t know what the conclusion of that might be, what do you want audiences to take away from the experience of watching this film?
I think that going into it and sort of making the movie, obviously my goal was that people can take different things from it. It wasn’t meant to be like one of those more recent Godard movies where it’s kind of yelling at the audience and telling them specifically the one thing you want them to know [laughs]. I would hope some people would think one thing, and some people would be like, no, it’s [something else]. I would be happy for it to have multiple interpretations. So the only way I can answer that question is to say that my thesis going into the movie was that I feel like people rationalize doing things that they know are not right, that they have done. I think that people rationalize behavior that they know is not right all of the time; I think that is one of the more human traits that I have seen, and I think it’s one that it doesn’t get talked about very often. I feel like this was variations on how you do that, different ways that you can do that. This is a lot of different ways to rationalize doing something that you know you shouldn’t be doing. Because I think very few people in the world think of themselves as a bad guy; only psychotic people think of themselves as a bad guy and they’re okay with that. I think everybody tells themselves that they’re not a bad person. And yet, there’s all of this bad stuff that happens in the world. So how does that happen?
“Compliance” has its last screening today at the Sundance Film Festival.