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BAMcinemaFest: Craig Zobel Talks Conversation-Starting True-Crime Tale ‘Compliance’

BAMcinemaFest: Craig Zobel Talks Conversation-Starting True-Crime Tale 'Compliance'

As many festivalgoers know, attending a film festival can be both an exhausting and rewarding experience. Fortunately for those NYC-ers who don’t have the stamina to attend Sundance, Cannes or SXSW, BAM has culled some of the best of those lineups and selected a few dozen favorites, which are now playing during BAMcinemaFest. One of the films that we caught at Sundance that hasn’t eased it grip is Craig Zobel’s “Compliance.” The film follows a fast-food employee (Dreama Walker) who is accused of theft and repeatedly subjected to demoralizing acts by her overworked supervisor (Ann Dowd), all at the behest of an authoritarian phone caller. The film made waves at its Sundance premiere because of a few shaken audience members who, during the post-screening Q&A, asked why the filmmaker had even made the film in the first place. Which is pretty powerful stuff considering the film contains no onscreen acts of violence whatsoever. The Playlist spoke to Zobel about “Compliance” back in January and recently got another chance to chat with the filmmaker in advance of the screening this Friday at BAM. After the screening, he’ll appear for a Q&A along with cast members Ann Dowd, Bill Camp, and Ashlie Atkinson, and if previous screenings are any indication, audiences will be eager to talk about it afterwards. Zobel spoke to us at length about his hesitation to take on the story and the varying audience reactions on the festival circuit. Some director-approved spoilers follow.

I was trying to explain the movie to some friends the other day and having kind of a hard time explaining what it’s about without feeling like I was giving too much away. So how would you describe the movie to someone who hadn’t heard of it?
I’d give it away.

That’s what I ended up doing too. But initially I wasn’t sure if giving away the conceit would impair the experience.
Right. I struggle with that too and my producers really struggled with it. They all thought it was important that [the caller’s identity] not be something you know right away. I find it hard to talk about it. What’s stressing about it is relieving someone’s question that, yes, it’s not real. Like, I recognize that it sounds preposterous, and yes you’re smart enough in your analysis of the story I’m telling to assume that it is a prank phone call. That also came down to the decision why I let you see that after in the movie.

I could’ve done the “Phone Booth” thing where you never see the guys and it’s just a voice and you never see his face. And I’m like, “That’s not what’s interesting to me about it.” What’s interesting to me about the story is the psycho identifications of how these situations happen. The reason I put the actor [onscreen] in the movie I didn’t want the audience going “That’s not a real cop.” I wanted [to acknowledge], “Of course, you are right. It’s not a real cop. So let’s not think about that anymore. Let’s talk about something else.”

How did you decide when in the movie that you were going to make that reveal to the audience?
That was actually really hard to decide. We were actually simultaneously shooting the caller and people in the background, so I could have put it in at any point actually. And we tried that, so we played with a bunch of different things. It happened to fall out to where I reveal it in the screenplay that we put in the same scene. The reason that the scene is a useful scene to reveal the caller….two people can get into a thing where it seems crazy but this is the first time a real third person is put on the phone and is interacting with him.

And I felt that was a good time to be like “let’s start thinking about the bigger [picture].” The move out of the headspace that two people can be convinced of something pretty easily, but when you get into three people or four people — I just felt like I wanted to like have the audience thinking about that. And although Kevin [Philip Ettinger] is kind of a minor character in the film, in some weird way I connect with him the most than any other characters. He is the [first] person who knows something is wrong but hasn’t said no. That was my first entrance to understand how something like this could happen. I’ve definitely been in situations where I’ve felt like we weren’t doing something the right way. When making films and working as a first AD, I’d [think] “We shouldn’t be doing this,” [but] I wasn’t stopping it from happening. I wasn’t saying,”We’re not doing this. Stop.”

Even though it’s a true story, how do you deal with the potential that it may come across as too far fetched for some audience members? And is there anything you were concerned about putting in or left out because you felt the audience just might reject it?
There are stories of people where it gets much weirder than the way I did it. [There were callers who told employees], “Go out into the front room naked and there’s a sex offender out in the front room and if you go out into the main dining area then we will be able to identify that guy and catch him.” Things like that where there is no way that [audiences would have believed it]. It would strain credibility even more than just the general concept. And I was very concerned about that but at the same time at one point [asked myself] “If you don’t know it is based on a true story then does it all fall apart?” It doesn’t for me.

I did recognize there is a certain level of person who would feel uncomfortable with whether or not they can recognize that this is part of human nature, that don’t want to recognize that at all. So they will go to a place of thinking they are smarter than all that and that it’s full of shit and that it’s not believable. And I’m not saying for everybody, but I think for some people. And I was going to lose some people anyway, you know? I’m not going to have a 100% success rate of convincing everyone, but I do recognize there are some people that have a strong aversion to it. I mean, it’s funny, almost every Q&A that I have for the movie somebody goes “Yeah but like does this ever happen in a big city?” And I’d say “Yeah.” And then they like kinda sit up and act weird because it bothers them. “Those are bumpkins. That’s not me. That’s not my people.” It’s frustrating to me that that’s a reaction. I don’t think it’s a matter of [the characters] being stupid people. I don’t think that’s what is going on there.

Did you have any hesitation taking on such upsetting material?
I had a lot of hesitation. I was very nervous for multiple reasons. [The story] was in my head for a while. I’d heard it and didn’t immediately think, “Oh that’d be a good movie.” But I kept thinking about the story. What is the cause of the people who have gone through this? To me it’s really significant that it happened multiple times over a 10-year span. To me that resonated a lot. And it was very significant that it was a lot of people, and I kept thinking about that. I had been studying the Milgram experiments and things like that, which is how I found out about the story, reading about behavioral psychology stuff. At some point [I thought I could] make a cool chamber drama where its like “12 Angry Men” where there is only one room and you break it into smaller [segments]. I started [thinking about the film] like it would be an interesting challenge to try and make a movie where the main bad guy is on the phone, and it’s a bunch of people talking on the phone in a fast food restaurant, and that’s scary. There’s nothing about that sentence that sounds scary at all. But could you do that? Will the audience go with this at all?

I was also hesitant in that, am I going to be able to get nuanced performances? Is this the kind of thing you can shoot a film on and have actors portray? Can we show a weird split second decision or bad choice? I have never shot a sex scene before, so part of that made me nervous. We were talking about what the movie is about, what the story is pointing towards, and its power dynamic, and people’s relationships with authority. I’d go so far as to say it is bigger than that. As you contemplate people’s relationships with authority and how people maybe use and abuse authority in different ways, it is very hard to avoid gender and how it plays into that. It absolutely made me nervous. But all of those challenges were the reason to do it. I was trying to make a lot of different movies and have some kind of more what I would call entertainment. I ended up thinking, “Well this one has a high percent chance of failure but it would be really fascinating if it worked, and it would be a new type of movie I haven’t seen in a while.” And it was scary in a way that challenged me artistically [but doing something] hard because it might fail is a good reason to do a movie.

I know it got a very divided reaction at Sundance and seemed to get a warmer reception when I caught it at SXSW. Have you noticed audiences kind of responding differently as far as different screenings at different festivals?
I have, to a degree. It’s funny, the Sundance publicized reaction, I have never had except for that time. That’s the only time that experience happened. The majority was because no one knew what the movie was at all. It’s interesting to see different groups of people. The most amazing screening of the film was the Sarasota Film Festival. It was almost entirely an older-skewing crowd and I thought that would be a bad thing honestly, but it was the best. They were like, “That movie made me incredibly uncomfortable but I think it’s really interesting.” I could talk with people for like an hour and a half about it afterwards. I do feel like it’s the coolest kind of movie to screen with a Q&A if you can. People want to talk about it. People want to talk. And they want to talk to each other.

The screening at SXSW was really cool in that it was smaller, with a theater with only forty people in it. Almost everyone stayed, only eight or ten people left and they were just talking to each other at some points like people were saying you should read about these [cases]. People were talking about the movie without me really doing anything. It was kinda amazing. And that is the best I could have ever hoped for with this movie, that [a screening like] that happened. It’s easy and it’s fun in the press to talk about the divided reaction, and I think it is obviously a challenging movie in certain ways, so I’m not disagreeing. People have strong opinions about it. Often though, they want to talk about it.

Do you have an expectation on how you think audiences will react? Another writer for the site saw a press screening last week and said that some people were laughing.
I think the laughing sometimes has to do with feeling uncomfortable. I mean when you are uncomfortable, you laugh. I do think that there is some sort of laughter to be higher than it. That happens too. It’s not something I thought was gonna happen. I guess I understand kind of why but it was something I didn’t think was going to happen. I had no idea of how it would be received to be honest so I had no expectation. In a way this was like a thesis. This is me asking a question of, “Is this something that you can recognize as not just this particular set of weird people but is part of a bigger [aspect of human behavior]?” That was my only question. I made the movie to have that conversation, to spark further discussion. The only thing that’s been outside of what I expected [were audiences] — like at that Sundance screening — who have a negative reaction to the film and didn’t wanna have a conversation about it. They just wanted to tell me why it was bad and then leave. That was the only thing that was disappointing.

Why do you think that these sorts of incidents happened repeatedly over such a long span of time?
I’m completely conjecturing here but I am imagining whoever these people are, that they did not feel fully like they had full agency in their real life. And they could have this real power when calling people on the telephone, and in some sick way it helped their self-esteem. I think that is what was going on, on the side of the callers, is someone exploiting a chink in our humanity. I just read a Vanity Fair story on a guy who pretended to be a Rockefeller for years, and people just wanted to be around the Rockefeller. It’s a person finding and exploiting something that somehow we all kind of know, and exploiting it to a negative end.

How did you deal with discomfort of consistently putting Dreama Walker in such compromising positions? Was it difficult to film some of her nude scenes?
I’m glad you asked that question because that is the one thing I’m shocked that some of the film reporting has been so ignorant [about]. [Dreama] knew what the movie was. And it was important for me that I had someone who recognized the situation and was interested in the same story as me about why it happens. She and I went through every shot that would have some sort of nudity in it and knew ahead of time what they were. On set she wasn’t nude as much as the film makes it seem.

If the only reason I was doing it is so that her breasts could be in the movie for a random scene or in a sexy scene seems incredibly exploitational. To me that is much worse than what we were doing. It’s funny, a lot of people were asking me if I was putting her in uncomfortable situations. “No, she is an actress, when we called cut she’d be on her iPhone laughing and stuff.” She’s a very talented actress. I now have an eagle eye towards when I see [more gratuitous nudity]. I was watching an old Elliott Gould movie [“The Silent Partner” (1978)] last night and there were two actresses topless for no reason that has anything to do with the story, and it’s one of those things that seems uncomfortable.

Did you consider whether or not to show the nudity? It’s something you could have easily cut around but by forcing the audience to look makes it more uncomfortable and involved in what’s going on?
I certainly didn’t want to shoot any of the big stuff offscreen and I did think at some point whether we needed to do any of it. But to me it grounds everything. That’s where it gets serious. It helps there be some sense of threat in the situation and uncomfortability which is not unimportant to the bigger conversation.

I loved the score to the movie. It was used sparingly but the pieces at the beginning and end had a Philip Glass feel to them, can you talk a bit about that?
The composer is amazing. Her name is Heather McIntosh, I’ve known her forever, she’s been in a ton of bands and she’s a really accomplished musician outside of film music. I knew I wanted to work with her on this and when we were talking about the score, I was trying to make the movie be objective. I didn’t want it to be inside Becky’s head the whole time. That version of the film is totally possible but it turns into a horror movie that is only in one room and it makes everybody a bad guy except for her. I felt like [it would be better] looking at the film as if you’re an alien looking at all these people and going, ‘What’s going on?’ The reason I bring up the subjectivity vs. objectivity is because music tells the audience what to feel. And I was hesitant to do that. I didn’t want to be hewing emotion that way and we talked about the score being emotional breathers and to highlight giant shifts [rather than telegraph every beat]. So when we started picking these scenes she started sending me these cello sketches and I fell in love with this idea of it having a 20th century composer feel. I feel like indie movies are usually in the guitar universe.

You mentioned back in January that you were working on a few different projects, do you know what’s going to be up next for you?
I’m close to the finish line on two different things and I’m waiting and hoping by August that I’ll know the answer to that. But I don’t right now.

“Compliance” screens at BAMcinemaFest this Friday at 9:30pm and opens in theaters on August 17th.

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