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With three feature films under his belt, filmmaker Craig Zobel isn’t quite a veteran, but he’s no longer a newbie. Zobel’s first two features played to strong acclaim on the festival circuit — 2007’s “Great World of Sound” played at New York’s New Directors and New Films Festival and also earned Zobel the Breakthrough Director Awards at that year’s Gotham Awards, while “Compliance” premiered at Sundance in 2012, going on to screen at Locarno, Deauville and BAMcinemaFest, among others — but neither rocketed the filmmaker to the top of blockbuster wish lists, as has become far more commonplace over the years.
But the cast for Zobel’s new film, “Z for Zachariah,” comes complete with three big names from the blockbuster world, including Margot Robbie (soon to be seen in DC’s “Suicide Squad”), Chris Pine of “Star Trek” fame and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for “12 Years a Slave” and will soon co-star in the Marvel tentpole, “Doctor Strange.” The trio play survivors of a seemingly planet-wide disaster who are thrown together by some dire (and often emotionally uncomfortable) circumstances.
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These three actors form the entire cast; most of the action takes place on a farm. In other words, it’s not your safest commercial bet.
A lot of filmmakers in Zobel’s position moved on to much bigger projects long ago. Marc Webb, whose “(500) Days of Summer” premiered at Sundance in 2009, next went on to make “The Amazing Spider-Man,” a franchise that is now being rebooted by yet another Sundance standout: Jon Watts, who directed this year’s “Cop Car.” “Jurassic World” helmer Colin Trevorrow also turned heads at Sundance, when his “Safety Not Guaranteed” bowed in 2012.
Although both Webb and Trevorrow are festival contemporaries of Zobel, the director doesn’t think the tide turned during his last Sundance showing. “That window didn’t start happening until after I was already doing things, in a sense,” Zobel said. “Now, it would be a different story.”
Yet Zobel may be fudging a bit, both in terms of timing and perceived studio interest. “Craig is definitely a modest guy,” said producer Sophia Lin, who has worked with Zobel on all three of his features. “But I also think that, as a challenging film, ‘Compliance’ probably was not the clearest stepping stone to immediate blockbuster-dom.” Based on true events, the controversial drama stars Dreama Walker as a young fast food worker who becomes the victim of a vicious prank when a man claiming to be a police officer calls her place of business and requests that her supervisor (Ann Dowd) interrogate her in increasingly inhumane and shocking ways.
Zobel’s good friend Pat Healy, who played the eerie caller in “Compliance” and a wayward businessman in “Great World of Sound,” thinks that Zobel just isn’t the right fit for the Hollywood machine. “Craig’s greatest gifts as a filmmaker are working with actors and a deeply-felt social conscience,” Healy said, “I don’t think either of those things are in vogue in Hollywood right now.”
Additionally, Healy said, Zobel’s thematic interests show no signs of letting up. “I’d be surprised if he ever made something that didn’t deal at least in some way with issues of class or race or social concerns,” Healy said. “I don’t see any of that even latently in contemporary commercial cinema.”
The “Compliance” Effect
Zobel readily admitted that “Compliance” was the kind of film that inspires strong reactions from different viewers, the sort of feature that rarely provokes its audience to feel anything less than total admiration or absolute disgust. “It’s engendered that,” he said. When the film premiered at Sundance, it was infamously met with a forcefully negative reactions. As The Hollywood Reporter told it, the film’s first screening was a tense, anger-filled event. One audience member yelled, “Sundance, you can do better!” as the credits rolled, and members of the audience even booed Zobel and his cast when they took the stage for a post-screening Q&A.
When Zobel spoke to Indiewire a few days later, he was still explaining himself. “It’s a movie that definitely affects people very strongly and I think
some people weren’t ready for that,” he said. “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.”
But he had no regrets. “I had a really visceral reaction to the story,” he said. “It’s up to 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.”
That fear may have been compounded by earlier efforts. While “Z for Zachariah” is his third feature, there are many others he has tried to get off the ground with less success. One project that Zobel was attached to pre-“Compliance,” the dark comedy “Turkey in the Straw,” is no longer in active development (the politically-tinged feature was originally meant to be his “Great World of Sound” followup), while a pitch he sold to Focus in August of 2012 has yet to move forward.
hard to say what kind of impact the audience reaction to ‘Compliance’
had on other offers,” Lin said, “I think if anything, the controversy
that accompanied the ‘Compliance’ premiere undeniably brought a lot of
attention.” It didn’t take long before Zobel was back at work.
Making a Vision Come to Life
Zobel acknowledges that he may be a bit conflicted when it comes to making the jump from indie to studio feature. His main inspiration? Steven Soderbergh. “I remember there’s like a famous thing he talked about when he was trying to do ‘Out of Sight,’ where he talked about ‘Getting out of the indie ghetto,’ which I always think about,” Zobel said, “I feel like I’m in between two things.”
“Z for Zachariah,” does play as a nice bridge for the director between “Compliance” and whatever lays beyond, thanks to a recognizable cast of stars and some well-loved source material, inspired by Robert C. O’Brien’s 1974 novel of the same. The post-apocalyptic narrative stars Robbie as Ann Burden, the sole resident of what just may be the planet’s last habitable land, who suddenly finds her world upended with the arrival of two very different new men (Ejiofor and Pine).
Earlier iterations of “Zachariah” had different talent attached to star, including Tobey Maguire and Amanda Seyfried, who both left the film because of scheduling conflicts. Maguire, however, stayed on to produce the project after Zobel realized that he was still intrigued about the possibilities of the script and story.
After Maguire left, Zobel said, the filmmaker had to rationalize his continuing investment. “Well, I still really like that story,” he recalled thinking. “I think what was attractive to me about that story was something I’d still like to pursue.” The producers also remained committed to Zobel directing the film.
“It says says a tremendous amount about my fellow producers [Skuli Malmquist, Thorir Sigurjonsson, Joni Sighvatsson, Matthew Plouffe and Tobey Maguire] that they could see from ‘Compliance’ he was the right person to make ‘Z for Zachariah,'” Lin said.
Maguire’s confidence in particular helped empower Zobel to move forward with a new cast. “I talked with Tobey, and Tobey was like, ‘Do it, man,'” Zobel said. “And then I met Chiwetel, and then it was like, ‘Well, what about this version?'” Zobel was an early fan of Ejifor’s work in “12 Years of Slave” — and Ejiofor had admired “Compliance” — so the pairing was apparently born out of a mutual admiration.
“I was very drawn to Craig and his work,” Ejiofor told Vulture earlier this year. “I loved the idea of doing a three-hander and trying to intricately work out the dynamics of these relationships. I thought there was something genuinely fascinating about that.”
Reimagining a Classic Story
For Zobel, that different version had everything to do with his cast, as Nissar Modi’s script, which makes some major changes to O’Brien’s story, remained a constant in his creative process. In fact, Zobel didn’t even read the book until after he dug into Modi’s script — a decision that helped him understand why certain changes were necessary.
“It’s a great book, it was also written in 1974. There hasn’t been a hit movie of that book, and there’s reason for that, I think it’s a tricky book,” Zobel explained. “It has a very bad, bad guy and a very good, good guy, it’s just sort of a dynamic that would be hard to sustain for so long. It would be hard to make a movie out of it.”
Despite Zobel’s trepidation with the characters lines in O’Brien’s book, his final film does feature Margot Robbie playing a very clearly good character alongside two much shadier male leads. And that’s something that came directly from the actress. “When I cast Margot, I was completely open to letting Ann go in different directions,” Zobel said, “but Margot felt very set on keeping her sort of young and kind of in a certain place of lack of experience in certain things. [She] pushed back pretty hard on me on that.”
Zobel also wasn’t interested in playing up the story’s themes of science going to battle with religion, and although Ann’s spirituality and Loomis’ lack of it do play into the drama of the film, it’s servicing a deeper lesson. “I feel like it would be reductive and kind of boring to think of this as a movie about science versus religion,” Zobel said. “It’s really about how differences like that can become politicized and used in different power games later.”
A Brave New World
Zobel is currently playing both sides, too, as he recently began his first foray into television directing with a stint on HBO’s “The Leftovers” (which, of course, features his “Compliance” star Ann Dowd).
“It’s really exciting,” Zobel said. “I feel like what ‘The Leftovers’ is about and what ‘Z for Zachariah’ is about — there’s not a one to one, but there’s a similarity,” Zobel said. “I was already a big fan of the show, there is something about it that was already attractive and feels good to be in that universe.”
In other words, he’s working on another adaptation — though he insisted it didn’t feel like a world beyond his control. “That may be very specific to the particular show that I’m on,” he said, “but I’ve felt that I’m part of the collaboration, more so than I’m just the guy making sure we get the wide shot, too.”
Zobel’s colleagues have also noticed the satisfaction he has gleaned from his newly minted TV career. “I think he needs to feel challenged emotionally and intellectually, like he can bring his unique sensitivity to something,” said Healy. “I know he’s enjoyed doing that with the television he’s directed lately. TV may just turn out to be a better fit for him. Only time will tell.”
Although Zobel hasn’t yet announced his feature plans post-“Z for Zachariah,” that doesn’t mean he’s destined to stay off the studio track forever. “Craig has such wide-ranging tastes and interests, and the three films he’s directed are so different from one another that I can’t always tell what will pique him next,” Lin said.
That being said, Lin has one modest proposal. “His favorite film this summer was ‘Mad Max: Fury Road,'” she said. “And hell to the yes that I’d want to produce whatever is Zobel’s version of that.”
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This feature was originally published on August 28, 2015.