Craig Zobel’s ‘Compliance’ Takes a Dark Look at Human Behavior

After watching Craig Zobel’s psychological drama, Compliance, I found feeling both violated and puzzled, and also completely baffled by the mystery of human behavior. The film is based on an event at a Kentucky McDonald’s when a man, claiming to be a police officer, called the manager and proclaimed that one of her employees had stolen money from a woman’s purse. He then gave the manager two options: take the girl down to the police station and have her booked, or follow his implicit instructions to have the stolen items located. Over the next three hours, the manager, the manager’s boyfriend, and various other employees blindly followed the man’s instructions without disobedience, resulting in multiple strip searches and, eventually, a sexual assault. But why didn’t anyone just say no? Why didn’t the girl, who was completely innocent, just get up and leave? How did these people comply so drastically, simply because they were “cooperating with the law?” And what’s most horrifying is that this was not the only case; over 70 calls of the same nature have been reported over the last ten years.

Upon hearing of this case, Zobel was compelled to dive deeper into the nature of the event and illustrate for us the lengths that people will go when they feel threatened by authority. With no recorded tapes of the actual phone conversation available, Zobel’s screenplay relies on what he imagined would possibly make these people aid in committing this elaborate prank. The film is tight and claustrophobic, rife with close-ups and cut-aways that enhance the growing anxiety and tension of the characters. We spoke with Zobel to talk about the experience of watching the story unfold, what intrigued him about this case, and the ways in which people relate to authority.

I had a really visceral reaction to the film. At first I was really unsettled, but I realized that’s the point of film—to truly be affected by it on a really physiological level.
There are different types of movies that I watch and then there are ones that I watch to just have complete entertainment, like The Avengers. I don’t even know why I said that one. But anyways, this was definitely supposed to be in the other camp.

I was trying to explain the film to someone and it’s very hard to do unless you give away almost the entire plot. But for something like this, it doesn’t really matter how much you know about the film, it’s more about the experience of watching it unfold.
I kind of felt like people would be ahead of it anyway at some point. As an audience member, I feel like there’s some kind of satisfaction out of the suspense element to it, but I don’t necessarily know that you need to go in completely knowing nothing. I actually think that’s probably better.

Yeah, I didn’t even watch the trailer. How did you come across this story originally?
I had been reading about these human behavior experiments like the Stanford prison experiments and Milgram’s obedience experiments and also even stuff like the Kitty Genovese case. It happened in the Bronx in the ’70s where a woman was raped and murdered in her apartment courtyard and screamed for help a bunch of times, and like 24 people heard her and never came down and helped. In reading about this stuff, I came across these stories and my initial reaction was very much like, That seems impossible. I kept thinking about it afterwards and for me, I imagine everybody says they would never do this, but it happened multiple times so clearly that’s not the case. So what is it that we avoid?

What compelled you to actually want to make a film about it?
I wouldn’t say I was thinking immediately, Oh this would make a great film. I genuinely wasn’t. I just thought it was very interesting and an interesting thing to think about. And in doing that, I started to actually think about people’s relationship to authority; it quickly becomes not very black and white, and that’s actually the kind of stuff that is interesting to make a movie about in the sense that it creates discussion and more things to think about.

There weren’t any recorded tapes from the actual events. How did you go about writing the dialogue?
That was really interesting. The first part of it was me attempting to put words in people’s mouths that would get them from point A to point B. Say, for instance, the jumping jacks happened multiple times; how did they get there and what did they say? I was just writing stuff to see if I could actually do it and if it made any sense. But there was definitely, during the writing process, a part where I was clearly bothered enough by the subject matter that I had people kind of encouraging me, asking, “Come on, would they really say that?”

It’s painful to watch and I’m sure it was uncomfortable to shoot, but just sitting down writing that…
That’s pretty uncomfortable, too!And there was definitely a rewrite where I’d been pulling my punches or something that felt unbelievable. My hope would be, with the movie, that at times you can see why people would do these things.

You shot the phone scenes simultaneously?
I knew that when making movies, whenever there are phone calls, usually it’s just hard for an actor to kind of pause and wait as if somebody said something on the other line and then say something again. That would be the traditional way to do that. But I knew that wasn’t going to work for this movie; we at least needed to have them on the phone. And once I knew he was going to be there on the other side of the phone, I thought, why don’t we just build a little set for him so we can actually capture that live? I think the parts of the movie that work the best are parts where the actors are talking to each other and are off-book to a degree but still reacting to each other in a real way. I don’t know if we would have gotten otherwise.

It was very claustrophobic—did you plan on shooting that way? Did you have the style planned out as you were writing it?
I knew it was going to be claustrophobic. I felt like it must have been. That was about as subjective I could be to the experience. It had to have feel like its own world or you wouldn’t do any of that stuff. If you feel like you’re part of a bigger world…

There are other options.
Right! It’s literally about making the world feel small. I knew that I had to do that, and I hoped that I would do it in a way that was claustrophobic but not boring because I’ve seen movies that can become that.

Have you always been interested in human behavior and psychology?
I wanted to explore how people relate to authority. I would like to think that we don’t always obey authority. Thre are also certainly, just embedded in the true stories, these relationships with authority in corporate atmospheres and how that works. There were so many things to talk about that I felt like it was a worthwhile thing to explore.

It felt very much like a stage play and all the actors did such a good job with that. How did you go about preparing them?
We would do kind of big chunks at a time for continuity and having it make sense. It’s hard to wake up in the morning, drink your coffee, and then go in and be at the end of one of these dramatic scenes. A lot of the actors have a stage background, which was not by mistake. I was interested in that and I feel like it could be a good stage play or do some sort of black box thing where the caller is behind you.

Were you worried about taking on a film like this? People are obviously going to have mixed reactions to this.
I was super nervous. To me, it wasn’t about being a provocation. I don’t want to be making that kind of movie. I just found there were so many questions; this is a movie that you can talk about in multiple different ways, and I knew that before I made it. On a technical level, I was worried that it could be really boring or that it could be really too much of one thing or not enough of another thing.

The score also helped with breaking it up. The music wasn’t there to just guide you through these intense moments; it was sparse, so when the music did really pick up, you felt like something really powerful was happening.
That’s great. Heather McIntosh, who did the music, is really talented. You can make that choice to do movie cues that help be behind your emotions the whole time, but I was most interested in being as objective as I could be. There were a couple of cues in the movie, but I was trying to not do that on purpose so that you just had to sit in the situation without help. She was brilliant in coming up with a way to sort of echo what her emotions were in the story.

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