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Interview: Compliance Writer-Director Craig Zobel

Written and directed by Craig Zobel, the tremendous psychological drama Compliance is based on a series of true crimes in which a man pretending to be a police officer “prank”-called fast-food restaurants.

Over the phone, often over the course of hours, the caller used a mix of manipulation, coercion, flattery, and sometimes bullying to convince supervisors to detain and harass employees (usually female) whom the fake “officer” said were suspected of a theft.

Set at an imaginary Ohio chicken restaurant on a busy Friday night, Compliance is fictional, but the film follows very closely the events of the worst, most exploitative and abusive of those real “prank” calls, examining the unfortunate convergence of circumstances and personalities (on both sides of the phone and the accusations) that enabled shocking, almost unbelievable abuses to take place.

Compliance stars Dreama Walker (Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23) as Becky, the innocent teen at the center of the prank call, and features an award-worthy performance by stage veteran Ann Dowd as Becky’s befuddled, middle-aged supervisor, Sandra. It also features a mesmerizing Pat Healy (who starred in Zobel’s wonderful Great World of Sound) as the mysterious caller, “Officer Daniels,” and the excellent stage actor Bill Camp as Sandra’s boyfriend who’s slowly caught up in the situation.

I sat down in Chicago a few weeks ago to talk with the easy going and likable Zobel about his riveting film–one of my favorites of the year so far. After amiably chatting about our mutual acquaintances (including Pat Healy and Pat’s older brother) we dove into a discussion of the psychological behaviors and human failings the taut, deceptively “simple” Compliance so powerfully examines and of the often extreme (and sometimes angry) reactions the film has provoked in audiences since its Sundance debut last winter.

Compliance opens this weekend in select theaters across the country.

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Some critics are describing Compliance as “hard to watch,” but while the events are disturbing and thought-provoking, the film itself is incredibly gripping. It’s not hard to watch–it’s impossible to turn away from.

Craig Zobel: You make a film like this, and in a certain sense there’s some inherent level of frustration that you’re putting the audience through. A heavy tension. And you hope that at least it’s compelling enough that viewers need to keep watching it. Every ten minutes everything changes in the movie, by design. I hope that makes you pay attention to all the little scenes—you know there’s something bad coming, a shoe the film’s about to drop, so you’re waiting, wondering, “Where’s the shoe?”

There’s definitely that sense in the early scenes, where, if you don’t know the real-life story, you’re scanning the situation and the characters for clues as to what the problem’s going to be, and your script has several little red herrings.

Zobel: Hopefully all that early stuff is important in terms of character behavior. It sets up the type of personalities and stress and inter-personal relationships between co-workers. I’m making the movie to try to understand what was present, the things you can’t get out of journalism about these cases. There’s really no reason to tell the story again if I was just trying to educate people that this thing had happened—that’s not the point at all. It’s really about trying to make a piece of art about human behavior in extreme, tense circumstances.

I’m hesitant to use the word “fun” about the movie, but it was fun as film maker to try to do that. You ask questions about things like, “How could something like this happen?” and you quickly go towards trying to look for a lynch-pin solution to it. Frustratingly, some viewers respond, “Well, those people are stupid.” Which I patently don’t agree with—I think it’s about a million little things in one bowl. I’m incredibly empathetic toward these characters.

It’s fascinating how the characters of different ages, genders, and personalities respond to the ongoing call from “Officer Daniels.”

Zobel: I was looking at these human-behavior experiments like Milgram and Stanford Prison, and the Kitty Genovese case, and there are a lot of different things that play into it, like the diffusion of responsibility.

There are really interesting cases that are so mild compared to Milgram [in which subjects were instructed to punish other participants with an electrical "shock"], where you put ten people in a room, and nine are confederates and know what’s going on, and the tenth person doesn’t. And they might show five lines on a paper and ask which is the longest. And if six people pick a line that is clearly not the longest, the tenth guy not in on it will go along and say it’s the longest even though it’s clearly the incorrect answer. That stuff is fascinating.

I was reading this book, The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, and he suggests that the more choice we have, the more we tend to not choose–there’s choice fatigue, and when that happens you’d rather have someone choose for you. If you fatigue someone about something, you can just suggest you would like to have happen.

It seems the strongest audience reaction, the one that’s causing people to get really upset with the film, isn’t outrage over what “Office Daniels” does, but anger with the characters who facilitate it.

Zobel: More times than not the reaction goes toward, “But this is unbelievable–I don’t care if it’s based on a true story, I would hang up in seconds, I would know it was not a cop immediately.” I felt that too, when I first heard the story.

But then two days later I found myself thinking, “Man, that was a pretty smug response on my part.” Especially when you look at how it happened 70 times over a 10-year period in different parts of the country, enough of a spread for it not to be an isolated thing, but to be a human reaction to something.

And you step back another level and take into account things like the Milgram Experiment and the countless examples of this happening in history, and you realize what a smug answer “Oh, I would never do that” is.

It makes you wonder if maybe that is one of the reasons that keeps happening. Is there such an instinct to distance yourself from it, such a resistance to opening yourself up to the fact we’re fallible, that it’s possible for us to make a mistake? You would rather be on the other side and say, “No way, I would never do that”—but are you being honest with yourself? There are some people who can honestly say that, but history does not support the idea that all people are like that – all people think that is what they would do.

I feel all the reactions to the movie are valid, but it does make me wonder that if you spend all your time telling yourself how much of a hero you’d be in this situation, you may actually not be protecting yourself from a type of manipulation.

Pat Healy gives such a terrific performance, as does everyone in the cast. In a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal, Pat describes “Daniels” as “One of the most vile people on earth,” still the character seems all too humanly familiar to me.

Zobel: Watch me make a sweeping statement about humanity! I think a lot of problems happen in the world because of insecurity. I think that actually drives a lot of the really poor decision-making that happens in the universe. And this caller is a person who certainly had some mental health issues, but also probably felt so marginalized in some ways that this was a way for him to be smarter than everyone. He’s out to feel this inherent superiority that’s incredibly narcissistic and pathologically messed up.

There are so many behavioral things going on in the film in terms of manipulation, fear, dominance, distrust, and judgmental bias, but it also says a lot about the power of perceived authority.

Zobel: There’s this amazing psychology experiment where they tried to influence people to jaywalk in the middle of a busy street, so they had someone jaywalk to see if people would follow them into traffic. And when they put that person in a business suit, people would totally follow him.

Your cast is so strong, from Pat and Dreama Walker, to Bill Camp, and of course Ann Dowd.

Zobel: It was all people who had been given the script and responded to something in it and felt they wanted to ask those questions as well. James McCaffery, who plays the genuine detective, said, “This is about stuff that nobody makes movies about.” So everybody started from there, and that was very cool.

Working with them was highly educational for me, to continue to ask these questions with other people. Seasoned, smart actors like Bill Camp come to the script and ask, “How does that work? What is the behavior? What is the playable, believable read that lets me recognize how to get from point A to point B in these otherwise bizarre situations?”

These are super-brave people. They knew it was challenging stuff and they challenged me. I can’t say that every day was a breeze or that it was a charmer of a set, but there was a sense of importance to the work, “Let’s try to get the work right.” I hope it was very satisfying to everyone on the set.