In Compliance, unquestioning belief in authority’s moral superiority reaches new, unbelievable heights in an unexpected settings. In this shockingly true case, it’s a fast food restaurant where an officer phones to tell them the young girl at the register has actually been stealing far more than a few spare fries. Now the only way to get her to admit the truth is for her coworkers to follow his instructions precisely. Demands in cop lingo gradually escalate into something far beyond asking them to empty her pockets. Soon, a changing room becomes a prison cell whose captive is subjected to harrowing levels of debasement for both the “thief” and a succession of newly minted deputies, all parties willingly submitting to an obviously fake, yet commanding police officer, in spite of their best judgment.
Compliance’s nearly unwatchable intensity is like a knife that keeps twisting in a way that’s far more grueling to watch than the worst torture porn flick, even though the graphic bits here are left to our imagination. It’s a creeping feeling of how-much-worse-can-this-get suspense that’s executed for maximum discomfort by writer/director Craig Zobel. A co-founder of the Homestar Runner website before exploring the music man cons of a fake label called Great World of Sound, Zobel takes an infinitely darker turn here into the worst of human nature.
Daniel Schweiger: In your first film Great World of Sound, you have a con man convincing people that they can become music stars. And in Compliance, you have a psychotic prank phone caller getting people to abuse an innocent fast food employee. In this respect, do you think your movies are about gullibility, particularly American gullibility?
Craig Zobel: I can totally see that read of them. I’m fascinated by how we all think that it’s impossible for us to be tricked. Everyone walks around assuming the best of other people. But when people don’t do that, it’s a devastating thing. I’m also fascinated with the kind of person who is doing something that an outsider would say is a bad thing. How do they rationalize away that they aren’t doing anything wrong?
DS: Compliance is an intensely frustrating film to watch as you realize how none of these workers realize what’s going on, even as the “officer’s” demands get more outrageous. Some people likely won’t be able to get through the film because of how disturbing, and angering, their ignorance becomes. Can you blame those viewers who take a walk because of that?
CZ: It’s a challenging movie that some people can’t go that far with, and that’s a totally fine reaction. I made Compliance as a dialogue, and I think all reactions to it are ok. The movie makes me uncomfortable, to be honest.
DS: There seems to be a subversive quality to the film in casting such a pretty young actress as Dreama Walker in the lead. Did you actively decide to twist the hetero male movie desire with the events that follow?
CZ: I don’t think I would have phrased it like that when we were making the movie. But I knew it was important to go to a certain extreme with that, to make the film hit an unsettling level. I wanted people to feel the gravity of what went down in a situation like this, that it could go crazy far. I was worried that if I didn’t, then it would give you permission to view this whole thing from afar. So I wanted us to know that it’s not ok, no matter what the girl looks like. That was a discussion between Dreama and I, to figure out where that line should be.
DS: Was there ever a question of if you should ever actually see the caller?
CZ: Yes, there was. And I wasn’t 100% sure of what I was going to do until I got into the editing room, since I shot the film in a way where I could make that kind of choice later. But I realized at some point that I needed to tell the audience that this wasn’t a real police officer, even if they were ahead of the characters. So I made that switch of perspectives at a point in the film where I brought in a lot of new characters to re-focus on the story. While you need narrative tension, it has to break at some point. Before making Compliance, I watched Phone Booth, which is the classic other version of this kind of story. And I couldn’t go with why you didn’t get to see the other guy. I mean, “Why not?”
DS: With so much of Compliance taking place in the changing room, you could imagine it as much of a play as a movie. How did you want to “open up” the movie to be as cinematic as possible?
CZ: Though I’d never written a play, that possibility hit me as a worked on the script. One of the tricks was to going to the front of the restaurant at times so I could juxtapose that this was happening in the same space where people were super-sizing French fries. It’s the irony of the banal. So when I do the white-collar version of this story, I’ll be cutting to the Xerox machine! My director of photography Adam Stone and I also expended a lot of energy on figuring out how not to make the film visually repetitive. We started out by going hand-held, then going to dollies, and finishing with all locked-off shots with no camera movement. These weren’t complicated decisions. Some were truly arbitrary. Hand-held gave us a kind of cinema verite sensibility. The more important thing was to never make the film boring.
DS: Heather McIntosh’s chamber score is also a big factor in how disquieting Compliance is.
CZ: Heather is amazing. We both lived in Athens, Georgia, so I’ve known her for a very long time. She played with a ton of bands from down there, and toured with people like Little Wayne and Gnarls Barkley as a cellist. I knew that I wanted to do something with her, especially since Heather’s music is so cinematic. And she couldn’t wait to score Compliance after reading the script. We started discussing the music before the movie was even shot, which is something composers don’t get to do often. She even gave me sketches before we shot, which informed me about how the score should be used in the movie. We didn’t want to lean on music to make you feel one way or the other. Instead, when Heather’s music appears, it’s used as interludes to give you an emotional breather. Most importantly, the score tells you that this is about something that’s a lot bigger than just what’s happening in this fast food restaurant.
DS: I really enjoy the prank calls on The Howard Stern Show. But after watching Compliance, it casts their effect on the receiver in a whole new, and far more troubling light, especially when you see the damage they do.
CZ: When I was in college, one of my roommates was a really funny, and clever guy. He and a buddy would make prank phone calls in the house when I was there. I didn’t participate in them, but I did listen to the tapes. Then he did a prank that involved impersonating a campus police officer. He called people in the dorms saying weird stuff, and totally freaked a kid out- to a place where we all knew it went sour. And he got in trouble for it, and had to do community service. That registered with us in a crazy way that the kid he targeted didn’t find it funny at all, even though someone listening to the tape might if you didn’t sympathize with him. My friend felt pretty bad about having done it, and stopped after that. I didn’t think of that story when I was interested in making Compliance, but it resurfaced in my brain while we were making it. I mean, cops came to our house. It was definitely a thing that affected all of us, that the prank call was funny to us for five minutes, and horrifying for that kid.
DS: Would you describe Compliance as a horror film?
CZ: I don’t think I’d describe it as one. But I don’t shy away from it when people describe the movie that way. I certainly used a lot of “horror” techniques in making it, though I hope Compliance is certainly more nuanced than most horror movies are.
DS: Do you think there’s a warning message that people should take out of Compliance?
CZ: It’s that I don’t think this is something that just “dumb” people are capable of. Everyone is capable of letting some element of their guard down. And that often happens because we intrinsically go into most interactions with authority figures thinking that they must be doing the right thing. In my opinion, we give away power to people like teachers and politicians, because we think they know more than us. It’s a power that we grant that, not one that’s intrinsically built in. Take the police. They are there to protect and serve me. I’m submitting to them. So it’s a power dynamic we put ourselves into. If I want the audience to get something from Compliance, then it’s for them to walk away from the movie and say to themselves “It’s ok for me to sometimes check that these people aren’t abusing their power.” You see a million types of these things on the news, like with Jerry Sandusky. They’re abuses of the power that we hand over to people that we think know more than us.
'Compliance' opens in New York on Friday, August 17, 2012, and in Los Angeles on August 24, 2012.
Buy Heather McIntosh’s 'Compliance' soundtrack here.