Craig Zobel isn’t necessarily the type filmmaker one would immediately expect to be responsible for one of the most disturbing films of the year. Apart from being involved in the cripplingly hilarious late 90s online comedy factory Homestar Runner, his last film was the strange n’ funny music con comedy Great World of Sound. I suppose that his second and latest feature Compliance does feature the conman connection, but it’s a drastically different beast.
Based on a series of actual prank calls gone bad, the film is about a fast food restaurant that receives a call from a man pretending to be a police officer investing a theft by one of the employees. Over a series of several long hours he talks the manager into strip searching the poor teen girl, eventually leading to a more violating act of sexual assault. Told simply and almost entirely within a single location, it’s one of the most grueling thrillers of the year without featuring any onscreen violence. We got a chance to speak with Zobel about the odd inspirations, peculiar production, and intense audience reactions of his latest feature.
Dork Shelf: When did you first hear about the actual incidents the film was based on was it something that you instantly wanted to make a movie about?
Craig Zobel: Actually this started with another idea. I was really interested in the Stanford prison experiments. I was reading a book at the time on that and thought it could be a great movie, then I realized they were totally already making a movie about it. So I was reading about that and the Stanley Milgram experiment on obedience to authority and when you start reading about these experiments in psychology they start pointing to examples like the Kitty Genovese case, who was a woman in the 70s in the Bronx who was attacked in the courtyard of her apartment, screamed out for help and even though 30 different people heard her, no one did anything and she was murdered. They all just assumed someone else was going to deal with it. The more behavioral psychology studies you read about the more examples you learn and the series of the phone calls to the fast food restaurant came up. I read about those and I had a reaction that I’d imagine a lot of people had to the film where I was immediately like, “Well, I would never do that. That would never be me.” So I started thinking about it and wondering, “Am I really being honest because I’ve never been in a situation where I never stood up for what I believed in because authority was involved?” I realized how common that was and it seemed like a fascinating subject for a film.
DS: One of the most disturbing things about the movie for me was that the few moments I thought seemed to stretch credibility were moments that I then learned actually happened. Did you consciously try to ensure that the most outlandish elements of the script were from the actually case?
CZ: Yeah, those became kind of central to me as being the craziest moments in the film. I suppose I could have gone less far to tried and maintain credibility, but then when talking about it with the actors, it was hard for us to avoid those moments. It meant something that it went that far. Something like the jumping jacks, which happened eight or nine times. That was what was significant to me when reading the story. So it was important for me to leave them in. Then the challenge was, “Can we, through the performance of the actors, find a human face to that?”
DS: Was there any guiding approach you had visually to shooting in a single location and almost entirely in a single room. You kept things surprisingly visually interesting and it actually seemed to get more stylish and heightened as film went on?
CZ: Well, thanks for noticing. I was very worried and watched every film you can think of that took place in a confined location just to try and understand what the pitfalls were. I just didn’t want it to become visually boring. The cinematographer and I had a few strategies. One was not to show the entire room at first; we’ll introduce you to the space over time. The other one was to make sure that there were windows in the room so that it starts in light and changes to nighttime, just to make the colors and lighting change. Less directional and more overhead, bleak, and fast food restauranty (laughs). The film starts handheld and then in the middle has dolly moves and things like that and in the end it’s all locked off shots. There were a lot of things like that we did as an experiment to keep it visually interesting.
DS: How did you approach shooting with Dreama Walker during the humiliation and nude scenes? I’d imagine it could so easily become an uncomfortable experience for everyone involved.
CZ: Well, that started before casting, really. I had to be pretty specific about what I wanted to show and how I wanted to handle it prior to casting anyone. It then became a discussion with her about what amount she felt was appropriate. My point was always that it was important to have nudity because I wanted there to be a certain amount of discomfort as you recognize the gravity of the situation and she has to take off her clothes. I also looked to her to tell us where the line was. We figured it out together. Then when we shot it, certain scenes were fine and certain scenes were as uncomfortable as they appeared. It’s funny, when you watch the movie you get the sense that’s there’s more nudity than there actually is. She was covered a lot of the time, so that it wasn’t weird on set.
DS: Was there any temptation to make Ann Dowd more threatening as the manager complying with the demands? It was chilling that she was so calm, but I could imagine when breaking it down on a scene-by-scene basis it would be temping to go a little farther.
CZ: It’s interesting. We mostly stayed on the script as far as the dialogue, but we shot several different versions of certain scenes to play with that tone. I think Ann and I went into it thinking, “Well I’m sure she would do this, but let’s try a few other things to be sure.” We did many different takes, especially in the first half. After a while we knew exactly how certain scenes would be played, but we experimented in some of those first scenes between Dreama and Ann. We’d do ten takes or so in different styles. A lot of the performance came from how we put it together in the edit. But, I think Ann and I quickly realized that it was much more interesting for her not to be authoritarian.
DS: What on Earth made you think of Pat Healy for the caller? Loved him for a long time, but never pictured in a role this deranged.
CZ: Yeah, that was part of it. I’d also worked with him before, so I knew he was amazing and knew I could rely on him for certain things. There were times while shooting when I would tell him certain things and not the other actors. I knew he had improv skills. In some ways it was an incredibly difficult role for him because he’s not a sociopathic crazy person (laughs), obviously. We talked about the character as someone who didn’t have a lot of agency in his life. He was yelled at by his boss and his way of going home and kicking the dog was to make these bizarre phone calls. You normally would cast someone with a deep voice and when you finally see them they’re smoking cigarettes all the time (laughs). We tried to avoid that guy.
DS: When did you get a sense of the impact this could have on an audience? Did you have to show it in a theatre?
CZ: During editing I screened it a lot for people, but never for more than seven or eight people at a time simply because it’s very hard for me to screen it for 300 people and walk away with any useful information. So we screened it a lot, but only to small groups who would could talk to at length about what their feelings were. I knew what we had made, but I didn’t know how it would play until we showed it at Sundance and (laughs) we know what happened there.
DS: What role David Gordon Green play in getting this made?
CZ: David and I have worked together a bunch before. I was co-producer on George Washington, he produced my first film and I was a production manager on several of his films. He actually just shot a film this summer that I produced. So we were old friends and we were actually at a 10-year anniversary screening of George Washington in the area where we shot it. We were talking about what we were going to do next and I told him this idea saying, “I don’t know if I can do it, but here’s this idea that I find really provocative and interesting.” He basically said, “That’s amazing, you need to do that next.” So he was the first one to come on as a producer and really push it forward.
DS: Is it surreal to see him, Jody Hill, Danny McBride, Jeff Nichols and yourself all successfully making movies after being in the same film classes together? It has to be the best batting average for any graduating film school class.
CZ: (Laughs) It’s a little bizarre, yeah. But great. I attribute that to the fact that there was never any sense of competition. We were all at a school that no one had heard of. There was a lot of camaraderie in the sense that no one knew what would happen after school, but we had to support each other. And also, Winston-Salem North Carolina isn’t exactly a jumping metropolis. The only thing that we could do was watch movies. There was literally one bar in the town.
DS: I was surprised to see that you were involved in the Homestar Runner website, particularly after seeing Compliance. Are you still involved with that group at all?
CZ: Yeah ,Mike and Matt Chapman the creators and I kind of all made it up in ‘98 or so. We thought it would be hilarious to make a children’s book pointing out how stupid they can be. It was kind of an in-joke and then eventually Mike and Matt learned how to animate them as cartoons and it just took off. Those are some of my closest and dearest friends in the world, so I’m definitely still involved. They are having a really exciting moment now because the website is still out there, but they’ve started working on some other projects that could possibly be on television. They have two different pilots and I’m excited because I think they are just about to unleash a whole new world of funniness on everyone.
DS: Do you think you’ll go back to comedy now?
CZ: I don’t know. I have an idea that’s kind of half comedy, half drama. It was really exciting to exercize the filmmaking muscles of how to create tension of suspense and I’m eager to try and do that in a more conventional genre setting. I feel like I learned a lot and I’d like to play with that again. There’s a lot on the plate right now and I don’t have the next thing nailed down quite yet, but I will very soon.