A firm believer of truth being stranger than fiction, writer-director Craig Zobel has snagged a hit by ripping inspiration from the headlines, generating wildfire buzz with his new fact-based psychodrama Compliance. Drawn from events linked to the McDonald's strip-search scam of the 1990s and early aughts, which saw dozens of young female workers humiliated by their bosses at the phoned-in command of a phony cop, the Ohio-set film homes in on a single horrifying incident, wherein wrongfully accused fast-food cashier Becky (Dreama Walker) is subjected to a systematic string of lewd, demeaning acts. According to Zobel, who's had to answer plenty of questions about his film ever since it sparked walkouts and arguments at its Sundance debut, Compliance is chiefly driven by an honest interest in human behavior and how it can sometimes be deplorable in the name of following orders (among the director's other influences are the Stanley Milgram obedience experiment, which saw participants eschew morals and obey demands, delivering fake electric shocks to peers, and the Stanford prison experiment, which involved male students adopting the savagery and submissiveness of guards and inmates in a faux prison setting). The movie is highly polarizing, with some viewers fascinated by the questions it forces on them, and others unconvinced of its value as a button-pusher. But whether or not you believe Compliance is worth the debate it's wrought grows increasingly irrelevant, as the film has crossed that invisible line into word-of-mouth, what's-it-all-about territory, becoming a mini-phenomenon that curious filmgoers are itching to be a part of.
Perhaps unsure of how to ride the wave of attention his pot-stirrer has received, Zobel seems downright timid for a man who filmed his sympathetic heroine doing naked jumping jacks for a phantom authority figure. Apart from exploring humans' collective compulsion to abide by the rules of superiors, the New York native expresses an ironic eagerness to please, and a hope that everyone will like Compliance. Such a hope has already been dashed, but Zobel can probably rest assured that almost everyone will see it.
Slant: What initially drew you to the story of the strip-search prank-call scam?
Craig Zobel: I had been reading a lot about human-behavior experiments, like the Stanley Milgram and Stanford prison experiments. And I was just fascinated with those, and fascinated by looking at statistical proof, if you will, of weird behavior patterns in people. In doing that, there was a lot of stuff that pointed to these prank phone calls. So I started reading about them and I just felt like there was no black and white; there were so many nuances and different things going on inside these stories that I felt like it would be a very meaty and interesting film to make.
Slant: From what I've read, the 2004 prank-call incident in Mount Washington, Kentucky seems to directly mirror the film's events. Is Compliance a recreation of that specific incident?
CZ: Well, I took things from other [incidents] as well; it's just that that one's the most well-known. And there are certain details that I did take from [the Mount Washington case], but there were others that I looked at, like one in Hinesville, Georgia. What I was interested in was that, when you looked at journalism about these things, it was all in the past tense. I was fascinated with putting myself in the heads of the people who made these decisions, and what it would take to make them. That's what I wanted to make a film about.
Slant: Did you speak to any of the people involved, and if so, how did they feel about these events in their lives being turned into a movie?
CZ: I didn't speak to any of the people involved. Honestly, I imagine these were very traumatic events in their lives, and in looking at all of these events, I have empathy for them. In the same way that I can kind of relate to some aspects of how they could have gotten into the situation that they got in, I can also understand them not wanting to be involved in, or asked about, [a movie like] this. It's probably something you'd want to put behind you.
Slant: Was there ever a consideration to reach out to those people?
CZ: There was...there were discussions about it. But I was really more interested in trying to see if I could get from point A to point B in my head in a sympathetic way that I think people would react to. So it wasn't important to me to meet the people. That seemed beyond the point. There are a lot of articles and documentary films about this already. It was about retelling these events, it was about trying to figure out behavior.
Slant: Do you have any background in psychology?
CZ: That's probably why I made this movie [laughs]. In general, I really don't have a background in psychology, but I'm super interested in it. But, at some point, you've kind of made decisions of what your career is going to be, so this was a way to think about psychology [with film]. I'm really, really fascinated by it all, and in reading and creating, [this process] was self-educating.
Slant: We see Dreama Walker topless in this movie, but we don't see the lewd acts that her character is eventually forced to take part in. What dictated where you drew the line in terms of what you were willing to show?
CZ: I felt that it was important that nudity was there [to express] the gravity of the situation. And my hope and belief is that it's not handled in a way that's sexy. It lets you know that these people went to a place that seems very bizarre to go to. But after that, I didn't feel like there was that much need to linger in that part of that world. It was never my intention to make it seem attractive, nor did I think there was any value to actually seeing violence. I felt that would be too far. So that was my internal measure. It's funny, though, because when I talk to people, they're reacting to, honestly, a very conservative amount of nudity—nudity with a very conservative amount of screen time. I actually love the conversation that's being generated, and exploring these reactions. You have the impression that you're seeing more nudity than you actually do. I've had people come up to me and ask me if I'd re-edited the film since the first time they saw it. And I would say, no, and they'd say the film seemed more tame than the last time they'd seen it. So I think that's people just feeling uncomfortable with the conversation and scenario so much that they're already looking at the film through their fingers. We're used to seeing nudity used in a way that's meant for exploitative titillation, and the nudity in my movie makes people want to say, "Wait, are you doing it right?"