“Am I obsessed with hoaxes?” asks Craig Zobel, repeating the question he’s just been posed. It’s a legitimate query, given that a con—the false promise of music-industry glory—fueled his 2007 debut, Great World of Sound, and a particularly horrific prank lies at the center of his sophomore film, Compliance. The 35-year-old director screws up his boyish face in a way that makes it hard to tell whether he’s genuinely contemplating his answer or mocking the image of the chin-stroking artiste before finally owning up: “I guess I do seem to have a preoccupation with them, don’t I? More than anything, I’m fascinated by the notion of being duped. Most of us think that we who wouldn’t fall for some stupid ruse, and then the next thing we know, we’re buying ‘new’ speakers from some guy out of the back of his van.” Zobel shakes his head. “I used to say that my first movie was really about how angry I was about being sold a useless bed liner for my pickup truck at the dealership. I had to face the fact that, no, I’m really not above it. I, too, am the kind of guy who can be talked into things.” He actually seems to be blushing a bit at the memory.
Most of us are susceptible to being cheated or fooled by someone with the gift of gab; it’s what we’re willing to be conned into doing, especially when faced with the voice of authority, that forms the basis of Zobel’s latest. Compliance details a moral downward spiral that starts with a phone call: Sandra (Ann Dowd), a manager at a fast-food restaurant, is told by a “police officer” on the other end of the line that one of her employees was witnessed stealing from a customer’s purse. The cop loosely describes Becky (Dreama Walker)—the petite blond worker on duty—as the perpetrator. Using a combination of flattery and threats, the man convinces Sandra to lock the young woman in a back room until he and his team show up. In the meantime, though, could she get Becky to disrobe? Plus she’ll need to strip search her, and…
Based on a series of real incidents that happened during the early aughts—specifically, a 2004 case in Kentucky that ended in sexual abuse—Zobel’s film uses this prank call to pry open a Pandora’s box of issues surrounding our willingness to capitulate when someone in power (whether it’s real or pretend) issues orders. When the director first read about the epidemic of hoaxes, he was so intrigued by the fact that smart, seemingly ethical people could be persuaded to engage in such behavior that he found himself wrestling with the idea on the page. “It was never with the intention of making a movie about it all, really,” says Zobel. “I just found myself writing out parts of this story in an attempt to understand the why of it, to speculate what the person might say to get someone to go from point A to point B. I kept going on with it until one day I finally went, ‘Wait, what am I doing, exactly? Am I subconsciously trying to turn this into a film?’ When this other project I was working on fell through, I mentioned to a few people how I’d been jotting this dialogue down, and from there, the project kind of took off.”
During the production, Zobel consistently consulted with his actors and cinematographer Adam Stone to make sure the material stayed at the level of social-phenomena exploration, rather than titillating exploitation. “It was very important to me that the film not feel ‘sexy’ in any way, shape or form,” says the director. “I was constantly asking everybody around me whenever we’d discuss how to frame a shot or what, exactly, we’d want to show: ‘Is this cool? Out of the choices we could make here, are we doing this in the least salacious way possible?’ And obviously, I talked to Dreama a lot about how we both wanted to approach the character’s violation in a way that wasn’t objectifying her.” (Zobel’s discussions with Pat Healy, who plays the caller, were much more succinct. “I simply gave him a DVD of Cops episodes and asked him to watch it,” he says, laughing. “There’s a passive-aggressiveness that policemen carry around that says a lot about exercising power.”) Still, such notions of propriety didn’t stop the film’s first audience at Sundance from laying into the director; at the premiere’s post-screening Q&A, things quickly went from simmering hostility to outright screaming. (You can catch a snippet on YouTube, in which a viewer makes inappropriate cracks about Walker’s figure and violently argues with a cast member.)
“Yeah, that was…intense,” says Zobel. “I can understand the reaction. I mean, it’s not like we made Salò, but the film isn’t supposed to make people feel comfortable. It’s supposed to start discussions, and it’s certainly done that.” His subsequent Q&As have been far more civilized affairs. “We recently did a screening at a film festival in Florida that was almost completely filled with senior citizens. I just thought, Uh-oh. When I walked up to the stage after the movie, I expected a really negative reaction—and we all ended up having this amazing conversation about why something like this could happen. They said ,‘Your movie made me want to throw up. And it’s really good!’ ” Zobel beams from ear to ear. “That’s just what every filmmaker wants to hear. No lie.”
Compliance opens Fri 17.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear