Interviews · Movies

‘Compliance’ Director Craig Zobel: “I Didn’t Believe That This Happened”

Magnolia Pictures
By  · Published on August 16th, 2012

Compliance caused quite a stir at this year’s Sundance. Many labeled the film exploitative, finding its subject matter too much to bare. There were also other viewers, such as our Kate Erbland, who perfectly described the film as “an exceedingly well-made interpersonal drama that hinges on the limits (and, oftentimes, depths) of human nature and people’s response to certain carefully calibrated psychological tricks.”

It’s a fine line between exploitation and conveying the harsh reality of the true story, but that’s not the sole challenge director Craig Zobel faced. A majority of Compliance features one of the most dullest acts to watch on screen: characters talking on the phone. There’s rarely anything cinematic about it, but Zobel managed to make every phone call ooze with dread, which probably helped him land a pretty nice gig with Tobey Maguire

Here’s what Compliance director Craig Zobel had to say about the film’s exploration of authority, never giving clear answers for the truly terrible decisions made in the film, and making one long phone call between a psycho and an average joe manager exciting:

This is kind of a perfect “real life is stranger than fiction” story.

[Laughs] Yeah, totally. Honestly, I didn’t believe that this happened, which was my first reaction. Reading that there were multiple cases of it, I thought, “I’d never do that.” There was something significant about how many cases there was of it, which started a clicking in my head. All the cases forced me to rethink how realistic I’m being, in that I would never do this. Have I never in my life done something I disagreed with, because someone with authority over me told me that I had to? Everyday there’s small cases where that can happen, and that’s why I wanted to make the movie.

The movie is more about the illusion of authority or power, though, right?

The illusion of power…that’s an interesting way of putting it. We give them power by giving them authority, right? We give away authority, I think. Since making the movie, I have thought about it more in that way. You know, you say, “Okay, police office, I’m going to let you have power over me, with the assumption you are going to use it well, protect me, and serve me.” You just hope that’s not abused [Laughs].

There is a lot of questioning in the film over, “Why would so-and-so do that? Why not do this?” There’s rarely clear answers for some of the characters’ decision-making. Did you see it as important keeping their actions left-opened for interpretation?

As soon as I decided to make the film, I thought the most interesting choice was to not give away some of those answers. Ultimately, I felt there wasn’t just one answer for some of this stuff. I think it’s death by a thousand paper cuts, like a culmination of elements that got them into the situation they’re in.

There’s a thin line between accurately showing the story’s brutality versus making exploitation, especially with how much we see of Becky. For you, where did you think the film could become exploitation?

I don’t think I ever realized the line on the day, but I thought if anything was creating different feelings than making me feel uncomfortable, then…if I couldn’t justify specifically why we were doing something in order to make the gravity of the situation land, then that was the line. Some people will watch the film and they’ll feel that I was in a totally different place. I was certainly thinking about this, and I was thinking about it all day. It’s very subjective stuff, ultimately. Based on my moral compass and my feelings, I was trying to make that line. Nobody is wrong if they think it’s not [right]. I’m actually totally comfortable talking about it. I’m interested in having that conversation, and it’s usually something people shy away from.

Did you see it as important of keeping the camera at a distance during the more degrading acts Becky goes through? Is that a part of that consciousness of straying away from exploitation?

That was absolutely designed. That was also me talking with Dreama [Walker], saying, “I’m thinking of shooting this that way. What do you think?” She’d be, like, yes or no. Not only yes or no because “I’m an actress and I don’t want to be shown in this or that light,” but more, like, “I’m a woman and I would find that inappropriate or this or that fine.” Well, not fine, but…there were conversations. Most of it was what I had designed going into it as well. We didn’t have a whole lot of time to make the movie, so you do all your homework beforehand [Laughs].

With the limited amount of locations, and the claustrophobia of them, was every shot heavily planned out in advance?

Definitely, to a degree. There was a hardcore plan of overhead drawings for almost everything that happens, down to: this is where that part will happen in and that’s where that part will happen in. When we get on set, we would augment a lot. There were a lot of choices made when we got on set. I knew it would be an intense movie, so I didn’t want stuff, like, “Cut back to that same wide-shot!” [Laughs]

[Laughs] You also have the challenge of showing characters talking on the phone for most of the movie, which usually make for the most non-cinematic scenes possible.

Totally. I would say the two most boring things to watch and shoot are phone calls and driving places. [Laughs]

[Laughs] And people on computers.

And computers. There’s a few times where it’s shot cool. The Social Network was a breath of fresh air, in terms of characters on computers movie.

What about Swordfish?

[Laughs] And Swordfish! When you break this movie down to its roots, it’s a bunch of people standing around cardboard boxes talking onto a phone. I recognized it’s the least sexy-sounding movie pitch ever heard. “Well, the movie is mostly in one room around a lot of cardboard boxes, and then they’re going to talk on the phone…give me a lot of money to make this!” Really, a lot of it has to do with the performances and everybody’s curiosity about the decisions.

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Compliance opens in limited release this Friday.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.