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‘Compliance’ Director Craig Zobel On Uncomfortable Art And the Cops’ Approval

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"‘Compliance’ Director Craig Zobel On Uncomfortable Art And the Cops’ Approval"

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Ever since I saw Craig Zobel’s film Compliance, about employees at a fast-food restaurant who were talked into an abusing a co-worker, at Sundance, I’ve been eager to see it reach a wider audience. The movie follows a day in the life of Sandra (Ann Dowd), a manager at the restaurant for whom nothing seems to be going right, who receives a phone call from a man claiming to be a police officer, who tells her that Becky (Dreama Walker), a junior employee at the restaurant, has stolen from a customer. Over the course of the day, the man talks Sandra into detaining Becky, having her searched, and ultimately, another man into assaulting her.

Compliance is a powerful movie about our desire to gain police approval and our willingness, or lack thereof, to intervene when things are going terribly wrong around us. And it seemed to me to be misunderstood at the festival, where audiences complained that its depiction of what happened to Becky, which is based on a series of true events, was exploitative, or insisted that they couldn’t relate to characters who worked in the service industry. I talked to Zobel about art that makes people uncomfortable, what it means that we seek approval from the police, and feminist filmmaking. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

I wanted to start by asking how you came to the source material. I’ve seen the Law & Order episode that’s based on these real events, so it’s floating around in the pop culture ether, but I was curious how you became interested in it.

It’s funny, I’m from Georgia, and one of the events took place in Georgia, so I kind of knew about it from that, but I hadn’t remembered exactly what the deal was. And I was reading about Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments when I stumbled upon it, so it was after the pop culture moment had happened.

I know Dreama Walker from her more comedic work, but she has been bubbling along in Gran Torino and everything else, so how did you come to work with her?

She read the script and was really interested, and it resonated with her. She was familiar with the original story as well. She came in, and we were casting, the casting for that role was delicate in a way. We had to up front lay everything out. This is what this movie’s about. She was interested and came in and auditioned, which was great. And than she and I sat down and had coffee, which I think quickly turned into beer because we were talking about some heavy stuff really fast. She just had the same questions that I did about the story and what it was all about…They just wouldn’t come in. It was a voluntary thing. Acting is a voluntary thing. Most of hte people I was seeing were people who were already fascinated by it in some sense. But Dreama and I talked a lot…She just was the right person. it made sense to me for a lot of reasons…She was kind of identifying certain things as the more interesting way to play this or that beat, or the way that was compelling though it was somewhat frustrating. We were talking about these things and kind of landing in the same places. When we started working together, it was very specific. These are the shots. This is what you’re going to do. Talking about that stuff before we were ever on set so there weren’t any surprises…

I first encountered this story and was very much, kind of what a lot of people’s reactions are, “Well, that’s fascinating, but I would never do that.” Truly a very condescending point of view, when you really think about it. Which has been interesting, to have the movie keep going, to listen to some people who very much distance themselves from the movie at Q&As and things like that, who point out how dumb the people were, how they’re from a different class, and all these things that I was not comfortable. I think my bullshit detector went off inside of myself when I was so condescending about how I would never do it. I think that’s what made me want to do the movie. It was “Why did I just act like that?”

That was one of the things I wanted to ask you about, because in one of the Q&As you did at Sundance, one of the members of the audience said “Well, I just couldn’t identify with these people because they were too dumb.” And it seemed like people, who normally wouldn’t fall back on class prejudice or gender prejudice had been scrambling to do that to avoid any suggestion that they could ever be complicit.

Or putting it back on me that it’s painted that way. I would feel like I fucked up if that’s what you really think, that these people are dumb. I would feel like I failed. I tried hard. I tried hard to avoid that. That was the one thing to avoid in my opinion. It’s condescending. Especially when it’s multiple people over a ten year period, and it’s these seventy cases you can look at, and it keeps happening. It’s like, man, it’s not that. There’s no way it could have been all the dumb people that got called. People do fall back on, I’m reading it the way your’e reading it, people are trying to distance themselves from the movie and don’t want to go there and want to put these people into boxes so they can be safe. We had a screening the other day where that came up, and it was funny, because it came from the very back of the stadium seating, and it was just the perfect place for it to come from. You’re truly looking down your nose at me and the people who made the movie. You’re actually physically looking down your nose at us.

I wonder if one of the things about the movie that makes people uncomfortable is we like the idea that the police are our friends.

It’s a contract we’ve made. They’re going to protect and serve us, and they aren’t going to do the wrong thing, because what would that mean? That would mean we couldn’t trust them. We’ve made that as a rule. They’re our teammates….I feel like, when people have difficulty with that they’re ignoring any time they’ve ever interacted with a police officer. It’s only since the movie that I’ve ever had a run-in with a police officer. I was walking across Sixth Avenue in New York the other day, because there were traffic problems, it was at Canal Street. There were two guys saying, “you, you,” the lights had stopped having any meaning, and everyone was looking at the two guys in the yellow things, we’re off the grid here, the red light and the green light mean nothing, these guys have superseded it. And I was walking, and I was kind of looking and I realized no one was coming, and I said to one of the two guys, “Hey, can I go?” and he wanted me to not ask questions, so he just said “Okay,” and the other guy, even though they’ve superseded the lights, says to me “You walk when the walk light sign says green. My nine year old knows that.” The cop says that. So I go “Okay. Just tell me what to do.” I started fighting back, I got heated about it, I said “Do you want me to go or not go?” And I thought, “Woah, I’m fighting back against a cop.” And I don’t think I ever did that before…It’s terrifying, when you get pulled over by the police, if you have to get out, that’s terrifying in a certain sense…People just ignore any experience they’ve had with the police, where people are mostly scared, I think.

I also think there’s some kind of reflected valor in cooperating with the police. And I wonder if that’s what happened with Sandra [Ann Dowd's character, a manager at the restaurant, who is the initial target of the call]. On a day when everything else is going wrong for her, she can help solve the crime.

It’s a way for her to achieve success on a day where nothing else was working. Ann would tell you this is a person, she saw Sandra as a person who was told she didn’t have, she wasn’t good for a lot. That even complicates the issue. I think that’s a funny thing that, in the same way the people don’t want to look at their relationships with cops and try to push that away, there are people who are insecure, and that happens. We’re all insecure sometimes, we all have some amount of that inside of us. And when you’re insecure, you look for ways to not feel that way anymore as quick as you can. For Ann, that was the main driving thing. Do the right thing. Do the good thing.

As a movie about sexism, I thought it was fascinating that you have these male characters who behave along a spectrum, from “I’m not going to collaborate but I’m not going to blow the whistle either,” to “I’m going to collaborate because it’s what I’m told to do,” to “I’m going to intervene.” Was that a dynamic that was reflected in the real events, or was it something you decided to have to make sure all those positions were represented.

Truly a little of both, because it is the same as some of the real events. I wills ay that I gave it enough thought that I switched the genders of a bunch of those people in my end, and was like “What does it do to the movie if we have this person as a female?” I never really thought that Becky should be a male because a) it would just be an incredibly confusing story, it would push people more into the “I don’t believe it” category. And I don’t know what it says that that was my first instinct. I think people exploit authority over women. I’m not a woman, but I recognize that that happens, so I felt like that was important. I thought it was important that the caller was a man. I thought that those were kind of necessary. I thought Ann’s character, Sandra, could have been a man. But if she was a man, you immediately would have started thinking of the sexual ramifications, rather than, at least hopefully, getting some recognition of it as a power dynamic instead of immediately as a sexual dynamic. There were a lot of examples of it being a man manager.

To make the movie work, the boyfriend character needs to be a man. You have these two people who kind of dissent in a certain way. To change Kevin, the young kid who says “I don’t want to be a part of this, I want to take myself out of this,” but he doesn’t really do anything. I liked that character. That was someone I knew, in certain cases, there were people who were drawn in and pushed away. But I liked the idea of putting in the water someone who had a crush on her, that you already knew about as the audience, that might go towards exploitation, and he ran away, cowardly, in a way. I thought that was just too interesting to not do. I wanted him to be a man. Then when you talk about the last person in the film, it’s after the sexual assault, and literally just from a narrative point of view, it’s that kind of climax, what is this guy going to do? He’s just a man for narrative purposes…I do recognize that, in some kind of perfect gender checklist version of this movie, there isn’t a woman saying “This is bullshit.”

At the same time, I feel like you walk a fine line. It’s easy to fall over into the idea that men need to rescue women. But it’s also important for men to be allies and recognize the abuse of women when they see it.

I hope that maybe that comes across in some way, shape or form. When the misogyny discussion started at Sundance with a bang, I didn’t quite know how to verbalize it immediately, but I was like “I swear I thought about it.” I know that it’s about exploiting women. I know that…At one of the Q&As really recently, up in New York, for a taste-maker type thing, there was a person, she was still in school, and she was a graduate women’s studies major, and she did this way better than me. I did at some point read Camille Paglia, and stuff, but I don’t feel comfortable speaking with too much authority, since I’m a dude. But she was able to kind of talk about the differences literally in second-wave feminism and modern feminism. And basically said the whole point in second-wave feminism was about recognizing that there aren’t good images of women in the world and we needed to portray what we hoped a positive version of this, and what we wanted the world to be like, was what we looked to the arts to do. And then at some point there was an acknowledgement, she said it better than me, that it’s also important to show that it’s not working all the time, and there’s still bias and still a mess.

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