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.