Zobel: He’s just following his gut

August 16, 2012

Craig Zobel understands that his new film, “Compliance,” makes audiences uncomfortable to the point of creeping them out.

That’s kind of the point, the filmmaker says.

“There is that line,” Zobel says. “Obviously, it’s not ideal if you make something that disturbs people so much that they walk out. But this film needed to be challenging. It’s an important story because of how dark it goes. What scares me is that whole idea of who we think we are and who we are when put in a situation like this.”

Based on actual cases, “Compliance” is a fiction film essentially shot on one small set: a mock-up of a fast-food restaurant. The film deals with the manager of a fast-food restaurant (and her employees) who are manipulated by a caller claiming to be a police officer – who tells them that a young female employee has been accused of stealing from a customer. More to the point, he wants the manager to hold her until he gets there and, in the meantime, conduct a thorough search of the young woman. A strip-search.

Aside from the actual incidents (of which there were dozens), Zobel also drew on the Stanford prison experiments (which cast students as guards or prisoners, then revealed just how far the guards would go in dehumanizing the prisoners) and the Stanley Milgram experiments (in which people were instructed to shock subjects who delivered wrong answers).

“I was reading about these behavior experiments and they seemed to be different at first from the fast-food restaurant cases,” Zobel says. “As I was reading about them, my first reaction was, ‘Well, I would never do that.’ But I’m sure all the people in those experiments said the same thing.

“So I started to reflect on the difference between what we think we’d do and what we actually do in that situation.”

That was also true with the fast-food cases: “It’s a movie that seems to be very black-and-white but, once I began to peel back the layers, it’s not,” he says. “There were a lot of different things to contemplate. Because there were multiple questions you have to answer.”

Once he had the idea, he had to figure out how to make it into a film. He began with the issues that aroused his curiosity.

“I mean, it happened in multiple cases because the guy who did it – who was never caught – made the same kind of call multiple times,” Zobel says. “In terms of the big picture, there was a clear beginning, middle and end. But I had to figure out how he got people from one step to the next, to put it together piece by piece.

“What was fascinating was how much time each incident took in real life: literally, hours. What makes it work is that the people had to make a lot of little decisions over a long period of time. But then I had to figure out what the compressed version is – because I don’t think anyone wants to watch this for four-and-a-half hours.”

And what did he conclude about why the managers – and the accused, who turned out to be victims in the end – would comply with a faceless caller on the phone?

“What kept the girl from leaving? Well, these are authority figures, people who are her boss,” Zobel says. “If you need a job and money, well, nobody likes the boss but, with any job, there’s a certain amount of things you just have to comply with, to do what they say. Plus, after a while, she’d be embarrassed to leave because she didn’t have her clothes.”

Zobel still isn’t sure whether anyone can guard against a situation like this one: “That scares me – and that makes it an interesting place to talk about in an artistic way.”

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