Director Craig Zobel (Urs Flueeler, EPA )
Even before Craig Zobel's psychological thriller "Compliance" premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival, the filmmaker knew the movie would be a button-pusher. Still, he didn't expect the very vocal, very negative response from some audience members at the film's first screening, where a handful of viewers began loudly shouting accusations of exploitation and misogyny.
"I knew that it was a bothersome, upsetting film," Zobel said of his expectations before that first screening. But, he added, "I didn't design it to be controversial."
Opening Aug. 24 in Los Angeles, "Compliance" takes place on a hectic night at a suburban fast-food chain restaurant. A phone call comes in for the manager (Ann Dowd) telling her there has been an accusation of theft against one of her employees. The voice on the line (Pat Healy) identifies himself as a police officer and instructs the manager to take a female employee named Becky (Dreama Walker) into a back room.
In the course of the call, he coerces the manager into performing a strip search on the young woman. After a time, Becky is undressed and doing jumping jacks. Things take a turn from the humiliating to the genuinely hurtful. No one ever just hangs up.
Ratcheting up the tension is that the audience knows the call is a hoax, a sickening revelation that comes far too late for the characters in that cramped office.
The story is based on a series of similar phone hoaxes perpetrated across a number of states, the most widely known being a 2004 incident in Kentucky. The Brooklyn-based writer-director read about the cases and opted to make a fictionalized retelling that uses the hoax as a springboard to examine the relationship of authority, power and gender dynamics.
"I wanted to be really objective about the story, and I think some of the people who have had a strong negative reaction to the movie are in some ways reacting to how objective it feels," Zobel said during a recent stop in Los Angeles. "I could have made it incredibly subjective, from the point of view of the victim, but then everyone becomes a bad guy. What I found fascinating was these people in the middle between those two poles who were just trying to get through their day."
Zobel grew up outside Atlanta and studied film at the North Carolina School for the Arts, whose distinguished alumni also include David Gordon Green, Jody Hill, Jeff Nichols, Aaron Katz and "Compliance" producer Lisa Muskat. (Green is an executive producer on "Compliance.")
Zobel's feature debut, "Great World of Sound," starring Healy as the reluctant employee of a fly-by-night record label, premiered at Sundance in 2007 and also generated a certain amount of controversy. Zobel had filmed people who believed they were actually auditioning for a record label deal without first clarifying that they were being shot for an indie movie.
Made for less than $1 million, his follow-up, "Compliance," screened as part of the ultra-low-budget NEXT section at Sundance. It was shot partly in New Jersey, with interiors done mostly on a Brooklyn soundstage.
Zobel filmed the cast simultaneously on two distinct sets so that the characters on both sides of the phone call could be recorded at the same time. The strategy enabled the actors to more directly respond to one another as the narrative becomes increasingly grim, with the story hurtling toward an eventual sexual assault.
"I thought about gender the whole time," Zobel said of handling with discretion the film's most disquieting moments. "I think people abuse power in gender dynamics all the time. It was unavoidable. And the facts of the story lead you to have to address that. But that's sort of what the movie is about."
Although they knew the nature of the subject matter better than anyone, the actors said they were taken aback when "Compliance" met with such vitriol at the Sundance screening. Walker said she was "mortified," while Healy called it "one of the most uncomfortable experiences" of his life.
"This particular story indicts us all, and that's what's uncomfortable," he said. "It's easy to point fingers, but this is really about all of us, and that's what's hard for people to get their heads around. I feel like the movie did its job."
"It definitely hits some people; it rattles them, and that makes them angry," Dowd added. "I had a woman say to me... 'I feel complicit just sitting and watching this.' Obviously, you want a moviegoer involved in your story in an intimate way, but it is rather extraordinary how angry people are, not at the man who committed these crimes or things in the story, but the decision to make the film."
For his next project, Zobel is hoping to make a film currently titled "Gizmondo," based on a Wired magazine article about real-life Swedish con artist Bo Stefan Eriksson, who launched a failed video game venture. He says he's fascinated by larger-than-life stories where the lines separating good and evil aren't always clear and clean.
He doesn't necessarily see himself as a punk provocateur, however. "To be honest, I'd like to be the brash filmmaker that was putting everyone in their place, but it was really that I'm interested in the way that we make these kinds of decisions," Zobel said in a separate interview with The Times this year. "I wish I was that Lars von Trier guy and that I was doing it all on purpose."