Question of authority: Craig Zobel's 'Compliance' offers unsettling look at human behavior

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re the manager of a popular fast-food outlet in an ordinary American burg. Around the restaurant, you’re known for being a tough, but (mostly) fair employer and you’re also eager to maintain good relations with the suits at the region’s head corporate office. One afternoon, you receive a phone call from a man who identifies himself as a police officer and insinuates that one of your employees, specifically a young woman whom you already know to be a bit flighty, is guilty of stealing money from a customer’s purse. In a perfectly reasonable tone, the officer requests that you isolate this woman and ensure she doesn’t leave the premises. Furthermore, because neither he nor any of his fellow cops are available to come by and bring her into the station for questioning, he requests—again, in a perfectly reasonable manner—that you start the interrogation on their behalf.

With him prompting you from the other end of the line, you ask the employee, who understandably is confused and a bit scared, a series of questions about the theft and then conduct a search of her person. When no evidence is found in her uniform, the cop states a strip search is the next logical step and, wanting to fully cooperate with what seems an entirely legitimate police investigation like a good manager would, you ask her to remove her clothes. Over the course of the next four to five hours, this officer will continue to direct you—as well as the people who stay on the line and keep the girl under observation while you attend to your managerial duties—to continue to poke and prod at this woman, all the while insisting that it’s an important part of police procedure and praising you for your compliance in what’s obviously a difficult situation. Maybe it’s his steady stream of compliments, maybe it’s the reassuring sound of his voice, or maybe it’s just that you’ve always wanted to be a hero and catch a criminal in the act, but never for a second do you doubt that the man at the other end of the line is telling you the honest truth. But, of course, he isn’t. The person you’re speaking with isn’t a member of the police or any law-enforcement agency; he’s a prank caller who has played this trick many, many times before.

If all this sounds like the purple prose of a particularly bad thriller, you may be surprised—and probably more than a little shocked—to hear that it’s an entirely true story. In 2004, this seemingly improbable scenario played itself out at a McDonald’s restaurant in Kentucky in a case that made national headlines, particularly after it was revealed that it was the latest (and one of the most serious) in a line of similar incidents that had been occurring on and off for years. The success with which the perpetrator of these crimes was able to manipulate ordinary people into doing his bidding immediately inspired comparisons to such famous behavioral case studies as the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a mock prison scenario took an all-too-real turn, and the infamous Milgram Experiment, where participants were issued—and frequently complied with—orders to electrocute a person in another room whom they could hear but not see. Always on the lookout for ripped-from-the-headlines material, the “Law & Order” franchise turned the McDonald’s case into a 2006 episode of its “Special Victims Unit” series, with Robin Williams playing the caller. And now it’s become the basis for a provocative feature film, Compliance, written and directed by Craig Zobel, who previously helmed the acclaimed and award-winning 2007 feature Great World of Sound.

Since premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January (the Magnolia release opened in New York on August 17 before expanding to more markets), Compliance has inspired heated reactions on both sides of the spectrum, with some praising it as a chilling study of human psychology and others calling both the story and the characters’ actions patently absurd and ridiculous. The wide disparity of opinions doesn’t come as a surprise to Zobel, who anticipated that outcome almost from the moment he decided to make the movie.
“I knew that the film was going to leave some of the audience on the table, because we were making decisions that some of the audience was not going to be comfortable with,” he says, on the phone from Los Angeles, not long after returning from screening the film at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. “But I felt like we had logical reasons for the creative decisions we made. I felt confident about where that took us and I also felt that some people would like it. But the [negative reaction] was more heightened than I imagined. At Sundance, I think that some of that had to do with the fact that nobody had a relationship with the movie yet. When you only read a three-sentence synopsis, I don’t know if you have a sense of what the movie is going to be at first. Since then, there’s been a greater understanding of what the movie is and I think the response has changed somewhat.”

Surprisingly, something that doesn’t alter the negative responses some viewers have had to the film is the fact that Compliance is derived from a true story. “People will say, ‘I don’t care if it’s true—I just can’t believe that would ever happen,’” Zobel explains. “And then I have to say, ‘Fair enough.’ I do think that if you don’t feel like you can connect with how this kind of situation is possible or if you’re just not comfortable imagining a time when you may have gone against some [feeling] inside you because someone in authority told you to, then you just won’t connect with the movie. And I wasn’t looking to [create] the feeling of uncomfortability; this was a very serious situation and I didn’t want to make it too easy. I didn’t want the audience to only have an intellectual response without an emotional response.”

Zobel himself experienced both an intellectual and emotional response when he first read about the McDonald’s incident while researching various stories regarding human-behavior experiments, including the Stanford Prison case. (In fact, he had originally considered adapting the Stanford story to the big screen, but opted against that after being made aware that several similar projects were already in various stages of development.) “At the time, I didn’t necessarily think I was going to make a movie out of it,” he remembers. “I was mainly just reading these stories for fun, in a way. And my initial reaction to the McDonald’s story was what most people say [about my movie]—I would never do that. That’s crazy! But then days later I found myself still thinking about it and I wondered if I was being completely honest with myself.”

That uncertainty compelled him to set about dramatizing the case, changing the names of the various concerned parties, but otherwise mostly sticking to the facts as they were reported in the media and the subsequent court cases. “Reading about these events, you’d see the same details pop up in multiple places, very specific things like the woman being made to run in place or do jumping jacks. And I wanted to know how the individuals got to that point. What did the caller say that made enough sense to the listeners that they made her do that? That’s really what writing the script was about, trying to figure out how to answer the question about why all these people didn’t say ‘No’ at this point or that point.
“At the same time,” he continues, “I realized that time would be a really huge element of the movie. In real life, the situation lasted four to five hours and that version of the movie would be unwatchable. So I had to decide what are the shortcuts and narrative compressions that we could make to the film so that it would still resonate emotionally. I wanted things to happen faster, but also preserve the element where you can connect to the people onscreen enough to understand why that particular person in that particular situation would make that particular decision that’s terrible, really. That was the onus of writing it, trying to figure that [balance] out. I don’t think I would refer to Compliance as a thriller, but [I recognized] that things needed to keep happening. The film couldn’t just be about a bunch of people sitting in a room. There had to be a sense of escalation.”

As dramatized by Zobel, the situation does escalate to some unsettling places during the course of Compliance’s tension-filled 90-minute runtime. Eventually strip searches give way to harsher abuses, culminating in an act of sexual aggression that’s taken directly from what occurred in the real-life case. It’s a moment that, if you’re already troubled by the movie, may send you out of the theatre for good. And yet, Zobel says that as difficult as this scene might be to watch, there were other incidents from the McDonald’s story that he shot and then chose to leave out of the finished film because he felt they might be too disturbing for audiences to accept.

“There was a whole other scene of sexual impropriety that was really weird and hard to understand [in terms of] how the situation got there. I don’t know if I got there in the way I wrote it, either. It just didn’t read in the film; I felt like it was making me really uncomfortable and that I would lose the audience if I kept too much of it in. In general, I had my own personal feelings about how far I should go, when I felt like it was too much. And I would also talk with the actors, to get a sense of how far they’d be able to go and what they felt they couldn’t make realistic.”

The ability to have those kinds of conversations with his cast was one of the reasons why Zobel opted to make Compliance with professionals rather than non-actors, even if that approach meant sacrificing a certain degree of realism. Obviously, none of the performers in the film are movie stars on the level of, say, Channing Tatum or Reese Witherspoon. But Ann Dowd—who plays the manager at the movie’s fictionalized fast-food restaurant—is a recognizable character actress who has appeared in everything from Garden State to multiple “Law & Order” series. And Dreama Walker—who plays the abused employee—is one of the stars of the popular new ABC series “Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23,” a role she landed while Compliance was being shot.

“You couldn’t show more different sides of Dreama between that show and this movie,” Zobel says, laughing. “Hopefully people will notice what a fantastic actress she is. I was definitely worried about using [professional actors] initially; I felt like it might be distracting, especially if viewers feel they already have a relationship with that person. But I was also hesitant about using non-actors, because I knew we were going to have to do a lot of narrative shortcuts and pack a lot into every scene, so I was interested in having people with training, just to make sure there was nuance there. I think non-actors can be wonderful to work with, but I may have needed more time [to work with them] than I had to make the movie, because I had to shoot it very fast.”

Beyond the questions this story poses about human behavior, the other thing that drew Zobel to the McDonald’s case was to explore another subject that interests him, one that was at the center of his previous movie, Great World of Sound. Both that film and this one are, in a sense, portraits of very specific workplaces—record producing in the earlier film and assembly-line fast-food joints here. In each movie, the central characters attempt to do their jobs the best they see fit, but find themselves challenged by situations where their assigned duties conflict with their own sense of morality.

“Work is 80% of what we do every day, and in most movies you never see any of it,” Zobel observes. “Like those terrible team meetings you have to go to—you never see those in movies. So I’m very interested in work. Everyone goes into the place where they work assuming that they’re going to eat some amount of shit every day, because that’s something that you’re kind of getting paid to do and it’s something that needs to be done. And then there’s also the authority that bosses have over you—your job is basically to do what they say. But [what happens] when your boss asks you to do something that’s outside of what you normally feel okay with? What are the ways you rationalize that request? I think rationalizing is the way a lot of bad things happen in the world; most people don’t wander around thinking that they're bad guys. I think that everyone thinks they're totally good and they're only doing something that can be perceived as being bad. But to them, they've rationalized the reasons they need to—or want to—do it.”

Having made the festival rounds with Compliance since January, Zobel is happy that the movie is now available for general audiences to see and, inevitably, argue about. In the meantime, he’s already developing new projects, including one that would be his first directing assignment for a film that he didn’t also write. And while he’s made his previous two films outside of the studio system, he’s not averse to trying his hand at a big-budget assignment.

“I didn’t make this movie with an eye towards my career at all—it was more like an art project in a way. But it was a good movie for me to make in that I knew it would be a challenge—the performances would have to be really well-executed and I had to make sure I shot it well enough that it wasn’t boring while you were in that room. I had a lot of fun getting to play with the language of a thriller in that way and it’s something I’d like to keep doing. Honestly I'd love to make an international thriller one day. I think that would be fun.” When it’s suggested that the success of The Bourne Legacy might mean there’s an opening to direct the next installment in that globe-trotting action franchise, Zobel laughs keenly. “Tell me about it. Put me in, coach!” Actually, The Bourne Compliance does have a pretty good ring to it…