Compliance Director Craig Zobel On Courting Controversy And The Insidiousness Of Chick-Fil-A

Compliance Craig Zobel

Long before Chick-fil-A fried their way into the center of a gay rights firestorm, Compliance director Craig Zobel was searching for the right setting to tell his chilling tale of order and obedience gone terribly wrong at a fast food joint. “In the back of my head, I probably could have told you that they were on the wrong side of history,” said Zobel, who rocked Sundance with the drama, based on incredible true events, in which a telephone prankster manipulates the manager of a fictional chicken restaurant into the increasingly dehumanizing treatment of one of her employees. "I just didn’t want to look at it."

The natural impulse to obey authority, and the all too-human imperative to ignore our own wrong behavior, pulsate through every (often) cringe-inducing moment of Compliance. Veteran actress Ann Dowd is tragically relatable as Sandra, the middle-aged "Chick-Wich" restaurant manager conned by a caller claiming to be a cop (Pat Healy) into detaining young cashier Becky (Dreama Walker) on suspicion of stealing from a customer; interrogation by proxy devolves into humiliation and worse as other reasonable-seeming employees and colleagues get involved.

It's an escalation of events you'd think most people would never fall prey to if it hadn't happened in real life in over 70 reported incidents in 30 states. The subject matter touches such a raw nerve that Compliance's Sundance screenings prompted walkouts and shouting matches in the audience; as recently as this week the same thing happened in New York.

Zobel talked with Movieline about the highs and lows of sparking controversy at Sundance, how the Stanford Prison Experiment and the work of psychologist Stanley Milgram led him to Compliance's incredibly true inspiration, why Cops is a great resource for writing policeman dialogue, and how shades of Chick-fil-A unintentionally made its way into the most debated film of the year.

You made quite a splash at Sundance; were you always expecting this kind of divisive reaction from audiences?
I knew that the movie would be challenging to certain types of people, and after having made the movie I thought because of the subject matter and decisions that we made, we’d be leaving some people on the table that wouldn’t like it. So I wasn’t 100 percent surprised. But I made the movie not because I knew the answer to something, but to explore — this stuff is weird, it’s not black and white, and none of it really makes a whole lot of sense to me. So I made it as this question. It was intentional to have a dialogue, and the fact that it happened as fast and as big as it did was kind of amazing. I was on the bus going to another screening at Sundance and heard two people who had no idea who I was talking about it. It was pretty great.

What did they say?
They were talking about the real cases, but hearing people talking as you walked by – “Compliance!” – was exciting.

Isn't it scary as a filmmaker to ride the bus at Sundance?
I could see how it could be, yeah. [Laughs] Mostly it’s just scary because if you’re riding the bus you’re probably late getting somewhere.

When you first heard about these real life fast food prank cases, had you been looking for this kind of crazy real life story for inspiration?
I was really interested in the Stanford Prison Experiment, and because of that I started reading about Milgram’s obedience experiments, because at first I was thinking with the prison experiment, that’d be an amazing movie. Then I found out that people are making that movie, that’s happening. Fair enough. By then I was hooked, and it’s hard when you start reading about it; almost anything that’s newer points to real cases and real situations, like the Kitty Genovese case where a woman in the Bronx in the 1970s was attacked in the courtyard of her apartment building and screamed out for help — and it turns out that 24 people heard her and nobody did anything because they thought somebody else would. These kinds of cases just pop up. I heard about these prank phone call cases from that, and I was just reading them because I was fascinated, and I think what made me really consider this as a movie was that days after reading them my first instinct was “I wouldn’t be a guy who’d do that.”

Of course — everyone thinks they'd be the one person who would say no, who would feel such a strong sense of right and wrong that they'd stand up to the voice of authority.
Right! And of course if it happens 70 times over a 10 year period, and if you look at the Milgram experiments which basically say two-thirds of us would do these kinds of things, how honest am I being? That every time I’ve encountered something I’ve disagreed with in an authority figure I’ve stood up immediately and said what I’ve needed to say? Is it true that you’ve always done that? And people’s relationship with authority, I was like, wow, I don’t see movies like that very much.

How close a connection do you feel there is between that sentiment and the ground you explored in Great World of Sound?
I guess in my mind the other film is about rationalizing doing something that deep down you know you shouldn’t be doing, because you need to for one reason or another. In the movies, bad guys are really bad — like, Darth Vader comes out and is just bad as shit. But in real life, nobody thinks they’re a bad guy. Everyone rationalizes that they’re not a bad person, right? But bad things happen, so that can’t totally make sense.

In Compliance, you humanize every one of the characters — not just the victim. Watching the film, that eventually the perpetrators of these crimes would eventually pay for their complicity. And then I read about what really happened after the fact. The manager got a settlement out of it, too! It's hard not to become invested one way or another.
The most interesting way to tell the story in my opinion was to be objective about it, and I think that has something to do with the people who reject the film or have conflict with the film who wish that the film was incredibly subjective to Dreama’s point of view, which is a way to do it. But I think that way would have had to have painted everyone else as bad people. And although I think they did something that I definitely disagree with, it was wrong, I guess I have some empathy with the decision making they get into. You start thinking in one direction, and then to back up and say that you made a mistake — for Ann’s character to say she should get out of there — would be to admit that you had done something really dumb. Nobody wants to do that, you know? It was all these human things; I tried to look at all the characters as if you were an alien from outer space. “Why is that happening?”

There was one particularly unsettling thing yelled out during the Sundance Q&A…
The guy who said the thing about Dreama? I had some interaction with that guy, and — it’s weird, because I’m defending somebody who yelled at me — but I do think that he maybe just didn’t know what he was saying, or said something the wrong way. I think he was reacting to multiple things; the crowd, when the first one yelled “Rape’s not entertainment, this is the year of the woman at Sundance” people were standing up and saying to her, “Well, I want my grandchildren to see this movie!” And he was reacting to the hostility towards her in the room and trying to make her case for her in a weird way. I mean, I think the guy was an idiot and put his foot in his mouth. Do you know what he said after he said that? He said, “Well, your body sure is appealing.”

Compliance Controversy

What was going through your head in that moment?
I was just worried that Dreama was going to cry. I was like, if I put my arm around you will you just crumple? I was just there. And then [cast member]Ashlie Atkinson grabs the mic and her response is perfect, because she’s smart and has thought about this stuff. And he says, “No, I’m a faggot, I’m not even…” and I’m like, please be quiet. You’re making me uncomfortable not because of what you’re saying, but now I feel weird about you! [Pause] I know how that reads, but I don’t think a lot of people are lasciviously looking at this movie. I think it’d be hard to. We tried as hard as we could to make those scenes not feel comfortable. That was sort of the point; I felt it was important to have nudity in the film and go to a certain degree so the gravity of how insane it was would be there, but it was not meant to paint a picture that was sexy at all. It was actively attempting not to do that.

Do you feel like the controversy has been a benefit?
The controversy has certainly helped in helping people know about the movie, and it’s helped kickstart discussions that have become really interesting. I’ve had more interesting discussions about gender politics than I’d even hoped people would go as far with. We’ve had super interesting conversations. So in the sense that it legitimized having questions about this movie, the controversy was great. Even if you totally reject the movie and felt like I did a bad job, it’s still interesting to talk about.

Was it hard to find Dreama, to find the right actress for this?
It was. It was good in that Dreama was as interested in the root story as I was — all the actors were, honestly. Nobody was doing this movie because it was a great paycheck, they were doing it because they were fascinated by the questions that it raised. It wasn’t a super long process; in some ways a lot of people would be uncomfortable with this type of movie. But immediately Dreama and I clicked and she seemed to be picking up what I was putting down.

The press notes emphasize how uncomfortable you were directing her in her nude scenes.
[Laughs] I was! There was a lot of showing her playback and asking, “Is this okay with you?” But it’s funny, the actual screen time of how much [nudity] you see in the thing is less than you think. I think because of the subject matter it feels like that when you watch the movie.

It’s because you’re in that experience with her, her nakedness and vulnerability dominates your brain.
Which is really interesting. I wouldn’t say that I knew that would read like that quite to the extent that it has. I just got back from Locarno from the international premiere, and the foreign sales company that is handling our movie is also handling a movie about children during the Holocaust. And I found it funny that they were talking to some distributor in Europe and the European distributor said to Memento, the sales company, “We saw your really heavy movie.” And they were like, “Oh, you mean the one about children in the Holocaust?” And they said, “No, the one about the fast food restaurant!”

Heavier than the Holocaust — now there’s a tagline.
[Laughs] I don’t think I ever saw that coming.

You cast the terrific Pat Healy as your phone caller, and to prepare you had him watch episode of Cops?
I was trying to figure out how to write that cop dialogue, and you quickly start realizing that most of your understanding of cops has to do with TV shows.

Law & Order, that kind of thing?
Yeah, stuff like that where it’s like your whole understanding of cops is through this media interpretation of them. I was like, how does a cop talk? That’s why I started watching Cops. To Pat I was like, look — it’s all about being passive aggressive. Cops are incredibly passive aggressive! That’s why I sent him the series. You hear them being like, “Okay, ma’am.” The quiet authority. It’s like your entire relationship in any conversation is from a place where you’re a little better.

But you wrote the dialogue not knowing what was actually said in these real life phone calls?
There are some parts that I’ll just never understand. I didn’t write the scene that gets them to the full-on assault, because I didn’t know. What would they say? It’s also like, who cares?

True — you don’t need to hear the exchange leading up to the big assault to believe it. Now, you made Compliance long before the recent Chick-fil-A controversy, but rather presciently set this story within a fast food chicken restaurant. What is it about the insidiousness of chicken?
[Laugh] Fried chicken sandwiches!

The timing is strangely perfect.
It is amazing! It’s bizarre. I’m from Atlanta, where Chick-fil-A is headquartered. I really wanted it to be a regional chain — I didn’t want it to be like, McSwiggins! I hate that in movies. It’s so distracting. Even Fast Food Nation does it, where they’re like, “Mickeys!” I’m like, Mickeys, really? So I was like, what if it’s not a famous one — what if it’s more like one where if you went to your aunt’s house in another state you would be like, there’s some weird fast food restaurant here that I’ve seen three times that I’ve never heard of, you know? And I’m from Atlanta; what is a regional fast food chain that I know? We have two big chains — one is Waffle House which I guess is more of a diner, but we’re proud of it, and the other is Chick-fil-A. It should be a southern fried chicken sandwich place!

Maybe you subconsciously tapped into something there.
I wonder! It’s funny when you think about it. I knew that Chick-fil-A was super Christian, and was kind of ignoring that because it’s really good food! But it’s that same thing where in the back of my head, I probably could have told you that they were on the wrong side of history. [Laughs] I just didn’t want to look at it.

Compliance is in limited release.

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  • Chris says:

    Could someone enlighten me as to what exactly was yelled during the Sundance Q&A?

  • Marleen says:

    which a telephone prankster manipulates the manager of a fictional chicken restaurant into the increasingly dehumanizing treatment of one of her employees. "I just didn’t want to look at it."