BAM Compliance

As many festivalgoers know, attending a film festival can be both an exhausting and rewarding experience. Fortunately for those NYC-ers who don’t have the stamina to attend Sundance, Cannes or SXSW, BAM has culled some of the best of those lineups and selected a few dozen favorites, which are now playing during BAMcinemaFest. One of the films that we caught at Sundance that hasn’t eased it grip is Craig Zobel’s “Compliance.” The film follows a fast-food employee (Dreama Walker) who is accused of theft and repeatedly subjected to demoralizing acts by her overworked supervisor (Ann Dowd), all at the behest of an authoritarian phone caller. The film made waves at its Sundance premiere because of a few shaken audience members who, during the post-screening Q&A, asked why the filmmaker had even made the film in the first place. Which is pretty powerful stuff considering the film contains no onscreen acts of violence whatsoever. The Playlist spoke to Zobel about "Compliance" back in January and recently got another chance to chat with the filmmaker in advance of the screening this Friday at BAM. After the screening, he’ll appear for a Q&A along with cast members Ann Dowd, Bill Camp, and Ashlie Atkinson, and if previous screenings are any indication, audiences will be eager to talk about it afterwards. Zobel spoke to us at length about his hesitation to take on the story and the varying audience reactions on the festival circuit. Some director-approved spoilers follow.

I was trying to explain the movie to some friends the other day and having kind of a hard time explaining what it's about without feeling like I was giving too much away. So how would you describe the movie to someone who hadn’t heard of it?
I’d give it away.

That’s what I ended up doing too. But initially I wasn't sure if giving away the conceit would impair the experience.
Right. I struggle with that too and my producers really struggled with it. They all thought it was important that [the caller’s identity] not be something you know right away. I find it hard to talk about it. What’s stressing about it is relieving someone’s question that, yes, it's not real. Like, I recognize that it sounds preposterous, and yes you're smart enough in your analysis of the story I’m telling to assume that it is a prank phone call. That also came down to the decision why I let you see that after in the movie.

I could’ve done the “Phone Booth” thing where you never see the guys and it’s just a voice and you never see his face. And I’m like, "That’s not what’s interesting to me about it." What’s interesting to me about the story is the psycho identifications of how these situations happen. The reason I put the actor [onscreen] in the movie I didn’t want the audience going “That’s not a real cop.” I wanted [to acknowledge], "Of course, you are right. It’s not a real cop. So let’s not think about that anymore. Let’s talk about something else."

How did you decide when in the movie that you were going to make that reveal to the audience?
That was actually really hard to decide. We were actually simultaneously shooting the caller and people in the background, so I could have put it in at any point actually. And we tried that, so we played with a bunch of different things. It happened to fall out to where I reveal it in the screenplay that we put in the same scene. The reason that the scene is a useful scene to reveal the caller....two people can get into a thing where it seems crazy but this is the first time a real third person is put on the phone and is interacting with him.

And I felt that was a good time to be like "let's start thinking about the bigger [picture]." The move out of the headspace that two people can be convinced of something pretty easily, but when you get into three people or four people -- I just felt like I wanted to like have the audience thinking about that. And although Kevin [Philip Ettinger] is kind of a minor character in the film, in some weird way I connect with him the most than any other characters. He is the [first] person who knows something is wrong but hasn’t said no. That was my first entrance to understand how something like this could happen. I’ve definitely been in situations where I’ve felt like we weren’t doing something the right way. When making films and working as a first AD, I’d [think] "We shouldn’t be doing this," [but] I wasn’t stopping it from happening. I wasn’t saying,"We’re not doing this. Stop."