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BAMcinemaFest: Craig Zobel Talks Conversation-Starting True-Crime Tale 'Compliance'

Photo of Cory Everett By Cory Everett | @modage June 28, 2012 at 2:45PM

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.”
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"Compliance"
Magnolia Pictures "Compliance"
Even though it’s a true story, how do you deal with the potential that it may come across as too far fetched for some audience members? And is there anything you were concerned about putting in or left out because you felt the audience just might reject it?
There are stories of people where it gets much weirder than the way I did it. [There were callers who told employees], "Go out into the front room naked and there’s a sex offender out in the front room and if you go out into the main dining area then we will be able to identify that guy and catch him." Things like that where there is no way that [audiences would have believed it]. It would strain credibility even more than just the general concept. And I was very concerned about that but at the same time at one point [asked myself] "If you don’t know it is based on a true story then does it all fall apart?" It doesn’t for me.

I did recognize there is a certain level of person who would feel uncomfortable with whether or not they can recognize that this is part of human nature, that don’t want to recognize that at all. So they will go to a place of thinking they are smarter than all that and that it’s full of shit and that it’s not believable. And I’m not saying for everybody, but I think for some people. And I was going to lose some people anyway, you know? I’m not going to have a 100% success rate of convincing everyone, but I do recognize there are some people that have a strong aversion to it. I mean, it's funny, almost every Q&A that I have for the movie somebody goes “Yeah but like does this ever happen in a big city?” And I’d say "Yeah." And then they like kinda sit up and act weird because it bothers them. "Those are bumpkins. That’s not me. That’s not my people." It’s frustrating to me that that’s a reaction. I don’t think it’s a matter of [the characters] being stupid people. I don’t think that’s what is going on there.

Compliance
Did you have any hesitation taking on such upsetting material?
I had a lot of hesitation. I was very nervous for multiple reasons. [The story] was in my head for a while. I’d heard it and didn’t immediately think, "Oh that’d be a good movie." But I kept thinking about the story. What is the cause of the people who have gone through this? To me it’s really significant that it happened multiple times over a 10-year span. To me that resonated a lot. And it was very significant that it was a lot of people, and I kept thinking about that. I had been studying the Milgram experiments and things like that, which is how I found out about the story, reading about behavioral psychology stuff. At some point [I thought I could] make a cool chamber drama where its like “12 Angry Men” where there is only one room and you break it into smaller [segments]. I started [thinking about the film] like it would be an interesting challenge to try and make a movie where the main bad guy is on the phone, and it’s a bunch of people talking on the phone in a fast food restaurant, and that’s scary. There’s nothing about that sentence that sounds scary at all. But could you do that? Will the audience go with this at all?

I was also hesitant in that, am I going to be able to get nuanced performances? Is this the kind of thing you can shoot a film on and have actors portray? Can we show a weird split second decision or bad choice? I have never shot a sex scene before, so part of that made me nervous. We were talking about what the movie is about, what the story is pointing towards, and its power dynamic, and people’s relationships with authority. I’d go so far as to say it is bigger than that. As you contemplate people’s relationships with authority and how people maybe use and abuse authority in different ways, it is very hard to avoid gender and how it plays into that. It absolutely made me nervous. But all of those challenges were the reason to do it. I was trying to make a lot of different movies and have some kind of more what I would call entertainment. I ended up thinking, "Well this one has a high percent chance of failure but it would be really fascinating if it worked, and it would be a new type of movie I haven't seen in a while." And it was scary in a way that challenged me artistically [but doing something] hard because it might fail is a good reason to do a movie.

This article is related to: Craig Zobel, Compliance, BAMcinematek, BAMcinemaFest, Interviews


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