Probably the most unnerving presentation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Compliance” provides a chilling snapshot of the blurred line between obsequious consent to authority and personal reason — a story all the more unsettling because of its rooting in fact. In writer-director Craig Zobel’s movie, Sandra (Ann Dowd), the high-strung manager at a small town fast food restaurant, finds her Friday rush further complicated when a man, Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), phones to tell her that a pretty young employee, Becky (Dreama Walker), has stolen money from a customer. Convinced she’s doing what’s right, Sandra commences the investigation, following step-by-step instructions from the police officer on the other end of the line and authorizing others to do the same, no matter how invasive the requests become. For ShockYa, Brent Simon recently had a chance to speak to the Zobel, Walker and Healy, cast one-on-three, about their collaboration and the unlikely educational inspiration found in “Cops.” The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Craig, you went to the North Carolina School of the Arts, which is in my old stomping ground. How did your time there prepare you for big-boy filmmaking, as it were?
Craig Zobel: I was in the third graduating class of the film school itself, which I think is significant, because nobody knew quite what was going on. We were all watching a lot of movies, and because nobody had heard of the school at the time there was no competitiveness at all. Everyone was very supportive. I have no idea, but I don’t get the sense that it’s quite the same at USC or NYU. We all just wanted everybody to get very good jobs, which [didn’t seem] likely, since we were in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Not necessarily being in a booming metropolis, our options were to watch movies, grab a camera or drink at Danny McBride’s house.
Pat Healy: I actually met Craig through David Gordon Green, who I met years ago, and it’s pretty remarkable to watch that group of guys who were all in school together come up and come of age. I think it’s pretty telling what he just said — they’re still all friends… and almost all the people who worked on this film worked on “Great World of Sound” (Zobel’s previous movie), and were all classmates. There’s not a more wonderful group of people to work with, and I can say that after my many, many years of experience in this business.
ShockYa: Given the nonfiction roots and sensitive subject matter, Craig, what were you looking for in casting, and what were your reactions to the material, Pat and Dreama?
CZ: My answer is just that I was looking for people who share the same curiosity about the story as me. That, and (those who) had the same questions I had.
PH: We started this journey with “Great World of Sound,” which was something that was anecdotal and something that Craig had heard about from his father in the 1970s, and we decided to embark on figuring out… We explained a lot of it, but also did a lot of people auditioning for us that didn’t know that we were making a movie. …We were discovering things in that way. I knew that because we were very curious about why these people would do what they did, it was going to be a similar type of experiment in a way, as well as being a great script. That’s why I got interested.
Dreama Walker: I was really interested in it because (when) the actual events happened in 2004, I was just graduating high school and was the same age (as the victim), and it really resonated with me because I had so many questions and didn’t understand how it happened. I also felt a tremendous amount of empathy for the victims, because I can’t imagine being in that situation — being a victim of rape but then also having to answer to people saying that you’re an idiot and never should have done this. I think it’s really easy to dismiss it and say, “Well, if I was in that situation I would never behave like that,” but I think it’s not always entirely the case.
ShockYa: As Dreama notes, there were multiple victims. What about the scope of the film — was it always the idea, Craig, to constrain the story to one victim?
CZ: I guess it seemed like it would be narratively harder to write that story (of multiple victims). It was the opposite of the reasons for me wanting to write it, [since it] would be about can you concisely find believable human decisions and believably show how these people made these bad decisions. If you spread it out with a bunch of different stories then you have to have a pretty healthy plot element. It structurally would have been a different thing. It was incredibly important to me to recognize that it happened multiple times, and I read a lot of the different [stories], because I think that, to me, is what cements how weird it is. But I wanted to make one hybrid (story) that’s indicative… of a human behavior that we don’t really talk about.
ShockYa: Craig, you also gave Pat a “Best of Cops” DVD set before filming, to help him find his character, is that right? One, I’m astonished that exists, because —
DW: Why are you astonished that exists?
ShockYa: Because isn’t every episode basically the same? Doesn’t it involve or end with a shirtless drunk guy?
PH: (laughing) And you don’t have to buy it, it’s always on!
CZ: (laughing) How many did you watch?
PH: A lot, a lot. Thirty episodes or something.
DW: You didn’t give me one. I love that show, I watch it all the time!
CZ: I had no idea, I’m sorry, I’ll have to get you one.
PH: I had just gotten an iPad recently at that point, and so I got them and watched them while flying. It wasn’t like I was taking specific notes — it just went in (my head).
CZ: I actually just found, while cleaning through a bunch of notebooks and stuff, these loose pieces of paper that were me trying to write notes on “Cops” while watching it. They just kind of stop after a while. It’s this wall of the same thing.
PH: Because it’s the same thing, there was a cadence to the speech (of Officer Daniels), and it was written that way, but I brought more to it by using particular phrases or saying (things) in a certain way and tone of voice that’s not demonstratively power-mad, but just with enough force and some friendliness and slight menace to it. I found myself saying the phrase, “This particular individual…” in a Q&A the other night, not on purpose, and it put me back in that mindset. I snapped right back into it.
ShockYa: Pat and Dreama, you also filmed your segments simultaneously, right?
DW: It was like theater, it was great. It was wonderful to be able to listen and respond and be in the moment and play off of what he was doing — to really feel that presence around you, like everything really was getting horrible, and that there was trouble.
CZ: If people have to react to phone call for that long, normally in a film it would be a production assistant reading lines off-camera or something.
DW: We would have lost a lot of tension that way.
PH: I watched “Magnolia” again recently, and there’s a lot of that in there because of that whole sequence where Phil Hoffman is trying to find Tom Cruise, and I remember that Paul (Thomas Anderson) felt the same way, and shot some of that stuff simultaneously.
CZ: I think it helped in multiple different ways. It made the listening real, and allowed for us to improvise.
DW: It wouldn’t have been the same if he’d just been off-camera. We had to do it a couple times that way and it just felt different. The battery died on the portable phone a couple times — one or two times we didn’t have a back-up or we burned through the back-up and we had to do it that way.
ShockYa: When people think of improvisation they often erroneously think of comedy. But what type of improvisations did this film lend itself to? Things are pretty dark.
CZ: We were constantly trying to figure out where the line was as far as when would they say, “That’s a ridiculous request.” So there were multiple times when, between takes, I wouldn’t necessarily tell Pat what I told Dreama and/or Ann. And it was nice because we were geographically far away enough from each other in this space that he couldn’t hear me give direction to other people, and if I went to talk to him then people wouldn’t have any idea what the other side of the conversation was. It was useful because it forced everybody to listen. I would sometimes tell the actors to tell him they didn’t want to do something and he would have to react to that. I can think of one scene where we did some back and forth.
PH: The one with Ann that I remember most was initially introducing the idea of the strip search.
DW: Yeah, it was challenging to find the truth to get to those points.
ShockYa: There’s a line in the movie that struck me as particularly chilling — “I knew what was going to happen” — because it seemed to hint at a whole rich and painful past, off-camera. Dreama, was your preparation based on one real victim, or several?
CZ: I think that was a line that you made up, Dreama, or tweaked, based on something that wasn’t working.
DW: We had a lengthy conversation about that. To me that line just meant that… Becky’s worst fear was confirmed. Basically, if someone was to set something off that could frighten me at all, my brain might go to that awful thing that could happen and think of that as a possibility and entertain it, but not actually think that it could be confirmed. So to me, it was that line that confirmed it.
ShockYa: With fall coming up, is it going to be nice to escape back into “Don’t Trust the B- in Apartment 23,” and something a bit more lighthearted?
DW: Light-hearted things are always great, but for me “Compliance” was a fantastic experience because I got a chance to flex muscles that I don’t normally get to flex. And I loved it.
Written by: Brent Simon