Filmmaker Craig Zobel and the stars of “Compliance” talk about the best—and the most controversial—film of the year so far

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PARK CITY, UTAH—On the morning of January 21, the Sundance Film Festival was moving into its first opening weekend and there was little if any buzz on writer/director Craig Zobel’s second feature, Compliance, until the film had its world premiere screening mid-morning at the Library Theater. After the end credits were finished, it became the film everyone could not stop talking about. Compliance opens this Friday, August 31, at the Lagoon Cinema.

At the Sundance premiere there was shouting coming from the back of the theater, mostly from two angry women who were criticizing Zobel’s film, but one woman even blasted the festival. “Sundance, you should be ashamed of yourself!” When the women’s comments were heard, there was a stunned silence in the packed theater and even some boos from patrons. It was the first bona fide fire-starter film at Sundance that had everyone scrambling for tickets to its remaining screenings.

Before heading out to Sundance, Compliance was on the top of my list of films to see at the festival. Why? Zobel’s first film, Great World of Sound, about two men hitting the road searching for the next big singer/musician to sign to their record label only to scam the “performers” out of their money, proved to be a powerful assured first feature. Nowadays you can look no further than YouTube to see some painfully awful singers, but also some out-of-left-field singers who have managed to make a music career work for them. Great World of Sound was one of my favorite films of 2007 and I even wrote a short piece on Zobel for City Pages in the Artist of the Year issue.

So once Compliance was announced at Sundance, it climbed to the top of my must-see list and I felt fortunate to have scheduled an interview with Zobel and actors Dreama Walker (ABC’s Don’t Trust the B in Apt. 23), Ann Dowd (Garden StateMarley & Me), and Pat Healy (Great World of SoundThe Innkeepers). The interview was also the day after the first public screening.

Based on true events, Compliance features strong performances from all three leads (especially Dowd) and will likely end up on some Top Ten film lists for 2012. (As it currently stands, Compliance is my #1 film of 2012, and a review by Daily Planet arts editor Jay Gabler is quoted in the film’s trailer saying it might be the best film of the year.) Walker plays Becky, a fast-food employee accused of stealing money from a customer’s purse. She is detained in the back storage office and endures some unspeakable acts. Dowd plays her manager Sandra who follows orders from a policeman over the phone to detain Becky; even though the restaurant is packed, Sandra has to maintain her position as manager and investigate the crime. Healy’s “Officer Daniels” convinces Sandra to comply with his orders. Writer-director Zobel’s film is frightening, mesmerizing, and downright flawless from beginning to end.

Walking into the building where the interview was held, I quickly noticed Walker and Dowd doing a TV interview together; they were laughing and smiling, talking about the film. In another booth, Healy was speaking to a journalist and Zobel was making the rounds going from one journalist to the next, as they were all wondering the same thing from him, “What did you think about that Q & A yesterday?” I know that was a question I had every intention of asking too. When Walker was done with her TV interview, the publicist walked over to me and introduced me to the two actresses, although Dowd had another interview to do first. I walked with Walker toward the opposite end of the room, and sat down to begin our interview. And at the moment, we were about to start when Healy had wrapped up his interview and came over, shook my hand and gave her a hug.

The first question I asked each of them was how they were approached to star in Compliance.

“I think Pat’s story is more interesting than mine,” Walker said. “I have been friends with Craig for many years and was in his last film. I was living in L.A. and production was taking place in New York, so there were some difficult things to figure out and it’s not a big-budget film. I was also going through some rather rough personal things in my life, but I knew I wanted to be involved with the film. Once I was on board, I took a lot of what was going on in my life and put into the character. It wasn’t a fun role to play, but it is something I’m certainly proud of.”

Walker had a small role in the feature The Sitter, starring Jonah Hill, and the film was directed by David Gordon Green, who also served as an executive producer on Compliance, says her name popped up in an email on his phone and mentioned the film to her.

“The first thing I said to David was, you should hire me. I was sent over the script and was absolutely intrigued and fascinated by it as I remember this specific incident and how it happened and how I felt about it and had strong feelings about it.  I went in for the audition and met Craig and then we had a few more meetings at bars and I finally got the part.” 

Healy also mentions how important Green, who’s helped him secure multiple roles, has been in his life. “I’ve never brought any of these roles up. He always recommends these parts for me, and I’ve been lucky to be in some of these movies.”

At this point, Dowd arrived and I asked her the same question. “I was in a play at the time in New York,” she said, “and I came in for the audition, even though I had no reasonable chance of landing the role. I met Craig and we talked about the play I was in and the intense schedule, and we weren’t sure if it would work, since production was going to start shortly after the audition. And for the first time in my life I said, ‘Well, I’m interested in you, if you’re interested in me.'” Walker and Healy laughed, and without missing a beat Dowd then said, “I was in the dressing room at the theater when my agent Estella called and said I got Compliance and I said, ‘Pardon me?’ Estella replied, ‘See you got the part because you let go.’” Dowd got laughs from the entire group when she added, “Well, you can have that philosophy all you like, but I don’t, and I was thrilled.” 

Healy said preparation for his role was mostly talking into a phone; all the conversations/dialogue was live and was recorded for the film between Dreama and some of the other actors, but he added, “For my own personal role, it was a difficult part to play emotional and hard to feel or say those things, but was made easier by being on the telephone and being distant from everyone.”

Dowd said about her character, “I loved playing her because when it’s dicey for an actor is when you don’t understand a character, when you have to find a connection to know what they are all about. And this was sort of clear to me. The great thing about acting is that in the end there are no consequences. If you do it long enough, you can go as deep and as dark as you need to and then you’re going to go home to your husband and kids and realize that things are going to be okay. Because of Craig being the kind of person and director he is, you found it together. I never felt alone in the process and I enjoyed it on a very profound level.”

“I think it was fantastic,” Walker said. “We had a chance to meet a few times and rehearse to get into each of our characters. I got pretty attached and felt very comfortable with [Healy and Dowd], especially when you play a character as vulnerable as mine is. I wanted to challenge myself with Becky.”

After wrapping up another interview, Zobel joined us. He had announced before the screening that when he had read about the true story that inspired Compliance, it had seeped into his mind and he couldn’t shake it. I asked him about the process of turning that story into a film.

“The true story this is based on, I found to be so implausible that I had a hard time believing this was true,” Zobel said. “But I saw videotapes of the back of the restaurant and you can see her doing jumping-jacks, so this stuff was really happening. If this was something I had only heard about, I don’t know if I would have believed it. I could recognize something in me that hadn’t done that before obviously, but in someway betrayed someone at someone else’s asking. I can’t be specific on what that was, I just knew I hadn’t been the hero. I kept thinking about that and that’s what got me interested in making the film. It kind of started out as a writing exercise.”

I asked the actors what their reaction to the Q&A had been. Healy was the first to answer. “I was expecting something but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for that. Quite frankly, I was overwhelmed and speechless about it. It was a very powerful experience and I felt a little traumatized in the moment, but later in the day, I felt good that the film evoked such a response.”

Zobel said, “I was a little disappointed that the people who were adamantly, strongly, aggressively upset about the movie did not feel that could say that stuff and stay so they could hear our response. It actually bums me out that we were there waiting to respond and then those few people ran out of the theater and left. I wanted them to come down and be on the stage with us and talk to them about it; that’s what the movie’s about. The fact that they left, I think probably speaks more to the fact that they had some resistances, that the movie stirred something up to them. They didn’t want to process it.”

Dowd jumped in. “They weren’t looking for conversation or any clearance. They wanted to react strongly, condemn it, have there say and then not be challenged by it.”

Zobel continued, “and you know what that’s where we are in the culture right now and it bothers me. We’re in the culture of the Internet comment where you write something anonymous and then you shoot that out. People get to voice their opinion and then turn off, when any other opinion starts to come in. I also think they did a service to us in a sense; everyone else in the screening started talking about themselves. There weren’t a lot of questions; it was a lot more people standing up and saying, ‘I disagree with what that person said, this is how I feel.'”

Dowd added, “You can only hope to be in a film that has such an effect like Compliance did to that degree. What I found difficult after the screening was, I was very affected by the film itself. I’ve had some distance on it [the film] at this point. At first when there was all that chatter, I couldn’t figure out where to go with it. But I love audiences—even the idiots, forgive me. You realize that they are choosing to come, but then they are in your hands too. I have great respect for people in a vulnerable position. The more I’m involved with audiences it is very thrilling and eye-opening, the responsibility one has.” 

Healy closed by saying, “I’d like to add something that Craig said: we are entering a more interactive society than ever with all the Internet and comments and everything and yet, we are not interacting. We’re using the interaction to say what we feel and not giving or taking back and it’s unsettling in a way. I don’t know where it will go and it’s such a great tool but like Craig said, some people just want to shout their opinions out and they don’t want to be challenged in any way. It’s strange, but I hope it goes in a more positive direction.”