Talking with 'Compliance' director Craig Zobel: a spoiler-free interview!

Dreama Walker stars in Craig Zobel's psychological thriller 'Compliance.'
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

No film at this year's Sundance Film Festival festival encountered as much controversy as Craig Zobel's Compliance. At the first public screening, an all-out shouting match erupted, with an audience member yelling "Sundance can do better!" You can't buy that kind of publicity. Every screening that followed was jam-packed with people hoping to experience the most shocking film at Sundance, and the film does not disappoint. (Beware: every review I have happened upon has unnecessarily spoiled major plots in the film, which is based on true events.)

Compliance aims to confront a society filled with people who are trained to follow rules without questioning them. Magnolia Pictures, which previously collaborated with Zobel on his debut film Great World of Sound (which premiered at Sundance in 2007), picked up the film for theatrical release (it comes out Fri/24 in Bay Area theaters); if you dare to check it out, prepare to be traumatized as well as intellectualized. You'll be screaming all the way home about one of the most audacious movies of 2012 — and that's exactly why the film is so brilliant.

San Francisco Bay Guardian I have attended Sundance since I was 11 years old, and there have been a handful of particularly volatile screenings in which audience members passed out, threw up, stormed out of the theater, or berated the filmmakers during the Q&A: Bryan Singer's Public Access and Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel's Man Bites Dog in 1993; Mary Harron's American Psycho and Kim Ki-Duk's The Isle in 2000; Gaspar Noe's Irreversible in 2002; and Johan Renck's Downloading Nancy in 2008. Now, you've joined the ranks of the infamous Sundance elite. Were you prepared for how vulnerable your film Compliance was going to make audience members?

Craig Zobel Absolutely not. It really caught me off guard.

SFBG People became quite angry at you at the first screening's Q&A, correct? How did you adapt in the subsequent screenings and are you prepared for people's reactions once the film gets released?

Zobel I did not try to make a movie just to piss people off. I'm picking movies to make that are like, "I've never seen anyone doing that as a movie." If I saw this movie I'd say, "Whoa, I want to have a conversation about what that director was trying to do."

When I was writing Compliance, I had been attached to make a studio comedy and some other things, and for one reason or another all of the other projects weren't happening. And I wanted to make a film right [then]. Which, if you look at the landscape of independent movies that get [made] these days, they seem to have the kind of money and star caliber as a studio film. There are all these 20-something relationship films that are basically just romantic comedies. I would rather watch a romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock, who will at least give me what I want from the genre, while these other ones aren't really satisfying to me.

So I wanted to make something that [didn't] just feel like light entertainment.

SFBG The film seems to be taking its toll on audiences due to how relentless the experience is, though it's not a long film at all.

Zobel I originally wanted to make the film 85 minutes. That's what I hung on the wall. The script is 80 pages long. It ended up 90 minutes, but it has a lot of momentum that helps make the film not feel boring. I was trying to make sure that every 10 minutes a major thing would happen. We would do something once and that would be enough. We broke it down into a five-act story instead of a bigger three act structure.

SFBG The film exposes so much about each audience member that experiences it. When I saw it at Sundance, the woman sitting behind me was nervously texting every few seconds and so we all could hear her iPhone confirmation dinging over and over and over until ultimately she stromed out in a huff. The guy next to me was laughing yet fidgeting so much that the person in front of him had to tell him to stop.

You force us the audience to be stuck in the same predicament as the characters we are watching which leads me to kind of an odd question: what kind of student were you?

Zobel In high school? A good one! [Laughs.] I wasn't the guy yelling at the teacher all the time. Maybe a little bit when I was in college but recently I was able to teach as an adjunct for a directing class at Columbia. It was really interesting and fun and I now have so much more respect and admiration for teaching. But I wasn't that student who constantly had questions for the teacher.

SFBG I don't think your film is trying to push people's buttons just for the hell of it. And this is why I compared it to Psycho, not only because of the film's intelligent yet deeply disturbing exploration of our society, but how each character is given some seriously mind-melting dilemmas. Without spoiling anything from the film, how did you pull out such haunting performances?

Zobel A lot of it was casting. And in some ways it was even easy to cast because the people who came in to the casting room were as curious about it as I was. It just made sense very quickly. All of the actors were running into situations during the shoot where they would go, "I can't understand how this character could do this but it sounds hard and I am curious to try and think about it more."

I think they all gave amazing performances by virtue of the fact that they were in it for the exploration. They were all fascinated with the type of story we were trying to tell and made sure to not make anything just black and white. Also, we shot more takes of a scene than I thought we ever would, not because anything was wrong, [but because after] a few takes we would say, "Well, what are the other ways or what other attitudes or possibilities can we try?" So in the editing room, we had the opportunities to dip into that one for a line here and maybe go back to the initial take.

SFBG I have read online how a few audience members are proud of walking out of the film, and it seems pretty damn ironic for people to leave before the conclusion. They literally do not want to confront or even try and figure out what it is you are attempting to explore. You've got philosophy behind this picture, and I feel like you've got an exciting future ahead.

Zobel I really appreciate that. I do know what I am trying to do next, which is a screenplay that I previously wrote; it's very close to happening and I'm very excited about it. It's also based on a true story —  it's about this Swedish mafia member who becomes a technology executive. I get to explore money and why people decide to devote their lives to seek that stuff.

COMPLIANCE opens Fri/24 in Bay Area theaters.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks teaches full-time as the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University, curates/hosts MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS, a film series that showcases underrated, overlooked and dismissed cinema in a neo-sincere way and can be contacted at: