The Camel’s Back: Director Craig Zobel on Compliance

The power of suggestion, the explanations that were cut from the film and his upcoming con artist movie.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


I met writer/director Craig Zobel at a SXSW screening of Compliance. I was a little disappointed no one in the audience yelled at him like they did at Sundance, but that was two months earlier so I guess you snooze, you lose. I had seen Zobel’s first narrative film, Great World of Sound, about a music studio that persuades hopeful artists to invest in tracks and recordings, but takes no responsibility for actually helping the artists have careers. Compliance is based on the true stories of fast food employees who were persuaded by a caller pretending to be an officer to interrogate and search an employee, in this case Becky (Dreama Walker), for theft. Spoilers follow but they’re integral to discussion of the most shocking parts of the film.


CraveOnline: So that seemed like a nicer Q&A than you had at Sundance.

Craig Zobel: [Laughs] Yeah. They all have been actually, even at Sundance after the first one. I think once people who had context to say this is going to be challenging, people who were not comfortable with that didn’t go.


And can you handle a contentious reaction now at this point?

Yeah, even at Sundance I’m leaving myself open to happily. I’ve made decisions when I said, “I think maybe this would’ve happened like this” but if something doesn’t work, I’m curious to hear what doesn’t work. The only thing that has been sometimes sad is that that is not what people want to do. They just want to vent and leave, so it isn’t a conversation, which is understandable too. I’m open I guess to talking about it.


Is that something filmmakers get on the indie/festival side that you wouldn’t get making studio films?

Yeah, I think so. Or how things are read in different ways. If you have to read reviews to know that, you’re not talking to the average audience. You’re talking to a critical thinking audience of film critics.


Well, festivals aren’t the average audience either.

No, that’s true. It’s closer. There was generally more people than not that were the average audience than at Sundance even.


Do you think in general that people are very suggestible?

It’s a good question. I think that some people are. Yeah, I think that I can be persuaded to do things that I’m like, “I don't know why I’m doing this. Why am I doing this?” Even if they’re nice things, whatever things. Do you feel that you’ve ever been suggestible?


I think I’m good about doing or not doing what I want, but telling people, “No, I’m not going to do what you ask” is something I’m working on.

It’s very hard. Sophia, who did the Q&A, before was on a panel where she was talking about nudity in film. She was telling me one of the things that she struggled with was working on people’s sets and having them change the rules of what they’re going to do or ask her if she would do something that they hadn’t previously discussed. Even if there isn’t very many people around, that can be hard to say no to because of that, because of what you were talking about. It’s hard to say no to people sometimes. I think that’s very true, that people don’t want to disappoint other people in a generalized sense. Highly suggestible is different than that, I understand.


As the writer/director, are you kind of the guy on the phone?

I think that there are parts of me that are all of them. I hesitate to ever use the word fun when I’m talking about this movie, but I think there’s some audience recognition of times where you, I’m sure, have been persuasive in this way or that way. I think that everybody can somewhat recognize some amount of persuasion in them. What’s interesting in that kind of realm, me and Pat [Healy] talked about it a lot, what the stakes are in that guy’s brain. For him, they can just hang up. Instead of in a movie, you try to tell all the characters that the stakes in this scene are high and you try to make sure there’s really intense high stakes. On one side of this phone call that is happening, and on the other side of the phone call, he’s just in his mind making a prank phone call and he’s like, “Well, why don’t they just hang up?” That’s how he was playing the role basically.


I was thinking more as the writer/director, you are orchestrating this so you’re putting them through this intense situation.

I think it’s slightly different in some ways because it’s not quite the same as just being a persuasive person. I know that it is challenging at times, but in part that challenge makes there be more questions, hopefully engenders more conversation. That was intentional.


I don’t know the full details of the real cases, but [SPOILER] is someone making her give him a blowjob at one point?



How does it get to that point where she doesn’t say, “Wait a minute, what cop says you have to give him a blow job?”

I don't know. It’s not in my movie partly because there was some stuff we shot that did answer that in some ways, but for very technical reasons of making a movie, it was out of focus or something like that, that I couldn’t use some of it. But I also was never fully satisfied with that leap. I ask you, how do you think it happens?


It’s a question I’m curious about too. It seems crazy for all people involved.


Maybe he offers to make a deal if she’ll do this. I don’t even think it was part of the phone call, that it was just something the guy in the room came up with to take advantage.



I would have to read the case files.

The details of the case don’t even tell you that though. That’s what’s interesting. I don’t quite know. There is some possibility that at some point the more base instincts happened in that room, that it stopped being completely out of susceptibility of the call. I sort of avoided going there because it makes for a more interesting movie to not just be like, “Well, this guy came and was a dick and sexually assaulted her.” That certainly may be something that could’ve happened but it’s weird. I agree, and it happened multiple times, the blowjob thing.


That I believe. If it happened once, it could happen repeatedly.

It is a question that I don’t know [the answer to.]


It goes in stages where if you started at the halfway point, Becky might have said, “No way, that’s not the police.” But when you escalate it gradually she might lose perspective on what her rights are.

Maybe I could have gone a little bit farther down that road. There was sort of a thing also in watching the movie, there’s a level at which you kind of can’t watch that stuff anymore and you kind of need to get to the point where it’s over, for me anyway. It’s challenging. Watching an eight-minute scene where he explains why she needs to do that, that might’ve broken the camel’s back. I think it breaks the camel’s back for some people already, but I would’ve broken even more people’s camel’s backs.


How did you discuss the strip search scene with Dreama?

Oh, it was built into the script. Everyone who auditioned had read the entire script and knew what it was all about and read something about all the other cases as well. I was very specific with her and was like, “These are the things that I think we need to see in order to have the gravity that we needed to have, but I don’t want to go any farther.” I really enlisted her help in being like, “Where’s the line that you think as just a woman watching this, you would feel like is too much?” And how to shoot it. I would propose things and she was very involved in the whole deal.


Was there anyone you wanted to meet who turned it down because of the subject?

Many. Oh yeah, many. Well, for that role actually I let people who were interesting come to me. I didn’t pursue people for that role really.


I thought about Great World of Sound and that’s sort of a seedy suggestion too, isn’t it?

Yeah. I mean, it’s the same thing, when you were saying you were thinking about how to say no. That’s something I think about too I guess.


The fact that both of your narrative films are about people convincing people by suggestion.

I guess I think that that happens a lot. I don't know. I guess that happens to people a lot about a lot of things. It’s not something that people make movies about very often.


Well, there’s con artist movies.

I’m actually working on one of those right now, but con artist movies, it’s interesting if you study that genre wise. It’s often about lionizing the con artist and there’s very little sympathy for the victim in a lot of those movies I would say. I’m interested in people rationalizing doing things that maybe in some other time in their life they would say, “I wouldn’t do that” or “That’s bad.” And how they rationalize doing that kind of thing as not being bad. I think people do that a lot. It’s human nature. That is my worldview, that people do that a lot.


What are you working on next?

There was a Wired magazine article a few years ago about this Swedish con artist who crashed his Ferrari Enzo on the Pacific Coast Highway. It peeled back the layers of this onion that revealed to everybody that he was this really big scale con artist in the technologies industry. Super interesting, much more playful. It’s a fun, playful movie and we’re trying to shoot it late summer/fall.


Independently or with a studio?

It’s a bigger budget. It’s probably a combination. It has a wrecked Ferrari Enzo in a first scene.


Would that be a great role for a Hollywood actor?

Yeah, we actually have somebody that is already on board, but I’m not 100% sure I can say right now.


Where did you shoot a fake fast food restaurant?

Mostly in a real fast food restaurant that we put all new signs up for. It can’t look like anything but I also didn’t want to be like McDoogles, make it be like a fake McDonald’s rip-off like you’ve seen a million times now, where the M is sideways and it’s called 3’s or whatever. I wanted it to be believable, like maybe that’s a local chain somewhere that I don’t live. That was the goal, but we built the room, the backroom on a stage. The stage was really a warehouse.


But the fryers and counters were a real restaurant.

Yeah, to build all that stuff would’ve been [prohibitive.] We actually did the math.