craig zobel

The Rumpus Interview with Craig Zobel

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I once watched a man force a friend of mine to urinate on herself.

We were at Escuela Caribe, an Evangelical Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. The man was our housefather; the girl had been asking his permission to go to the bathroom for hours. I remember wanting to protest the mistreatment, but being too scared. As the stream of urine pooled at her feet, I stared, slack-jawed, wondering what about Escuela Caribe compelled the staff to mistreat us. A horrified expression briefly flashed across my housefather’s face. I’d like to believe it wasn’t just disgust, that he didn’t mean to take the abuse that far.

All that confusion rushed back as I watched Compliance, writer and director Craig Zobel’s most recent film. In Compliance, a man posing as a police officer calls a fast food restaurant and asks to speak to the assistant manager, Sandra, who is stressed from the Friday night slam. The “officer” accuses a female employee, Becky, of theft, and coaxes Sandra to isolate Becky in a back room, where, still on the telephone, he coerces Sandra to strip-search the accused. To prove her innocence, Becky agrees, only to be subjected to numerous sexual humiliations over the next several hours. None of her co-workers intervene, even though they are aware something is wrong.

Compliance is a fictionalized account of a true story, a strip-search scam that occurred at least sixty-eight times in thirty-two states. Zobel stumbled across reports of the scandal that rocked the fast food industry while reading about Stanley Milgram, the Jewish psychologist who conducted a series of experiments studying why humans blindly obey authority figures (which Milgram undertook in part to understand how the Nazis could justify killing the Jews). In the study, subjects were told to administer a series of increasingly powerful electrical shocks on individuals in another room. Milgram discovered that even though the subjects could hear the person purportedly receiving the shocks screaming and eventually becoming ominously silent, two out of three individuals would administer the maximum voltage if ordered to do so by a person perceived as having more power.

Zobel and I met in the early nineties in Athens, Georgia, when he skipped his senior dance to attend the punk rock prom annually hosted by my art school roommates—an act which endeared him to us all. The next fall, he joined us at the University of Georgia, co-founding the cult internet comic Homestar Runner, before leaving to study film at the North Carolina School of the Arts. Zobel and I spoke a few nights after Compliance’s premiere.

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The Rumpus: I’ve read that the idea for this film germinated when you were reading about Milgram’s experiments. Were there any relevant cultural events that led you to read about power, conformity, and obedience?

Craig Zobel: I was reading about the financial crash in 2009. It sort of bled into the Milgram experiments… Alex Gibney made a documentary (in 2006) called The Human Behavior Experiments. There was this book by Robert Cialdini called Influence. It was a New York Times bestseller for Wall Street types, kind of “how to succeed in business” power to the people reading it. But the actual book isn’t like that; it talks about influence and how people can be influenced. He talks about the Milgram experiments and others that are more current.

There was one experiment about nurses. In a series of hospitals, the nurses would get a call from a fake doctor whose name didn’t sound like any doctor who had worked on that floor or in that hospital.  He would tell them to assign this dosage of a specific medicine to a patient that they could find in the dispensary. When they would go into the dispensary, they would find an artificial drug that was just for this experiment—it was a placebo, but the label would say that this amount of the drug is lethal. When the fake doctor would call, he would say, “Please give patient so-and-so in Room Seven X or Y amount of this drug.” It would be double the amount that the label said was lethal.

Rumpus: Whoa!

Zobel: Out of ninety-five percent of the nurses—really smart, trained people—only one said no.

Rumpus: That ties into another question. People express disbelief that the strip-search scam perpetrated in Compliance happened. They seem to make it a class issue: “This would only happen in a fast food restaurant.”

Zobel: Like it would never happen in an institution where there are smarter people?

Rumpus: Right!

Zobel: Yeah, that’s not quite a class issue. If it’s a class issue, it would be, “Do people in power exploit the lower class?” I’m not a Marxist but, come on, there are millions of examples of that happening in the world—that’s a class issue!

But what I hate about that argument is that it’s actually not even the correct usage of the word. You’re actually making this even weirder and more fucked up statement that people in lower classes are dumber than you.

Rumpus: Exactly. And missing that whole point about the power that situations and social forces have on you.

Zobel: They’re completely ignoring that. That’s been one of the weirder things to have been hearing.

Rumpus: So you didn’t expect that to happen?

Zobel: No. I really went into this very much concerned that I didn’t try to paint the people as stupid. The fact that people went there has been kind of frustrating.

I think it’s more about people being, “I have to distance myself from this somehow, and maybe I can distance myself from blaming you, the maker of the film, for casting the people of the lower classes as stupid.” I tried to make a lot of decisions that hopefully don’t do that.

Rumpus: I felt like you had empathy for the people involved, particularly with Sandra’s character. My husband worked in fast food in high school, and, as soon as we finished watching Compliance, he sent this text to his friend who’d seen the trailer, and asked, “Who does that lady remind you of?” They were both like, “Barb!”

Zobel: You mean he recognized Ann Dowd’s character as someone he’d worked with?

Rumpus: She seemed like a real person. You felt for her—at least I did.

Zobel: For me, that’s the whole crux of the movie—I identify with something that’s going on there. She’s complicated. She’s actually doing something that you can’t not say is bad, but I’m hesitant to blame her at the same time.

Rumpus: Your debut feature, The Great World of Sound, explores the phenomenon of song sharking, a record industry swindle where amateur musicians pay record companies to be produced. Your dad was actually involved with [a song-sharking operation] in the seventies, and, like the characters in The Great World of Sound, at first he thought the operation was legit, only to realize that later he was being conned. Do you think that that family history impacts the topics that you explore?

Zobel: I’m not a hundred percent sure that it’s something that my father experienced impacting me, but I think there is a lot of interesting newness in telling a story like that. I do have a lot of empathy for people on both sides. I think most people come toward things assuming everybody is going to be a good person. When you have an interaction where it doesn’t go that way, it’s very problematic and interesting and weird.

On the other side, it’s interesting that people who can perpetrate cons have talked themselves into believing that they’re not doing anything bad. That they tell themselves that there is nothing wrong with what they’re doing is the crazy thing about human behavior.

In terms of drawing a one-to-one connection to The Great World of Sound and to Compliance—both are about rationalization. I’m interested in looking at that from different angles. I feel like Ann Dowd’s character is not far from the characters in The Great World of Sound, who were doing things that some part of them knows that they shouldn’t be doing.

Rumpus: Did you read the Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Phillip Zimbardo?

Zobel: That was one of the books I was reading.

Rumpus: In that book they talk about the strip-search scam, using it to illustrate people being exploited by anonymous yet important figures. I reread that section yesterday. Much of the abuse in the original cases was actually more graphic than what you had onscreen. How did you draw the line in what you were going to portray?

Zobel: I felt like it was going to be a challenging movie in certain ways; specifically, I didn’t need to see the actual sexual violence happen onscreen. I decided not to show anything in that realm but I also didn’t want it to be so left up to the viewer’s imagination that you couldn’t know what the deal was. And if you watch the film, you don’t see the spanking happen.

I’ve had multiple people ask me if I re-edited or re-cut the movie since the Sundance screening…I think that people are stressed out by the movie, and that even with the amount that I restrained showing specific things, people are filling in the gaps to the degree that they think that they saw.

Rumpus: Oh please, I didn’t want to see any more! But it has been interesting to see that you’ve gotten criticism for what was onscreen when there was a lot more violence, in actuality, than what people are criticizing you for.

Zobel: What’s interesting to me is that I only showed a girl who was topless…you don’t even see her bare buttocks or anything like that, but the nudity is titillating the audience. It’s the big question that people are excited to mull over.

I could have made a whole different version of this movie. If I had wanted to do titillation, I would have done it in a different style. And it’s that funny thing where people ask, “Don’t you think having a naked person onscreen [is exploitative]?” I think we’re not going far enough with the conversation. I want people to talk more. I mean, I watch Game of Thrones and there’s all sorts of crazy nudity in it…and very little of which I can justify, except that it’s in a titillating and somewhat exploitational manner, but I don’t really feel like that’s a subject that people are interested in because it’s the same news story. What are they going to say? “As predicted, Game of Thrones really is titillating.” It’s like, “This is the way we like our sexual exploitation of women to happen, like Game of Thrones, and that’s fine,” but instead [in discussing Compliance the response is], “You made me feel gross and showed me boobs.”

Rumpus: Right. In Game of Thrones there’s tons of gratuitous exploitation but they never try to make you explore the context of why it’s happening.

Zobel: It makes us incredibly uncomfortable. And if the end of the conversation is, I ended up shooting a movie that was exploitative, I really was trying my damndest to be thinking about the whole thing. And if the view is that I didn’t pull it off, I was thinking about it more than a lot of people who are just straight up doing exploitive filmmaking now.

Rumpus: I read where somebody said, “You shouldn’t have used as pretty an actress (as Dreama Walker)” but then I watched one of the original interviews yesterday, and the girl that it happened to, she was an attractive girl. So then I wondered, are we not supposed to acknowledge that pretty girls get exploited?

Zobel: And maybe more often?

Rumpus: Exactly.

Zobel: And that that is the reason they get exploited? And then it’s like, okay, if I’d used a non-pretty actress that would have made it more comfortable for you, and then what does that mean? That you have a bias against unattractive women?

Rumpus: Right.

Zobel: It’s funny when discussing exploitation—which is what the movie is about, men assuming authority and using it to abuse women—when discussing that there are so few conversations that are actually about that kind of thing, that people don’t know how to parse that from, “Wait, are you abusing women?” I’ve had people ask, “Don’t you think you’re like the caller, in what you made that actress do?” Then I’m like, “The actress volunteered to do it.” I didn’t force her to do anything. We were all talking, and then we’d call action and then shoot… I think people are confused because we don’t have enough of these conversations.

Rumpus: I definitely feel that over the past decade, the portrayal of women in the media has gotten worse, and a lot of it has to do with corporate structure being controlled by men. You don’t have women involved in decision-making about programming or about what goes onscreen, so then what you get are these two dimensional-characters.

In the Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo suggests that instead of distancing ourselves from individuals, we need to understand how we can be seduced to commit evil in order that we might resist being coerced. Is that some of what you were trying to accomplish with this film?

Zobel: This is where my head was when I first read the story [upon which Compliance is based]. My first reaction was, “I would never do that.” It was a clear and definite reaction. A few days later, my bullshit meter went off—and then I thought to myself, Well I can see how people can let this happen. I can see the type of thing that leads there just with interactions with bosses…

But what I think is interesting about some people’s reactions [to Compliance], is that when some people say, “I would never do it,” they actually are accurate… There are all these studies with that percentage of people who can resist. They’re not statistically the majority of people but there are people who can.

And the people that are really strongly saying, “No, I would never do that,” aren’t they leaving their armor open just by not acknowledging that’s possible in their nature? I think that’s what I was curious about in making the movie.

Rumpus: Zimbardo says we need to realize that we’re all susceptible to hoaxes like this.

Zobel: I also think we need to be careful with the amount of shame that we put onto people in that situation. Honestly, this is an extreme case in which acts of violence towards other people happened, but the simplicity here is people can be duped—it’s part of life.

Rumpus: At the end of the movie, you give the impression that the perpetrator gets busted.

Zobel: Part of me wanted to find him guilty. Some people have called me out, saying that was a wimpy choice, but I wanted that guy to get arrested.

Rumpus: What’s really sad about the actual case is that the people who are convicted and whose lives are impacted…

Zobel: …Are the people in that room, is that what you mean?

Rumpus: Do you want to discuss that?

Zobel:  I was interested in specifically Sandra, the character, and how almost  every day she has to talk about [what happened] in some way shape or form… It’s a really interesting punishment for not listening to your inner voice…I’m not talking about the actual crime part—I’m talking about the fact that she did something that I totally am sympathetic for, that technically was wrong, and then has to suffer through having to talk about it all the time. For me, that was heartbreaking.

Rumpus: Did you interview any of the actual people?

Zobel: I didn’t. I had little interest in talking to the people, because that story is something that I’m sure they’d rather not talk about. If I was going to do it right, I was going to figure out how it went inside of me, based on my beliefs and my personal experience. It was about looking inside myself more than it was about being journalistic.

Rumpus: You captured the florescent, sterile-yet-grimy atmosphere of a fast food joint. All the details were right with the stress of the Friday night slam, “drops,” the regional manager, the mystery shopper. Who worked in fast food?

Zobel: Me.

Rumpus: Where?

Zobel: I worked at a TCBY in Dunwoody, Georgia for a few years. At some point I became the assistant manager because nobody had worked there as long.

Rumpus: You’ve got two critically acclaimed films, but it didn’t happen overnight.  What do you think has helped you become successful?

Zobel: One thing that has generated success for Compliance is because I made that movie from a place of curiosity, and of testing myself instead of being confident that I could make the movie… That might not be the way that everybody works, but it’s been useful to me to find things that make me uncomfortable, that seem hard, and that there is a possibility of failure.

Rumpus: This summer, I was at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop, and in a lecture, Steve Almond pretty much said that if something makes you feel sick inside, you know you’re on your way there.

Zobel: Yeah, it’s like fear does rule the way. It’s also like I learned how to make a movie in one way and now [with upcoming project, Z Is for Zachariah], I’m going to learn how to make a movie in a different way, working with an established actor, and that will be all different.

Rumpus: Right. Fear guides you not just on an emotional level but across so many disciplines.

Zobel: Basically, you know a project is important as long as you still have shit to learn.


Deirdre S. co-curates the New Town Revue, a reading and music performance series in Athens, Georgia. She's currently writing Unreformed, her teenage boot camp captivity narrative. More from this author →