Sundance 2012: A dilemma of ethics, power in ‘Compliance’

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We all like to think we know how we would respond to certain ethical hypotheticals: that we’d return that wallet, help the weak or stand up to an abusive authority figure. But would we, really?

The film ‘Compliance,’ which had its world premiere Saturday morning as part of Sundance’s low-budget NEXT section, hinges on just such a question, wringing a tense moral drama from a simple phone call. On a busy day at a suburban fast-food outlet, a phone call comes for the manager (Ann Dowd) telling her there has been an accusation of theft against one of her employees. The voice on the line (Pat Healy) identifies himself as a police officer and instructs the manager to take a young female employee (Dreama Walker) into a back room. After a time the girl is undressed and doing jumping jacks, all at the command of the officer on the phone, before things take a turn from the humiliating to genuinely hurtful. No one ever just hangs up.


The story is based on true events, which writer-director Craig Zobel read about in a newspaper. Zobel’s previous feature, ‘Great World of Sound,’ premiered at Sundance in 2007, starring Healy as the reluctant employee of a fly-by-night record label, with Zobel shooting people who thought they were auditioning for a music deal. ‘Compliance’ is in some ways the mirror-image of ‘Great World.’

Photos: The scene at Sundance 2012

‘It’s definitely a story with the exact same question,’ said Zobel of both films central ‘what would you do’ concern. ‘I guess I do have some attraction to those types of stories. I think that they make for interesting characters on both sides of the coin.’

If Zobel intended ‘Compliance’ as an answer film to criticism he received for the fake auditions he used in making ‘Great World of Sound’ -- making a case that he never forced those people to sing for his camera -- he says it wasn’t a conscious intention. ‘It took other people to point that out,’ he noted.

‘To be honest, I’d like to be the brash filmmaker that was putting everyone in their place, but it was really that I’m interested in the way that we make these kinds of decisions,’ Zobel said. ‘I wish I was that Lars von Trier guy and that I was doing it all on purpose.’

‘I find a lot of sympathy for what’s happening, I relate to and can see how people get into situations like in this movie or in ‘Great World of Sound,’ ' he added. ‘And the fact that people rationalize that they’re not doing anything bad. But everybody is.’

For a film based largely on a phone call, Zobel had a set built that put two locations physically separate in the story side-by-side in a warehouse so that both parts of the conversation could be shot simultaneously with multiple cameras. This also allowed the actors to perform longer takes, really settling into the tense dynamic of the story. ‘In retrospect I can’t imagine doing it another way,’ Zobel said.

Actress Walker was cast in the film after she shot a small role in David Gordon Green’s recent film ‘The Sitter.’ Green, an executive producer on ‘Compliance,’ mentioned the project to her and she immediately recalled the news stories about the real-life series of events on which the film is based.

‘I remember thinking about the girl, who would go through with all that?’ Walker said. ‘How awful that poor girl must feel for going through something like that and then having people be like, ‘You’re such an idiot, how could you go through with all that?’ ‘

‘My whole thing for playing the character was that she wasn’t an idiot,’ she added. ‘She was just really young, very naive and was in these high-stakes circumstances where she thought she was going to lose her job if she didn’t do as she was told. We all think we would react in a certain way, react boldly. Sometimes that’s not really the case at all.’


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-- Mark Olsen