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Compliance

One of the most talked about films of the year; bold and inventive filmmaking destined to leave a searing impression on its audience.

Even if a screening is sold out, tickets are often available 30 minutes before the start of the film at the box office at each venue.


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  • Director-Screenwriter Craig Zobel
  • Producer Tyler Davidson, Sophia Lin, Lisa Muskat, Theo Sena, Craig Zobel
  • With Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy
  • USA 2012
  • 90 mins
  • Sales Memento Films International

Sandra (Ann Dowd) is the manager of a fast-food joint. She takes her job very seriously, which makes her something of a figure of fun among her employees, who are mostly teenagers who couldn’t care less about their work, though who need the money. One busy Friday shift, Sandra takes a call from a police officer informing her that counter-girl Becky (Dreama Walker) has stolen money from a customer’s purse. Becky denies the accusation, but Sandra is convinced by the cop that she needs to act, detaining Becky on his orders. This decision begins a series of mind games and moral manipulation that turn a bad day into a living nightmare. Based on bizarre real-life events, Compliance was the most talked about film at the Sundance Film Festival when it premiered there earlier this year. Craig Zobel’s second feature, following The Great World of Sound (LFF 2007), is bold and inventive filmmaking destined to leave a searing impression on its audience.
Michael Hayden

Director statement

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” – Voltaire

This film is based on actual incidents that happened at least 70 times over a 10-year period across different parts of the US. A man would call fast-food restaurants saying he was a police officer and convince the restaurant’s manager to aid in catching an employee who had stolen from a customer. The caller would lead the manager down a series of events where the employee – usually a teenage girl – was held captive in the back of the store while ‘under suspicion’, often culminating in the teen being strip searched naked, spanked, and in many cases eventually coerced into sexual assault situations. The actual episodes usually lasted for up to four of five hours. Upon discovering it was a hoax, the victim and other restaurant employees would be shattered. The real police officers investigating one of the cases tracked calling cards back to a security guard hundreds of miles away in a different state. In his apartment they found police equipment, applications for police academies, and a collection of phone calling cards linked to dozens of similar hoax phone calls throughout the country. The suspected caller was brought to trial in that case, but was found not guilty and was not convicted. After this case went to court, there have been no further calls. In a separate civil suit connected to that same case, the victim partnered with the restaurant manager and shift supervisor to successfully sue the restaurant’s international corporation for failing to protect her. Similar – though less severe – hoaxes had been perpetrated at other of the corporation’s restaurants throughout the country, and the lawsuit cited that they didn’t sufficiently warn the employees of the threat. The manager and supervisor were awarded their legal fees paid, and the victim was awarded millions of dollars in damages.

My first film, Great World of Sound, reveals a small-time music industry con which preys on people in suburban America. In it people posed as record producers and convinced songwriters they could make their dreams come true, for a fee. I explored how moral people could rationalise committing unethical acts, especially when convinced to by others: that scammers are also sometimes getting scammed. Compliance exists in the same world and shares similar themes, though it approaches these questions with a different tone – one more in line with a psychological thriller. I encountered the true stories from which this is based at the time I was interested in the work of behavioural psychologist Dr Stanley Milgram. He was primarily fascinated in studying people’s statements of defence at the Nazi war-crime trials. From this interest he created famed social experiments on mankind’s willingness to submit to authority. [...] I’ve never been in a situation as extreme as the one depicted in this film or that Dr Milgram concocted for his tests. Yet I recognise something familiar; I could identify something universal in the way Milgram’s subjects struggled yet ultimately succumbed to an authority figure’s wishes at the expense of someone else. I can’t remember a specific time when I’ve done this – I don’t think we are wired to recognise this in ourselves very often – we usually cast ourselves in the role of the hero who could never be duped. However, I know that sometime, somewhere in my life, I’ve thrown someone under a bus against my values and at another person’s command. I was curious about both the revelation that this could be a larger part of human nature, and also how difficult it is to be honest with yourself in recognising that. It’s unsettling to recognise, but ultimately cathartic. [...] I stumbled across the true event from which the story is based and saw an opportunity for a specific genre – the real-time hostage film. I’ve always been a devoted fan of Dog Day Afternoon and though my script is different, I saw an opportunity for very similar ultra-realistic, semi-improvised character moments. The group power dynamic of José Padilha’s Bus 174 and the immaculate, yet little-seen 1967 Larry Peerce film, The Incident – where Martin Sheen takes control of a subway car – were huge inspirations as far as plot and structure. Of course, no one can attempt tension building exercises without studying Hitchcock films, and so I’ve appropriated certain elements from him. Yet, the realism of Paul Greengrass’s United 93 resonates with me, and I saw an opportunity to build extreme tension out of completely naturalistic performances as he was able to accomplish in that film.
Craig Zobel

Director biography

Craig was awarded the Breakthrough Director award at the 2008 Gotham Awards for Great World of Sound, his debut feature as a writer/director which premiered at Sundance in 2007. The film was selected as one of the Top Ten Independent Films of the Year by The National Board of Review, and was nominated for Best First Film, and Best Supporting Actor in the 2008 Independent Spirit Awards. His new film Compliance played at Sundance and SXSW in early 2012. He was co-producer of David Gordon Green's seminal indie hit of 2000, George Washington.

Filmography (selected)

2007 Great World of Sound
2009 Of Montreal: In a Fit of Hercynian Prig, Oculi [doc; co-d]
2012 Compliance

Read the Time Out review.

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