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TSR Exclusive: 'Compliance' Interview with writer/director Craig Zobel

Compliance is a tough cinematic experience, as set inside a fast food restaurant. A thriller with more meat than a Big Mac, it's tough to sit through, and it's tough to process afterward. With excellent power through tension, this story about a fast food manager tooled around by a police officer can certainly be uncomfortable for audiences in some chapters (without showing a drop of blood). Having had such a rough chewing with this film when I first saw it at SXSW, I was surprised (and am now pleased to share) that the film's writer/director Craig Zobel is of the exact opposite demeanor to his movie. Though his intense movie might seem like the product of an angry filmmaker, Zobel is extremely friendly (if not wonderfully goofy), especially when chatting his first kiss experience (at Space Camp). And while the movie is bound to make for aggressive Q&A screenings, what does he seem to fear more? Online message boards.

In an exclusive interview, I talked to the giggly Zobel about his film, his fear of making it, how he shot Compliance in an actual fast food restaurant, and more.

Compliance opens in Chicago on August 31.

Do you have any favorite fast food entrees?

I do, but it's really sad, because I won't be able to eat it again. I am from Atlanta, and I was a big fan of Chik-fil-A. And now, it's like ... that's probably cut off forever. But the name of the restaurant in Compliance is "ChickWich ..."

Did you ever work in fast food?

I worked at a TCBY long enough that in my senior year of high school I had worked there more than anyone else at the restaurant. When the manager had left, they sort of made me the proxy assistant manager the last four months I worked there because I was more experienced than other people.

In what fast food restaurant did you shoot 'Compliance' in?

The backroom is not in a restaurant, it's a set. As for the restaurant, [the company] asked me to not say which restaurant we shot in, but I think that you can extrapolate. It's a Northern chicken restaurant. ChickWich really was a chicken place.

I can imagine that must have been an interesting meeting with that company.

It was honestly much more like, "We promise we will cover everything with our own logos."

Were these companies concerned about the uglier parts of the story, or the depiction of fast food workers?

Not with those particular people. We talked to a bunch of different fast food places and everybody had different policies. The one thing I regret about the movie is that I wanted all the actors to work at a fast food restaurant for a day, shadow people. We weren't really able to pull that together, but it turns out most of the people had already worked in fast food.

Harold (Steven Payne), a small character at first, turns out to be a crucial part of the film. How did you write his lines?

I knew I wanted an older actor to play the role. Then it was like, "What would my grandfather say?" He would talk about the buff, because that's what my grandfather referred to not having clothes as.

Why did you chose the music you used for the film? What importance do you feel it has with this film?

It was funny; I was talking to Heather McIntosh, who did the score. She's a cellist, and she did a lot of it. There was a list of things that we knew shouldn't do. We said, "Let's not do the music that's in the restaurants. Muzak is trite and cute. And if you listen to the music that is at fast food restaurants, it's Black Eyed Peas and Katy Perry - real poppy." And then I drew the line at no acoustic guitars. There was an amount of being able to use the music to elevate the gravity to the situation. She came up with a bunch before we shot, that I had sketches of. I played these for the actors, and I think they were super helpful for the actors. It even helped me reconfigure some scenes. Instead of having the music underlie the scenes where people are talking, it was in between things as an emotional breather, which I felt was right way to do it. You see The Dark Knight Rises and anytime anyone says something, there's this swell behind it to make sure it's really important. [For Compliance,] I kind of was like, "Well, hopefully we can get some of that out of the performance."

We did the sound mix at Skywalker Sound, and our sound mixer was really conscious of it. There's a lot of design in the movie, and tension built of clanging restaurant noise, but it's like, "How do you not let that fight what people are saying?" That's kind of a lot of this movie. It's really a weird movie in that it's bothersome mostly listening to people talk to other people.

Speaking of bothersome, how did this project make you feel when you worked on it? When you wrote 'Compliance,' did you have any hesitation, were you scared of this challenging movie? Or was your attitude essentially "full steam ahead"?

No, I was very scared of it. All of the producers could tell that I was walking around and saying, "I think it's a movie. I think it's a really interesting movie. It's a pretty interesting concept, and I haven't seen anything like that." I would be able to verbalize what I thought was interesting, and get them riled up. To me the story is fascinating because it creates initially a reaction in you that is very black and white, but then if you think about it for five minutes, it's very complicated. I liked the challenge of that. But then on the other side, it's about sexual assault, and stuff that isn't easy to make movies about. I was nervous, but I was also at a place in my life, that even if it was the last movie I made, and then I just failed really bad at it, that that was going to be more valuable than making something and trying to not articulate these weird points.

There are not many movies designed to frustrate audiences. Are you going to be reading any blog posts and message board posts about this film?

Good lord, no! Absolutely not. I can't imagine there would be any good of me reading the message boards.

But you have so many quotes on the film's poster!

There's a lack of conversation in message board culture that I don't really value. I made this movie to have conversations, and I don't think IMDb message boards ... there's no dialogue there, just monologues. I doubt they even come back and even re-read what their responses are. But it is funny. I hope the movie is frustrating, but hopefully made in a way that it makes you still want to keep going. That was another thing to be scared about. People don't make these movies because if [audiences] get too frustrated [they] just walk out of the theaters.

Do you have any specific memories of challenging movies that have left an impression on you? Any Michael Haneke movies, whom you are getting comparisons to?

He is really good. I have a complicated relationship with him, but the movies of his that I own are Code Unknown and Time of the Wolf. But I think he is an absolute master filmmaker about moving cameras and doing things. I very much respect the hell out of him. One movie that I looked to when preparing this movie was 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days [directed by Cristian Mungiu] which was a movie that sat in around my head days after watching it. It's a challenging movie. That movie, I felt, was good in that it was nuanced and was about multiple things, and literally I thought about it for a long time. If that could be made, then I thought, maybe I could make this.

Quick Questions with Craig Zobel

What did you have for breakfast this morning? Some sort of omelet from downstairs, with mushrooms, onions, and some sort of white cheese.

If you could be someone else for 24 hours who would you be? Trying to think of the best answer ... maybe [director David] Fincher or something.

Are you referring to a certain era of Fincher? In prep for The Social Network. That seemed like something you wouldn't expect him to do. I'm sure he had many interesting conversations.

What is something you can't wait to do? That's hard. I can not wait until ... this is kinda cheesy, but I really want to make another movie really fast.

Age of first kiss? I can even do you one better. It was right before the seventh grade, so that's 13 I guess? It was at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. Yeah, I went to Space Camp. And I kissed a girl. We snuck out of our pods that were shaped like shuttles.

Do you have any other good Space Camp memories? I went to Space Camp twice. Space is really cool. I was very excited. You play both roles, you're on the space shuttle, you're in mission control. I had more fun in mission control, and I was like, "Do I not want to be the astronaut?"

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