UNC School of the Arts graduate Craig Zobel gets under your skin with Compliance, now out on DVD

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It’s not every Hollywood résumé that includes multiple Southern art films, a flash animation about a tiny Luchador and an award-winning feature about an interrogation in the back room of a fast-food restaurant, but UNC School of the Arts graduate Craig Zobel is not your typical filmmaker—and his latest film Compliance, which hit DVD this week, is anything but your typical film.

In its premiere at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Compliance proved one of the most controversial films there, prompting multiple walkouts in its initial screening. And last month, INDY Week's Neil Morris called it the best film of the year.

The film chronicles a day at a fictional fast-food franchise where the manager (Ann Dowd, who recently received Best Supporting Actress from the National Board of Review for her role) is called by a police officer (Pat Healy) informing her that a young employee (Dreama Walker from TV’s Don’t Trust the B—— in Apt. 23) has stolen money from a customer and needs to be detained until the cops arrive. Even though audience members are clued in early that the “cop” on the phone is a fake, those on the other end of the line follow through with his demands—which include a strip search and increasingly degrading acts being perpetrated on the hapless cashier.

It sounds far-fetched—until you find out this scenario really did play out more than 70 times in the United States.

“My reaction to hearing the story of the events it’s based on was one of, ‘I’m not one of those people! I would never do that!’” says Zobel in a call to his apartment in New York City.

“But then you start realizing there are times when you just don’t know what you’d do in a situation. There are things that are built into us that in some ways I’m curious about. I don’t think that this is a matter of education or intelligence level, but the relationship to authority that some people have, and how that relationship comes out in people.”

Dreama Walker in Compliance

Zobel says the film gets under people’s skin because it forces them to confront their own relationship to authority: “You can’t put yourself in the mindset of being suspicious of every person you encounter during the day, or you’d be completely paranoid. So you have to be trusting that people are who they say they are, and will do what they say they’re going to do, and that becomes kind of the fascinating thing with the authorities, and I think part of why people are interested in the story is because it’s a betrayal of that innate trust we have with the authorities.”

Despite the grim subject matter of Compliance, Zobel says that his cast and crew had a better time making the film than some people have had watching it. “We were certainly not comfortable on set some times, but as creators, we had a different relation to what was going on onscreen — people who make horror movies aren’t scared all day,” Zobel says with a laugh. “We were aiming for an effect, so it wasn’t so much of a situation that was like that of watching the film.

“This was a movie that was really being made by virtue of the fact that all the people involved were interested. We weren’t interested in competing with The Avengers—it was just a group of people who were really interested in this idea. So we wanted to be faithful to the ideas that got us there, and making sure those ideas came across.”

Zobel’s eclectic background includes co-founding the popular Flash animation site Homestarrunner.com, home of such cartoon characters as Strong Bad and Trogdor. After college, he attended UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem with David Gordon Green, and went on to work with him on his films George Washington, filmed in Wilmington, and All the Real Girls, filmed in Asheville (Green, in turn, executive-produced Compliance).

His first feature, The Great World of Sound, was released in 2007 and received warm reviews. Filmed in North Carolina, it told an offbeat story about two hucksters who recruit amateur singers to make demo recordings.

Zobel has many fond memories of North Carolina—from watching films at the School of the Arts to heading down to the Triangle to catch rock shows at Cat’s Cradle and catch films at local theaters (he was excited to have Compliance booked at the Galaxy in Cary, but the theater closed in November before the film could be screened).

“The School of the Arts has a really wonderful archive, so there was always a great movie on,” Zobel says. “The sheer volume of movies I got to see was so wonderful. There wasn’t a lot else going on there, so there wasn’t much else to do except go to the movies every day! And the school was rather new, so there wasn’t much competition between everybody—everyone was so supportive.”

His next film is a higher-profile project with Tobey Maguire—an adaptation of Z for Zachariah, Robert C. O’Brien young-adult classic about a girl trapped with a stranger in a small town in the aftermath of a nuclear war. Zobel, who calls the film “basically the diary of Anne Frank, but post-apocalyptic,” and “a nuanced explorations of interpersonal relationships at the end of the world,” says that he’d like to bring the project to North Carolina, which has already played host to such post-apocalyptic dramas as The Hunger Games and TV’s Revolution.

“We’ve been talking about filming in the far corner of North Carolina, out by Cherokee as a possibility,” Zobel says. “I’m excited about it, and would like to bring it down there. North Carolina is beautiful — I spent so much time at the lake and at the beach in Wilmington, and in Asheville. It’s a great thing, and I’m not just saying that! I try to go back as often as possible.”

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