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Compliance (2012)

Opened: 08/17/2012 Limited

Sunshine Cinema08/17/2012 - 09/20/201235 days
Kendall Square...08/24/2012 - 09/06/201214 days
The Nuart08/24/2012 - 08/30/20127 days
The Landmark08/31/2012 - 09/13/201214 days
NoHo 709/14/2012 - 09/20/20127 days
Regent Theatre09/14/2012 - 09/20/20127 days
Cinema Village...09/21/2012 - 10/04/201214 days

Trailer: Click for trailer

Websites: Home, Facebook

Genre: Thriller

Rated: Unrated


When a police officer tells you to do something, you do it. Right?

Based on true events, COMPLIANCE tells the chilling story of just how far one might go to obey a figure of authority. On a particularly busy day at a suburban Ohio fast food joint, high-strung manager Sandra (Ann Dowd (Garden State) receives a phone call from a police officer saying that an employee, a pretty young blonde named Becky (newcomer Dreama Walker) has stolen money from a customer. Convinced she's only doing what's right, Sandra commences the investigation, following step-by-step instructions from the officer at the other end of the line, no matter how invasive they become. As we watch, we ask ourselves two questions: "Why don't they just say no?" and the more troubling, "Am I certain I wouldn't do the same?"

The second feature from director Craig Zobel (the man behind the 2007 Sundance hit Great World of Sound), COMPLIANCE recounts this riveting nightmare in which the line between legality and reason is hauntingly blurred. The cast delivers startlingly authentic performances that make the appalling events unfolding onscreen all the more difficult to watch -- but impossible to turn away from. Delving into the complex psychology of this real-life story, COMPLIANCE proves that sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.

Why isn't it easy to "just say no...."

About the Film

In April 2004, an unusual thing occurred at the McDonald's in Mt. Washington, Kentucky, a rural suburb 18 miles outside of Louisville. A man called the manager there and told her that an employee -- who fit the description of an 18- year-old female employee to a "T" -- had stolen a customer's purse. The man, who identified himself as a police officer, gave the manager two choices: have the girl hauled down to the police station and booked, or follow his instructions implicitly to help him locate the evidence he needed to process the case until officers could arrive there at the restaurant to take over.

What happened over the next 3 1/2 hours seems almost too incredible to believe, with the manager, the girl, the manager's boyfriend and others, blindly and obediently following the direction of the caller to put the teenager through everything from a humiliating strip search to a sexual assault -- all in the name of "cooperating with the law."

Even more amazing is that the Mt. Washington case was not the only one. Incredulously, more than 70 such calls occurred throughout the country over a nearly 10 year period, with the caller putting the victims through ridiculous paces -- to which they all submitted themselves voluntarily, not wanting to go against the wishes of a "police officer." It was not until after the Mt. Washington case was an alleged caller apprehended, a 38-year-old Florida prison guard/would-be cop.

A few years ago, writer/director CRAIG ZOBEL came across an article about the curious case, and, even while pursuing other projects, he says, "It stuck with me." A filmmaker's brain ever-intrigued by unusual relationships, Zobel couldn't help but wonder about the dynamic between the manager and teenager. "I just kept wondering what it could have been like, in order for things to get as far as they did? And what was the guy on the other side of the phone saying?"

With no tapes of the phone conversations in existence, Zobel couldn't resist writing down ideas of what he could only guess had taken place, verbally. Eventually, he notes, "I realized this could be a cool little potboiler of a story," completing a script shortly thereafter in just a month's time shortly thereafter.

Zobel brought the script to his longtime friend and colleague, filmmaker DAVID GORDON GREEN (Pineapple Express), who had also produced Zobel's first film, Great World of Sound. "Anything that interests Craig interests me," Green insists, though, he notes, "Any time he comes up with an idea, the first question I ask is, ?Is there anything commercial going through your head right now?" the COMPLIANCE executive producer laughs. It didn't take long, though, for Green to see that he his friend had brought him the makings of a powerful psychological thriller. "What grabs me about Craig is his relentless passion for finding a headline or story that represents a strange microcosm of contemporary America that people don't necessarily find in obvious places. There's no rush to get the rights to stories that he's interested in. But they're stories you can't turn away from."

To portray the characters in Zobel's story, the director was careful to find actors who were up to the task of putting themselves through a tough emotional roller coaster. "Every one of them expressed to me, before getting the job that they were scared of the kind of performance that would be needed. I just went with people that had that quality," he says. Adds Green, "No matter who the director is, if you don't have a cast than can embody these kinds of perversions and insecurities and intensities, then you don't have a movie."

Since Zobel knew his script was dialogue-heavy with few locations, he began thinking of actors from the legitimate theater to fill the roles. Green had the same idea, particularly for the role of Sandra, Zobel's manager at his fictional "ChickWich" fast food restaurant, and suggested his director see an Ethan Hawke play, "Blood From a Stone," which featured actress ANN DOWD. "I wanted him to see her, because she really caught my eye as someone who looked like an everyday person, with so many naturalistic qualities," Green notes.

"Ann, as a person, is very confident and strong," Zobel says. "And Sandra had to be strong, in some ways, managing a restaurant. But Ann is also a very gentle person -- there was no way you could have that character played by someone who is a strong, harsh ?Devil Wears Prada' type. You could never think that anybody here was getting off on what they were doing." Says Dowd, "I read the script, and bought it immediately. This was a real person. It was riveting."

To play the insidiously demented and manipulative Officer Daniels, Zobel turned to one of his Great World of Sound stars, PAT HEALY. "I needed someone in my corner that I had good communication and a solid working relationship with. I knew that Pat would get why I wanted to make this movie and what the questions were," the director says. "Pat's a good actor and brave enough to do whatever."

Regardless of his character history, Healy was somewhat reticent about taking on the faux officer. "The character wasn't anything I was excited about, from a career perspective," he laughs. "It was really an unappealing character. If I'd had a lot of time to think about it, I might have said no. But I was very glad I didn't. I didn't know I had it in me to play such a part. I just trusted Craig implicitly -- I really would do anything with him."

Unlike some of the other cast members, Healy elected not to research the original cases, choosing instead to rely on his own imagination -- and personal experience at the time. "To be honest, I couldn't find anything about him I could relate to -- it's hard to relate to a person who seems so inhuman. But I was going through a really difficult time in my life, personally, and I thought, ?It would be better to work right now.' For the first time in my life, I really channeled that negative energy into this dark performance. I was really drawing on how I felt."

The actor dyed his eyebrows an odd color and inhabited the appropriately designed costume from costume designer Karen Malecki. "I just thought he would look strange in some way, like some guy who doesn't leave his house much," he says. "And Karen's costumes were sort of a subtle, demented Mr. Rogers."

The target of the hoax, a pretty blonde teenage employee named Becky, is played by newcomer DREAMA WALKER. "I actually remember when this was in the news in 2004," she recalls. "I was a senior in high school -- I'm actually the same age as the victim in the Mt. Washington case." Walker was particularly struck by how such a thing could occur in a corporate environment such as McDonald's. "You think you'd be pretty safe from anything like this happening."

The actress learned as much as she could about the original case and about its victim, though the character is only loosely based on the Mt. Washington case. "I watched a number of interviews and tried to learn as many details about the case and about the people. I really love the way Craig wrote for Becky, because the girl in the Kentucky case, from what I could tell, seems like the perfect girl who probably goes to church every Sunday and was very virtuous. Becky has an attitude, and there's an innate tension between her and Sandra, whom Becky is disrespectful toward."

"She's an incredibly brave actress," Zobel says of his star. "She came in and quickly got that it needed to be someone who still felt like their life hadn't started yet. And she's also super funny -- we have a lot of outtakes no one will ever see," he laughs.

The young actress spends a good portion of the film wearing little more than an apron -- and sometimes not even that -- as a result of the strip search Daniels orders. While other filmmakers would have exploited the nudity, Zobel uses it tactfully to achieve its main purpose: to make the audience as uncomfortable as those in the room with Becky. "It helps us squirm more, and it helps us relate to the believability of this ridiculous situation," Green says. Walker agrees, "I swore I'd never do nudity, but the story demanded it. And it wasn't gratuitous, which neither I nor Craig wanted it to be." It was the first time Zobel had ever shot such scenes -- something which didn't go unnoticed by Walker. "It was so cute -- he would get really, really uncomfortable on set, saying, ?Uh, excuse me, could you, uh. . . ,'" she laughs. "I was thankful that he had that kind of respect for it."

Why Not Just Say ?No?'

Anyone who watches COMPLIANCE, or has read about the original cases, wonders the same thing: Why did the victims in each case never simply say "no" to the caller and his increasingly outlandish orders, or even question whether he was, indeed, actually a police officer?

"You think you'd say, ?Well, wait a minute -- I understand there's a problem, but I'm not comfortable. You're gonna have to come and do this yourself. And, by the way, who are you?'" says Dowd. "You think, ?Well, of course, that's what I'd say.' But that's not what Sandra does, and that's not what 70 other people did in real life."

That, in fact, was what initially intrigued Zobel. "The more I asked myself the question, ?In that situation, how would I have reacted?' the more I recognized there was something very human about this kind of reaction. It became hard for me to simply dismiss them all as just a bunch of stupid people."

So what caused normal, average people to react in such a foolish manner -- and keep doing it? "It's very hard to say no to someone in authority -- especially police," Zobel says. And, notes Healy, "Some people just want to be told what to do. They hear a person in a position of power telling them what to do, and they don't question it." They do it "because I was told to do that,'" Zobel adds.

The director was intrigued by the characters unusual reactions to authority. The victim in the Mt. Washington case herself in her court testimony and elsewhere, Walker notes, said words to the effect of "'I thought my whole life was in jeopardy. I was scared for my life.' All of a sudden, when you're thrust into that sort of situation, you become terrified that the stakes are a lot higher than they actually are," similar to the experience one has after having been pulled over by a police officer for a simple traffic offense. "The worst case scenario is that I'll get a ticket. But my mind will begin telling me, I'm gonna have to go to jail, I'll be living out on the street!' when that's not really the case at all."

Some people are just built to react to people like Officer Daniels, as is the case with the middle-aged Sandra, says Ann Dowd. "I think Sandra probably comes from a working class background. She lives with her father, and her boyfriend is a construction worker -- who has to go ask her father if he can marry her. I mean, what woman is living with her dad at that age, and then wanting permission to get married? This woman is clearly not in charge of her life."

Sandra's ability to make decisions for herself likely disappeared long ago, she notes. "At some point, long ago, she just gave up. She was raised to defer to authority, to relinquish her natural ability to discern what's right and what's wrong." Even the things that the officer tells her to do which make her uncomfortable, she does. "To her, it's a matter of ?Duty -- this is what I've been asked to do. It is a police matter.' I don't think it ever crosses her mind that he's not a detective." Sandra is just the kind of person the caller hopes he'll find on the other end of the line when he makes such calls. "She's a perfect storm waiting to happen. If you're going to pick somebody to dominate, that's the woman. And I think he caught onto that very quickly."

The caller's manipulative abilities are reproduced with deft skill by actor Healy, who got early practice in his role in Great World of Sound. Among other things, he says, "It's a sales technique, kind of a pleasure-and-pain thing. You screech at someone, and then you catch them off guard by reassuring them, it's okay, you're doing a really good job.' If you're good enough at it, you've just completely confused someone, and they lose any sense of themselves."

Healy created a whole palette of manipulative tricks for Daniels. "He's really good at getting people to tell him things that they think he already knows. He calls up and says, ?You have a girl working there, with blonde hair, about 19 years old, uh. . . ? Who, Becky?' ?Yeah, Becky.' I've known people like that, that are very good at making you think that they know everything, but they need you to tell them."

Daniels is keen to keep a notebook handy, not to miss the slightest detail revealed by his victims. "Then you can play everybody off each other, and say, ?Well, Becky just said this about you. . . "

Another technique the officer uses involves scolding the victim, in order to manipulate them into doing yet more of his sick requests. When Sandra, for example, slips out that she has revealed something to another character that Daniels had told her not to tell anyone, he says, "Did you do something that I told you not to do?" "It immediately instigates guilt and fear into her," Zobel notes.

He then comforts her, telling her, "You're doing a great job." "The key to Sandra is that she wants to please people, particularly men in authority positions," Dowd explains. "He has great skill in sizing her up -- quickly -- and finding her buttons. You press those buttons, and she will just do. It fills an empty place in her. The more he says, the more she just thinks, ?You know what? Someone's gotta do this job, and I'm gonna do it to the best of my ability.' And he just keeps giving her more."

Making the caller all the more believable was Healy's uncanny ability to make him sound. . . like a cop. "As soon as I asked Pat to do the role, I immediately sent him a ?Best of ?COPS' DVD box set," Zobel says. "I told him, ?Just watch this, and keep watching until you get to the set.'"

So what sounds like a cop? Besides a lot of "ma'am" and "sir," Healy notes, "There's a really impersonal demeanor that works in disarming people," something he also picked up being around his grandfather and uncle, who were police officers. "There's a lot of phrases, like, ?This particular individual' and I'm gonna need you to. . . . ? And also speaking in harsh tones, but saying, ?please' and ?thank you.' Like [in an ordering voice], I'm gonna need you to stay in the car please' or ma'am, I need you to shut up, thank you.' It's a confusionary tactic that catches people off guard, and you really don't know what to think."

Did it work? "You hear his voice," says Dowd, "he's intelligent, and there's a softness to him, so you don't feel there's any bully in there. He has an authority in his voice, he knows what he's talking about. And the way Pat delivered it; I bought it in a second."

Making it all the more believable for the actors was the fact that Healy and the other cast members were actually on the phone together, performing live on two separate sets for nearly the entire film. While the exteriors and scenes at the front of the restaurant were filmed over three nights at a KFC in suburban New Jersey, the restaurant office, pantry and hallway, along with Officer Daniels' home interior, were shot at a soundstage in Brooklyn. Daniels' set was located immediately downstairs from the set where the other actors were working, and the two were literally speaking together over the telephones seen in the film.

"That was one of the technical challenges I realized we were going to have to deal with in making a movie like this," Zobel explains. "We were doing something that largely takes place in very few locations, with one character mostly just a voice on a phone, but in a pivotal role." Knowing he wanted to shoot with two cameras, Zobel simply filmed both sides simultaneously -- the entire film, directing Healy via radio. "Normally, the script supervisor would just be reading lines in place of the person on the other side of the phone, but that's not really fair to the actors, especially when they have to talk to the person for as long as they did here"

The actors found the technique invaluable. "I've done so many plays in which you're on the phone and nobody else is there," Dowd says. "It really changes the nature of the whole thing. It was key that Sandra never saw him." Walker agrees. "Ann's face is so expressive, and being able to see her reactions to what Pat was saying to her really helped incredibly."

As Healy found out, the fact that Daniels doesn't see his victims has a lot to do with the success of his hoax. "I told Pat, the stakes for the officer are lower," Zobel says. "The worst thing that can happen to him is that they hang up on him." Daniels doesn't even see that there's anything wrong with what he's doing. "To him it's just a prank call." At one point, he is even seen making a sandwich in his kitchen, while giving direction to his victims. Says Healy, "He's so removed from it, he doesn't think he's doing anything wrong. He's this horrendous person doing this awful thing that damages these people's lives."

Daniels even chuckles a few times at the response he gets on the other end of the line. "He suggests they do something, and then the person on the other end of the line comes up with something worse! He's, like, ?Wow. Okay -- yeah, do that.' He's, like, ?I can't even believe I'm getting away with this. I'm awesome. I'm God,' and he's just sitting in his little house, manipulating these people like chess pieces."

Healy got to experience the effect of Daniels' invisibility firsthand -- when it disappeared. A few times, the portable phone he was using on his set failed, forcing him to have to go upstairs to the restaurant set and deliver his lines in person. "I would have to go up into the office and do it live with them, as I watching them. And that became very uncomfortable for me. Being abusive towards these people was much easier when I was downstairs and away from them, not looking at them. And that told me a lot about the character."

The results of Zobel's and the cast's handiwork is a riveting, frightening story. "The success of a movie like this is so execution-dependent," says David Gordon Green. "You can't screw it up; you can't turn it into a TV movie. But it was in deft hands with Craig -- it makes you very uncomfortable and challenges the audience to believe things that sound unbelievable."

"Craig's main goal was to try and understand what happened there," Healy says. Zobel agrees. "I wasn't making this movie just to have a new ?product' in the marketplace. We all had a question, one that me and a bunch of my now-friends had about the world, and we tried to answer it in some way that made sense to us." Adds Green, "I'm looking forward to watching the audience at Sundance squirm. . ."