Of all art forms, perhaps nothing intertwines art and commerce more closely than filmmaking. Even the most devoted auteur knows that without commercial prospects, a film generally won't find its audience.
Despite that reality, writer/producer/director Craig Zobel, 35, has stuck primarily with subject matter that resonates most personally with him, regardless of what others may think. The latest example is his buzz-generating film "Compliance," which enraged some members of the crowd who saw its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
Dozens walked out before it finished, and some shouted accusations during the post-screening Q&A session that the film was exploitative and misogynistic. But during an interview a day after the screening made industry headlines, Zobel was unfazed.
"I'd rather make movies that people will either grade with an A or an F than a C plus," said Zobel, a former Charlottean and 1999 graduate of the UNC School of the Arts School of Filmmaking in Winston-Salem. "I would prefer that the reaction be either very positive or very negative."
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Zobel is getting his wish - and in a twist that could only happen at the annual Sundance festival, the polarized reactions boosted its reputation among distributors. Magnolia Pictures will give the film a theatrical run, likely this summer, Zobel says.
So what's causing so much outrage? Turns out the movie is based on a true story - Zobel didn't make up the events that so offended that first audience.
It's drawn from a series of pranks that culminated in an April 2004 incident at a McDonald's in rural Mount Washington, Ky. A man claiming to be a police officer called a manager and said one of her employees had stolen money from a customer. The prankster talked the manager (portrayed on screen by Ann Dowd) into interrogating, confining and strip-searching the vulnerable 19-year-old, played by newcomer Dreama Walker, and eventually drew other people into the young woman's increasingly harrowing degradation over more than three hours. The chilling phone conversations in the film, most in real time, are excruciating to watch, especially with knowledge that their most bizarre aspects are true.
In real life, investigators learned the same caller perpetrated similar pranks at dozens of rural fast-food restaurants in 30 states, some of which resulted in sexual assaults. While a suspect was arrested, the evidence was circumstantial and the trial resulted in acquittal (though the incidents stopped after the suspect's arrest).
Zobel found out about the cases while researching the famous 1960s study by Yale scientist Stanley Milgram, who tested the phenomenon of blind obedience to authority by talking his subjects into administering painful electric shocks to other people. The shocks were faked, but two-thirds of the unwitting participants pushed a button labeled as dangerous after being told by a white-coated researcher that the experiment required it.
Zobel was troubled as he pondered the people who brutalized others based on the say-so of a voice on the phone.
"My first instinct was to say these people must have just been stupid. But then you read that 70 times over the course of 10 years, this happened in different states. And you start thinking there's got to be something bigger at work than that. I don't like to just assume everyone's stupid. The film for me was retroactively saying, 'What part of human nature lets this happen?' "
And Zobel, along with others in the cast, confessed to recalling regrets about not "just saying no" to an authority figure.
"I thought about my own upbringing, which was loving and kind and religious, and what I was taught, and what I think many people were taught, was to defer my own sense of right and wrong ... to someone in authority," said Dowd, who felt sad for the gullible and ultimately pathetic fast-food manager she depicted. "This film gives us a chance to do something about it."
Added Zobel: "There have been times I have done something I wish I hadn't done because I didn't feel comfortable saying that I wouldn't do it. I thought it would be interesting to make a movie to talk about that, to get that out there as a bigger conversation."
Because of his personal fascination, Zobel says he wrote the script in less than a month - very fast for him, and for most screenwriters. "There are some things I felt gross writing," he said. "There are two scenes in the movie that made me so uncomfortable that I remember getting drunk to write one of them."
'It bothered me'
Zobel's high-profile trip to Sundance is the latest in a long line of breakouts from the UNC School of the Arts' filmmaking program. In the past eight years, its alumni have been responsible for 19 Sundance films in roles including director, producer, screenwriter, cinematographer, editor and actor. Among the biggest UNCSA success stories is David Gordon Green, who brought films including "All the Real Girls" and "Snow Angels" to Sundance before hitting the mainstream with films including "Pineapple Express" and the recent "Your Highness." Green was executive producer of "Compliance."
And it's Zobel's second trip to Sundance - the first was with 2007's "Great World of Sound," which he filmed while he was living in Charlotte's Plaza-Midwood neighborhood. The much gentler film, which enjoyed a limited theatrical run, portrayed a man who takes a job as a scout for a record company, thinking he's trying to sign a major talent to a label. But he gradually learns he's part of a scam to swindle aspiring singers out of fees.
Actor Pat Healy played the record scout in that film and reteamed with Zobel to play the sick prankster of "Compliance."
"Both of the films we've done were about the exploitation of working-class people," Healey said. "It's something that is more important now than it ever has been, as we talk about the (erosion) of the middle class. I'm not trying to get on a soapbox about it, but it's just kind of interesting that it's in our blood and we're exploring it."
Zobel says the audience's initial reaction hasn't brought any doubts about his approach. "This is not a project that anyone was asking me to write. It was something I found interesting and couldn't stop thinking about. On a bigger level than it just being a fascinating story, it bothered me. And the movie bothers me. It's hard for me to watch. But I think it's interesting still. I think it's fascinating that this aspect of human behavior exists."