In April of 2004, an unusual thing happened at a McDonald’s in Mt. Washington, Kentucky. A man called the manager and told her one of her employees had stolen a customer’s purse. He described the employee perfectly to match one of the workers, identified himself as a police officer, and gave the manager two choices: have the girl hauled to a police station for questioning, or follow his instructions to locate the evidence herself so police could proceed with an arrest. The store manager and employee both complied. Threatened with arrest, the employee agreed to be subjected to some very lewd interrogation acts. Only when one of the male employees objected to the proceedings did the caller hang up, because the whole thing was one elaborate prank to see how far those involved would actually go.
That’s the premise behind “Compliance,” a radically different and somewhat controversial film by director Craig Zobel that drew plenty of reaction at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Some who saw the premiere praised it, others literally booed when it was shown for the first time on Jan. 21. The film is not a retelling of the McDonald’s incident—the setting is different—but mirrors many of the details of the accounts given by the victims involved. When Zobel read a story several years later about the events at that Kentucky restaurant, he said, “It stuck with me. I just kept wondering what it could have been like, in order for things to get as far as they did? What was the guy on the other side of the phone saying?”
Fast forward to a snowy afternoon in Park City, Utah at Sundance, where Zobel is joined for our interview by veteran Bristish actress Ann Dowd, who plays the manager of a fast food restaurant; actress Dreama Walker, who is now starring on ABC’s hit comedy “Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 24 C,” and is the employee in “Compliance” who is stripped of both her uniform and her dignity; and actor Pat Healy, who portrays Daniel, the “officer” on the phone calling the shots. Our interview takes place one day after the film’s premiere.
“When I came across this story, I was not looking to make a movie about it at all,” Zobel said. “It had things about it that initially I couldn’t believe were possible. Even days later after reading it, I couldn’t really process why people did the things that they did.”
“I read Craig’s script and thought it was fantastically written,” Dowd said of her reasons for auditioning for the film. “I was drawn to my character for sure. To all the characters, really.”
“I was familiar with the incident,” Walker recalled. “I remember just being completely bewildered and intrigued, and feeling the same way as Craig, that at some point in all of our lives, we’re involved in something or partly involved in something that we don’t wholeheartedly agree with, but go along with because we’re told to. That’s part of humanity. In this case, it was very extreme.” She also liked the way the story was told from the viewpoint of those involved—their feelings and their internal conflicts.
“I don’t think these people were idiots,” Walker said. “I don’t think they were morons. I think they were naive, and I think that at that moment, the walls were closing in on them; and my character in particular really felt that her whole life was coming to a halt, and that she was going to be thrown into prison and lose everything. That was terrifying for her—the stakes were very high for her.”
Healy had worked with Zobel previously on a film called “Great World of Sound” that also dealt with an implausible but real-life situation. Like with this film, it was an exploration of human behavior and why people would do things they wouldn’t normally do.
Dowd said the tight shooting schedule for “Compliance,” which lasted just 21 days, gave the actors another advantage in playing characters who they may have not necessarily liked or, as in Healy’s case, found “despicable.”
“You’re less likely to second-guess yourself, which is very helpful on a film like this,” she said. “On a gut level, if you understand the character, and you take off the resistance, then you’re going to move right through.”
It makes for tense drama, and as Walker intimated, puts each of the film’s characters into a moment-of-truth situation.
“The specter of a cop is a powerful thing,” Zobel said. “It gives people pause. People were scared enough by the idea of police that they didn’t question it. They don’t want to say the wrong thing. They don’t want to get into more trouble.”
“Compliance” is now playing nationwide in select theaters. As for the real-life incident on which the story is based, Louise Ogborn, the person whose situation most resembles what Walker’s character Becky goes through, was later awarded millions in punitive and compensatory damages. Walter Nix, her “guard” who committed the physical abuse, went to prison. And the man accused of ordering him to do so, David Stewart, was found not guilty – but there were no more reported hoax calls of this kind after his arrest.
–Tom Haraldsen and Chalese Dalton