Writer-director Craig Zobel's feature film debut, the 2007 road comedy "Great World of Sound," followed two unscrupulous record-company representatives on a talent search that leads to a moral reckoning. Five years later Zobel has given us another tale of deceit, this one a lot harsher: "Compliance," based on the squirmy true story (dozens of incidents, in fact) of a prank caller masquerading as a police officer.
When told by the faker that one of her fast-food restaurant employees is a thief, the restaurant's manager complies unquestioningly with the unseen cop's orders to conduct a strip search. Others are brought into an increasingly sinister procedure. The teenage victim's humiliation and eventual sexual violation become a pretty terrible thing to witness.
On the other hand, he said, "There's something narratively interesting about the fact that we all kind of trust each other, we have a sense of trust, and when we interact with other people we hope they'll do the right thing. And of course that isn't always the case. We have sympathy for the people getting conned in that situation, and a kind of fascination with the people doing the conning, the people who are rationalizing, 'Well, what I'm doing isn't that bad.'"
Some have complained that in "Compliance," the manager played by Ann Dowd stretches credibility by never questioning the veracity of the man on the other end of the phone. "I don't know," Zobel countered, gently. "I think if were in that situation I would not immediately think to ask: 'Are you sure you're a cop? Can you prove it?' Are you really going to say that to a cop? You push back, maybe you're in even more trouble."
He admitted he was "scared to make the film. It was an unpleasant world to live in for a long time." He won't have to wait as long between films this time, though. He's signed to direct "Z for Zachariah," from Nissar Modi's script based on the Robert C. O'Brien novel, starring Tobey Maguire. Another is a lighter story, again of deceit and evasion, which Zobel will write and direct. It's a fact-based tale of a Swedish mobster who scammed his way into millions pretending to be a European tech executive. The tone, he hopes, will be akin to Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight."
Zobel attended the North Carolina School of the Arts with filmmaker David Gordon Green, among others. (Jody Hill and Danny McBride are among the others.) He's worked with Green a lot, and recalled during the making of Green's "George Washington" telling him the story that eventually became "Compliance," which Zobel acknowledges is a "dark, weird movie."
Green, he said, "was the guy encouraging me to keep going with it. He said: 'If you tell the story the way you just told it to me, it could be pretty nuanced and interesting.'"
Movies on the radio: Michael talks with Bill Leff in the 6:30 a.m. segment Friday on WGN-AM 720.