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
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
Zobel brought the script to his longtime friend and colleague, filmmaker DAVID
GORDON GREEN (Pineapple Express), who had also produced Zobelʼs 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 Zobelʼs 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, Zobelʼs 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 Pradaʼ 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.ʼ 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
"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. . . ,ʼ" she laughs. "I was thankful that he had that
kind of respect for it."
Why Not Just Say 'No?ʼ
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?ʼ" says Dowd. "You think, 'Well, of course, that's what I'd
say.ʼ 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?ʼ 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,ʼ" 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 "ʼI thought my whole life was in
jeopardy. I was scared for my life.ʼ 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!ʼ 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."
Sandraʼs 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.ʼ 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.ʼ 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?ʼ 'Yeah, Becky.ʼ 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
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.ʼ And
he just keeps giving her more."
Making the caller all the more believable was Healyʼs 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 'COPSʼ DVD box set," Zobel says. "I told him, 'Just watch
this, and keep watching until you get to the set.ʼ"
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 individualʼ and I'm
gonna need you to. . . . ' And also speaking in harsh tones, but saying,
'pleaseʼ and 'thank you.ʼ Like [in an ordering voice], I'm gonna need you to
stay in the car pleaseʼ or ma'am, I need you to shut up, thank you.ʼ Itʼs 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 Danielsʼ
home interior, were shot at a soundstage in Brooklyn. Danielsʼ 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.ʼ He's, like, 'I can't even believe I'm getting away with this. I'm
awesome. I'm God,ʼ and he's just sitting in his little house, manipulating these
people like chess pieces."
Healy got to experience the effect of Danielsʼ 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 Zobelʼs 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 'productʼ 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. . ."
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