COMPLIANCE filmmaker Craig Zobel asks: What would you do?

People are predictable. In a way, that is the origin point for Craig Zobel’s beautifully acted thinkpiece COMPLIANCE, an examination into how we tend to behave around and submit to authority, even when we should probably question the source. The “we” is up for discussion, since the movie outlines things I would never dream of “complying” with. But the fact is, COMPLIANCE is inspired by true events, something I learned from the film’s first title card. “I wanted it to fully sink in,” Zobel tells us. “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.”

A version of this story has actually happened countless times, and it would be almost laughably preposterous if it weren’t also so simple, and so sinister: At a busy suburban fast-food chain restaurant, manager Sandra (breakout star Ann Dowd, of GARDEN STATE) is summoned to the back to take a call from the police. Slowly, a touchy situation develops, with the officer on the other end of the line accusing one of Sandra’s employees (Dreama Walker) of theft. Before he comes down to the site, he explains, he needs Sandra to act as his proxy and retain the offending employee in the back office. The officer says he has proof of her crime, and his detailed instructions to search her for incriminating evidence become increasingly rigorous and intense, causing circumstances to spiral far out of control for everyone involved. What starts out as a simple instance of following the rules becomes… something else entirely. Check out the trailer:

After making the Sundance favorite THE GREAT WORLD OF SOUND, Zobel could have gone in countless directions; as one of the creators of the hilarious early ’00s internet animation sensation Homestar Runner (who knew!?), he now had a lauded comedy under his belt and probably could have made a bid to take on a larger, similar project deep within the Hollywood studio system. But Zobel’s interests lay elsewhere, and when a certain news story from Kentucky came up, it set him on an interesting course. “The initial stories that I had been reading, and also the underlying research I had been doing about behavioral psychology… I thought it was fascinating, and I couldn’t not read about it more, and more, and more,” he explains. “These weren’t issues that were very black and white; they were incredibly nuanced.” Already fascinated by studies like the famed Milgram experiment, which tested general obedience to authority, it didn’t take long for Zobel to see a story emerge for a film. And the result almost feels like an experiment in behavioral science gone awry; with one location and a group of focused actors dealing with a single situation, the claustrophobic environment and the ramifications of COMPLIANCE are very effectively brought home.

Zobel took the script to his friend (and producer of GREAT WORLD OF SOUND), filmmaker David Gordon Green. “What grabs me about Craig is his relentless passion for finding a headline or story that represents a strange microcosm of contemporary America,” says Green. And stories about strange microcosms can sometimes fare better in the independent world, as opposed to the big budget studio system. But Zobel shies away from this distinction: “The more you call yourself ‘indie,’ the harder it is to get money,” he explains. Thankfully though, the writer-director found financing for this film, due in no small part to its appeal and relevance.

That relevance made waves at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where the entry was considered the most divisive film of the year, causing spirited reactions of all kinds, and from all kinds of people. “It was surprising,” says Zobel. “I knew that the film would have a spectrum of people that had different feelings about it… it’s that kind of movie. But I did not necessarily assume that it would become as discussed as it was. It was a very odd feeling to walk down the street [in Park City] and overhear people talking about the movie.”

“The point was to have a conversation,” Zobel adds. So what would you do?