Hot-button pic tries tame campaign

'Compliance' puts accent on morality, not strip-search

Craig Zobel’s “Compliance” was widely considered the most controversial movie at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Drawing accusations of misogyny and exploitation at its Q&A sessions, the film, about the strip search of a female employee at a fast-food restaurant, was seen as a hot potato.

Even with strong reviews, Zobel was repeatedly called upon to defend himself. “I wanted the film to be a conversation starter,” he said at the time, “so it’s frustrating that it stopped the conversation for some people.”

Now just before Magnolia Pictures’ Aug. 17 release, the distributor and filmmakers are treading carefully, trying to strike the right balance between raising awareness and not pissing more people off.

Based on real-life incidents, “Compliance” follows a fast-food restaurant manager (Ann Dowd) who receives a phone call from a man claiming to be a police officer; when the alleged cop convinces her to strip search and hold captive an attractive young employee (Dreama Walker), the story ventures into some highly disturbing and, for some, sadistic territory.

Zobel is quick to point out that he could have shot the film without any nudity — as it is, there is very little — “but that would have lowered the tension,” he explains. “I could have made a movie that was very subjective to Dreama’s character’s point of view, and avoided what people are calling misogyny. But then I would have missed the really interesting, morally gray problems that happen to the other characters in the movie. It would have painted everyone else as the bad guys.”

Magnolia Pictures prexy Eamonn Bowles believes Zobel himself is the film’s best defense against criticisms that the pic is sexist or classist. “I want to get Craig out there talking to people,” Bowles says. “Once they hear him, I think those negative things will go away. If you know Craig at all, you’d know he’s a humanist and has respect for other people. To hear those accusations that he’s condescending to working-class people, my jaw dropped and my heart broke, because I know that’s the furthest thing from his intentions.”

While Walker, hot off her Teen Choice nom for female breakout star in “Don’t Trust the B in Apt. 23,” is promoting the R-rated movie, Bowles says Magnolia isn’t planning to sell the film off the 26-year old actress’s emerging TV fame. “We don’t mind the awareness,” he says, “but we’re not going down that road.”

Still, the film’s old-fashioned platform-release strategy relies on its potential to be a topic of water-cooler conversation. Releasing the pic only in New York to start a “flashpoint,” says Bowles, Magnolia wants people writing about the film and discussing it before it hits other markets.

Magnolia is purposely bypassing the hybrid day-and-date theatrical/VOD releasing model for which the distrib is known — and which has seen great success with films such as “All Good Things” and “Melancholia.” Bowles says “Compliance’s” lack of stars and “less obvious subject matter” makes it harder for a VOD launch. “The profile really needs to be raised by a theatrical release and the reviews,” he maintains.

Bowles likens the rollout to Magnolia’s summer 2003 release of “Capturing the Friedmans,” which became one of the most successful documentaries at that point in time, with more than $3.1 million in domestic sales. “?’Compliance’ isn’t exactly a cocktail party movie, but it’s (a) movie you have to discuss, just like “Capturing the Friedmans’ was,” he says. “There’s the same kind of awe-struck divergence of opinions.”

“Compliance’s” ambiguity — what Bowles calls the movie’s “Rorschach test” quality — is key to the filmmaker’s intentions.

The pic’s producer, established director David Gordon Green, who went to the North Carolina School of the Arts with Zobel, says his biggest concern about the film was not Zobel’s execution of the material, but the casting. “We needed voices that were believable and would facilitate something complex,” he says. “If cast incorrectly, it could have felt exploitative.”

For example, Green cites noted legit actor Bill Camp, who plays the restaurant manager’s alcoholic boyfriend and who perpetrates the film’s most heinous crimes. “You can see him as a predator, but he’s also a victim,” Green says. “There’s such a beautifully heartbreaking complexity to his performance. And going with a non-name cast brings that really ambiguous quality to the characters.”

Though some audiences might resist this unsettling approach, Zobel isn’t afraid of further backlash. “I’m not scared of people not being in my court,” he says. “That’s sort of why ‘Compliance’ was made: Debate is good.”

Or maybe not. Bowles isn’t convinced the film’s risque reputation will help ticket sales. “Frankly, controversy in the theatrical marketplace has not been a great selling tool lately,” he says. “Cinema has always been about escapism, and I think it’s profoundly so now: People go to cinemas to get away from the 24-hour news stations and the rampant advocacy in today’s media.”

That said, adds Bowles, “Something that’s intellectually and emotionally challenging, and that’s (fully executed) is always going to have a chance in the marketplace.”

Whatever ultimately happens with the film, it’s already effectively launched Zobel’s career. After a five-year gap between making his 2007 feature debut “Great World of Sound” and “Compliance,” the 35-year-old Georgia-born filmmaker is close to shooting a new and bigger-budget project — a “picturesque thriller,” he calls it — later this year.

“I always saw myself as someone who would make a lot of different movies,” he says, “so now I want to get cracking.”