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What's It Like to Be Heckled at Sundance? One Director Tells All

Dreama Walker in 'Compliance.'

Sundance Q&As are often pretty staid affairs, but yesterday’s premiere of Craig Zobel’s new film Compliance got a lot more explosive than usual, with the director subjected to claims of misogyny and an audience member who accused him of getting off on actress Dreama Walker’s nudity and humiliation. (“I’ve never seen a response like that to a film,” said one viewer.) The film tells the story of a young woman (Walker) at a fast food chicken joint who is subjected to an extended strip search (and eventually sexual assault) by an older, female manager after a man calls claiming to be a cop who's investigating accusations of theft against the young lady. Amazingly, Zobel based it on a number of real-life incidents he’d read about, as well as the infamous Milgram experiments at Yale, which measured test subjects’ willingness to torture others based on the demands of authority. That has made the last day or so quite a ride for the young, soft-spoken director, whose previous film, The Great World of Sound, was a gentle, touching comedy that had a decidedly less controversial reaction at the 2007 Sundance Festival. He spoke to Vulture about what it was like to get yelled at during his premiere.

So, did you anticipate any of the reaction some of these viewers had to the film?
Actually, while I was casting the film, one actress that came in to read for the character of Sandra (played by Ann Dowd in the film) had had a similar reaction. I could tell something was wrong at the time, and I asked her. She said that she felt the situation in the script was subjugating women. I said, “Let’s talk about it, because that kind of question is the reason why I want to make this movie.”

So, this is a conversation you actually want to have?
Well, yeah, but as long as it’s a conversation. I mean, at yesterday’s screening, the first person to yell out was this woman who screamed, “Rape is not entertainment!” And I was like, “I agree! Why are we yelling?” But she left the theater without waiting for a response.

What was going through your mind as you were walking up to the stage for the Q&A? The screaming started before you guys even began.
I remember walking down and feeling that the light was about to hit me. And I was nervous, but I thought, “You know what? I made a movie about a controversial subject – I didn’t make it for the controversy, but I knew it would bother some people. So, beat me up. I’m not going to apologize.” I’m happy to take the criticism. But if the criticism is, “I didn’t believe it,” then that means the actors and I didn’t make the right choices. I mean, when we were making the film we’d all look at each other and think, “This could really not work.” So, walking up there, I wasn’t a hundred percent sure that we got it right. But then the room sort of responded, and people were standing up and giving their opinions about the issues in the film – as opposed to, say, the performances or the direction -- so I was actually happy about that.

What was the worst thing you heard at the Q&A?
There was a guy who said something about Dreama specifically, that I felt in really bad taste. From his reaction, I think that he regretted saying it at the same time. I actually felt bad for the guy. He said he enjoyed seeing her naked. I think in a way he was maybe trying to say something about the fact that something awful is happening to her and yet she is a beautiful girl and that made him uncomfortable, maybe. But I wasn’t trying to make her hot or anything.

How has your cast dealt with the response to the film?
Well, Ashlie Atkinson, who plays the assistant manager in the film, really hopped into the fray very quickly during the Q&A and was very eloquent. But I’d forgotten – you know, when we were getting ready to make the film, we had had a lot of conversations about what was exploitative. And I remember Ann saying to me yesterday that it’s been so long since we shot the film, she’d forgotten all the conversations we’d had about it. So the Q&A kind of pulled us back to before we made the movie, when we were all very interested in these issues. And you know, it’s funny, I keep having that thing where you think about the right thing to say, after it’s too late. What’s that French expression?

The “wit of the staircase”? So, now’s your chance. What do you wish you could have said?
I made this movie because I was curious about all these behaviors. And I was interested in asking where the line is between exploitation and art. So I’m actually really disappointed that many of the people who screamed out, then immediately left. I wanted the film to be a conversation starter, so it’s frustrating that it stopped the conversation for some people. Maybe that says something about where we are now – it’s the culture of the internet comments board. But then again, over the last day I’ve had so many interesting conversations with people coming up to me with their take on the film. So maybe it did start a conversation, just not with those people.

So, did any of the people who were upset with the film track you down after the Q&A?
No one has. In fact, most of the people that came up wanted to apologize for those people. In a weird, way, I’d still like to have that conversation. I hope some of those people who are upset will come up and talk to me about it at some point.