(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)
I remember the first time I saw Compliance, Craig Zobel‘s second film, in the summer of 2012. I had heard about its premiere at Sundance earlier that winter; knew of the walkouts; had read some gossip online about a shouting match that occurred between Craig and some of the remaining audience during the Q&A after (which, knowing Craig now, seems impossibly far fetched; I can’t think of a less-likely-to-shout filmmaker, let alone human being). The critical response skewed positively but was polarized. People loved it or hated it…some thought it was vile. Like the best Sundance movies from back in the day, it rolled into theaters later that year surrounded by hype.
As a twenty-three-year-old aspiring filmmaker new to Los Angeles — devouring movies, both old and new — Compliance was exactly the kind of shit I lived for. In an era of peak-TV and day-and-date streaming premieres, it’s hard to remember that small independent films coming off strong tailwinds at Sundance could generate such a palpable and exciting buzz. At least in LA, amongst the film school geeks and Vimeo vampires I rubbed shoulders with.
After months of anticipation, when the lights dimmed in the Los Feliz 3 and Compliance finally started, I remember being simultaneously riveted and totally disturbed by what came next. I was glued to my seat but sympathetic with those who had walked out at the festivals. The film — which is based on a real-life story in which a prank caller, posing as police, convinced a manager at a McDonald’s to carry out a series of invasive strip searches and acts of sexual assault on a teenage employee — is a difficult watch, to say the least. More horror than drama. The kind of movie, even if you love (as I did), you really only want to see once. From its first scene through to its last, an oppressive sense of dread hangs over everything. It just feels…wrong. The same way watching Faces Of Death on a bootleg VHS did when I was a teenager. And, to be honest, that might be the highest compliment I can pay any film or filmmaker.
Every performance in Compliance is dialed-in, every shot perfectly calibrated, and the script — which easily could have been condescending toward its characters and their situation — is empathetic and even tender at times. And this level of care and craft is evident in everything Craig has directed since. In the years following the release of Compliance, it’s been no surprise to me or anyone else who’s paid attention that Craig Zobel has gone on to have one of the most enviable and versatile careers in Hollywood. In addition to his continued success as a filmmaker — or “journeyman auteur,” as I’ll refer to him now after our chat — Craig has helped shape the continued revolution occurring across the aisle in the world TV. His contributions to the medium through his work on The Leftovers, American Gods, Westworld and, most recently, Mare of Easttown, have helped define what ongoing and the limited series look and feel like in the 21st Century.
It’s been a pleasure getting to know Craig a little bit through the years, and it was great catching up with him via Zoom to discuss Mare of Easttown, his Emmy nomination and everything that lead up to this moment. | e o’keefe
Aquarium Drunkard: First of all, congrats on the show. It’s been incredible to watch all the much-deserved success and critical fanfare roll in.
Craig Zobel: Thanks. Yeah, it really did kind of land at a good time, when people were ready for it or needed it or something. You sort of make these things and never know if they’re going to land or not. You just gotta do your best and hope it works out. There are so many things outside of your control. So it’s like, who knows? People will either see it and like it or not, but over the years, I’ve definitely learned that none of that can be the reason you make anything. It’s nice that people found this one, but that’s not always the case.
AD: It seems like it was just one of those shows where — I guess there’s two or three of them in any given year — where it just became the thing the captured the zeitgeist for a moment. It must’ve been a pretty powerful experience to be a part of something like that, where you have SNL sketches parodying it and whatnot. I mean, that’s what you live for as a filmmaker, is it not?
Craig Zobel: Yeah, I guess it is. Also, though, I’d never had it before, so it wasn’t what I lived for, per se, but it’s cool to have. I would actually be worried if that was the goal.
AD: But it has to be feel good when you’ve made something that connects on that level.
Craig Zobel: Yeah, absolutely.
AD: In preparation for talking with you, I went back and revisited all of your films. The only one I hadn’t seen was your first, The Great World Of Sound, which I loved, by the way.
Craig Zobel: Thank you.
AD: It’s the kind of movie they don’t really make anymore. There used to be so many of them released in the nineties and early two-thousands, but they seem to have evaporated out of thin air recently. Just that small kind of a character study indie film. You don’t see them too often.
Craig Zobel: Yeah, there’s not a lot of room for them right now. I mean, they’re hard to consume, you know what I mean? There isn’t a real market there anymore. Although I’m sure the pendulum will swing back the other way eventually, and people will figure out how to support films like that again. It’s funny you bring that movie up because I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently. I don’t know if you knew this, but large portions were shot with hidden cameras. So it was a kind of crazy experimental way to make a movie, and that also feels like it would be very hard to do right now. I mean, I was basically making it with my own money and, like, my mom’s friend’s money and stuff. And so we kind of couldn’t fail and just not have a movie at the end of the day. So we tried our hardest to make it all work, and I guess that feeling of experimentation I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.
AD: The hidden camera element of The Great World of Sound reminded me of something like Nathan For You. What you were doing with that in some ways was ahead of its time.
Craig Zobel: Yeah, it’s funny. I guess I’ve been reflecting on that film a bunch recently because, with Mare, there was a similar sense of freedom to making that film. Obviously, we had a script with Mare that was really well-honed, but there was a playfulness that we found on set that almost felt like we were cheating or getting away with something. And I feel like viewers recognize that, or maybe it’s one of the things that made it interesting to people. You can feel it when people are enjoying trying to capture a story.
AD: And so you’re thinking about all this now because you’re trying to write something new where you want to harness that same atmosphere of experimentation?
Craig Zobel: Yeah. I mean, I’m kind of writing in multiple directions at once right now. And I keep thinking about looseness being an okay thing. And that’s what I think has maybe been lost recently with the rise of streaming. Like you said, certain types of movies just aren’t getting made anymore. But then again, you look at Nomadland and obviously, when it’s working, people respond to it.
AD: I was talking to a friend recently in the film industry about the movie Clerks and how weird it is that a movie like that — which is really so odd and stripped down and DIY — that it could ever launch a career like the one Kevin Smith has had. I can’t imagine Clerks, if it were released today, doing that.
Craig Zobel: Yeah, it’s radically different now. It really is.
AD: Watching The Great World of Sound, I was struck by how different everything you’ve ever done is from what came next or before, especially in your film career. All of the movies are very distinct from one another. And I’m curious if that’s intentional or not. Are you looking to do something new and different every time, or are you just kind of following your intuition and moving toward whatever is the most interesting to you in the next moment?
Craig Zobel: It’s not intentional in that I wouldn’t do something because it might have some similarities to something I’ve already done. It’s not that intentional. But certainly, I mean, I feel like it’s a plus to hear someone say that. I find value in the fact that all of the stuff I’ve made looks or feels different because that means I’m still engaged. Some people have grown careers out of finding something that they do really well and doing it continuously and refining it. But I didn’t quickly have success that way. And eventually, it became something that I would consciously avoid pursuing.
AD: So it’s more about your intuition or your gut versus some sort of strategy about what kind of filmmaker you want to be or think you should be?
Craig Zobel: Yes, one hundred percent. I would say, if anything, what connects my work is that there’s some conversation that I’m having with each of them in different ways. I feel like there’s a through-line with them personally inside my brain. Just things that I’m interested in or questions that I’m exploring at any given point in my life. One of the goals of making a movie for me is, what question do I want to ask right now? It’s very different from a TV show. I think a really good movie is, you know, ninety-four minutes long. TV is this other beast, and it can be this really long thing. And so the narrative can just kind of work in a different way. But, for me, making a movie, it’s like, well, what question are we asking with this? Or what kind of thing are we curious about as a group of people making this movie?
AD: Speaking of television having a very different narrative thrust than film, have you developed any original stuff in TV as a writer?
Craig Zobel: No, not really. I mean, I was sort of involved in One Dollar (on CBS All Access), but that was Jason Mosberg’s show, and there were other writers in the room. But I haven’t yet developed anything on my own, so I’m excited to do that because I’ve now directed enough TV where I know what strong writing for television really is and how it’s different from strong writing for film. And the truth is they’re not that different, really, but there are differences.
AD: I want to ask about the space between The Great World of Sound and your follow-up film, Compliance. There was a five-year gap between those two movies, and I read somewhere that once Compliance was in your field of vision, it actually came together rather quickly. So I’m assuming that during the five years between those films, there must have been a lot of stuff you were working on — just like you are now — that didn’t happen for one reason or another. And I’m curious how you keep the mojo going and keep the energy and the spirit and the inspiration there when, just statistically speaking, most projects don’t ever happen. And even those that do, it’s usually a long road to getting out into the world.
Craig Zobel: That period of time was crazy because after The Great World of Sound, my goal — my life goals up until that point — had been that I wanted to make my own movie. And then I got to do that, and then it was like, no, actually, my life goal is to make a movie that gets into Sundance. And I sat with bated breath and finally the film got into Sundance. And then it was like, actually, if I’m honest with myself, I want to go to Sundance, find a distributor and get good reviews. And then all of those things happened. And I ended up getting what I wanted, and I didn’t have any plan after that. I didn’t know what the next smart thing to do would be. I mean, I did have another movie immediately after The Great World Of Sound; I had a comedy with actors attached that was going to go forward, but then the writers’ strike happened, and most of the actors dropped out to do other things, and I was left not knowing what to do. I feel so bad for the people who made their first films last year, trying to break out during a pandemic. I imagine it was way worse for them, but it was similar to what happened with me during the writer’s strike. Like, the industry was not open for business to new people. So I really kind of felt kicked back on my heels, and I didn’t have a bigger goal because I’d kind of like done the stuff I thought I wanted to do. Which sounds like it would be an awesome thing, but it wasn’t; it was a bad thing. I was very depressed and not in a good headspace for a bit. So that’s part of that five-year gap.
AD: What kind of stuff were you writing during that break?
Craig Zobel: Well, I was really fascinated with West Virginia at the time, and I ended up going to this little town in West Virginia in the mountains and stayed at a nunnery because there was no hotel there. So I stayed there for a month and got to see this town and wrote this kind of Appalachian crime story. And I went to the Sundance Labs with it and later found myself pitching it to a producer named Tyler Davidson, and he wasn’t super interested in it, so I pitched him something else that wasn’t quite ready for prime time; this other thing I had been toying with called Compliance, which I would find time for in the mornings while also working on the West Virginia project. I was just super fascinated with this true story I’d read about, but there were no audio recordings of the interactions, and I’d daydream about what crazy things this person had to say in order to have this scenario unfold the way it did. I was almost playing hooky on my quote-unquote real work on the West Virginia story, playing around with this other idea. And anyway, I found myself pitching it to Tyler, and he was like, “well, we would totally do that.” And so, suddenly, I had the impetus to finish the document that I had been fiddling with and share it with him. And he was like, “yeah, no, totally. We would totally finance this.” And then it was like, well, someone’s saying, “yes.” I should probably do this. Which was, in retrospect, great because I think I would have self-edited that idea out of my life if I hadn’t had someone say “yes,” because it was a challenging movie. I mean, it was an art project more than it was supposed to be a real movie, really. It was, like, what did those people say to each other on the phone? Is that what we would all do in the same circumstances? It was genuinely a question I was asking. And if I hadn’t had the scenario where it was, like, you can do this right now, or you can wait another five years before you make a movie, I just was immediately like, “okay, I gotta do this. I have to make a second movie.” And in a certain way, it redefined my relationship with all of the work after, because it was like, either people hated that movie, or they very much liked it. Those were the two outcomes. But it kind of opened things up for me in a big way.
AD: And Compliance was the last thing you directed that you also wrote, correct?
Craig Zobel: Well, I was very involved with Nassir on Z for Zachariah, but I didn’t take a credit on that. And then after Z, that was actually kind of another period where I was like, “huh, I really thought this was an interesting and fun story to tell,” but for whatever reason, no one saw it at the time. And that had me similarly lost again and sort of being like, “what is it that I want to do next?” But by then, Compliance had enough recognition that Damon Lindelof had seen it and had really loved Anne Dowd and wanted to hire her for The Leftovers. And then, after he hired Anne, he asked her, “how’s Craig to work with?” And that’s how I started working on The Leftovers. And it’s funny because I remember feeling a sense from other filmmakers at the time, friends of mine even, a sense of pity or disappointment that I was going to work on a TV show. Because even as recently as season two of The Leftovers, there was absolutely a different point of view about directing television versus being a bonafide, true blue film director. A stigma that has totally gone away now. And I find it amusing because I definitely felt a little bit like, “oh, look, everybody thinks that I’ve lost it.” Like I’m in the slums directing TV.
AD: Yeah, I understand that stigma you’re talking about. It’s very funny that it’s just, like, evaporated in the last two or three years or whatever.
Craig Zobel: Yeah. I know. It’s bonkers.
AD: One of the things I love about Mare Of Easttown is how lived-in it feels. It has such an incredible sense of time and place. All the characters and their dynamics and relationships to one another all feel authentic. And I think there are so many subtle touches that contribute to that, like the fact that Mare and her ex-husband’s backyards butt up against one another and Mare’s basketball backstory. Or another thing I loved was the engagement party scene, where the adults are having this party at the house, and the teenagers are having band practice in the bonus room; just the dynamic of these two social circles in the same house on the same night. Though super small, something about that felt like a thing I’d lived through as a teenager a million times and knew very well, but it’s just a small life thing that felt real in the show and made the characters feel flesh and blood and relatable. And I was wondering how you went about conjuring that sense of authenticity and that lived-in quality.
Craig Zobel: Well, a lot of those specific ideas you’re mentioning come from Brad (Inglesby). And those were in the scripts. Like their houses being back-to-back, for instance. And it showed that he had spent such a long time thinking it all through because there would be a logic to something like that, right? It’s like, “we can both take care of our grandson, we’ll share it; we’ll be close.” There’s a narrative logic to it, but it’s also a thing that seems a little bit strange too and unique. And in terms of the lived-in quality, I mean, that was a goal —especially when it came to anything to do with the police stuff. We didn’t want it to feel like your classic procedural. And so whenever we encountered any of those scenes in the script, we really tried to lean on the real police detectives that we had on hand as resources, telling us what they would actually do in those scenarios. Like, for instance, it might seem logical that in Mare’s office, she would have a board with all of the suspects on it, right? You’ve seen that a million times on TV. But when we talked to the police tech, we asked, “what do those boards really look like?” And they were like, “well, we don’t have those boards because why would you ever show who you think might be a suspect to anybody who walks in the room? That’s the worst idea ever.” And so it’s like, oh right, of course, of course, that’s all made up for TV. So we said, okay, we’ll cut that out. We’re not doing that. Then it was just a matter of trying to think about how to make those cuts. And Kate (Winslet) was very invested in this stuff and additive too. And she would look at scenes and be like, what is real, what feels real here and what would real people do when they say these words or this kind of thing, which I guess sounds trite and obvious, but…
AD: No, totally. Yeah. I mean, that all makes sense. And that all comes through in the final product. It just feels very — I hate to repeat it, but lived-in. What films and references were you and Kate and the department heads talking about that helped inform the look and feel of the show?
Craig Zobel: Well, because I came onto the project relatively late in the process, when I started talking with Ben Richardson, the DP, we didn’t have the luxury of spending a couple weeks with a DVD player and being like, “look at this, or look at that, or I love this scene or I like the way this looks.” We just didn’t have the time. So we ended up really having to find the look without references in a way. One of the first conversations we had about the photography was Ben and I both saying, “I think this should be a naturalistic show.” And then it’s like, okay, well, what does a naturalistic show mean exactly? What does that mean to you? What’s your definition of that? Because twelve people would have twelve different points of view about that. And so he sort of pitched me certain things that he thought spoke to what a naturalistic show was in terms of camera setup and style sort of stuff. And I pitched some things that I thought of in terms of lighting and technique. And, you know, we also didn’t know each other very well, so we were kind of fishing around at first. We liked each other but didn’t really know each other yet. So we were kind of fishing around these ideas, and it would be, you know — in the first couple of weeks, there was a lot of, well, “what is a two-shot to you compared to me?” And I think as a result of all that talk and natural experimentation, we landed on this relatively unfussy, organic style. Then, of course, you start challenging each other over time because when you make something for one-hundred-and-twenty days on set, it gets boring. So shooting the wide shot, the two-shot, the closeup, the other closeup, move on to the next scene, the wide shot again, like, nobody wants to do that. There’s no playfulness to that. So it became a thing where, naturally, you start experimenting a little bit with the rules that we made for ourselves. Like, was this part of our rules? Let’s make that a thing that we also do, and let’s make this a thing that we also do.
AD: So did you guys shoot it episode to episode, or were you block shooting it?
Craig Zobel: No, we block shot it.
Craig Zobel: Yeah.
AD: So you didn’t really start editing until you’d shot everything?
Craig Zobel: Well, no, because COVID happened. So there was this shutdown for a while, and we started editing during that a little bit.
AD : Where in the process were you guys when COVID hit, and you took that break?
Craig Zobel: We were about a third of the way in or two-fifths of the way. So we still had a good chunk left, and we had these ticking clocks, you know? Like we had Cameron Mann who plays Ryan — a very significant character –and it’s like, he’s getting older, and his voice is changing, and he’s looking different…we gotta shoot! Thankfully HBO was awesome, and they gave us everything we needed. And we went back pretty early, and there were a lot more rules on set than I think would be now — just because it was so early in the pandemic and there wasn’t a vaccine, and there was no real rulebook yet. So we were like just super, super cautious.
AD: Right. Makes sense. But, I mean, I imagine just at a human level, having something that you were invested in and passionate about and got to go do every day during the beginning of the pandemic probably kept you guys a lot more sane than the rest of the world.
Craig Zobel: Yeah, I feel incredibly grateful for that. Honestly. I mean, at the same time, it was scary because it’s like, I don’t want to be directing something and have that be the reason that the best boy electric’s mom died, you know? Like that was a possibility. So you want to make sure that everyone is safe, but man, it really was so great to have a purpose at that point. I don’t know actually know what it was like for everyone else, except for watching Bo Burnham’s show or something and being like, well, I guess that’s what it felt like. Wow.
AD: So obviously, Kate and Ben, the DP, were already involved when you came on board. How much of the rest of the cast was attached?
Craig Zobel: Actually, a good amount. I mean, there are people that I cast, but a good portion of them were already cast. Yeah.
AD: Interesting. Was Guy Pearce one of those people already attached to the project when you came on?
Craig Zobel: No, he came on later. And it was kind of funny because he sort of did play the role that I imagined he would, which is that like, just by putting a person who is recognizable in that role, there becomes some amount of focus on it.
AD: That’s exactly why I wanted to bring him up! I mean, the cast is incredible; everybody is just so spot on and dialed in. But I’ve always really loved Guy Pearce, and I guess I think of him somewhat as a leading man, so when I saw him in the role he plays in Mare, I suppose I was expecting his character to be more of an integral part of the story. Not that he’s inessential by any means, but he’s just kind of one planet orbiting Mare’s sun, and he doesn’t greatly affect the other planets, you know what I mean? And I realized after watching it that, in some ways, casting him in that role sort of played like a clever gender-swap of that stereotypical and unfortunate situation where you have a great actress in their forties or fifties, who all of a sudden is the love interest in some male detective show. And that’s by no means a dis to Guy Pearce because his performance is excellent, and it’s absolutely a role worthy of his time and talents.
Craig Zobel: No, no, totally. I know what you’re saying.
AD: I guess I’m also curious if there was an element to him being in it, just being a red herring to an extent. Obviously, some people see Guy Pearce and might assume he’s the killer because it’s Guy Pearce and not just a character actor you might ordinarily expect to see in that role.
Craig Zobel: Well, that certainly wasn’t lost on me. Having looked at the internet, which is not a very healthy thing to do, some people were a little disappointed because they had this feeling about him in that role that they felt wasn’t satisfied. But I liked that. I thought it was cool. Also, the guy is just lovely and a cool dude, and when he and I discussed the character, I was kind of like, I think there’s something interesting in not belaboring him with a lot of baggage. Like, he’s past his midlife crisis and, in a lot of ways, he can be just a healthy relationship for Mare, because she is unhealthy and not kind of working out her stuff, you know? I mean, the arc of her story is that she needs to overcome some arrested development to move on and the concept of Guy’s character being a nice person who can, just, honestly help her through that was interesting to us.
AD: I keep seeing speculation online about season two. Is that all just gossip right now, or is there real momentum at HBO for continuing the story? And, if so, is that something you’re interested in being a part of?
Craig Zobel: I mean, I know that everybody is thinking about a season two and recognizing that there’s an appetite for it. I can’t speak to whether there ultimately will be one or not. Here’s the challenge, and as a screenwriter, I’m sure you recognize this, but we used a lot of backstory for Mare in order to tell this first season. And I think that might be part of what people liked about it so much, too; the fact that Mare had a real and true catharsis at the end and a character arc that was satisfied. So it becomes a bit of like, well, what other moments in this character’s life would be big enough to resonate in a way that justifies another season? And I think that’s the challenge.
AD: I feel like the limited series sort of has the potential to become cinema’s ultimate and best form. It’s the closest thing the medium has gotten to the experience of a novel, I think. But then I do understand, from a business standpoint, it’s obviously not as attractive to networks and streamers as an ongoing series would be. HBO seems to know how to do it really well. And it seems to make sense for their business model or whatever, but it still seems very tricky. Unless you’ve got Kate Winslet or something to make the networks feel ready to commit to a one-and-done type situation — especially with an original idea that isn’t based on a piece of IP. Mare is really unique in that it’s an original work. Even True Detective is somewhat based on the idea of the True Detective magazine and is built a little bit around that brand recognition. And the vast majority of limiteds are adaptations of novels.
Craig Zobel: Right. That’s true. I mean, the great thing about limited series is that actors like Kate that have careers mostly in features, can also experience TV and not be tied up for a hundred years on a show. So I think they aren’t going away because that alone is useful for the industry. And yeah, I love them. I think you’re onto something…you know, when you see the length of a movie getting to be like two and a half or three hours, you’re like, “well, that’s basically three and a half episodes of a TV show.” And the likelihood that that story would be better if it had another hour or so on TV, is high. Look at Zack Snyder’s Justice League. It’s a much bigger narrative than the feature format allowed. And that is what the limited series is good for. I mean, I still really love the idea of movies that are like ninety minutes long. It’s like a short story versus a novel.
AD: My last question here kind of circles back to the beginning of our chat, when we were talking about the start of your career. I read in an interview you did while promoting Z for Zachariah — and I can’t remember what the question was that triggered this response — but you were discussing how you and your filmmaker friends at the time often talked about pacing a career — how often to make a film and what kind of project to do next, studying filmmakers in the past who had long and successful careers versus those who dropped off for one reason or another, etc. And I was wondering — from the vantage point you have now — being a very established filmmaker decades into your career, what advice might you have for those reading this who are twenty years old, just getting into film or trying to make their first movie? Is there something you wish you could tell yourself before you made The Great World of Sound that maybe you didn’t know then, but you wish you did?
Craig Zobel: First off, just hearing you summarize all that, I’m like, “oh no.”
Craig Zobel: I don’t know. I mean, I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to keep working throughout my years doing this. And one of the great challenges of filmmaking is that there’s so much inertia before you’re able to get to do the work. Inertia from zero to moving is very challenging, but then the other side of it is that once you’re moving, to some degree, the anxieties go away. I mean, I’m always going to have anxiety about some scenario where I don’t get to work anymore. And I think that’s human, but it loomed a lot larger for me back then. Definitely more than it does now. And part of it also has to do with just where we’re at culturally. Like what my friends and I were all trying to do back then — this idea of the auteur — I don’t know that that was ever a great thing to strive for. Because that idea is very appealing, right? And it’s like, “well, I want to be an auteur!” That sounds great, you know? Like I would like to be considered that. I don’t want to be a journeyman. But I certainly don’t think of myself as an auteur, and I don’t think of myself as a journeyman either from where I’m standing today. But I think that conversation just loomed larger, like ten years ago, fifteen years ago — more than it does now. I don’t know. It’s not like we’re making new Quentin Tarantino’s anymore; directors like him very famous in one direction. It isn’t happening in the same way. So to some degree, I don’t know that people who are twenty now are even having those same worries about how their career should look or be paced or whatever. But to answer your question, what’s my advice to a filmmaker who’s twenty right now? As trite as it sounds, I’d say “stay curious.” And also, the more ballsy and weird your choices are, the more interesting your career will be. By being curious and doing things that are weird. And not like, weird for weird’s sake — unless that’s your thing — but doing things that are curious and being unafraid to experiment, or try something new. That’s how you’re going to have a more interesting career. And then a more interesting time too, you know?