Exclusive Interview with ‘Compliance’ Producer Tyler Davidson

Picture this:  You are sitting at work one day and the phone rings .  It’s the police.  One of your employees is being accused of theft.  Not just any employee .  The cute teen age blonde.  They want you to detain her.  Okay. No problem.  They want you to search her personal effects.  A little more uncomfortable but, c’mon, it’s the police. Okay.  We do the search.   Still didn’t find that money.  Gonna have to do a strip search.   Say what? Somebody smack the guy that just yelled “hell yeah”.   What if they told you to go even further?  Where would you draw the line?

This is the question posed in the highly compelling new drama, COMPLIANCE.  I recently attended its Cleveland Premiere where I also had the pleasure of meeting one of the film’s producers, Tyler Davidson. Davidson,  fresh off the success of his critically acclaimed film, Take Shelter,  provided an insightful  pre-screening monologue preparing the audience for what they were about to see.  The movie,  on it’s own,  provides a mesmerizing look at the human element.  What are we capable of doing in response to instructions from authority?

Davidson explained that the movie was taken beat by beat from an actual 2004 incident at a fast food restaurant in Kentucky.  He also provided an interesting background on human response to authority.   Among the cases he cited was the famous Milgram Experiment.   In this Yale study, two participants were separated by a wall.   They could communicate but not see each other.  A “teacher” would  attempt to teach his “student”.  Questions would be asked.   If the student gave the wrong answer, the teacher would provide an electric shock.  With each missed answer, the shock would increase. The shock, of course was imaginary.   A confederate acted as the student and would fake the pain associated with the shock.  If the teacher balked, they were told that it’s okay, they are helping the study, please continue.  If they hesitated four times, the experiment was over.  Amazingly, 65%  of the teachers took the voltage to the maximum,  potentially lethal dose of 450 volts.

Armed with this knowledge and knowing that the events shown were taken right from the actual case made the viewing of the movie much more meaningful.  The audience sat mesmerized as the events unfolded.  You can’t help but ask yourself, how far would I go if ordered by an authority figure.

The head of whysoblu.com, Brian White,  joined in on the interview.  We are the voices of authority. Here is what you are going to do:
–  read the interview with Tyler Davidson.  Enjoy it!
–  see Compliance.  Enjoy it!
–  check out the rest of whysoblu.com.  Enjoy it!


Bob:   My compliments. Great movie.  This is a very dialogue intensive script.   Often, movies like this tend to get bogged down but this film kept me thoroughly engaged.  The rest of the audience too.  Everyone sat so intently waiting to see what would come next.  I think it was probably the quietest audience I’ve ever been in.

Tyler:   I think most of it of course is Craig Zobel’s (writer/director) script but staging and also cinematography does a lot to keep it feeling dynamic even though the setting is so contained. I think the calculation of where to insert these “breather moments” is really well done. Whether it’s Sandra walking to the car with the bag of clothes, there is time to let you exhale a little.


Bob:  I read that you had the set for the back rooms of the restaurant on one floor and the antagonist’s set one floor below.  The actors actually communicated by telephone reenacting the actual incident.  I thought it was kind of cool with Pat, ( Actor Pat Healy who portrays Officer Daniels) that you had phones go down at one point and he had to go upstairs and do his part live and it was much more difficult to actually  face them then to do it over the phone.

Tyler: Oh yeah.  Right. And I think actually that corresponds to variations of the Milgram experiment where they would have the person shocked through the wall but if they were further away there were changes in the results if the order was coming from further away or if the order was coming by phone, there were variations that had to deal with how you are exerting the authority.


Bob:  I’d like to find out from you, as a producer, how did you get involved with the project?

Tyler: Sure. I had been hearing about Craig for the entire time that I was working on Take Shelter.  I was previously familiar with his film, Great World of Sound, which I was a big fan of. But, he went to North Carolina School of the Arts with Jeff Nichols who wrote and directed  Take Shelter and David Gordon Green and Adam Stone, the Director of Photography on both  Take Shelter and Compliance and those guys were a very close knit group. I’ d been hearing about this guy. Actually, Craig and I met through Sophia Lin who is a Producer on both Compliance and Take Shelter with me.  She’s known Craig for years. They discussed another script with me that was great but just wasn’t a fit. They followed up and snuck a copy of Compliance to me and I said,”Wow, I’ve never seen anything like this and I feel this is worthy of exploration”. And, I also wanted to work with Craig.  That was in the fall of 2010.


Bob:  When did you actually start filming?

Tyler:  We shot this in 15 days in February and March of 2011.  So we were just coming off of  Take Shelter‘s premiere at Sundance and were already just around the corner for pre-production.


Bob:  I mentioned to you earlier that  we were out at AFM and most of the buzz centered around two movies, Compliance and Hysteria.

Tyler:  Yeah, it’s gotten a lot of attention and a lot of acclaim.  It’s tough because I don’t think exhibitors feel comfortable booking it for mainstream movie goers.  And I understand that. To me, this is a movie that plays best with context. Where people have some sense of what they are going into. I think part of that is people who are reading about it where we can have Q and As is helpful but to just throw it out there cold is a big challenge for this film.


Brian:  Yeah, when Bob brought this to my attention this week about the screening here, immediately I saw an article on aintitcool.com and they were praising the movie and I saw posters saying this could be the number one movie this year.  I turned to my friend after the screening and said “this is in my Top 10 for the Year right now”. I thought it was really good.

Tyler:  Oh wow.  That’s great to hear that. It’s 90 percent on Rotten  Tomatoes with great reviews.


Brian:  That’s where you get your buzz.

Tyler:   Yeah,   Absolutely.  So the movie, I think there is an awareness of the film.  I’m happy with how it’s doing in the theaters but I also think its going to do really well on DVD and VOD as well. I think it’s going to be one of those movies where if people weren’t quite motivated to go out and see it in the theater, they will at least have heard about it.


Brian:  If it makes you feel any better, I have a team of writers out in Los Angeles. Usually I send them out to all the nice stuff because I’m here in Cleveland, Ohio.  They are all jealous of this because they have to drive to see it.

Tyler:  Yeah, that’s very cool. I love to hear that.


Bob:  Magnolia is kind of known for not being big on all out theatrical releases.

Tyler:  Yeah. They and IFC were real pioneers in exploding the VOD model. That being said,
I think they would probably agree that theatrical exposure is still a critical component to the overall life of a film. To get that kind of marketing awareness, you just can’t buy it better in any other form.  I’ve been really excited about the campaign they have put together and super happy with the publicist on this film. They’ve gotten us some great press.


Bob:  Usually in these interviews, we’re talking to the actors or director,  the producers are kind of the name on the screen and you don’t know too much about them. But, without them, there is no movie to talk about.  Can you give our readers an idea of what a producer does and maybe give a behind the scenes glimpse of a typical day?

Tyler:  Sure, producing for me is different on every film and there are different kinds of producers. Some focus on financing. Some focus on marrying the creative elements.  I try to do a little of both, or a lot of both rather.  My company not only puts financing together but we also like to be the lead on the ground of the creative producers. The producers are the ones who put all the elements together and manage the whole process. We’re usually close to the first ones on board and the last ones off a project. And so, for me, when I take on a project, knowing what that commitment is, it’s got to be something that I have a real passion for.  I’ve been lucky to have those projects.


Bob:  I imagine you are getting a lot of scripts sent to you.  Is there a certain element that you look for in those scripts before you would attach your name to it?

Tyler:  I don’t have any one creative model that I feel I need to adhere to.  I am attracted to movies that I feel like I would want to go see in theaters. But, I mainly look for stuff that can really be exceptional and can really stand out in a very crowded market.  So films like Take Shelter and Compliance that had great film makers behind them also, I thought were very unique in that they could separate themselves from other films when people were taking a look at the choices they had.  So for me, that’s a lot of what I think about.


Bob:  Now, I know at one point you were about to go to film school and got involved with a project with your stepfather?

Tyler: Right. It was actually my uncle.


Bob:  So you kind of bypassed that part of it. Had you gone to film school,  would you still have leaned toward producing or …

Tyler:  You know, that’s a good question. I don’t know.  For me, learning on the job as a producer I discovered it was a great fit for me. I like to engage on the business side and on the creative side. There is no other role in filmmaking that offers that hybrid in quite the same way. I really enjoy both parts. I really like the financial stuff but I also like to give script notes and be in on casting sessions and hire personnel, so it’s rewarding for me on a lot of levels.


Bob: You did some time in LA and now you are back in Ohio. What are some of the differences and advantages and disadvantages of both?

Tyler:  Sure. And there are advantages and disadvantages for both. One thing I liked about being in LA is there is something very inspiring about the camaraderie of everybody going for it at the same time around you. You’re sort of motivating one another because that’s the industry.   That’s all there is out there.  But, for me, producing is so stressful in a lot of ways that I felt like I needed to have the lifestyle that I’m afforded here where I grew up and was raised. And now, I’m raising a family. This is where I know how to do the personal side of my life. So getting that right balance of personal and professional was key. But also I discovered that Ohio is a great place to make films. We’ve got really diverse locations. A pretty strong base of crew and actors and the tax credit, of course. And frankly, people here are not jaded by constant film production.  They really seem to enjoy being a part of it here and that allows me to bring a lot more to the table. I can stretch a dollar further for all the things you need to do. So I actually look at Ohio now as a real competitive advantage. Where as  I used to hide the fact that I was based here when I would talk to my colleagues in LA or New York, now I am very upfront about it and treat it as something that is an advantage for me.


Brian:  On a personal note, whenever I’m talking to any film person, I always ask this question, What makes you tick as a person? I know you are a movie producer but, besides that, what drives you?

Tyler:  That’s a great question.  I don’t know, it stumps me. Look, I would like to get to a place where the stories that  I am producing are experienced by a wide audience. That doesn’t mean that the films need to pander to get to that point,  but I would like to make films that are enjoyed by a lot of people and I’m making strides to get to that place.  I don’t think I am there yet. So I feel super motivated to take it to that next level of success. That’s both creative and business.  But there  is a trade off to be in this profession. You have to make a lot of other compromises in your life and you need, and I am fortunate enough to have a spouse who has hung in there with me.


Brian:  I think truly that is the key. I know a lot of people, including myself, who probably the number one thing that you want in your life is that support  from family and friends that keeps you going on.  Like you said, in this business, you hit a lot of roadblocks…

Tyler:  Oh, it’s incredible. To me, succeeding in this business is really about being able to hang in there. That’s what I am most proud of is that I’ve always found a way to keep it going and that’s having considered, dozens of times, walking away.  But if you just hang in there eventually things happen.  It’s so precarious. It’s so tough. And a lot of people just getting started in this business feel like they’re entitled to be just making stuff and it doesn’t really work that way. I mean once in awhile somebody comes into some good fortune and can get a film made but it’s something you really have to work for for a long period of time.


Bob:   I know Alfred Hitchcock was a big influence on you as a child.  What contemporary film makers grab your attention?

Tyler:  I admire the short list of film makers that includes guys like David Fincher and Christopher Nolan who can strike a chord with a large audience without compromising their auteur vision of the film.  Then there’s another list of directors who continue to make  bold and unconventional films but are now getting bigger canvasses to do so. Those include Paul Thomas Anderson, Andrew Domenik and Derek Cianfrance among others.  Actually, Jeff Nichols and Craig Zobel make that list too.


Bob:  What are you able to tell us about your upcoming projects?

Tyler:  I’m in post-production on a teen comedy called Toy’s House that I produced with the producers of Little Miss Sunshine. I’m really excited about it.   I’m also in pre-production on a science fiction thriller that I expect to be a knockout.  Definitely keeping busy.


Bob:   What words of  advice can you provide to our readers who might be interested in a career in film?

Tyler:   I’m cribbing Nike here,  but just do it.  Go for it and don’t half ass it.  There’s no one way to make it work so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  The key is unwavering commitment and not being afraid to fail.


Bob:   Great advice!   Thanks so much for taking some time with us today. It was a pleasure getting to meet you.

Brian:   On behalf of all of us here at whysoblu.com, thank you.


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