Sundance 2015 Interview: Mora Stephens on ‘Zipper’
Zipper made me think a lot about obsession and desire. It stars Patrick Wilson as lawyer and aspiring Congerssman Sam Ellis, who gets hooked on an escort service after deposing an escort. It gets even more complicated than trying to hide it from his wife Jeanie (Lena Headey), but I don’t want to spoil any more. I did get to talk to writer/director Mora Stephens about creating the film’s tension for Sam and developing its themes, so hopefully someone buys this movie and releases it so you can see what we’re talking about!
CraveOnline: I think there’s more to the intensity of Zipper than just sex and secrets. How did you create that intensity?
Mora Stephens: It started from a place of empathy and curiosity. Looking at the issue of political sex scandals but looking at the candidate and taking somebody like Spitzer or John Edwards or somebody that seems so different from myself and wondering why did they do this when the stakes are so high? But then trying to place myself in their shoes, however different that might be. Through each step, before you can judge that character, really be him and be with him all the ways down so that we don’t just start when he’s fully depraved and fully like some other person. Really try and close that gap and be him.
On a personal note, there is addiction in my family and I just spoke yesterday on the Addiction Fiction panel, which was really interesting because it was myself [and] Jen Newsom who’s a filmmaker here at the festival.
Oh yeah, she was amazing. And a couple of neuroscientists and psychologists and anthropologists all talking about how do you change the way movies talk about addiction? So it made me think about even my own work in a different way. It was really interesting when you look at my own personal reasons for telling this story.
You had great compassion for the escort business and clients. Was that something that came naturally, to have compassion for people engaged in that business?
Well, I start every story with the process I was saying of trying to have empathy, but I try to do that with all the characters. Once I’ve written the story, I might do a pass that just focused on one character and try to see the world from their point of view as well. There were many different levels of research. I hung out with assistant U.S. attorneys in L.A. and various politicos, a reporter from the New York Times that covered Spitzer.
There’s a woman, Mona Fortuna who came and did the Q&A opening night with us. I was hoping somebody would ask her a question, but she had been a booker for a really notorious escort agency in New York, and she actually is a consultant on the movie and she plays the voice of Mona the booker in the movie. She had worked with Penelope Mitchell, who plays Laci and Alexandra Breckinridge who plays Christy, just on the phone talking through any questions they might have. So she was a really invaluable resource.
Certainly that first meeting, when you see how sensitive and compassionate she is to him, does that make it a lot harder to condemn this institution as some sort of predatory agency?
[Laughs.] Yeah, that was part of my hope and intention was just to go against your expectations of it being sleazy. Alexandra Breckinridge was a really important part of that casting. Deb Aquila, my casting director, was amazing. She found Alexandra and I reached out to Alexandra because she herself is so smart and funny. The way in which she puts him at ease, she’s a really layered person and not just a bimbo or something like that.
I think there was a potential, particularly with Lena Headey being the smart wife, if that first escort were anyone but Alexandra, it would be easier for a female audience to be like, “He wants somebody less smart and that’s why he’s going for an escort” or some simple kind of thing. The way in which it’s so comforting and intimate and it provides the sort of safe and trusting environment he doesn’t have anywhere else, it’s almost like that’s part of the seduction. That first experience is so sweet in a way. It’s part of what hooks him into it.
Have you gotten different feedback from men and women?
Yes, actually that’s part of what’s interesting talking to people who saw the movie. Women seem to view it more as a mystery about Sam, like trying to understand. If they maybe know men like that, they’re trying to understand his motivations. They also have many different theories as to why. That part is really interesting.
That’s so interesting that they’re not condemning him.
Not to make [a] generalization, because it’s only a smattering of people. Two audiences have now seen it but it’s so interesting talking to people afterwards because there was one woman who had so much sympathy for him that she viewed it as his wife, Jeanie, putting him in this box. You can interpret it [like that]. My intention is to lay a lot of little seeds and hopefully people will mull it over and then go out and discuss and have different opinions about it.
Have men been defensive, like, “Well, that guy’s an asshole. I’m not like that?”
I don’t mean to make you generalize, I’m just interested in the differences.
Just a handful of men that I’ve talked to, there’s more possibility of being him through the movie. It started for me as both, really starting with that mystery of wanting to know how and why, but then in addressing that mystery and then placed myself in that role and tried to understand step by step.
That’s why the Addiction Fiction panel got me thinking about my own history with it. My father is a writer. I’m Irish and Korean. My father is a writer who was a recovering alcoholic and has written about it so it’s out in the open. I’m really proud of him. He’s been sober for 26 years but I remember as a 12-year-old reading all these things about alcoholism and how it changes your brain.
As a child of an alcoholic, you have a different brain chemistry and that was sort of an early idea with Sam was that his mother had been an alcoholic and he has this potential, that little crack inside of him that could go that way but he’s always been repressing it, in wanting to be different than his mother who he loved but was out of control. He’s always repressed that stuff to be the good guy, but he has all that potential inside of him so once the door is unlocked, it just grows and grows and grows. In talking to some of the scientists yesterday, I thought of it more in terms of story.
One thing Darren Aronofsky had pointed me to was the writing of Hubert Selby. He wrote a book called The Demon so this idea of once you try to feed the demon once to make it go away, instead it just keeps growing. The scientific equivalent of that, what they were talking about yesterday in the panel is that once you have a certain experience, it creates certain connections in your brain that just get stronger and stronger and stronger, so it’s the same kind of idea translated into science of how it grows. It’s just that little potential that then, with each experience, those connections only get stronger and stronger in your brain.
I hope they put that addiction panel online. So when you change the paradigm of how we portray addictions on film, is that challenging to audience who are used to seeing that addiction is a disease and the only way to cure it is to give yourself over to a higher power?
I still think that’s true but what the panel was suggesting, what the moderator brought forward which I hadn’t really thought about until that moment was the idea within American movies of the hero. Everything is about pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps and it’s all will power. Everything you do is on your own as an individual, more than it being a disease that you then need help for. So they actually responded really well to the movie in terms of the way in which he’s struggling with it and isn’t able to reach out to someone. Tries to reach out to his wife in the end and doesn’t get that help.
Nor would I necessarily expect her to be quite that supportive.
Yes, no. But that’s what they’re talking about, or that it’s something that’s so strange that you can still keep a distance from it when it’s actually something that’s so much closer to home than any of us like to really face and deal with.
It seems like it started as pure curiosity because it’s such a fascinating operation. He deposed a client, looked up the site and checked it out. Maybe he should’ve known that it would be their business to go all the way, but does it start there and spiral? Or is there already addiction at work when he’s looking at websites and making the appointment?
I think it could be interpreted either way and I think different people in the audience have talked to me and have interpreted it both ways. I think both are valid but I think the different paths you can view it as, you could view the porn as already a porn addiction that has that potential to got there. Then the dangerous flirtation with Diana Agron’s character, the law school intern, you could view it as a little tiny seed of addiction that then grows, or you could view it as more like the kind of little habits and little secrets that we all have, that you might not share with your wife but that are supposed to be a little bit dark but something very relatable and human.
You come home and your wife’s asleep, it’s not like that. It’s meant to be something that’s recognizable that maybe makes the audience uncomfortable because they’re like, “Uh-oh, how does she know that part?” But it’s a relatable kind of little secret that then grows. My intention was to look at the origins of it so however you look at it, it’s still a very, very early part in the story. In tracking the bigger kind of addiction, it’s in the early denial. He never views himself [as an addict]. I hope that it works on those terms in terms of the science of addiction but he doesn’t view himself as that because he’s still in denial all the way to the end.
What’s most compelling to me is I was rooting for Sam. Why did I do that when I still disapprove of cheating on your wife?
Well, that’s my hope. I completely disapprove of it but I also approached him, and I think Patrick did as well with great empathy and looking at him as human and vulnerable.
If I see your first feature, Conventioneers, will I be able to tell it’s from the director of Zipper?
I think so. It’s a little tiny budget movie. We made it for like $20,000 and it won the John Cassavetes award which is the best low budget feature at the Independent Spirit Awards. The movie also deals with politics and sex. There’s that recurring theme. That movie is using the backdrop of the real Republican National Convention in New York but telling a fictional story about a married Bush delegate who comes to New York to be part of the convention and looks up an old college friend, Leah, who is there actually as a liberal protestor of the convention. They wind up having an affair against the backdrop.
So there’s fictional scenes mixed inside 500,000 protestors. There’s an actor in the subplot who’s actually on stage with Bush. He’s acting in character but he’s also on stage with Bush. I also co-wrote that with my husband Joel Viertel who also cowrote Zipper and edited it. We basically wrote out a script but then I developed the characters with actors in rehearsal and the whole movie is improvised.
Was the tone and editing important to turning Zipper into a thriller?
Well, the early inspiration references were The Insider and A Prophet. Both of them feel very real but they also have that kind of heart pounding intensity. That was the design, to put you so much inside his experience. Part of why he’s doing it is he’s creating a whole little adventure in his life that’s exciting. For those parts that are sexy and fun, that’s why he’s doing it, but there’s also the terrifying fear and paranoia, trying to put you inside all of those emotions that he’s feeling.
Are you going to write and direct something next?
There’s both a script that I’m writing and then a couple that other people have written that I want to direct that I’m working on. So there’s a few things in the hopper.
Yes. I think in terms of thinking about what are the ingredients I like in a movie, I think I look first at the characters and the roles. The most fun of the whole process for me is working with actors so I’m looking at is this going to be an interesting juicy role for a character. I’m particularly drawn to a complicated psychology, understanding why they’re doing something. I also get really excited if there’s a bigger political, social, historical context so there are some other things to look at from different angles.