Exclusive Interview: Writer/Director Mora Stephens Talks About Her Political Thriller ZIPPER
(All photos are courtesy of Falco Ink.)
A handsome middle-aged man, dressed in the finest attire, emerges from the elevator doors and walks through the silent hall, fiddling the ring on his left hand finger.
Before stopping in front of the final room on his left, he gently kisses the ring, removes it, and then slips it into his pocket. He knocks. A woman’s voice greets him, and he unlocks the door. Inside, he finds a blonde-haired beauty, no older than 25, dressed in black lingerie.
He knows her as Laci, but that might not even be her real name. As long as his wife doesn’t find out, he could care less.
It’s a familiar story we’ve heard too often on the evening news before: A politician is caught cheating on his wife. Zippergate. But for her sophomore feature, Zipper, writer/director Mora Stephens aims to give audiences a more intimate look at the man behind the scandal.
Executive produced by Darren Aronofsky, Zipper stars Patrick Wilson as Sam Ellis, a charismatic federal prosecutor with a bright future as a congressional candidate. Along with Jeannie (Lena Headey), his equally ambitious wife, and their son, Ellis seems to have the picture-perfect American life.
But following a one-time drunken encounter with his young intern (Dianna Agron), Ellis purposefully jumps inside the rabbit hole of infidelity, paying for high-end escorts to satisfy his cravings. It soon becomes an addiction, one that threatens to destroy both his professional and personal life.
Also featuring Ray Winstone, John Cho and Richard Dreyfuss, Zipper not only explores sex addiction, but it also shows us the extreme lengths some people dare to go to in order to reach the top and stay there.
Ahead of the film’s release, I spoke to Stephens about the vast amount of research she took on, how she subverted political tropes, and the roles of the women in the film. Check out the interview below.
Your film was six years in the making, and it’s finally going to be released for the public at the end of this month. So I imagine it must be so fulfilling for you. What was it about this subject in particular that made you so determined to tell the story?
Stephens: I got really passionate about the issue, fascinated by political sex scandals and where they began. It started from six, seven years ago, looking at the [Eliot] Spitzer and [John] Edwards scandals, but not so much the scandals themselves, but the way in which men and women were talking about them, and how different people would view them differently. I was fascinated to know, just from a place of empathy and curiosity, where it could’ve all began. So I wanted to look at an origin story of how this all could’ve started knowing the risks before any of us could judge where it could’ve started. And also the fact that it’s from a personal interest in telling an addiction story in a way that we haven’t seen before.
You wrote this film with your husband, Joel Viertel, and you both previously worked together on Conventioneers. What is your collaboration process like? Do you guys work independently and share ideas later on?
Stephens: I view the screenplay very much as the dinosaur bones, and that’s the process of figuring out what the story’s about and the structure of it. It’s actually very fun and helpful to be collaborating on that. So we will sit in coffee shops until late at night, figuring out the bones of the movie, and then one of us will do a pass and then hand it off to the other person as well — straight back and forth. For this particular movie, it was really fun, because I wanted to be inside the head of a man. (laughs) That story and so many things about relationships. I wanted Sam and Jeannie’s characters to be a real partnership as well, so I also pulled that part of our relationship as well.
You know, we’re both a married couple and partners who like to collaborate together. I wanted to translate that in a political context, in a marriage equation. I wanted to have that element that Jeannie was a real partner to him. I’m fascinated by political wives and how they’re really — it’s like a demanding full-time job. You’re in the spotlight, and many of them have big careers in law, in politics beforehand. Because it was a movie about a couple, inside a man’s head, it was such fun to collaborate with Joel. And he also edited the movie; it was a long collaboration.