Interview: Writer-Director Mora Stephens
On her Political Thriller Zipper
Ten years ago, Mora Stephens made her feature film debut as a director with the political romance Conventioneers, co-written with her husband, Joel Viertel. The two have collaborated again, and although returning to the political world, their new film Zipper (now on DVD and On-Demand) is very different. The thriller borrows from some of the more infamous sex scandals which have been in the news in recent years, focusing on the marriage of a politician presented as a decent family man in the throes of sex addiction. Patrick Wilson and Lean Headey play the couple in the middle of this crisis, opposite costars Ray Winstone, Richard Dreyfuss, John Cho, Dianna Agron, Alexandera Breckenridge and Penelope Mitchell.
I spoke with the Mora about her film and real-life influences.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): Being a fellow New Yorker, I certainly saw parallels in the film to what came out during the Eliot Spitzer scandal. Did you borrow any of that news when writing the film?
Mora Stephens: Well, it started with a bit of my general fascination with sex scandals in the most general sense. I started on this after the Elliott Spitzer and John Edwards’s scandals came to light and I was fascinated by the conversations we were having in society about them and how differently men and women were viewing the scandals; who immediately judged compared to those who had sympathy. So that was the origin of the idea. But the for Sam’s (Patrick Wilson) character, I pulled a lot of research from a lot of different scandals because I wanted to create a character that was unique. There are things that all these men have in common, but they are also all different. And Patrick was certainly trying to make it real for himself, as an actor. But there are elements of the Spitzer scandals in the film. For example, I remember reading that Spitzer raced from ATM to ATM, while governor, to get money for escorts. And that was the inspiration for that scene in the film that shows his manic behavior. I was interest in where that comes from, considering he is someone that is educated and knows the risks and laws. I didn’t want to judge the character, but just look at early stages of that kind of addiction.
TMS: When you were look at the personality types that are involved in this specific kind of sexual behavior, there is almost a sense that power has more or as much to do with their actions as sex. Did you find that to be true in your research?
Stephens: I think it can be viewed both ways actually. There is of course the tension between our animal urges wrestling with the rules we are supposed to play by. But among politicians or leaders in business, or anyone in power, there is a specific phenomenon involved as well. Patrick and I discussed that aspect a lot. That drive to be great so you are able to lead can also be the cause these problems. And the combination of drive and testosterone and narcissism, not to mention having more of the means and access to indulge in these desires. A regular guy will suddenly be viewed as a rock star, and be around much more temptation than he had previously. But a big influence on the script was our producer Darren Aronofsky, who helped us develop the script, who recommend a book called The Demon by Hubert Selby. And Selby is one of the greatest fiction writers of all time, and that is his book about sex addiction. And in that book, the character is a just a businessman not a politician, but it explores the fact that the more he tries to feed and control this thing, it just grows and grows. And when I was at Sundance, I spoke on a panel called Addiction Fiction, and the scientist on the panel spoke on all the factors which contribute to the ramping up of Sam’s addiction, and one of the big components was something called Toxic Stress. So the stress of campaigning is actually exasperating his problem.
TMS: What interested you in exploring the lives of a politician, rather than have him just be a businessman like in Demon or a man in some other position of power?
Stephens: I was a Woodrow Wilson Major at Princeton, so I studied policy and international affairs, and I was original planning to study arts policy so I worked as an intern in DC. And I remember being so frustrated by the Clinton Sex Scandal and the way it completely paralyzed our country. But at the same time, I felt great empathy for Hilary Clinton, just feeling “this is a private matter.” And yet, while we were developing the script, there seemed to be a new scandal every month, and I was struck that “how many years after Clinton, people know the risks and are making the same mistakes.” I was fascinated by the fact that we keep putting politicians on a pedestal, just to take them down for his behavior. So I wanted to look at the issue before judgement from the outside came into it, and look at these politicians and their wives from a place of empathy. Lena and talked about the fact that as a woman, she would have judged someone early on who stayed, but that you never know how you would respond until you are in that moment. But I also wanted to tell a story about addiction from the very beginning and how it effects your life, your family, and your career.
TMS: In your research, what were some things about the sex industry which you felt hadn’t been shown in films before and needed to be included?
Stephens: One of the things which surprised me doing the research, was how easy and accessible things within this industry are now because of the internet. And that is something which surprises Sam too. That he can enter it literally from his office and fall down the rabbit hole. The Erotic Review site he looks up is absolutely based on a real thing, it is almost like a Chow Hound for escorts. In the scenes with the escorts, I had a consultant on the film, Mona Fortuna, who also provided her voice of the booker, and she worked in the industry in a previous life. And she just pulled from old scripts she used talking to clients, because with a guy like Sam, who sees a different woman every time, his ongoing relationship with the booker. So working with her, I was just fascinated by all the details that go into setting things up, from the way she tailors an experience to meet his fantasies to the way a guy would try to cover their tracks. She also worked with Alexandra and Penelope on how they would create that kind of girlfriend experience. But an agency like that would actually go and recruit models and students, rather than experienced escorts, to remove the “sleaziness” of it, so there is a fantasy that a beautiful girl is just interested in you. Which is why the casting of Alexander and Penelope was so important, because they had to feel like real people with layers. Alexander’s character that made things feel very soft and inviting and pampering. Which I could relate to as a woman. And Penelope had to show the two sides of that, the fantasy side and the vulnerable, troubled young woman underneath.
TMS: What was it about Patrick and Lena that made you cast them in the leads?
Stephens: Patrick is such a nice person in real life and brings an intelligence to characters, so you believe him as someone being pushed onto a bigger political stage. He has that nice, personable, everyman quality, but has the ability to channel dark places. He was my first collaborator on the film and we had been talking about the character for years, before the script was even completed. And Lena brings such strength and sexiness and intellect to the character, which was so important for her character. She had to feel like a real partner who was a strong equal to Patrick’s character. But I was blessed with my entire cast of actors. I had a dream cast.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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