Writer/Director Mora Stephens Examines Political 'Zipper' Problem

Photo Credit: Alchemy
August 18th, 2015

While the political scandal drama Zipper may be sold as being from executive producer and Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky, it is really from co-writer/director Mora Stephens. Although this is her first feature film behind the camera in 10 years, she has written and directed on a wide variety of subjects in her career, such as the post 9/11 documentary Reflections from Ground Zero, the thriller Devil’s Pond and the political comedy Conventioneers that she wrote and directed in 2005.

Zipper further shows her passion and ambition for examining politics and the people in them, as she tries to make us understand why rising federal prosecutor Sam Ellis, played by Patrick Wilson, would risk it all with a growing addiction to an escort service. The fallout encompasses his wife, played by Game of Thrones’ Emmy nominee Lena Headey, a reporter played by Ray Winstone, a political kingmaker played by Richard Dreyfuss, and other characters played by the likes of John Cho, Alexandra Breckinridge and Dianna Agron.

Stephens discussed all this and more with TMN’s Robert Dougherty on Aug. 13, before Zipper’s release to select theaters and iTunes/VOD on Aug. 28.

TMN/Robert Dougherty: Your first credited project was a documentary, Reflections from Ground Zero. Did you envision yourself making documentaries as a career back then, or did you always want to go on to write and direct fiction?

Mora Stephens: I loved the part of documentaries where you could go inside this completely new world, and you're capturing something in the moment that can only happen in that moment. But I always kind of miss the part of working with actors. I really admire documentaries, but I guess film is a good example of why I loved spending time with them.

The documentary was all around the meals that the firemen cooked together, but it was a firehouse that had lost a number of men after September 11th. And it was sort of the healing process in the kitchen. And I loved being a fly on the wall inside the firehouse and exploring that world. The difference is in Zipper, a number of the actors went to really, really dark places that they had never gone before.

When you go there with an actor it can be hopefully a cathartic experience. And with real people, it can be a traumatic experience. And I think great documentary filmmakers can cut through that. They love that and they live for it, but for me, my favorite part of the whole process is working with actors. That being said, I’ve explained the documentary influence on the research that I do and I try to take what I learn from it, to try to make things jovial and capture that feeling of capturing something in the moment.

TMN: After working in relatively small films and documentaries, how does it feel to be suddenly directing so many well-known actors in this project?

Stephens: Well, it was an amazing experience working with the entire cast. I'm so grateful for all of them. And you know, my first feature Conventioneers was a little budget movie, but I got to work with some great actors and I've built all the characters with them in rehearsal. A filmmaker asked me, "What's the difference between going from Conventioneers to Zipper?" And I was saying the biggest difference is when you're walking to set and you're walking past all the big trucks, and you're wondering, "Oh what's that big...What's that movie they're shooting there?"

But then when you get to the set and you're on your set, then that experience feels very familiar to me. It's still about getting in the shot and working with actors and trying to create an environment that feels as intimate as possible. I like my films to feel like a little family and to create a safe place to play for the actors. So that remains the same.

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TMN: You've written thrillers, political comedies and political dramas, taking on genres that traditionally aren't associated with female writers and directors. Have you met any kind of specific resistance in that regard?

Stephens: I feel like telling this particular story of Zipper that it may have been part of the challenge of making the movie, but I feel like now that I've made the movie, it's part of what makes it unique as a woman's point of view on the subject matter and getting inside a man's head. And for opening the story up hopefully to the female audience too, to see that before you judge this guy, to kind of go with me and go with him on this journey and try to look at it from a point of view, but not only coming at Sam's character. It was important to me that the women be strong and layered as well.


TMN: Both of the feature films you've written and directed have been about politics. What drives you to write about that subject matter above all?

Stephens: I have a long interest in the subject. At Princeton, I was a Woodrow Wilson Public Policy and International Affairs major. I started also making short films while I was there and that was sort of the early stage of those two things. But I think it's more than that. I look first at character and thinking of that collaboration with the actor, if there's an interesting psychology. That's the first thing.

I get really excited if there's some bigger political, social, historical discussion to be had. I like to identify with the idea of being a political filmmaker, but it wouldn't then be the answer that I, Mora, want to use to stir up a conversation about these issues.

TMN: It's obvious to assume that this is a hybrid of the Eliot Spitzer and John Edwards scandals. Did any other specific scandal or figure inspire the story, or was it more of a general take on them?

Stephens: There's tens and hundreds of scandals. [chuckle]

The story began six-seven years ago, inspired first by Spitzer and Edwards. But not so much of the scandals themselves, but the dinner conversations afterwards. I was fascinated by how men and women were viewing it differently. But then along the way, there's been a new scandal every month, so there's been new research, new points of view on scandals. I mean, I'm specific in not wanting it to be Spitzer.

I didn't want it to feel like it was about a love story or a triangle with this other woman, it was more...what I wanted to explore was the zipper problem of the politician with this thing within him and to look at it from the point of view of early stages of addiction. And for it to be more about this guy fighting himself than it being a triangle kind of love story.


TMN: There's an interesting line where Sam says, "I never made myself to be better than the people." Is that really a legitimate argument? Because there are differing levels of hypocrisy from each of these figures. Can it really be legitimate that some are less hypocritical than others?

Stephens: Well, Sam is trying to figure out for himself why he did this. And I was looking at many of the different confessions and the ways in which each of these guys are trying to find a reason to explain it, also to explain to the people, but also to explain it to themselves. Before somebody has really found help, he's found various ways to justify it to himself and that's one of his reasons. But I also feel like the saddest part of the issue is that we are so quick to judge and even if these things happen to us or to people we know, somehow if it's a politician, we think that they should be...we're continually shocked and surprised that they wind up being flawed, human.

TMN: In that regard, the line Richard Dreyfuss says at the end is, "People need to believe the fairytale." After all these scandals, do people really still believe it, and is it really important that they do?

Stephens: Well, I think that with each new scandal, the reason they can completely end somebody's career in a moment is that we are still shocked by it, so there's some aspect of us that still...no matter how many times we listen to it and otherwise, we still want to believe this fairytale. My intention is to lay the seeds for the audience to come away with their own opinion. I could see the argument on both sides of this. So, I'd rather people do it in their end.

TMN: Do you think you're any closer to understanding why people like Sam take risks like this than you were when you started making the movie?

Stephens: Yes. I mean, the closest truth I feel like is when Sam was talking about how he’s still trying to figure it out for himself. Because I feel like it's all of these answers and for each one, each guy is still trying to figure it out. But I feel like there's different seeds for you to pick up on.

It's just looking at it from the addiction point of view. He was the guy whose mother was an alcoholic and he was always afraid of that part of himself, but he was always just testing it and trying to be the good guy, but was also very driven into politics. He's been hiding various little secrets, the porn addiction, the little white lies to his wife, a little dangerous flirtation with Dianna Agron's character. So we have this potential on him and it's ramped up by all these factors.

In the end this helps him do what he does, but also creates a little box around him. And my hope is that each person will pick up on different clues and discuss afterwards.