Resolutely striving to satisfy both your personal and professional desires and needs, no matter how drastically they contradict each other, can be a strenuous challenge that not everyone has the audacity to pursue. But ruthless attorneys and politicians are often believed to have the fierce personality to relentlessly seek their goals, no matter what consequences they’re forced to face as a result. Those conflicting ambitions are intriguingly examined in the new political drama, ‘Zipper,’ which is set to be released in select theaters and On Demand on Friday. Director Mora Stephens reunited with her husband, Joel Viertel, after they penned the script for the 2005 comedy, ‘Conventioneers,’ to once again explore how when even one person in politics follows those aspirations, everyone involved has to contend with the negative effects.
‘Zipper’ follows the driven federal prosecutor Sam Ellis (Patrick Wilson), who’s determinedly fighting corruption in the mayor’s office of his Southern city. After winning his high-profile case in the opening scenes of the drama, the seemingly happily married attorney struggles with resisting the aggressive advances of Dalia (Dianna Agron), an attractive law school intern at his firm. While dedicated to remaining faithful to his well-connected and strategic wife, Jeannie (Lena Headey), Sam soon gives into his temptations after speaking with a former high-end escort, Ellie (Elena Satine), while working an identity theft case.
While Jeannie begins urging her husband to enter national politics, he soon gives into his desires by beginning to use the services of the high-end escort service, Executive Privilege. While Sam initially promises himself that he won’t continue using the company after his first encounter, with the seductive Christy (Alexandra Breckenridge), he soon begins booking regular appointments with different girls. As he frantically tries to continue fulfilling his growing needs, Jeannie, who has aspirations to eventually become the First Lady, becomes suspicious of his behavior. As his powerful campaign adviser, George Hiller (Richard Dreyfuss), and influential magazine reporter Coaker (Ray Winstone), who has long lusted after Jeannie, also start to suspect of his affairs, Sam must try to change his behavior and actions, in an effort to preserve his clean-cut image.
Stephens generously took the time recently to talk about co-writing and directing ‘Zipper’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how in order to best showcase Sam’s mindset, she did such research as spending time with Assistant U.S. Attorneys in Los Angeles, so that she could listen to how they discussed cases, as well as follows real-life political sex scandals, in an effort to understand the points of view of everyone involved; how she individually spoke and rehearsed with each actor in the cast, particularly Wilson, to fully develop the characters and the story; and how Sam was still so early in his addiction he wasn’t fully conscious of it throughout the film, but both recovering addicts and people who study the science of addiction have picked up on little clues she included in the film that hint at his condition.
ShockYa (SY): You co-wrote the script for the new thriller, ‘Zipper,’ which follows Sam Ellis, who’s a federal prosecutor who’s set to have a bright political future. But what was meant to be a one-time experience with a high-end escort instead turns into a growing addiction, which threatens to destroy his family and career. Why did you and Joel Viertel, who you previously wrote the 2005 comedy, ‘Conventioneers,’ with, decide to switch genres and pen a drama based on a political scandal?
Mora Stephens (MS): Well, Joel’s actually also my husband, and we have a three-year-daughter, so we’re partners in many things. He also produced and edited the movie. In wanting to tell this story, I was interested in gettin inside Sam Ellis’ head. So the first thing I did was ask Joel if he wanted to write the script with me. People always ask what it was like collaborating with my husband on this kind of subject matter, but it was actually really fun.
SY: What type of research did you and Joel do as you were writing the script for the thriller together-did you base the story on any real-life political scandals?
MS: The research went in many different directions. Patrick Wilson plays a federal prosecutor in the film, so I spent some time with Assistant U.S. Attorneys in Los Angeles. I was able to hear how they talk about all the details of certain cases. I also researched the legal complications of making the jump from the attorney’s office to political office, as Patrick’s character is about to run for office.
In terms of the political sex scandals, there were a number of big ones that were happening when we first started writing the script. Since we began writing, there has been a new scandal steadily every month. That provided extra research from all points of view, from the politicians and their wives to the assistants working on their campaigns and the mistresses. So I devoured all of that information. There are little bits of real people in the film, but Sam’s very much his own unique character, who I created with Joel and Patrick.
SY: Besides co-penning ‘Zipper’ with Joel, you also directed the drama. In general, do you prefer helming films you also wrote? How does working on the screenplay influence the way you approach your directorial duties?
MS: Well, I look at both jobs as wearing different hats. But looking at it as a director, I first think about the story and characters. I’m starting to work on two other projects now, for which I didn’t write the original scripts. But I still have my strong take on the story when I solely work as the director. I think the story only really comes alive on the set.
On my first feature, ‘Conventioneers,’ I not only co-wrote the script with Joel, but I also developed the story with the actors during rehearsals, and it’s improv-based. So for me, it’s all about building a framework that we can play with on the set. The script is the foundation, but it’s not the full story for the film, which only comes alive with the actors.
SY: ‘Zipper’ features a diverse cast, including Patrick Wilson, who you mentioned earlier, as Sam and Lena Headey as his wife, Jeannie. What was the process of finding the actors you wanted to play these relatable and realistic characters who are at times flawed, but also determined to achieve their goals?
MS: Casting was a whole process, and we had a whole team of producers who helped find the actors. Darren Aronofsky actually served as an executive producer on the film through his production company, Protozoa Pictures. We also worked with (producer) Mark Heyman, who was also very involved in the casting.
Another early collaborator was Deborah Aquila, who was a casting director and producer on the movie. So it was a detailed process to find all the right actors. I’m so grateful for everyone who helped, as it was a challenge to get everyone to our filming location for the shoot. Everyone was also a help in finding the supporting actors, including Alexandra Breckenridge, who plays Christy, the first escort Sam meets, as well as Penelope Mitchell, who plays the younger escort in the movie.
SY: What was the process of working with Patrick, Lena and the rest of the cast to create the characters’ arcs and relationships while you were filming?
MS: I had a week of rehearsals with only Patrick and Lena. I actually spent a few years talking with Patrick about the character of Sam before we began filming the movie, as he was the first actor to become involved. I then worked one-on-one with the rest of the actors to create their own unique character. That involves a different process with each actor and actress.
SY: Speaking of allowing the actors to improvise on the set, which you mentioned earlier, how important do you feel that process is in telling the story? Did you allow Patrick and the rest of the cast to improv while filming ‘Zipper?’
MS: Yes, I think it’s important if it’s done in a focused way. The elements of improv in the movie are very focused. There’s a scene that’s shown as a “political war room,” which was mixed into the film’s bigger issues of addiction and sex. Richard Dreyfuss, Patrick and an actor named Matt Mabe, who was also in ‘Conventioneers,’ were all improvising in the scene. It was really fun to improvise with Richard, as he has a lot to say about politics. Elements of what John Cho was doing, in terms of campaign meetings, were also improvised. I was also open to the process in other places in the film, as well.
SY: Instead of condemning Sam’s growing addiction, the film presents him in a sympathetic light as he struggles with how his decisions and secrets are affecting his family and career. Why did you feel it was important to showcase his situation in a more compassionate way?
MS: I really wanted to start from a place of empathy, and explore where it all started. Patrick and I didn’t talk about it in terms of addiction, because we both felt like the character was still so early in that journey that he wasn’t fully conscious of it.
But I did want it to work that way for people who understand the science of addiction. Both recovering addicts and people who study the science of addiction have picked up on little clues that are included in the film, like the fact that Sam’s mother was an alcoholic, so he has a history of addiction in his family. He also consistently tells little white lies to his wife. So he’s in this heightened stress of toxic stress when he’s preparing for the campaign.
SY: Throughout the drama, Sam doesn’t seek professional help, or even full support from his wife or his colleagues, and tries to battle his growing dependence on his encounters with the escorts on his own. Why did you feel that was an important aspect to include in the film?
MS: He does reach out to his wife at one point, but she’s so upset about what has happened, with good reason, that she’s not ready to offer any help. He spends most of the movie struggling with trying to deal with the problem on his own, but he can’t. I don’t want to give the ending away, but this struggle that he’s facing on his own is a core part of the story.
SY: ‘Conventioneers’ also focuses on politics and sex, as it uses the real Republican National Convention in New York as a backdrop for a delegate who has an affair. Why are you interested in telling that recurring theme in your movies?
MS: Well, I like developing characters who I find to have interesting psychology. Both films do deal with politics and sex, but I’m really looking at bigger social problems that interest me, and that I can obsess over for a while.
At the time we shot ‘Conventioneers,’ I was living in New York, and heading into the Republican National Convention. I had friends all over the country who had different points-of-views, and it seemed like everyone was only appreciating their like-minded views. Since everyone’s opinions were so divided, I didn’t know how to manage that.
SY: The political film had its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. What was your experience of bringing the movie to the festival?
MS: It was a great experience. We had been at the three years prior, and we found out that I was pregnant with our daughter on our way up there. (laughs) I was there because it was an amazing year for NYU grads; a number of films there had been directed by alums of the school. So I went to show my support.
When you go there as an audience member, it’s so much fun. But when you bring your own film there, you carry all this stress and excitement. (laughs) You’re there in front of 2,000 of the first people who are seeing the movie. It was a tremendous honor.
It was also fun to be reunited with the cast. Since the film shows so much of Sam’s perspective, most of the actors only got to be in a scene with Patrick, so they hadn’t met the rest of the cast yet. So the day of the premiere was a big reunion.
Written by: Karen Benardello