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Meet the 2015 Sundance Filmmakers #53: Mora Stephens Wants to Start a Conversation About Political Scandals with ‘Zipper’

Meet the 2015 Sundance Filmmakers #53: Mora Stephens Wants to Start a Conversation About Political Scandals with 'Zipper'

Though “Zipper” is only the second narrative feature from writer-director Mora Stephens, she’s arriving at Sundance with some clout. Her first movie, “Conventioneers,” was awarded the John Cassavetes Award from Film Independent, which recognizes the team behind an exemplary piece of filmmaking that is made for less than $500,000. “Zipper” is a stylish, provocative political thriller focused on an exposed politician’s interior life. Featured at Sundance for the first time, Stephens hopes her film will ignite a serious dialogue about contemporary political culture.

What’s your film about in 140 characters or less?

“Zipper” is
a political thriller about a hot-shot federal prosecutor (played by Patrick
Wilson) on the cusp of 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. His moral compass unraveling, his new demon threatens to destroy his
life, family and career.

Now what’s it REALLY about?

It’s really about the
phenomenon of political sex scandals but from inside the experience of the
candidate himself, inside his skin, on this tense, dark roller coaster as we go
down the rabbit hole with him… “Zipper” began with my curiosity about the
contradictions inherent to this issue. A great leader, a good family man, a man
with everything to lose, who is compulsively seeing escorts, or a mistress, or
a young page on the side – each time one of these scandals breaks it seems to
shock the public. Why do we put our political leaders on a pedestal only to
tear them down? There is a public obsession with “zipper problems” (a slang
term coined under President Clinton) – with new scandals surfacing practically
every month — but the question at the center of it is one of character: Why
did he do it? What was he thinking? But what if, before people could judge,
they could see inside the man, see the humanity, see what it feels like to be
him?

Tell us briefly about yourself.

I’m an Irish-Korean
writer-director, born and raised in NYC, and now based in Los Angeles. An
alumna of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School for Public Policy and
International Affairs and NYU’s Grad Film Program, my debut feature “Conventioneers”
won the Independent Spirit Awards’ John Cassavetes Award. “Zipper” is my second
feature.

Biggest challenge in completing this film?

The biggest challenge was the years of struggling to find the money to
make the movie! Very grateful to my husband Joel Viertel who was co-writer/producer/editor
and a tremendous problem-solver and ally on all fronts; to Darren Aronofsky,
Mark Heyman, and Scott Franklin at Protozoa Pictures, for sticking with us all
these years and believing in the movie and in me; and to John Sloss and his
team at Cinetic who packaged the movie; to our producer Marina Grasic who led
us to our producer Bryan Wright and MFG, who finally…took a leap of faith and
made the movie with me. Actually my list of thank you’s is vast. It truly takes
a village. It’s humbling when you look back at all the challenges, and all the
people who helped you solve them along the way to completing your movie. As a
director I love all the little and big steps along the way, even when they are
challenging, they are good challenging. When I’m writing something that is for
myself to direct, I see the writing as one of the steps towards directing… For
me, it’s all about the lead-up to finally getting time on set to play with the
actors and make the characters and the story come alive, and to try to capture
something that feels real in that moment. Prep, production, and post are all
painful in their own way but in a fantastic, challenging way. The only part I
really hate is the waiting— that’s the worst part. One of our biggest
challenges during production on “Zipper” was getting the cast I wanted all down
there in the 25 days we had to shoot— much thanks and gratitude to my amazing
casting director and co-producer Deb Aquila and the producing team for dealing
with the vortex of chaos that this simple wish created. We got the whole
beautiful, brave cast down there and I am so grateful. Directing is the
greatest job in the world and I feel blessed to have made the movie I wanted to
make, and to be premiering at Sundance later this month.

What do you want Sundance audiences to take away from your film?

I want to provoke a dialogue
with the audience about the questions raised in the movie, about political
zipper scandals, about why Sam is doing it, about how you feel about it and how
you feel about Sam in the end. I have my own theories but I don’t want to spoon-feed
any answers. My intention is to plant the seeds for discussion but for
individual people in the audience to all have different opinions, and for the
conversation to spill into dinner after the movie and beyond…

Any films inspire you?

So many! Nothing I love more
than watching a movie in the dark with a roomful of strangers. Can’t wait for
Sundance – I’ve been in a cave for a long time making “Zipper” and I’m ready to
go see some awesome indie movies! Among the films that inspire me… “A Prophet”
and “The Beat that My Heart Skipped”; “Tell No One,” “The Insider,” “Hurt
Locker,” “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan”; “Red Road” and “Fish Tank”; “Sympathy
for Lady Vengeance,” “Mother” and probably my all-time favorite is still “Vertigo.”
I think of all those great directors like my patron saints, and definitely pull
inspiration from them.

What’s next?

Writing a new one now, and
also developing two projects with other writers that I would direct. All under
our production company Hyphenate Films. Also reading new scripts. It’s
exciting. All very exciting.

What cameras did you shoot on?

Alexa.

Did you crowdfund? 

No.

Why not?

It was a long 6-year journey to get the movie made and we were
ultimately independently financed by one company– all through Bryan Wright and
MFG. I think crowdfunding is an exciting new way to get indie movies financed
and would try it on the next one.

Indiewire invited Sundance Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2015 festival. For profiles go HERE.

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