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How the Public Obsession with Political Sex Scandals Led to Sundance Thriller ‘Zipper’

How the Public Obsession with Political Sex Scandals Led to Sundance Thriller 'Zipper'

I admit, I am fascinated by political sex scandals. “Zipper’ began with my curiosity and empathy for the political leader whose career has just been destroyed in an instant because of seeing escorts, or a mistress, or a young page– each time one of these scandals breaks it seems to shock the public. There is a public obsession with “zipper problems” (a slang term coined under President Clinton) – with new scandals surfacing practically every month — and the question at the center of it is one of character: What was he thinking? How could he have taken the risk? But what if, before people could judge, they could see inside the man, see the humanity, see what it feels like to be him? Why do we put our political leaders on a pedestal only to tear them down? It is one political issue that everyone seems to have an opinion about, and yet people still ask: why did he do it? 

READ MORE: Alchemy Acquires Sundance Political Thriller ‘Zipper’

I remember being a young college student studying at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs when the Bill Clinton scandal broke and I remember feeling so frustrated and helpless at how much it was paralyzing us as a country and wondering, for all the people throwing stones at our President, and at our First Lady for standing by him, how many of them had dark secrets of their own? And sure enough, the years that followed showed one politician after another, many of whom had made public statements demanding Clinton’s resignation – Gov. Mark Sanford and Sen. John Ensign among them– fall because of their own secret zipper problems.  

Years later, the first seeds of the story for “Zipper” began around the time of the Edwards and Spitzer scandals – not so much the scandals themselves—but I was fascinated by how men and women were viewing them differently. There’s a scene late in the movie where Lena Headey’s character Jeannie asks Patrick Wilson’s Sam, “Why didn’t you just have an affair? That was my worst fear all along but you know what?  That would’ve made you human.  This makes you sick.  That you view women that way.” There was one woman I know where that was her verbatim reaction to the Spitzer scandal – and this was a woman whose whole life had been impacted by her husband leaving her after having an affair.  I was so fascinated by that point of view, that that was the earliest spark of needing to tell this story.

The different views of men and women on this subject was the first thing that got me hooked, and then I wanted to create a character that had his own very specific reasons for falling down the rabbit hole (i.e. separate from any one real-life politician). When writing any character, my starting point is to see if I can see the world from their perspective, to find some way in where I can see the world as they do. The more different the character’s actions on the surface are from myself, the more fun it can be to take that imaginative leap and try to immerse myself in their world, and go back to where it all started for them. 

My father is a brilliant writer and recovering alcoholic of 27 years who has written about the subject quite eloquently in novels and memoirs, and I remember as a 12-year-old going through rehab workshops with him here in NYC, being really fascinated by how alcoholism affects both your brain’s chemistry, and also how it runs in families and can affect your child’s brain. It made quite an impression on me as a kid and I spent much of my youth terrified by the idea that there was some kind of genetic timebomb inside my head, so that was where I started with Sam Ellis, my way into understanding him.

Here is a man who has this potential inside of him, whose mother was an alcoholic, and who has a bit of a porn addiction and a dangerous habit of white lies when convenient, who has been afraid of this thing inside of him and has been repressing it, trying to control it on his own, trying to always be the good boy, who in a moment of justifying his actions thinks he can control it by feeding it just a little but instead it only grows and grows, and in a moment of pre-political-campaign toxic stress and narcissism, the abyss opens up and he falls inside.  

Despite the very personal connection for wanting to try to tell an addiction story accurately—and I was particularly curious about the very early stages of the disease and what might send someone down that path in the first place—Patrick and I rarely talked about the character in terms of addiction because we both agreed that Sam was early in that journey and still very much in denial about what it was that he was wrestling with.

Coming at this story as a woman, wanting to get inside a man’s head, and unravel the mystery, my first step was to ask my husband Joel [Viertel] to co-write the story with me. People often ask me what it was like collaborating with my husband on this kind of subject matter and I must say, it was really fun. As a woman telling this story, I both wanted the experience of being inside Sam’s skin to feel as real as possible, but also wanted the women around Sam to be layered and strong and feel real as well.

I am so grateful to Lena Headey for everything she gave to the role, for making Jeannie feel like a real partner to Sam, for the strength, raw emotion and sexuality she brought to it. Lena has the ability to switch between being incredibly brave and intense in the moment and then off-camera, to be hilarious and silly.  It was always important to me with this story not to lay any of the blame at the wife’s feet, but also not let her be too perfect either and to be human as well. And I’m likewise grateful to the other actresses in the film – Dianna Agron, Alexandra Breckenridge, Penelope Mitchell, Elena Satine—all of whom went to dark, dark places to make their characters feel real and vulnerable. 

Sometimes I find it really difficult to talk about the film because I really just want to lay the seeds and not spoon-feed any easy answers, and for you to walk away with your own emotional reaction and theories that will be different than the person you came with to the theater.  “Zipper” is meant to stir up different reactions from different people– hopefully spilling into your dinner conversation and into the night…

Mora Stephens is director/co-writer of “Zipper,” which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Alchemy will release in theaters and on demand on demand on August 28, 2015. Stephens’ debut feature film “Conventioneers” won the 2006 Independent Spirit Awards’ John
Cassavetes Award for Best Low-Budget Feature. An alumna of NYU’s Graduate Film Program and Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson
School of Public and International Affairs, Stephens collaborated on an original screenplay for
director Rodrigo Garcia and has taught screenwriting at the Graduate Film Program at NYU’s Tisch
School of the Arts. Stephens is a co-founder of Hyphenate Films. 

READ MORE: Patrick Wilson is a Scandalized Politician in Mysterious ‘Zipper’ Poster

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