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Sundance Women Directors: Meet Mora Stephens – ‘Zipper’

Sundance Women Directors: Meet Mora Stephens - 'Zipper'

Mora Stephens’ debut feature film, Conventioneers, won the 2006 Independent Spirit Awards’ John Cassavetes Award for Best Low-Budget Feature. The film premiered at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival, and had its international premiere in Korea at the 2005 Pusan International Film Festival. Following rave reviews and awards at festivals worldwide, the film was released theatrically by Cinema Libre Studio in the fall of 2006. (Hyphenate Films)

Zipper will premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on January 27. 

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

MS: 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.

What drew you to this story?

I am fascinated by political sex scandals. Zipper began with my curiosity about the contradictions inherent to this hot topic. 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? I want the audience to experience the movie through Sam Ellis’s skin — to feel every tense, thrilling, messy, heart-pounding, titillating, goosebump-y moment that he does.

I am drawn to political stories. As an undergrad at Princeton, I majored at the Woodrow Wilson School for Public Policy and International Affairs, but also started making short films through the Visual Arts Program. A mixture of politics and art has always been part of my DNA. My debut feature Conventioneers was a Romeo and Juliet-esque story about a Republican and Democrat having an affair set against the real Republican National Convention in NYC, mixing actors and a narrative story inside the real convention and real protests.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

MS: The biggest challenge was the years of struggling to find the money to make the movie! Very grateful 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 us. Actually my list of thank you’s is vast. It truly takes a village.

As a director I actually 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 that I’m really terrible at 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 including my husband Joel Viertel 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.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theatre?

MS: 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 that the conversation will spill into dinner after the movie and beyond.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

MS: To other female directors I would say: I want to see your movies, so don’t stop. Don’t stop until you make your next movie and the next one after that: every day keep pushing it forward. Actually, I would give female directors the same pep talk I give myself — wake up and keep pushing the rock up the hill and never stop. It was almost 10 years between my debut feature — which had won an Independent Spirit Award — and Zipper, and 6 of those years was trying to get Zipper made. So, it’s definitely a painful struggle but it’s definitely worth it.

Join forces with others. I’m part of a group here in LA called Film Fatales made up of female directors started in NYC, in part by my friend and fellow director Leah Meyerhoff. I went to NYU Grad Film where it was 50% female directors and I am part of vibrant community of female directors here in Los Angeles; I know there isn’t a lack of great female directors out there, but there is an appalling lack of female-directed films being made today. So my main advice is to producers/ financiers/ studios to hire more women directors. To see companies like Gamechanger Films emerging is exciting and I hope others will follow. And to audiences, I would say go support films directed by women.

In the face of rejection, strong (and loud) opinions and criticisms: don’t stop believing in your own unique vision for the movie. I approach parenting in a similar way to directing in this sense: I don’t think of myself as an expert in children but I am an expert on my daughter Etta, and I always trust my instincts on all things relating to her. I try to do the same thing when directing.

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

MS: The biggest misconception about me and my work is that my first feature Conventioneers, which is a narrative movie, was somehow a documentary. It’s a true indie but entirely fictional. The two leads of the movie Woodwyn Koons and Matt Mabe both make appearances in Zipper too.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

MS: It was a 6 year non-stop obsessive journey making the movie, and it was independently financed. We developed the script with Darren Aronofsky and Mark Heyman at Protozoa Pictures, and the process of collaborating with those guys was amazing. See my long rambling answer to the question asking about the most challenging part of making this film — finding the money was definitely the biggest challenge! Much thanks to Bryan Wright and MFG for taking a chance on us. They fully financed the movie independently. I’m excited for us all be reunited at Sundance later this month.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

MS: The Hurt Locker and Red Road. I’m a big fan of both Kathryn Bigelow and Andrea Arnold’s work. I love hot-blooded, visceral filmmaking; I love to watch those kinds of movies and aspire to make them myself.

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