"Zipper" and Addiction Fiction at Sundance

By Dorri Olds 08/28/15

The Fix Q&A with Mora Stephens, director of sex addiction drama Zipper.


In the drama Zipper, Sam Ellis (Patrick Wilson) is a successful federal prosecutor on the cusp of a bright political future. He has a happy home and a hot sex life with his smart and beautiful wife Jeannie (Lena Headey). Sam is a moral guy who takes fatherhood and upholding the law seriously. Then, a gorgeous intern (Dianna Agron) kisses him passionately after a work party. Sam had a little too much to drink. He fights temptation and dutifully goes home to his wife. But, his “zipper problem”—a phrase coined during the Bill Clinton presidency—has been teased and awakened.

The next titillation for Sam occurs while he deposes a sexy witness (Elena Satine) who worked for a high-class escort service named Executive Privilege. Sam already pleasures himself at home with online porn while his unknowing wife sleeps. One weekend his wife and son (Kelton DuMont) go out of town and Sam’s nagging curiosity leads him to call Executive Privilege on a disposable cellphone and inquire about an escort. Mona Fortuna, real-life escort booker and consultant on the film, voices the booker on the phone. She preys on Sam’s ambivalence and easily manipulates him into making an appointment. 

Director Mora Stephens on set.

Sam is vulnerable. He’s shaky with stress as his wife and coworkers push him toward running for political office. His foray into the sex industry comes across as surprisingly empathetic. Who knew that a husband cheating on his loving wife could be sympathetic? But, in Zipper, it is.

The booker baits the hook and the hooker reels him in. Alexandra Breckenridge as Sam’s first $1,000 per hour escort was a brilliant choice of casting. She works him like a pro while also remaining likable. One of the strengths of this film is how few judgments are made. Instead, it is a realistic portrayal of addiction and how a man with so much to lose, gets hooked on hookers.

Sam’s remorse over his indulgence in forbidden fruit is palpable yet it can’t quell his compulsions. What could’ve been a one-time thing morphs into a monkey on his back. It’s like watching the hijacked brain of a cokehead who knows he should stop but can’t.

The Fix caught up with writer/director Mora Stephens.

Have you studied the addict’s brain?

Yes, I’ve long been fascinated by this subject. I’m the daughter of two artists. My father is a writer and recovering alcoholic. He writes eloquently about it so I can talk about it. When I was 12, I went to classes at Smithers rehab with him. I was struck by how addiction changes the brain and how it affects your child’s brain. That was the origin of my approach to this story; looking at a politician like Sam and wondering where it all began and trying to put myself in his shoes.

Here’s this guy who has the potential for addiction; his mother was an alcoholic and he has this porn addiction bubbling under the surface. He’s been afraid of it and repressing it without getting any help for it.

At Sundance, I spoke on a panel called Addiction Fiction, which was sponsored by the Norlien Foundation [see below]. The panel was myself with another filmmaker, Jen Newsom, and neuroscientists, psychologists and anthropologists all studying addiction and how it is portrayed in movies. It gave me a whole new perspective looking at the movie from the science of addiction and learning that ritual is very important. I learned even more hearing the scientists talk about how repeating a behavior strengthens connections and circuitry in the brain.

Wilson and Headey

What do you mean “ritual”?

In doing specific research for Zipper on sex addiction, one of the things that interested me was the way it is not just the sex in the room that becomes part of the high, but the whole experience. Everything Sam does to get ready: getting dressed, packing his bag and adding his little soaps, putting the money in the envelope and all of the things he does to get away with it. All of that is part of the magical experience for him. He keeps trying to get back to that feeling so he keeps repeating the behaviors.

Sounds like the high before scoring cocaine.

Yes! And he’s always thinking it’s going to get better this time and take him to some new experience.

What struck me was that he loved his wife, and she was beautiful, and they had a good sex life, yet he was drawn to sex outside the marriage. Why?

It was important to me as a woman who’d watched movies about adultery. It always bugs me when it’s implied that somehow it’s the wife’s fault and it’s justified too easily. I didn’t want to lay any of the blame at either characters’ feet. I wanted his wife to be a real partner to him, really smart and sexy, strong, and with a good sex life to make it more about him. I wanted to challenge the audience in that way so they wouldn’t say, “She’s too busy with the kids,” or “She doesn’t want to have sex with him,” or “She’s a total bitch.” I wanted to avoid any of those stereotypes.

Elena Satine and Mora Stephens

Did you read extensively about political sex scandals with Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, John Edwards, Bill Clinton, etc.?

Yes, I devoured all of that. I started the script six years ago when there was a different political sex scandal every month. I read and researched everything I could and it was all fascinating. I tried to understand it like a Rashomon point of view, different perspectives, different angles. I spent time with U.S. attorneys in LA; I worked with a New York Times journalist who had covered the Spitzer story. Mona Fortuna, who was the voice of a booker in the movie and a consultant on the movie, had been the booker at a big escort service in New York.

How did you land Patrick for the role? 

My brilliant casting director and co-producer Deb Aquila and Darren Aronofsky and his production company, Protozoa Pictures, and Mark Heyman; they were all involved with the casting. Patrick was the first one to come aboard. As soon as I met with him, it had to be him. He has these great qualities where he is genuinely nice and a good person, a great dad, and a great husband, a real gentleman, but he is also able to explore really dark sides of himself. I wanted Sam to be believable and a relatable nice guy.

Where was the movie filmed?

That was the biggest challenge — getting the whole cast down there for a 25-day shoot in Louisiana.

What do you hope is the takeaway for viewers?

My hope is that people can see the movie and have very different points of view about why he’s doing it and how they feel about the ending and they can talk about it and the conversation will carry into the night. One young woman in college came up to me and said how she felt like it was so tragic but that she felt like her guy friends would’ve been rooting for him at the end. My intention is to lay the seed for discussion but not say how you should feel about it or how you should think. I hesitate to speak about it too much because I love the very, very different reactions people have to the movie and how they feel about it.

Do you see a sequel?

There was a running joke with the cast about doing it next as a musical. Patrick is a tremendous singer who started on Broadway.

Zipper opens in theaters and On Demand on Aug. 28, 2015. Drama thriller. Rated R. 117 min.

Addiction Fiction Sundance Panel Recap

In addition to Mora Stephens, the Sundance panel was made up of filmmaker Jennifer Newsom, cognitive anthropologist Nat Kendall-Taylor, neuroscientist and psychologist Judy Cameron, University of California scientific director and professor of neurogenics Pat Levitt, and Harvard University’s Dr. Jack Shonkoff.

The panel discussion focused on our cultural model of addiction, which is based on pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. The message is that if you’re an addict, you lack willpower. The model is reinforced constantly in film and the media with the message that addiction can be conquered via willpower. But anyone who has read anything about addiction knows that isn’t the case. You can’t fix a broken brain with a broken brain.

The discussion led to nature versus nurture. Cameron explained that the brain cells we’re born with are only part of the genetic equation; the way those brain cells connect to each other is also controlled by genes. But, Levitt explained, as children grow up, their reactions to stimuli is what develops the architecture of their brain. The brain builds its circuits based on experiences. With negative experience, like a lack of bonding with a parent, a brain’s reward system gets wired differently than that of a brain growing in a healthy environment. The long-lasting impact is a brain that has a foundation with a built-in difficulty for handling stress. 

Shonkoff added that stress activates cortisol in the brain, which can harm the brain’s developing circuitry, which includes the fear and response system in the frontal cortex of your brain. He said, “Overcoming adversity is not about summoning enough willpower, it’s about if you have a strong foundation or a weak foundation.” As an example he talked about the public service announcements with the egg and the phrase, “This is your brain on drugs.” Shonkoff said those PSAs only addressed half of the problem. While it’s true that drugs are bad for the brain, that message never addressed which things are bad for the brain before the drugs that make you more likely to become addicted to substances.

Those who have a predisposition for addiction had brain circuitry established since early childhood that responded to stress in a different way than a “normal” brain. The compromised brain circuitry and reward system was already damaged and becomes further damaged when an addiction is activated. That’s why an addicted brain is a faulty tool for treating an addiction.

Cameron said that brain circuitry happens from the time you are born and the more your brain makes certain connections, the stronger that circuitry becomes. The pathways that are used most often become embedded routes of connection. You can think of it as how you would wear down a path in a field of grass if you walked over it repeatedly. It then becomes the main pathway. So “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” to create a new pathway is ridiculous advice.

Shonkoff said, “Babies cannot pull themselves up by their bootie-straps.”

Levitt said, “All mammals are social creatures.” So, the lone hero in movies is not a healthy model. The panel’s overall message was that society needs to stop spreading the myth that an addicted brain can just “snap out of it.” The more films that show a rugged individual—a cowboy, a superhero—overcome obstacles without any help, the more we perpetuate a fantasy world where addicts can cure themselves with sheer willpower. 

Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in book anthologies and numerous publications including The New York Times. She last wrote about Bob Zappa as well as Bill Cosby.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.