Director Mora Stephens ’98 on the set of her new film, Zipper. (Hilary Bronwyn Gayle)
Director Mora Stephens '€™98 on the set of her new film, Zipper. (Hilary Bronwyn Gayle)

The stereotype of alumni networking at Princeton is that it nurtures connections in fields like law, finance, and government. Independent film might sound like an unlikely addition to that list. But this month, three artists with Princeton ties will make their way to the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, one of the industry’s marquee events. Jackson Greenberg ’12, Scott Salinas ’97, and Mora Stephens ’98 all worked on films that will premiere at the festival.

Salinas and Greenberg composed the score of the documentary Cartel Land, continuing a partnership that has its origins in the pages of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. As a freshman, Greenberg found himself in love with music and unsure of his summer plans. After stumbling upon a PAW profile of Salinas, a film composer in Los Angeles, he reached out on a whim and asked for an internship. Despite never having hired an intern before, Salinas took him in, and over the years, their intern-employer relationship evolved into one of collaboration and friendship.

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Jackson Greenberg ’12 (Courtesy Jackson Greenberg)

Cartel Land examines the vigilantes who have risen up on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border to combat the senseless violence of drug cartels. Salinas described it as a documentary with a very cinematic feel, adding that his reference point was more Zero Dark Thirty orThe Hurt Locker than the average documentary. The challenge he and Greenberg faced was to write music fit for the dramatic subject matter without coming off as too slick and “Hollywood.” So the two former music majors opted for sparser arrangements and played the instruments — including guitar, accordion, and charango — themselves. They chose not to groom the sound too heavily and preserved organic details like that of fingers brushing against strings.

“We tried to keep a lot of the gunk, we tried to keep it spontaneous,” Salinas said.

Scott Salinas ’97, above, and Jackson Greenberg ’12 played the instruments in their score for the documentary Cartel Land. (Courtesy Scott Salinas)
Scott Salinas ’€™97, above, and Jackson Greenberg '12 played the instruments in their score for the documentary Cartel Land. (Courtesy Scott Salinas)

Salinas, who described himself as a “catalyst for other people’s visions,” thrives on collaboration. He also composed the music for Zipper, a political thriller written and directed by Stephens, an old friend from Mathey College. The film follows a rising politician whose life is gradually unwound by his growing appetite for high-end prostitutes. It’s a dark, psychological work in the mood of Darren Aronofsky, the director of Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream, who was a producer for Zipper.

Stephens, a Woodrow Wilson School major with a certificate in visual arts, had long sought a way to mesh her interests in art and politics.  Her interest in the subject matter was initially sparked by Bill Clinton’s impeachment, she said, recalling the way it “paralyzed our country.”Zipper features a script that was six years in the making, and each new political scandal that cropped up along the way offered Stephens fresh research material. Toward the end of the writing process, Salinas began reading scripts, immersing himself in aspects of the film beyond the music. The two agreed to try an experimental approach to the score, relying heavily on a “choir” of eight cellos to set a range of moods: dark and minimalist, emotional and sexy.

“I would be talking in terms of character and story and feel, and Scott can absorb all of those references and translate them into something totally new and exciting, exactly understanding what it is that I’ve been trying to say,” Stephens said of their collaboration.

Cartel Land premieres January 23, and Zipper premieres January 27.