Writer/director Riley Stearns made his first splash in the film world when his acclaimed short THE CUB debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013. That ended up opening the doors for him to write and direct his first feature, FAULTS, which premiered at last year's SXSW in Austin, Texas.
FAULTS stars Leland Orser and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who also happens to be Stearns's wife. If you don't know Mary from her acclaimed performance in Smashed, you need to rectify that immediately, but I'm willing to bet you've seen her in films as diverse as Sky High, Live Free or Die Hard, The Spectacular Now, the Death Proof half of Grindhouse, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
I saw FAULTS at last year's AFI Fest and was a big fan of it. Honestly, it'd be an impressive work even if it wasn't the product of a first-time director. It's a tense movie about a disgraced cult deprogrammer who's hired by desperate parents who want him to deprogram their daughter, who was recently taken in by a cult.
It's been playing the festival circuit for months and is finally coming out in limited release and on VOD this Friday. Recently I sat down with both Riley Stearns and Mary Elizabeth Winstead for a chat that spanned the writing of FAULTS, the issues surrounding good roles for women in film, the challenges of making a first feature, and much more...
Bitter Script Reader: Why FAULTS? Where did this come from?
Riley Stearns: The boring answer is that I’ve always been fascinated by cults—
BSR: If that’s the boring answer, this is going to be very interesting.
RS: What’s funny about that is even as a kid I was fascinated by cults and I don’t think a lot of kids are, but there was something about the idea that you could be like a really intelligent person, very strong minded and you can get sucked into something that somebody else can indoctrinate you into, so the idea of cults was definitely the impetus of that.
There was this COPS episode that I was watching with my dad when I was a kid and there was this deprogramming where the girl called the police and said, “My parents have kidnapped me and are holding me in this room.” The police came and interviewed the parents and were able to discern what was going on. And at the end they said, “Your parents know what’s best for you so you should stay with them. We’re not gonna file a report or anything like that.”
BSR: This made it to air on COPS?!
RS: I feel like this was an episode I saw when I was a kid. I tried to do research on this episode because I knew I was gonna be asked about it after I put it in some director’s statement I did and I can’t find any evidence that this episode actually exists. But in my memory it’s so real and I remember my dad saying, “They knew what was best for her,” like the parents are trying to help her. But as a kid, I realized there’s something really weird about an adult being told what to do.
And I can’t find any evidence that episode was a thing, so I’m trying not to talk about it as much, but as a kid I realized that deprogramming was the craziest, coolest thing and as I got to be an adult, I realized not a lot of people had done a story about deprogramming, at least not the way I wanted to do it. By the time I was ready to write a feature script, that idea was still there.
BSR: Is this your first feature script then?
RS: No. I’ve probably written five or six feature scripts. All of them are shit. FAULTS is the first feature script that I actually think is good. Mary would say otherwise--
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: They’re all good. They get better and better, as they should.
RS: Yeah. My first feature script ended up being 40 pages long. Since I was 18, I’ve written five things other than FAULTS. The other thing about those scripts is they were all copying other people’s styles. I’m glad I wrote them now, but the thing about them I don’t like is that they’re like [me doing] Garden State, mixed with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. My second one is a Tarantino rip-off. It still wouldn’t make a good movie, but as a writing sample it worked out well. My next was a Scott Pilgrim-style script that I still think is funny, but I don’t think it would make a good movie.
BSR: I see them going in line with Mary’s career there.
MEW: I know! Yeah! [laughs]
RS: It totally is! Those are the scripts that I was reading.
BSR: It kinda seeps in.
RS: Exactly! You write what you know, people say, but in this instance I was just copying what I knew. It led to me finding my voice, which is what I think was important.
BSR: My first feature was a procedural and when I took it into my screenwriting class, they were like, “This is great. I can totally see the LAW & ORDER cast in it!” Yes, yes, you nailed me.
RS: You have to do that though. It’s very rare for a writer to come out and have it but just their voice. And even now I feel like I’m probably copying somebody.
BSR: It’s like a synthesis. The Tarantino thing. He takes a little bit from different people and mixes it into something new. With FAULTS, did you set out deliberately to write something that was low-budget and easy to produce?
RS: Definitely. I wrote it thinking that I would have to Kickstart it, because we did that with THE CUB. We got like $5000 for THE CUB, thinking for the next thing we could get $50,000-$100,000, thinking I could do this on my own, not realizing that had I done this on my own, I wouldn’t have been able to find the motel room. [We wanted to make the motel room] its own thing. It’s very brown, and a lot of production design. If I was doing that on my own it would have been not as good.
BSR: Does working within the limitations of a low-budget kind of define how you’re gonna create the characters and the themes you’re working with, because you’ve gotta have something compelling enough to stay in that room?
RS: I felt like the story itself could sustain being in a small, contained location. I’ve always been good at character. I feel like I’m good at each character has their own voice. A lot of scripts you read, every character sounds like that writer’s version of the character. I feel like one thing FAULTS had was, here’s this weird, eccentric deprogrammer and the subject who he was deprogramming. It wasn’t necessarily budget-driven at all. I feel like even if I had a lot of money, that would have been the same thing that I wrote. But location was the big thing about budget for sure.
BSR: Now Mary, I had a question for you. As Riley’s writing this, I assume you know you’re gonna act in it. Were you feeding him “I’d love to play this kind of part” or “Don’t do this because I hate when I see this in scripts?”
MEW: I don’t know... I was so excited as I was getting the pages of what he was writing but I was also really scared because the character he was writing for me just seemed really, really hard. She’s sort of enigmatic and doesn’t give much away, but also has to be really complex and I was sort of like “I don’t know how to do this.” I loved Leland’s character so much, Ansel, and was like “this character’s sort of flashy and fun!”
BSR: “Can you make him a woman in his twenties?”
RS: The only thing that Mary said that influenced the script in any way was we got to a point where, like 40 pages in… she said, “Ansel’s so cool and eccentric. Can Claire have any of that?” And so the next day I wrote the scene where she does the screaming thing, just because I wanted her to do something weird, and it ended up being one of my favorite parts in the whole movie.
MEW: At that point, Claire was just doing a lot of explaining about what the cult is, so I kind of was poking him a little bit, “give me something.” And I still was scared to play the role even at the end, but then once we were doing it, it was like the most fun I’ve ever had in a role, but I didn’t know what I was going to do with it until we were really going.”
RS: What I love about that is that it is a hard part and I didn’t realize it was such a hard part. Like I knew she could do it, so I didn’t even think about it as being a difficult role, which is why it was funny to me when she read it and was like “This is really hard!”
MEW: And I was worried he was trusting me too much, even when we were shooting it--
RS: I never give her notes because it’s always what I want. I’m like, “That was perfect!”
MEW: We usually do one or two takes and I was like, “Are you sure? Are you sure!?”
BSR: “In a month you’re not gonna be sitting in an editing room cursing me, right?”
Come back tomorrow as we delve a little more into the plot twists of FAULTS and I ask Mary what kind of writing it takes to interest an actress of her caliber... and what she hates seeing in scripts.
Pre-order FAULTS on iTunes or Vimeo.
Part II - Complex characters and roles for women
Part III - Making your first movie
Part IV - Having confidence as a storyteller