Part I - Origins of the story
I continue my talk with FAULTS writer/director Riley Stearns and actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
FAULTS is a hard movie to talk about without touching on a few character revelations that expose themselves over time. We do our best to talk around the biggest spoilers early on in this part, but those wishing to go in totally fresh might want to skip ahead to later. I'll put a big, bold "END SPOILERS" at the point where it's safe to scroll too.
In this part, we talk about writing and performing characters with layers, and Mary's thoughts on issues with the writing of many roles for women. If you want to know what it takes to attach an actress like Mary Elizabeth Winstead to your film, you won't want to miss this.
BSR: It’s funny you say you weren’t aware of the complexity of the role. I hate using the word “twist,” but there are layers here that aren’t apparent on the first viewing.
Riley Stearns: Yeah, it’s what you choose to present to the audience.
BSR: And you’ve done it in a way where we’re watching the first layer, and then after it flips, we can go back and see how it fits. It’s not like you cheated because there are a lot of movies where on a second viewing, the artifice collapses. “Oh, you were lying to make sure we didn’t figure it out,” in a way. When you’re writing, is it tricky to remember, “here’s what they’re experiencing on the first watch, but when they go back, the scene then has to play on this level” and being true to both streams?
RS: I don’t know that I thought about it that way. You have to keep certain things away from the audience obviously, certain bits of information, but I feel like a lot of the stuff the parents do, on second viewing, that was like my hint to the audience. The mom and dad and the way they perform things is a little more over the top and I talked about that with the actors. Everyone’s playing a part in the movie and that was the kind of trick that I wanted to play. Like you said, it is a twist, but as I was writing it, I don’t know that I could think about it in that way.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: To me, it was like you were thinking of it as a slow unveiling of truth as opposed to “let me hide this in this moment.”
RS: That’s a good way of putting it. Exactly!
MEW: By the end you see what’s going on, but you’re slowly giving away the truth.
RS: I had a meeting with an actor who I wasn’t going to cast anyway and that actor called it an M. Night Shyamalan twist, which I was kind of offended by because with our twist, the movie doesn’t hinge on that. I feel like even if you know what’s gonna happen in our movie, it doesn’t affect the final product because you don’t know how it’s gonna get there.
BSR: Now as far as playing that, Mary, how are you layering your performance? It would be easy to just play Claire’s deception as sincere up until the reveal, but in watching it, it feels like you were very aware of “real Claire” and “fake Claire” and letting us get a hint that she’s wearing a mask. How do you do that?
MEW: I’m trying to remember! *laughs*
RS: Did you think of it as two characters? In your head you kind of had to compartmentalize—
MEW: I wanted it to feel very sincere in the beginning. I kind of realized as I was doing it how much I was enjoying all of it. At first I was worried about it, like, “Should I be having this much fun doing these emotional scenes?” Then I realized that was a good thing because ultimately Claire is having fun with this whole situation. She’s just like getting a kick out of it. I was going with sincerity, but also enjoying it.
BSR: Letting a little of that bleed through so on a second viewing the audience goes “oh!”
MEW: Exactly, and letting the joy of it build and build until the end of it she’s just in the happiest place because she wanted this whole thing.
RS: Mary was the one who figured out that Claire was a sociopath. Once she figured out that the character gets enjoyment out of hurting other people, that opened up the character for her.
MEW: It’s more the power she gets from being able to control other people. I bring it back to – I always forget – I think her name was [Diane] Downs? She was this woman in the early 80s or late 70s who murdered all of her children and who tried to claim it was this man who broke into her car. Farrah Fawcett played her in a TV movie. But Diane’s interviews, she’s laughing, she’s enjoying having the spotlight put on her. She’s giddy.
BSR: “I have a story people want to hear!”
MEW: Yeah, she’s she’s trying to contain it, but you can see.
RS: Claire is like, “I’m so good at hurting other people, it’s great!”
MEW: What she gets from it is she gets worshipped, and anyway, that’s the long way of saying I just had fun with it.
BSR: Do you often get offered roles like this, with this complexity?
MEW: No, I don’t think that kind of material comes around very often in general. Just look at the landscape of female roles out there. I just think it’s really hard to find material that’s exciting and roles that are gonna showcase everything that you can do. And I wasn’t even sure going into this if I’d be able to bring the complexity that would make this a great role for me. Not even until I saw the movie was I like, “Okay, I can take a deep breath.”
RS: And in a way, I think I didn’t know what I wrote until we got there and started shooting. Like, I saw what you were doing, but I don’t think you knew until the first cut, like, what it was. Which is cool and exciting! I kind of want to keep working that way, doing stuff you’re not totally aware of.
BSR: It’s always weird when you give someone a script and they come back saying “Oh, I see you’re doing this” and you’re like “I didn’t mean to, but I’ll take it!”
RS: People see stuff all the time that you didn’t intend in your work. It doesn’t make it any less that you didn’t put it there on purpose. Own that shit! I might not have realized what it was I was doing, what Claire was, until Mary started showing me.
BSR: Mary, I don’t feel like you’re typecast in the sort of roles you do, but do you feel like you’re typecast in the sorts of scripts you’re sent?
MEW: That’s interesting… I think it’s changing now. The past couple years it’s been different than it was before. It’s really interesting how one project can kind of shift the perception of how people see you, even in terms of looks and stuff. I used to get “the cute girl” and now I get “rough, haggard” because of Smashed.
RS: Or after The Thing where they thought of you as really tough.
MEW: You can always tell someone saw something else I did and thought “She’d be good for this.” I still get heroine roles or action roles, and then I get more indie, rough-and-tumble, kind of messy...
RS: Once Mary was sent a TV script and her agent said, “I asked them what they were looking for and they said, ‘A Mary Elizabeth Winstead-type.’” Mary was like, “Okay I’ll read it.” And then she ended up not getting it!
BSR: Considering you’re an actress a lot of people would like to work with, what would you like to tell writers to stop putting in their scripts for female characters? Like you’re reading it and going, “No, no.”
MEW: One thing – I think you were tweeting about this the other day and I was like, “Oh my god, you’re so right!” Character descriptions – like detailed descriptions of how they look, and how hot they are, when it’s unnecessary. If it’s important to the plot that they have blue eyes or whatever, of course, put that in there. But if it’s your vision of what the perfect woman is--
BSR: Yeah, but with the NORAD scientist we don’t need to know how large her cup size is.
MEW: Especially for me, the majority of things I get sent are “cute, but doesn’t know it, blah, blah, blah.” It’s just like, how many times can I read that? It’s become a cliché at this point, so don’t do that. When there’s a sex scene, don’t talk about how the camera lingers on certain body parts. It’s not your job, you’re not directing it, and even if you are, it’s probably best not to do that.
RS: You don’t need to put it in the script.
MEW: Stuff like that. I think you want to avoid clichés. I’m really surprised how often writers are not trying to actively avoid cliché. And it can be to a point where I can’t even finish [the script.] So it can really be the difference between getting your script read and not.
RS: At least by the person you want to read it.
MEW: I also just have a real hot button with derogatory things against women or any sort of minority person, like if you think something’s funny and you put it in there… it can really turn people off, so just make sure it’s important.
RS: That SNL bit about the Romantic Comedy Girl was one of our favorite bits, every single thing they did in that was the best commentary on that type of thing.
BSR: Especially when you lay it out like that it’s like, “oh, I did that...”
RS: I probably did that in my first script! Also, touching on the character description thing, I in general just don’t describe the characters. I say how old they are and that’s all I put in there. You want other people to envision what that character is, but you’re doing yourself a disservice when it comes to casting because you could be singling out one group of people as the type [and excluding an entirely different group] just outside of that because they weren’t your “type.”
BSR: Or they get the script and go “That’s not me.”
MEW: And that happens all the time.
RS: Or being so specific on age, so people look at it and say, “I’m not fifty so I’m not gonna read this one.” But in your head you’re thinking, “Well, it’s probably fifty but it could be younger.” There was something in FAULTS even that was, like [age] thirty to fifty. If it’s on the page, somebody reading it thinks it has weight.
Part III - Making your first movie
Part IV - Having confidence as a storyteller