Part I - Origins of the story
Part II - Complex characters and roles for women
In this installment, FAULTS writer/director Riley Stearns and actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead talks about how one gets the chance to direct their first feature, and how it's no easy task to get a movie made even when you have a known and acclaimed star attached.
BSR: So I want to get back to talking about Ansel’s character. I’m curious – are we supposed to think he genuinely was a genius about cults and deprogramming at one point, or was he kind of conning people and that eventually caught up to him? It seems you can read it either way.
Riley Stearns: I know that people can read certain things either way, and that’s nice because people can make their own opinions about things. In my mind, Ansel was really good at his job, was one of the better guys at doing what he did, good enough that he had his own TV show for a while... the biggest fault in Ansel is that he doesn’t take responsibility when things go wrong. Even though he was great, because he couldn’t take the blame for things going wrong, that was the bad part about him.
BSR: And he never really recovered.
BSR: We touched on this earlier, but as you’re writing the script and realizing you’re spending so much time in that one room, is there a point where you’re going stir crazy, like “I don’t know how I can keep them in here another fifty pages?” How do you keep that interesting?
RS: What’s funny is that I was worried about a lot of it being in one room. As I was writing I – I don’t do a really long outline, I do abbreviated versions – and I knew this scene needed to be about “this thing” and that scene needed to be about “that thing.” I didn’t really think about it as a stir-crazy kind of thing. I knew what it needed to accomplish. So I never felt like I needed to get out of the room, or whatever. The information the characters needed to dole out in each scene made those scenes not-boring to me.
There was [one script reviewer] who used the terminology of, I had an “outside instigator,” which is where we need to leave the motel at one point. Now I’ve never read a screenwriting book in my life, except to learn formatting, so this wasn’t a thing I was consciously doing, but maybe leaving [that one room] was one thing that I knew I needed to do at one point. That moment when we leave the motel – either you love it or you hate it, but I think it works in the movie. I think it’s one of those things that gives you a sense of space for a second. But there are people who watch the move and are like, “I hate when they leave because I want to be just in this one story.” For good or for bad, I think it lets you miss that story for a moment.
BSR: And it lets you reset, because he comes back and stuff has happened that he’s not aware of.
RS: That’s the thing. I feel like she uses it against him, so when he leaves, she’s like, “I wasn’t expecting this. What can I do now? Oh, I can manipulate him this way.” It wasn’t me thinking “I need an outside instigator at this point, but unconsciously I felt that we needed to leave [that room] for a second. I never felt bored writing the characters, which was pretty nice because I’ve had other scenes in other scripts that I’ve written, where I’ve been like “I just need this scene right here and I’ll have to figure out what they’re gonna say.”
BSR: I want to jump to talking about actually making the film now. I’m sure some people are gonna see the movie, see that Mary’s involved and go "Okay, this guy had it easy. His wife’s a famous actress, she says 'I want to do it' and boom, it gets made." Tell me how that assumption is wrong.
RS: For one thing – and Mary won’t be offended by this because we’ve talked about it – but Mary’s not as big as people think she is.
MEW: Yeah, if that was easy to do, I’d be working a whole lot more! (laughs)
RS: Exactly! And from the get-go, Mary was the only person I wrote the script for—
BSR: Who was your second choice?
(Riley and Mary both laugh)
RS: That’s funny to think about! The problem is, with a script like this, you need at least one person to be involved so someone else will read it and say, “At least they’re involved.” Or you need a first feature so they can say, “Okay, at least I saw that and what they can do.”
We had a big problem with casting, especially with Ansel. It was a tough role. We ended up with the right person for the part, but it was a long road getting to that point. At least with Mary, I knew I had her. I also knew that if I’d written something Mary didn’t like, she wouldn’t have felt obliged to do it.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Right.
RS: She would have said, “It’s not the right thing for me, but I can see So-and-So doing it.” I felt like I’d earned it. I wrote the script, I had a vision for it, and I’ve done some shorts that led up to it. So I don’t think anything was handed to me. Keith [Calder] and Jess[ica Wu], who produced it, they’re the reason it got made.
BSR: How did they come into it?
RS: I did [my short] THE CUB in 2012. It played at a few festivals at Sundance, but really ended up premiering at Sundance in 2013. So I did that in the Summer of 2012 and around the same time I was doing the cub, I had the idea for the deprogramming thing and I thought that would probably be my next feature. At the time it was more of a dramatic thing, it wasn’t as darkly comedic. I was still figuring out my voice and what I wanted to do. After I did THE CUB, I realized that’s the kind of movie I want to keep making. I like to laugh and for things to be a little subversive and darker… funny, still.
Once I thought about the FAULTS script in those terms, that was when it started moving forward. I started working on the script – at least in my head – in the summer of 2012. Around the time that THE CUB got into Sundance, I was talking to Michael Mohan, who’s a friend of mine, a director, and he said, “You have to have a script done when you go to Sundance.”
BSR: Because people are gonna see your short and say, “What else do you have? I’d like to work with you.”
RS: Exactly. So I worked really hard to figure out how to write it. Part of that was outlining it. I just knew all I could think about was Sundance. At that point, I didn’t know if this movie was going to get made anyway. It wasn’t real, but THE CUB getting into Sundance was real. I was focusing on the now. “I’m gonna go to Sundance and have fun with THE CUB. Mary’s got a movie there too and that’ll be fun and when I come back, I’ll write the script.”
I went to Sundance with the outline, just in case anyone wanted to read it. Nobody wanted to read it, obviously. I didn’t get those types of meetings off of it, but Keith and Jess saw THE CUB on a video link and contacted me – they’re friends of friends – and said, “We should meet up and talk about if you have any feature ideas.” I was like, “Great! I’ve got one that’s 85 minutes long! It’s two people in a room. Low budget!”
When I got home, I told myself, “You’ve got a day when you’re home to relax and rest, and the next day, you’re writing.” So I wrote it in two weeks. My goal in my mind was to get that ready in time for that meeting I had set with Keith and Jess. The morning we met for brunch, I was able to pitch them the entire thing because I’d just written it. At the end they were like, “Great, let me know when you have it for us to read.” So I was like, “I did just finish it yesterday. Let me just [proofread it] and I can send it to you in a couple days.”
A couple days later I sent it to them and a week later they said they wanted to make it.
So it really was the first people I sent it to wanted to make it, ended up making it. I didn’t have a problem in that way, but in other ways it felt complicated, like getting the actor and figuring out what our budget was gonna be. So going back to Mary being involved, I really feel like it was just the script that got it made and that I knew what I wanted to do. It was nice we didn’t have to worry about casting Claire, but I don’t feel it necessarily helped or hurt us.
MEW: Yeah, and also Keith and Jess have been producers [for a while]. They’re not just gonna hire somebody because they’re someone’s husband. That’s not how it works when you’re working with legitimate producers. They want to hire talented people and from the script being as good as it was and the short being as good as it was – that combination told them, “This is somebody we can trust.”
RS: And they love Mary. They’ve been looking to work with her for a while, so for them it was kind of a win-win. But I do think that had the script gone with somebody else, they’d have said the same thing.
MEW: And there are plenty of other scripts I’ve loved that I’ve tried to get made - just because I love the scripts - that Riley’s not involved in, that have not gotten made. I’m always attaching myself to little projects, trying to help a filmmaker that I like who’s trying to get something made. They’re usually told, “You have to cast somebody more famous than her.”
BSR: They pull out that book of what everybody’s worth in each territory and say, "Can you rewrite this for Dolph Lundgren? Then we can get you money from here."
MEW: Exactly, so I’m usually a hindrance to them, to be honest, having me involved, because I’m not big enough to get things greenlit. So the fact that we got this made I think is much more of a testament to the script.
RS: It just is what it is. I don’t put Mary in my stuff because I think it’s gonna help or hurt. I put her in my stuff because she’s my favorite actor and I want to work with her. I’m writing my next thing for her even though I have no idea what the budget’s gonna be, but it’s just because I want to see Mary in this movie. It’s not because she’s my wife and I feel like it’ll help get the movie made.
MEW: I think we both have different opinions now on directors who use the same casts. Especially me as an actor, I’d be like “Why don’t you give somebody else a chance?” And now [we realize] if you’re able to do that, it’s so awesome. Why wouldn’t you want to?
RS: I think some people do it even though they shouldn’t.
MEW: Right. Trying to force something.
RS: And there are some directors out there who do it because they know it will help get their movie made. But the Wes Anderson reparatory group… that’s because he works really well with these people.
MEW: And they click!
RS: And I feel that we click really well.
BSR: It’s a strength, not a weakness.
RS: People should know too that most people don’t want to work with their spouse. It’s not an easy thing for a lot of people, but for us it is. I’d rather work with Mary than somebody else because we get each other so well. It’s all for the betterment of the film.
BSR: And you haven’t yet had the experience of coming home to say, “Well Mary, I had to cut that ten-minute scene.”
RS: I don’t think I cut any of your big stuff. There were things where, Mary’s doing an amazing performance and I’m choosing to stay on Ansel—
MEW: I think that was the only time you showed me the dailies and I was a little like, “awwwww.” But then when I saw it—
RS: She could see what we were doing with it.
MEW: Especially in context with the whole film, I was happy with it, but in that little moment I was kind of bummed.
RS: That was hard for me too. Once you see it in the film it works, but that was probably the hardest thing about being there, wanting to see her more but realizing that for the betterment of the movie, it has to be on him.
Part IV - Having confidence as a storyteller
Faults comes out this Friday in selected cities and on VOD
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