Thursday, March 5, 2015

Writer/director Riley Stearns and actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead on FAULTS: Part IV - Having confidence as a storyteller

Part I - Origins of the story
Part II - Complex characters and roles for women
Part III - Making your first movie

As I wrap up my talk with writer/director Riley Stearns and actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, we discuss the importance of making shorts, how you have confidence that two people in a room can make for an intense film, and working with supportive producers.

BSR: Jumping back a bit, you definitely would not have had this opportunity at all if you had not been making shorts.

Riley Stearns: No. The only reason that FAULTS got made is because THE CUB got into Sundance and was seen by the right people. Even if it hadn’t gotten in I feel like had it been seen by Keith and Jess, they loved it enough that they would have given me the meeting which would have led to them reading the script. A lot of people don’t realize that you don’t get handed things you have to work for them. I’ve done three shorts... they’re out there, and they show what my personality is. Some people write a feature script and that’s all they have and they want people to let them direct it. And there’s no way that’s gonna happen… they need to see something to know they can trust you.

BSR: And you get the training. If you hadn’t done those shorts I’m sure the first day on set—

RS: It would have been a different movie, for sure.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead: And even just building [relationships.] He’s used the same DP on his shorts and by the time they made FAULTS they had a shorthand and a real understanding. There so many things in doing the shorts that prepared you.

BSR: And just having the confidence of knowing “Okay, I’ve done two takes. That’s enough.” Or “I need more coverage.”

RS: That’s another thing, knowing what you need.

BSR: You have to go through the experience of editing something to know what options you’ll need in the editing room.

RS: And I’m an editor of my own stuff, usually. I edited all my own shorts. In another world I would have edited FAULTS but I’m glad I worked with our editor Sarah Beth [Shapiro.] I like having another opinion in the room and she’s so great to be around and so talented herself that I know I’ll continue to work with Sarah Beth on things...

After a couple of days of working with her, she knew what I liked and what I didn’t like. FAULTS is very deliberate in how we cut back and forth. It’s almost like theatre and once she got that rhythm of things, there are scenes in the movie where they are just Sarah Beth and I had the tiniest little input on. She got it so well and cut it how I would have cut it anyway.

BSR: Speaking of it being like theatre, you read the script and it’s a great script, but it’s also two people talking in a motel room. As a reader, I was thinking, “Gosh, how would I make this interesting on screen?” And I assumed you’d have these crazy angles and this crazy blocking to dress it up, and you go in the opposite direction. There’s a lot of… I don’t want to say “static scenes”—

RS: No, they’re static.

BSR: Very minimalist. We’re you’re not even cutting back and forth from over one shoulder to the other. You have one shot of Claire and Ansel sitting at a table and just kind of a slow push-in on them, for a scene that must last at least a good two or three minutes, which is an eternity on screen. How do you get the confidence to do that and know it’s gonna work?

RS: All of my confidence comes from the performances. When I’m shooting something, I have the intent of what I want to do, to do it more in a long take or minimal coverage, but if your actors don’t do a good job, you’re not able to do that and that’s why editing exists – so you can manipulate the performance. Manipulating performances when performances are good is kind of tragic. A lot of my favorite films are one-take things, and that scene in particular where we’re doing the slow push-in, I thought we could do it as one take, but I wasn’t sure if it would work. We shot that part first and if I needed to punch in, that was gonna be our second effort, going back in and getting that coverage. But they did it and I turned to my producers and said, “I think this is gonna be a one-take thing” and they said, “We love that.” So the other bit of confidence is not only the actors, but the people with money saying “We agree with that.”

It was the same thing with the opening scene of the movie where Ansel is trying to pay for a meal with a used voucher. It’s all one take. I knew I wanted to do it as one take and after we did the first run through... my producer Jess came over and said, “We think this would be a really great one-take thing” and I was like “I agree!” And just to have someone else say that... because that was early on in the shooting, to give you the confidence that that’s okay.

MEW: In my experience, typically the producers are worried about getting more coverage and are on the directors, “Do you have coverage? Do you have enough coverage for that?”

BSR: “If you screwed up, I want to be able to fix it in the editing room.”

MEW: Yeah, so having producers who [want the opposite] is a pretty awesome feeling.

BSR: Does doing longer takes change your performance at all, Mary? Knowing that it’s probably gonna be the full take?

MEW: I love one take things, I love when you can get everything, whether it’s a push-in or scenes where the camera’s moving around, first on one actor and then on another... SMASHED was that way. That was the first time I worked that way for an entire movie. I never really knew when it was my coverage and when it wasn’t and it was such an exciting way to work because you were always giving it you’re best. You’re not deciding which take has more importance [in terms of acting full out] depending on where the camera is.

BSR: You’re just playing the scene.

MEW: And I try to bring that same mentality even when I am doing more traditional coverage but it’s hard because people start saying “Just so you know, this is your close-up,” putting that pressure there.

RS: It’s putting all that weight on just one shot instead of the entire scene.

MEW: Yeah, so I prefer to do the longer takes for sure.

BSR: So to wrap this up, you finish the movie, it gets into South by Southwest. What was that like?

RS: Well, I’m from Austin, so premiering at South by Southwest was pretty amazing. I had family, I had friends, I had a lot of our crew at the premiere. It’s also one of the big three festivals in the United States, so in terms of distribution I knew what that meant. And you just have more eyes on you. I was really excited about the fact we were in a crazy premiere position.

It was the best place for us to premiere. I don’t know if a Sundance would have felt as right for this film, but South by Southwest was definitely the right energy. It’s a little more renegade, ragtag in a cool way, and I felt like that kind of energy was right for our film.

BSR: Speaking to distribution, everybody says it’s so much easier to make a movie these days because of digital and technology, but that also means there’s a hell of a lot more competition. How does that play into getting distribution and getting an audience to watch your film?

RS: I don’t necessarily look at it as competition, but everyone’s competing for fewer slots. Nothing’s really going to theatres anymore. All the indies are VOD same day or VOD-only. A couple years ago we were still in a space where FAULTS could have played 30 cities or something like that, but as it is now, I’m just proud we’re in theatres at all because not a lot of people get to do that anymore. Distributors are being more discerning about what represents their brand. Instead of asking, “What would people like?” it’s more like “This represents us.” I feel like Screen Media is in a really cool position right now. They’re re-branding themselves and are picking up some interesting films. FAULTS was one of the first ones of this new wave they’re doing. Mary’s other film ALEX OF VENICE, which premiered at Tribeca, [Screen] will be premiering that about a month after FAULTS. I feel like we’re in a really cool slot with them. They’re excited about film and overall, I just wanted a distributor who’s excited about the movie and I feel like we got that with Screen Media.

BSR: So what are you working on next?

RS: I haven’t written it yet... but soon I’m going to be starting this thing about voyeurism. It’s a little in the same world as FAULTS, darkly comedic, and weird and all of that good stuff that I like to write about.

BSR: And Mary, what do you have coming out?

MEW: I have a show premiering a couple days after FAULTS comes out, called THE RETURNED, for A&E. And then I just finished a movie that J.J. Abrams produced [starring] John Goodman.

BSR: And that’s also a two-hander, isn’t it?

MEW: Also a two-hander, very contained, even moreso than FAULTS. That was a lot of fun and so now I’m riding a wave of press for FAULTS and the show, looking for the next thing.

RS: And the thing I’m working on right now would be for Mary… if she likes it, and that’s key. She’ll be my first choice, but I don’t want her to feel obligated to do it.

MEW: I think now that he’s found his voice and I think we’re so similar in what we like and our tastes that it’s hard to imagine not wanting to do it.

RS: I’m gonna make you do some really dark, dark stuff. And then you’ll be like “Eh...” I’m gonna describe the character as “really hot.”

MEW: Yeah. Totally. Describe each body part.

BSR: Three page description.

You can see FAULTS tomorrow on VOD, or if you're lucky, at a theatre near you!

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