For his debut feature film, director Riley Stearns didn’t have to look far to find his leading lady. As a starring vehicle for character actor Leland Orser and co-starring Stearns’ wife, actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, “Faults” tells the story of a cult expert who, at a cost to her concerned parents, kidnaps a woman who has enlisted in a cult and attempted to “deprogram” her. In a sit down in Austin where “Faults” made its world premiere at the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival, the trio and I discussed the recent onslaught of cult films, how the film found its tone, and the one scene in the film everyone was intimidated by.
Riley, at the premiere last night you said that you had written the script about a year ago, which is a rather quick turnaround. I wanted to start off by asking what the process has been like, starting with a script a year ago moving through and having your premiere last night.
Riley Stearns: It’s surreal, in the best possible way. When something happens that fast, you almost don’t have time to process it, which is kind of nice too when its your first feature. It’s not knowing what to expect and trying not to have expectations period. When it happens that fast and when you get into South by Southwest, you’re just along for the ride and its really nice. Honestly, it’s a little bit of an out of body experience. Last night, I didn’t even know what I was saying during the intro. It was better than when I introed my short at Sundance. I was scared out of my mind at Sundance. Because I had gone through it with the short, I was a little better last night.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: You don’t have time to overthink it, which is a good thing.
RS: Overthinking. Exactly. You don’t do that.
I want to start off with the script. I know the script was on the Black List and for both Mary and Leland, as actors, what attracted you most about the script?
MEW: For me, it was reading the script as it was being written and, of course, I was along for the ride before it even started. Once I read the first few pages I was like, “Oh my god.” [Riley] had done these short films and they were all great and it was so clear from the first page of the script that he had found his voice and he had found what he was meant to be doing and the tone he was meant to be doing. I was so excited that he found that and couldn’t wait to read the rest of it. When I read the whole thing I was really excited and really scared to play this part. I really wanted to be right for him and for this script that was so incredible. I could not have been more proud and excited that we were going to go on this adventure together.
Leland Orser: It’s one of the best scripts I’ve read, period, and it’s one of the great characters. To me, it’s the classic tragic hero and there was no question in my mind it’s the kind of thing you’d give your right arm for. A script like this doesn’t come across your desk every day. I kept looking over my shoulder and wandering if I was being punk’d. “Who’s fuckin’ with me here?” you know?
RS: Not a lot of stuff, I’d say, is from one character’s perspective the entire time. For better or for worse, we’re with Ansel the entire time.
LO: There’s 69 scenes in the film and he’s in 68 of them.
As far as the subject matter goes, I’ve noticed lately that we’ve seen a lot more movies about cults. We’ve had “Sound Of My Voice” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” What exactly drew you to the subject of diving into cults and the people in them?
RS: There have been a lot of films in the past few years that do have that subject matter but even though they had done it, I knew the way that I wanted to do it and the tone and the world that I wanted to live in. I had something else to say about it and I love both “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Sound Of My Voice” and “The Master,” but I knew that there were other deprogramming films like “Holy Smoke” and “Split Image” and both are really great, but I didn’t watch those before I wrote the script. I was aware that they were out there but I didn’t want to be influenced by them or say I can’t do this because they already kind of did it. That’s something that you get in your head and say “I have to be different.” Instead, I let it live and do its own thing and I think that there’s more than enough room in the world of cult films for another cult film. I think people enjoy it and I think people are innately fascinated by cults. That’s how you get involved with groups like that. There’s a mystique about it that is weird and creepy and interesting. There’s so much stuff there to work with.
I want to talk about the tone of the film, especially with Leland. A lot of the funnier scenes in the film are with your character but you almost play them pretty straight. What did you think of the tone and implementing comedic elements and finding the right balance?
LO: It was very challenging. We talked a lot about what influences, what inspirations, what characters, what films to reference. We had those in place. We’d watch them. We’d talk about them. We talked about what we wanted to be influenced by from particular sources. I knew all along that humor was important. You can do a film humorless and go for virtual hardcore stripped down drama. As an actor, to play humor or comedy, you have to play truth. It’s only funny because it’s true. It was a fine line to walk. I had in the back of my mind Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. I didn’t want to, like, do a funny walk but it was something silent about the pathos of Ansel. They were out there somehow in my sphere of consciousness. If you can establish the tone in the beginning, you can take the audience anywhere. If you can get them laughing, which means that they are feeling for the character, you can do whatever you need to do with them for the rest of the ride.
So you all felt that the opening scene was pretty essential for developing the tone?
RS: The first 10 pages I ever wrote of this movie was that scene and it didn’t change at all. That was always the movie to me. That opening scene tells you exactly what you’re in for. It’s sad. It’s funny. It’s a little violent at the end. It’s also a deliberate shot. We want to tell you there are going to be a lot of long takes, and it’s performance driven. It kind of said everything I wanted to say. But when you’re writing it, you’re not thinking about it that way. You’re just like, “This is how you set up like Ansel.” When something like that just happens it’s nice and it definitely influences the rest of the film.
LO: When we shot it, we knew we were going to do it in one take. We knew there was a zoom. We knew there were certain foods and condiments that needed to be consumed. You know, you just sort of go, “Okay, let’s try it and see what’s gonna happen.” And it’s a long sequence. At the end of it, when it was finished and Riley yelled, “Cut,” everybody burst out, including myself, laughing because it was so fuckin’ funny.
RS: People we’re applauding. There were crew members who were applauding. It was just raucous. I posted an Instagram with you from that but with you blurred recently and one of our crew members posted “that was my favorite scene that I’ve ever shot in a film.” So we had fun with that. We shot pretty much chronologically so it was near the beginning of the shoot so it set a good tone from the crew.
LO: And it made us laugh.
RS: Yes. Which is good. And very important. And you didn’t have to eat too much that day. You can be the first person we tell that Leland ate 30 vegan pancakes in the diner scene and…
LO: …and didn’t hurl.
RS: And I felt terrible. But it was him! I kept saying “On this shot, you’re not actually on screen.” And hes like “I’ll eat anyway.”
LO: They were good!
Mary, in your performance, you get to show a lot of sides and a lot of different emotions. What was it like playing a character where you could change from scene to scene?
MEW: It was really great. It was simultaneously really exciting for me and really scary for me because I just didn’t know if I would get it right or not when we were working on it. It seemed really daunting to me to get all that right without going into some sort of culty territory. I was really afraid of it coming across as spacey or cliché. But as soon as everything came together and the cast came together and the costumes and the sets…as soon as I walked into that environment I was like, “Oh. This is just what it’s supposed to be.” And the rest of it was so stress free and fun. I enjoyed every moment of it and got to revel in this character. It was one of the best set experiences, acting experiences that I’ve ever had.
What about the shoot? Most of it takes place in a hotel room or around the complex. Was it a fast and quick shoot?
RS: It was an 18-day shoot, pretty much. It moved fast. We had to know what we were going to do. We had to be prepared. Everyone knew their lines. You show up, you do the work and that’s how I like to work. If we’re going to do it, let’s just do it.
Leland, when we meet your character he’s kind of in a bad spot, so to speak. Did you feel at any point he was in control and the cult expert he claims to be?
LO: The thing with Ansel is that just when you think he hits his bottom, he finds another bottom and another bottom that goes lower and lower and lower. When we meet him, his life is out of control and yet he is in his own way controlling all the things that he can control. We slowly watch him really completely lose control. But at a certain point in the film, he’s 100 percent in control. When he meets Claire, he’s 100 percent in control. But we find him at a very low point in his life. Ten years past the loss of his career and his wife but then he meets her parents and recaptures control.
RS: So he thinks.
Were there any particular moments from the script that you really looked forward to shooting and one that you saw that might be difficult to shoot?
RS: I think we all know what the most difficult scene was.
MEW: The most daunting scene.
LO: There’s one scene in the film, [the bathroom scene], that is 12 pages long and it loomed.
MEW: It was towards the end of the shoot.
LO: It was in the pit of my stomach the entire time. Like, “It’s fine, it’s not until next week.”
MEW: And we had always talked about rehearsing it too and we were like, “We have to rehearse that scene. We gotta get that scene down.” We just never got around to rehearsing it. Then we got to the day and said, “Okay. We’ve never said these lines out loud to each other. Let’s just get out here and do it.”
LO: I dreaded it. I was scared of it.
RS: You guys did it. And it works because you guys were afraid of it, I think, and you gave it that respect that it needed.
LO: It’s an entire movie in 12 pages. It’s an entire narrative arc within the film. So many things happen in that scene and again, the responsibility…you just want to get it right. When the camera is on and images are being captured, you want to be where you’re supposed to be when that’s happening. All of you, together. All the technical aspects. The performances of both actors. It’s very, very, very intense.
RS: My scene that I was looking forward to shooting the most was this scene. (Laughs) Because as a director when you get to sit there and watch two people perform, you don’t have to do anything. I mean, you do. But when they’re getting it and you get to sit back and watch things work, it couldn’t be any cooler. It’s the best thing. When they surprise you, it’s the best.
“Faults” premiered at SXSW 2014.
For more coverage of SXSW 2014, click here.