The cult-deprogrammer feature Faults is the kind of debut that makes cinephiles sit up and take notice: It’s mordantly funny, tense, well-acted, and full of surprises, but it’s also the highly specific vision of a writer-director working from a well-developed inner compass and a strong visual and storytelling aesthetic. That writer-director is Riley Sterns, husband of actor Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Smashed, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, John McClane’s take-no-prisoners daughter in the the last two Die Hard movies). Winstead starred in Sterns’ first two short films, “Casque” and “Magnificat,” and she turns up again in Faults as Claire, a young woman whose parents (Beth Grant and Chris Ellis) say she’s joined a cult, and needs to be kidnapped and deprogrammed.
Their deprogrammer of choice is Ansel, played by character actor Leland Orser, who has a history of small but memorable roles in the likes of Seven, Saving Private Ryan, and the Taken films. Ansel is broke and close to broken, a bristling but desperate man ruined by past mistakes and living out of his car when he takes the job. But once he gets Claire to a hotel to start the process of building trust, events go in unexpected directions, both because of her and because of some of Ansel’s past mistakes. With strong reviews coming out of its 2013 SXSW debut and subsequent smaller festivals, Faults was picked up for VOD and theatrical release by Screen Media Films, and is rolling out now. Stearns recently talked to The Dissolve about writing for and directing his wife, how his debut happened, and why he prefers not to let editing get in the way of performance.
The Dissolve: When you originally started writing a screenplay, how much of it was built around working with your wife in a lead role?
Riley Stearns: A pretty good amount. I knew I wanted to work with her. I’m not biased or anything, obviously, but she is my favorite actor. But I also knew it was something we were going to have to do on a very small scale. At one point, I thought we would even have to do a Kickstarter or something of that nature to get Faults made. So knowing you have one of the two leads already, it just alleviated some of that pressure. Once we got to the point where we knew it was actually going to be a real film, we didn’t have to find financing, because our producers were our financiers. Even at that point, we were like, “It just makes sense for you to be in this movie.” I didn’t want her to do it just because I’m her husband, to please me or whatever. She really did like the script, and wanted to be a part of it. It worked out for the best, but definitely from the beginning, she was the only person I ever thought of for the role.
The Dissolve: I’ve read that she took you to task for writing such a tough character for her. Is that true? And since this was written for her, were there specific things about her you wanted to tap into, or bring out onscreen?
Stearns: I didn’t really think of it as a hard role as I was writing it. I thought the Ansel role was going to be the harder one. It’s just a lot showier, and there’s a lot more going on, and he’s in every single scene except one in the entire film. With her part, I don’t think I even gave it a second thought. I think that’s because I do trust her, and I know what she’s capable of. But I knew she would have to be subtle, and she would have to make a shift as the film went on. And I knew she was capable of that.
It is very accurate to say she took me to task. Before we started filming, she let on to me that she wished I would have written her an easier part, and that she was really nervous about it. So much of the film hinges on people believing her, and being sucked into her spell, and if she didn’t get that, we wouldn’t have the movie we have. But I knew she had it in her. And after we talked with Leland Orser in our living room, and discussed the script, we all had a better idea of where the film was going. We knew who the characters were, and I think at that point, she realized, “Okay, this is me. I can do this.” And it worked out for the best.
The Dissolve: What was the rest of casting like, particularly in terms of finding Leland Orser, and bringing in Lance Reddick?
Stearns: Well, the great things about our producers, Keith Calder and Jessica Wu, is that they have worked with a talented, varied group of actors, and both Leland and Lance Reddick were in films they had done before—they were both in The Guest. Keith and Jess said Lance would be awfully interested in being in the movie. He signed on based on the script, and based on working with Keith and Jess, and trusting them as producers. And then shortly after that that, they were on set in New Mexico shooting The Guest, and the first day there, Leland showed up with a mustache. In our script, I wrote out, “The two descriptive qualities of Ansel Roth are his mustache and his brown suit.” When Leland showed up with this mustache, they took a picture, and sent it to me with a note, “Ansel?” And we’d been having such a hard time finding the right guy, with the right sensibility, and the right qualities for that character—to have him show up not only looking the part, but also then going, “Holy shit, that’s the guy in all of these really pivotal scenes in some of my favorite films!” It just made perfect sense right away.
So I said, “Yes, please, I would love to meet with him, and see if he’ll do it.” He read the script while he was there, and a week or so later, he was in L.A., and we had breakfast. I basically talked to him about life and family and friends and careers, and didn’t really talk about the movie until the last few minutes. Then I said, “I think you’re a really cool person, and a super-talented actor, and if you want to be in this movie, it’s yours.” And I think we both teared up a little bit, because I had been looking for so long for the guy, and he had never really been given this opportunity before to be the lead actor in a film, and I think we both saw the importance of it all. And like a month later, we were shooting. It was a pretty expedited process, but in the best way possible. We got a lot done in a very short time.
The Dissolve: Speaking of that tight turnaround, the screenplay made the Hollywood Black List, but if I understand the timeline right, you had already wrapped shooting by the time the list was published. How did the timing work out, in terms of writing it and finding your producers?
Stearns: My short “The Cub” was at Sundance in 2013. I didn’t meet Keith and Jess there, but they saw a screener and sent me an email—we had mutual friends—and said, “When you get back to L.A. in two weeks or whatever, let’s schedule a meeting and talk about any films or ideas you might have.” I had been kicking around this idea, and I outlined it, but I hadn’t started writing it yet. When I got back, I gave myself one day to relax and recoup from Sundance, and the next day, I started writing. And in that two-week span before our meeting, I wrote the script, and then showed up that morning, having finished it the day before, and was able to pitch it and everything. They were like, “Great, let us know when you finish it.” And I was like, “I finished it yesterday. Give me a couple of days to make sure I haven’t made any glaring errors, and I’ll shoot it your way.”
A week later, they said they would be willing to make it. And they were the first and only producers to read it. I guess that was February or March of 2013. We shot in October/November of 2013, and then we premièred at SXSW a few months later in 2014. And then all last year was basically me taking meetings, and taking the film to festivals. Now, almost two years to the day of me finishing the script, it’s now finally coming out, which is cool.
The Dissolve: It eventually becomes clear why you focus so little on the details of the cult Faults, but in the meantime, you invite viewers to fill in the blanks about it, and about Claire’s relationship with her parents. Were you assuming a knowledgable audience that would think, “Oh, we know what cults are like and who this woman is, we know what this kind of relationship is like, we know what’s going on”?
Stearns: Yeah. For me, it was that you’re not ever really supposed to be sure whether Claire’s telling the truth. She could be making up details—that stuff doesn’t really matter. It matters what Ansel believes. Whatever information she presents is the information we’re presented with. Faults could not even exist, in a way, though that would give the film a different meaning. So it’s what you said: The audience needs to fill in the blanks themselves, and not be spoon-fed anything. I feel like people are smart enough to take it and analyze it themselves. I didn’t want to leave anything vague on purpose, but at the same time, I wanted people to be able to make their own decisions about things. I just didn’t want to baby the audience. People are smarter than directors and filmmakers give them credit for.
The Dissolve: In the same way, you offer plenty of hints about what brought Ansel to the point where we see him at at the beginning of the film, but you leave out a lot of detail. Is that so the audience doesn’t have room to judge his circumstances themselves, so they have to rely on how he judges himself?
Stearns: That’s interesting that you say that! I do have other people who say even if they like or don’t like the film, that when they see that opening scene, they feel like we are judging him, and that I am beating him up. I’ve never seen it that way myself. I feel like that’s the point in his life that he’s at, and we just happen to be coming in at that moment. And it gives you a sense of where he is, and who he is at that point that we’re watching.
The Dissolve: That opening scene is pretty comic, in a bleak way, and there are elements of black, Coen brothers-style comedy in other parts of Ansel’s life. How much of it did you want to come across as comedic?
Stearns: Well, I still see the entire film as a comedy. I think it varies in levels. It starts more on the comedic side, and as it goes along, it gets a little darker, but I think there’s always an underlying sense of humor, and I didn’t want to lose that. The opening scene was always trying to surprise people. I think when people hear a film is going to be about a cult—it’s been described as a genre film. I guess it is, but I never thought of it that way. I think it’s all about diverting expectations. I think that opening scene really sets the tone for the entire film, and the main thing it’s supposed to do is give you a really good idea of who he is.
Ansel is one of these guys who has never taken responsibility for his own actions. I don’t think it’s for us to judge him. He doesn’t ever let on what he’s thinking about where he is. It’s this thing he keeps to himself. It’s Claire who really starts bringing it out of him, that he should accept responsibility for his actions, and that his choices have led him to this place. I think that opening scene is pivotal to his character, and I think Leland in reading the scene that day and doing the dialogue, the way he said, “I don’t have anything,” I think we realize that’s the key to his character. At that point, he isn’t talking about money, he’s talking about his life. And that was huge, and super-pivotal to us figuring out who he was, and going from there. One of the first days of shooting was that scene, and I think it helped open up a lot of doors for us in creating that character.
The Dissolve: It feels like you avoid period signifiers, but Ansel’s brown suit, the yellowish look, the wooden paneling, the clothing Claire’s parents bring in—it all feels very 1970s. Did you want the film to be bound to a particular time?
Stearns: It takes place in 1986, to be specific. But that was just something for me. I kept it in mind when I was writing the script. It’s never said by a character. It really should feel like a timeless film. That was mainly what I was going for, was that even if we don’t say it implicitly in the film, I wanted people to be able to watch it 10 years from now and say, “That feels like the ’80s and late ’70s. A lot of the clothes are inspired by the fact that even in the ’80s, people were still wearing clothes from the late ’70s. You don’t throw away a car because it’s mid-’80s and not ’79 anymore, or whatever. So Leland’s character still has his car that he probably bought in the ’70s when he was a little more well off and had a show. And Claire’s clothes from when she was a teenager would have been more ’70s.
With the ’80s, you probably think, “Oh, there’s going to be neon and scrunchies and things like that,” but I definitely didn’t want it to feel cliché. I think if you look at a lot of pictures from the time, people didn’t really dress the way that we think the ’80s looked like. I was a kid growing up in the ’80s, so I don’t remember specific fashions, but I look back at pictures of myself when I was 1 or 2, and everyone around me does have a bit more of a ’70s feel. I guess that’s a long way of saying I didn’t want it to feel exactly of a specific time. Especially with cell phones not being in the film—you can watch films now and see an iPhone pop up and be like, “That takes place in 2007, because that’s when that one iPhone came out.” I definitely didn’t want that.
The Dissolve: Your short films and this feature seem to have a theme running through them of dubious reactions to authority, a sense of subverting or questioning authority.
Stearns: It’s not necessarily something I did intentionally. It is funny that both “The Cub” and Faults take place around dubious role models or dubious parenting, but it’s not necessarily intentional. I think both of those things came about because of something I was watching or reading, and it just caught on, or got into my head. I do think it is interesting, myself, looking back at it. Yeah definitely.
The Dissolve: I see it in “Casque” as well. As brief as it is, there’s a sense that the woman onscreen is repeating what she’s told, and then you found out that isn’t true, and that’s the entire story.
Stearns: Yeah, definitely!
The Dissolve: Some people seeing Faults are definitely reading Ansel as being in charge once they reach the hotel, like he’s back on the ground where he’s an authority. But because of your setup, I always saw him as desperate and scrambling. Do you see him as more in control, or questionable from the start?
Stearns: I think you’ve got the right read on it. The idea was that Ansel should feel like he’s going back to his element, what he was good at, and finally getting to show that again. But I don’t ever see him being as good as he was once, and even if he is presenting himself that way, I don’t think it’s totally successful. He looks at himself as that guy, but he’s not anymore. Again, he’s not taking responsibility for his place in his life, and how he’s gotten there. I think part of it is that even though he was successful for a little while, maybe he was never as good as he thought he was, and we’re seeing that firsthand. And sometimes people change. But I do I think it was important for Leland acting as Ansel to feel like he was coming into his own.
The Dissolve: This film feels like it’s part of a trifecta with Holy Smoke and Martha Marcy May Marlene—three really different angles on women’s relationships with a cult, and with the people trying to help them shed it. Were those films relevant or interesting to you?
Stearns: I had a small kernel of an idea for Faults way before I saw Martha Marcy May Marlene, but when I watched that movie, I loved it. I think that everyone involved with that film did a beautiful job. It’s a weird read on a different version of our story, but it’s taken a little more seriously, and it goes to a different place. There’s no deep programming involved. I know Martha’s sister and brother-in-law are trying to deprogram her, but in more of an abstract sense. But Holy Smoke, I hadn’t watched. There were a couple of films about deprogramming that people were telling me about, and Holy Smoke was one of them. Split Image was another one, with James Woods. I made a point not to watch those until I finished the script. And so once I finished the script, I went back and watched them. I liked a lot of Holy Smoke, but I also felt I had a different take on the entire thing. Split Image was so crazy and weirdly similar to Faults in some ways, and then it goes in completely different directions at other times. But they all do have a bit of a humorous slant on the cult-deprogramming process. I think that’s apparently inherently something in the cult-deprogramming world. It’s such a crazy concept, the fact that it was actually a way to get people out of cults, to kidnap them and to hold them against their will. It’s so different and foreign to us that it does lend itself to being told in a more darkly comedic fashion. It’s funny that we all had different takes, but they all had similarities at the same time.
The Dissolve: Split Image is an anomaly among these films because it’s about trying to get a man out of a cult, whereas all the rest on this list are about female cult members. Do you have any theory about why women escaping from a cult is more interesting for filmmakers?
Stearns: This is just me hypothesizing, but I think the idea that you’re going to have the man as the deprogrammer is because it was predominantly a male-driven job. I think the idea of putting a guy who thinks he’s in power up against a woman who actually probably has more control than he realizes lends itself more to telling a more interesting story. And I would also say that a lot of these films played around with sexual attraction. Maybe I took the easy way out by doing a guy-and-girl type of thing. It felt right to me. I think the original idea I had with deprogramming a long, long time ago would have been a guy being taken out of a cult, but I very quickly realized, “Why don’t I make it a woman, and then I can work with my wife? I already have that relationship, so why not take advantage of it?” It’s very interesting that pretty much everyone’s done that, though.
The Dissolve: Another thing running through your films is the use of stillness, with long, quiet takes, often a confrontational relationship with the camera, and the discomfort of being in intimate spaces with your subjects. How did you come to that style?
Stearns: The main thing for me is that I don’t like to cut away from performance. I don’t like to manipulate performance. With Leland and Mary a lot of times, the best way to shoot a scene is to show them in like a two-shot, and just have them do it, and not interrupt or manipulate that in any way if I can avoid it. A lot of my favorite films shoot that way, but one of the nice side effects of that is discomfort. I think when an audience is used to seeing an over-the-shoulder shot and a wide shot, and you cut together in a very formulaic or predictable fashion, that kind of thing, it almost rolls you into a feeling of security. And when you watch something where it’s just two people, that adds a level of discomfort, because it’s not what we’re used to as a filmgoing audience. Some of my favorite films are the ones that totally shock me with the way halfway through a scene, I’ll realize we haven’t cut away. It’s not something that interrupts my enjoyment of a film, but I do think about it a little more. And I ask, “Why is the director holding on this, and what does it mean?” A lot of times, they just want you to enjoy the performances. And I think that’s something I try to do. I will probably continue to experiment, but at least for this film, it lent itself to the stillness and the minimalism, and to longer takes.
The Dissolve: What’s next for you?
Stearns: I’ve been living with this for two years, including the script, so I’ve got an idea that I’ve been getting closer to writing on, about voyeurism, that would probably definitely star Mary. But I haven’t actually opened up the Final Draft document on that. As soon as Faults is finished and let out into the world, and I can just let it be what it is, I’ll be moving on to writing that, and hopefully I’ll have another feature in a couple of years. And in the meantime, I just want to keep doing shorts. I think they’re so much fun, and you get to experiment and tell different stories. And some films do really need to be told in a five to 10-minute length. So I want to continue doing those as well.