In Faults, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (The Thing, Smashed) plays Claire, a young woman whose parents hire deprogrammer Ansel Roth (Leland Orser, Taken 3) to wrest control of her mind back from a mysterious cult she’s joined called Faults. When we meet Roth, he’s at the end of his rope: a broken man in debt to his manager and with his career and life in tatters. The rescue of Claire may be the only way to save himself — but Claire herself may or may not be exactly what she seems.
Faults is the feature writing and directing debut of indie filmmaker Riley Stearns, best known for acclaimed shorts like The Cub, and he handles this film — which takes place largely in one depressing motel room — with confidence, style and intelligence. He’s aided by two great performances from Orser, a veteran character actor, and Winstead, who is slowly accumulating a stack of film appearances each more impressive than the last.
Winstead is also a producer on the film and Stearns’ wife in real life, so it was interesting to sit down with both and discuss the genesis and development of the movie, getting its tricky blend of tones right, and working together as creative partners.
I read that this film was inspired in some way by real-life deprogrammer Ted Patrick?
Riley Stearns: Loosely. I mean, just like deprogrammers in general. It was inspired by that. I’ve always been fascinated by cults even as a kid. I could say that I always watched documentaries and specials on it. I watched something at a very young age on Jonestown and just that kind of stuff seeped into my brain — these nightmare places in your brain where somebody can control you and turn you into somebody that you’re not or make you somebody that you aren’t and you’re like not that person anymore.
But the deprogramming aspect in particular is just such a crazy and fascinating thing involved with cults — the idea of getting somebody out of a cult and the fact that there wasn’t really a method for doing it. Ted Patrick is considered the father of deprogramming but then he would kind of just go and kidnap these people, take them away from where they wanted to be, and they were adults so they had every right to make the decisions that they made. But their families just needed a way to get them out of these things, these situations. And it lasted for 10 years or whatever. Then it was replaced with more scientific methods but, I mean, they were breaking the law kidnapping and holding people against their will for their own good. It’s like, “Dude, don’t they have the right to make decisions for themselves?” But then you also know that they’re not in their right mind as well. All that stuff is so fascinating to me.
Did you interview or talk to anyone who had been through the deprogramming process at all?
Stearns: Not necessarily.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Not really. We met a couple of people who were like, “Oh, this happened to my friend,” or we heard stories second hand from a few people but I don’t think we talked to anybody who had actually been through it themselves. I did a little bit of reading of books and things like that. I didn’t actually read the Ted Patrick book but just sort of coincidentally there’s a lot of things that line up so well in terms of his methods and stuff. And Riley didn’t actually know anything about Ted Patrick. (To Stearns) Well you knew of him but you didn’t know the specifics.
Stearns: I didn’t read the book on specifics on how he handled deprogrammings. So it’s just funny, a lot of the things that ended up in the film like methodology, that I thought I was kind of making up, ended up being things that were actually used and/or things that would happen where a cult member would be weirded out by somebody using their given name because they didn’t associate themselves with that person anymore and things like that. I thought that I wanted it to be grounded in reality but I didn’t want to get bogged down in facts and exactly how deprogramming happens because it is a hyper real world. It’s a little stylized.
As you wrote the script did you write Claire for Mary Elizabeth or did it become clear that she would play it as you went along?
Stearns: I definitely wrote with her in mind. Not even just in mind. She was Claire. But I didn’t want Mary Elizabeth herself to influence it too much. So we knew she would be playing the part but I also tried to just let the character write itself. And then for everyone else that was in the script I didn’t write with anything else in mind. I do like to have a clean slate, especially when you’re in indie film. You’re probably not going to get your first four or even your fifth choice of people. I knew Mary was going to do it. She very early on was reading pages and was responding to it. And everyone else, I just was kind of like, “Let’s see who’s going to be right and who was going to be excited about it.” Luckily with Leland, we found him and he was just like 100 percent in. He not only fit who I saw physically and everything, but he’s also an incredibly talented actor.
Winstead: Yeah it was perfect.
I think I read a quote from you, Mary, saying this was the most challenging role you’ve played so far. Is that an accurate quote?
Winstead: It’s pretty accurate, yeah. I think it was the scariest thing for me because the role was so challenging but also it being my husband’s film and I’m producing it. There’s even more pressure for it to be good and for it to be right. And also, typically I know that if I’ve been cast in something it’s because they think I’m the right person but I think I had some fears that he was casting me because I was his wife and that his judgment was clouded by that. So I was worried about that when I read it. Because typically if I were to have read the script and had no relation to the person who had written it I would have been like, “Well this is a great role but I’m never going to get it.” I’m not the type that they would cast in this part. So I feared that maybe that was true. Maybe I wasn’t the type that should be cast in this part because I’ve just heard those kinds of things so much before that it’s hard not to see yourself that way.
The more I started working on it and the more, you know, it got to the point where there were other cast members involved and we started actually getting on set and doing the scenes, then it all kind of started clicking and I started really enjoying it and realizing that this was a great part for me and that I could be good in the role. But yeah, it was the most challenging mainly because of my doubts and fears surrounding it.
Producing. Is that something you found you had an affinity for as you were producing this film and would you want to do it not just for Riley but maybe for other filmmakers?
Winstead: I would. I feel like it’s great practice to do it for Riley because I feel like the role of producer, at least the kind of producer that I want to be, is sort of similar to the role of wife. It’s sort of like being an ally for the filmmaker and really encouraging them and bringing on other people who will help bring their vision to light and making sure that everything is done to make that happen, you know. To me it’s not really about saying no, let’s do it this way or really antagonizing the filmmaker. It’s more about, if you find somebody whose voice you really respect, it’s about making this happen and helping in that. So that’s what I would love to continue to do with Riley, which is just sort of second nature because I would do it with or without the producer credit, you know. I would always be by his side just helping with whatever he needs help with. But I would love to do it with other filmmakers as well and help get material seen that I like, whether I’m in the movie or not. So that’s something I definitely want to do.
The film has a very unpredictable and shifting tone. It’s got a black comedy type of feel but then you get a little darker, a little more serious and then it gets a little more surreal and then it gets kind of sinister. Was it challenging to navigate those tones in just the right way?
Stearns: Because I wrote it I felt like I always had a good understanding of it. And from a directorial standpoint I also never really felt like it totally changed. Or if it changed it changed so gradually as it went along that it wasn’t out of left field. Some people feel otherwise, but I do feel as I’m watching it or as we were making it never was totally one way or another. It was always a blending of tones. In the beginning it’s a little lighter, like you said, and as it goes along it gets darker. But even in the darker stuff — even in some of the gruesome stuff in the movie — there’s a sense of humor that’s underlying at all times. Not to get specific or ruin anything but yeah, I definitely feel like there’s some jokes in there…even the book that he signs in the beginning of the movie comes back later in a funny but very sinister way. It always made sense to me that that was the end game but yeah, that never really worried me and maybe it should have a little bit more as I was doing it, because it is such a hard thing to kind of navigate. But it was always fun and I felt like we understood it. At least I felt like the actors totally got where we were going, which helped me as well.
Winstead: I think the great thing about the script is that it was all so strong on the page that there really didn’t have to be that many discussions in terms of “How are we going to do this?” It just felt very natural and instinctual on everybody’s part in terms of the actors.
Most of the movie takes place in the one room. How do you make the movie interesting for 90 minutes in that one drab space?
Stearns: It was very much about trying to not let things feel boring or repeat coverage. That’s where a lot of the interesting or maybe different angles came from, focusing attention on certain things, doing shots that you normally wouldn’t see in a film, like focusing in on him stealing stuff and putting it in his pockets because that’s going to come back later. With the acting, a lot of it I just didn’t want to break up so we would shoot in long takes and there’s a sense of weird dread that kind of comes across on a lot of those scenes, because I think we’re trained to see films in a certain way where people cut back and forth and there’s a rhythm that you can expect. But when you just have it be a two-shot of two people in a room talking, it could be harder to achieve what you want obviously, but it can also work really, really well and enhance the tone just by doing that one thing which it seems easier but is actually a lot harder in some ways.
Mary, did you and Leland rehearse any of those really long scenes?
Winstead: We usually ended up not rehearsing. We talked a lot about possibly rehearsing and we spent a lot of time talking about whether or not we should rehearse. (But) Leland and I are both actors who don’t typically like to rehearse unless the director likes to, and in that case as an actor you’ve got to just sort of adapt to it. And that’s fun too. I like just sort of going with whatever the process is for each different film. But typically, if it’s left to me, I don’t really rehearse that much because I like to keep it fresh for when we’re actually shooting it. And Leland’s typically that way too. But every time we got together we were like, “Should we rehearse because these scenes are really long and there’s a lot of dialogue?” We ended up doing a lot more just talking about the characters and talking about scenes.
Stearns: Which I was involved in as well.
Winstead: Yeah, which all of us will sit down and do. And that’s typically what I like. I like to just talk it out and make sure we’re all on the same page and we know where the scene is going and where it needs to build and all of that. But we don’t actually do it until we’re there so that we’re kind of saving it.
The family creative partnership is an interesting one to me. Do you take the work home with you? Do you try and leave it on set?
Stearns: We’re pretty good about not taking it home.
Winstead: I was going to say, when you’re doing this kind of movie you’re just never home.
Stearns: Her mom came and stayed at our house and watched our dogs, so we didn’t have that to worry about. One thing though is that I was editing at the same time as we were shooting because we were trying to see if we could possibly submit it in time for Sundance, so there was some stress and lack of sleep in that regard. We were staying at a hotel nearby our Long Beach soundstage so that I wasn’t driving far every night. Mary would just stay with me a lot of those nights and I would wake up in the middle of the night sleepwalking basically.
Winstead: Sleep directing. Every night.
Stearns: So every single night because we’re in a hotel room that’s set up in the exact same way that our hotel room is set up in the movie, I would wake up in the middle of the night and feel like I was on set, convinced I was on set, and that there were people just standing all around me watching, waiting for me to do something and I was like, “I’m in my underwear. Why am I in my underwear?” And Mary would have to talk me out of it. So that was part of taking it home I guess.
Winstead: That’s the thing. It’s different than a lot of people would picture it where you’re like on set all day but then you come home and have dinner and watch TV and go to bed. Instead, you go home, you sleep, you wake up, you go to work. There is nothing to take or not take home. Until you’re done with the movie that’s just your life. So that was just our life and I don’t really remember really ever seeing you off set except for when we were sleeping.
Stearns: Yeah, there were days that I would come home and you would be like, “How was today?” And I was like, “Good.” You’re like, “Okay, are you ready to go to bed?”
Winstead: Yeah, that was as much as we got. But it was still fun because typically when I’m shooting those kind of movies that’s how it is, you know — he’ll be at home and then I come home, or I’m not there at all because I’m shooting on location somewhere. So it was so nice for us both to be working really hard but to actually get to be together because we were on set together all day. So even though it was hard work it was really kind of refreshing just to get to look over and be like, “Oh hey.”
Mary, let me ask you really quickly about The Returned, which premiered on A&E on Monday.
Winstead: It’s about this small town where people start coming back from the dead and it’s totally unexplained. They’re not zombies, they’re not ghosts. They’re just back, you know, the same exactly as they were when they died. And they don’t know what happened. They have no memory of anything. It’s just very kind of haunting and beautiful and it really just kind of deals in grief and loss and how people deal with that. There’s kind of a foreboding sense of dread about it but you don’t really know why. There is a bigger reason for why this is all happening but it’s not really explained. So there are all these sort of questions that the show deals with, but at the end of the day it’s mostly an emotional show about how these characters in this town kind of deal with these strange things happening.
Thank you both.
Faults in in theaters and available via VOD now.