Texan writer/director Riley Stearns broke into the business writing for the television shows My Own Worst Enemy and Cartoon Network’s Tower Prep. It wasn’t long before he turned his hand to short films, directing his wife, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, in Magnificat and Casque. It was his third short, The Cub, that really thrust him into the limelight with a screening at Sundance and it’s clear his thoughts were residing in the same zip code area when writing his debut feature, Faults, which premiered at last year’s SXSW festival.
Collaborating once more with his wife, who co-stars alongside Leland Orser, Faults tells the story of Ansel Roth (Orser), a desperate and defamed expert on sects, cults and mind control who receives a timely job opportunity. All that’s required of him is to save the seemingly innocent Claire (Winstead) from the manipulating hands of a mysterious new cult called Faults and return her to the loving arms of her parents. Unfortunately for him, Ansel’s latest job spawns all manner of unexpected twists and turns.
SCREAM’s Howard Gorman spoke with Stearns about moving from the music industry to the movies, his interest in cult dynamics since an early age and how Faults ended up resembling reality much more than he ever imagined…
SCREAM: Before we talk about Faults I wanted to ask you a little about how you got into the film industry. I believe you were actually a musician and it wasn’t until Mary Elizabeth Winstead was filming Final Destination 3 that you realised that you wanted to actually get into the film business.
Riley Stearns: Yeah, and it might have even been before Final Destination 3, but I originally wanted to be a bass player and I was into like hardcore and punk and all that stuff, but at the same time I was very into jazz and funk and things that were very bass-centric. So I was convinced I was going to be a bass player in a band and then I met Mary and just started kind of seeing how the whole film thing worked and realised that I liked movies and I got to see how they were made behind the scenes. That really led to me thinking that I could be a writer. From there it definitely turned more into just wanting to be able to see a vision all the way through so the directing thing just kind of became the obvious transition.
SCREAM: So did you go to film school to learn screenwriting techniques or did you pick it up and learn the trade yourself?
RS: I started writing shorts and things to figure out how it all worked and then I was at UT at Austin, which is the big school there. I did a year there as an undergraduate and then I applied to the film programme but got rejected so that’s when I dropped out of school and move out to Los Angeles. I’m curious what it would have been like and how it would have changed the way I approach filmmaking but I think it worked out okay that I didn’t get in.
SCREAM: So how did you go about screenwriting without any specific training? Did anyone give you pointers or did you read a lot of other scripts?
RS: I think it was reading other people’s scripts and watching movies even more so and then you just have to kind of do it. The great thing about a screenplay is that it’s not something that costs any money so it’s not like you’ve made a short and the short doesn’t turn out all that good and you are out of all that money. You can write something and it is just something that you can practice. I wrote about four or five feature scripts before Faults and none of them are good. They all have things that I like about them but they’re not really particularly good scripts. I feel like those were all really kind of my film school for writing as well as working for television. Learning how the television world works, in terms of writing, helped a lot in terms of working with a group and having to be very fast.
RS: It’s funny that you say that because it definitely wasn’t a conscious thing to have them be a similar theme or story but it’s interesting that they worked out that way. I had the idea for Faults before The Cub but I hadn’t started writing it yet and I did The Cub, which ended up playing at Sundance, and after Sundance was when I finally wrote Faults.
SCREAM: I know you have always been interested by cults and the film is loosely based on real-life deprogrammer Ted Patrick. I also read that the idea for the film arose from an episode of Cops that you saw where the police had been called out to a house where a child’s parents wouldn’t let him out of the house. In the end the cops told the child that the parents were right and they left without thinking twice that the parents might have actually been in the wrong.
RS: It’s interesting that you mention the Cops thing because that’s really a thing that’s engrained in my head and I know that I saw that episode of Cops and that was a very big influence on Faults in terms of the idea of somebody knowing what’s best for somebody else, which was always a weird concept to me, even as a kid. That being said, I can’t actually find any evidence of that episode of Cops actually existing so it’s funny because it’s so real to me but it could just be something that my younger brain remembers, even though it never actually happened. But I’m totally owning it as if it did influence the film because it did. But the idea of cults and of brainwashing and controlling somebody’s will and taking away their free will; all of those themes were very fascinating to me. Even as a child I would watch documentaries and films and read books on cults and I knew that once it came time to write a feature that I knew I would direct it made sense that the smaller story of a deprogramming would be the kind of story that I would want to tell and would be able to tell on a smaller budget.
SCREAM: Whilst the film is loosely based on a real-life deprogrammer I think you said you didn’t do an excessive amount of research and a lot of your ideas turned out to be how deprogramming actually plays out in real life.
RS: The idea of deprogramming is based on Ted Patrick and other deprogrammers’ methods but it’s not actually based on anybody in particular. I think Leland Orser read Ted Patrick’s book and he passed along a copy to Mary as well, so they read that. I didn’t want to be too influenced by what would actually happen in a deprogramming. I knew the basics of things but I didn’t want it to be too grounded in reality. I like the idea that we were in a hyper-real world where things could happen that were outside of the norm. I did research in terms of things like how it would take place and terms that would be used and things like sleep depravation and all of that, but at the same time I didn’t want it to be too grounded in fact.
SCREAM: A quote in the trailer says the film is “Martha Marcy May Marlene meets The Cohen Brothers.” Obviously it’s always a big compliment to be compared to the film industry’s greats and it’s always inevitable that films are going to be compared to previous films and filmmakers. How do you take those kinds of compliments, as I know you don’t like to get too influenced by other people?
RS: I think it’s cool. As a filmmaker you don’t want to be too heavily inspired by other people’s stuff; I personally don’t, but there are other people who like the idea of homages and things where you pay tribute to something. I didn’t want to be too influenced by other people’s work in a very literal sense so I stayed away from that kind of stuff, but once it’s out in the real world and people can compare it to something else I think it’s great, even if they don’t compare it to something that I necessarily think it relates to. It’s interesting to see people interpret things in different ways so I totally love that. Even though that quote on our trailer is very direct and might lead people to think it’s one type of thing when it’s actually another type of thing, I think all that kind of thing works in terms of trying to get people to see the film. You want people to see the film and anything you can do to do that I’m totally for it, especially for an independent film.
RS: Yeah I think so. I know what she’s capable of and I know her ability as an actor so I didn’t even have to really think about it as in having to write it in a certain way because she’s really good at playing that one way. It was good in that I was actually kind of more free and more open with the character because I trusted that she could actually pull it off. I was able to have a lot of fun and be really subtle with Claire and almost to a degree that frustrated Mary at times because it was so subtle and very tricky to play things a certain way without it coming across as forced. I knew that she could do it and that was the luxury of knowing her so well and that was the only part that I wrote for a person. I wrote the rest of the script with like these blank slates and let them find me or us find them.
SCREAM: So writing one of the main parts for your wife, did you keep everything secret so as to not let her own personality seep in or did you go to her for input?
RS: Kind of in retrospect it could have been fun to do that, but she helped influence some of the character choices too. Pretty much every day I would write ten pages and she would read those and keep up with it all. At a certain point we said to each other, “Okay, let’s go ahead and hold off until I’ve finished with the script and then you can just read it as a whole piece.” But even before I started writing she knew where the story was going to go because I had been pitching her the idea for a while. She was heavily involved but it would definitely be interesting at one point to try to write something and have her just read it completely cold and see how that works.
SCREAM: I read that you shot most of the film on a soundstage and that you would do that for your next films. A lot of other filmmakers I have spoken to like to film in actual houses or whatever so what was it about using a soundstage that worked so well for you?
RS: Well in my head, before I shot on a soundstage, I thought that I liked the natural, normal life way of shooting things like when you’re in an actual house that feels lived in and feels like the space it’s meant to be because it IS that space. The thing that I found about working on a soundstage is that you get to create the entire world so I got to pick out things like the types of tiles we used in the bathroom to the bed sheets that are on the bed to the pictures that are on the walls. For somebody who likes to be in control that type of thing is very nice and a luxury I didn’t think we would actually have on something like Faults. Also, just in terms of lighting and moving out the camera and moving out the walls if we needed to, all that kind of stuff just made it a more comfortable shooting experience. I really liked that environment and the way that a crew works on a soundstage and being able to control sound is also just a huge thing. All of those things just added up to being a more pleasant and quicker shooting experience but it also is definitely a control thing.
SCREAM: Faults was picked up by Snoot Entertainment who produced The Guest and you had a couple of actors from that film in Faults. There were also some other familiar faces in there. Were you ever concerned about these faces removing some of the realism from the film?
RS: Well I don’t think we had anyone in our film that was so known for one thing that they couldn’t overcome it. What I wanted to do was cast the entire movie with character actors and, in a way, even Mary is a character actor in that she is a chameleon and she can change from role to role so much to a point where some people don’t know that she was the girl from Scott Pilgrim and the girl from Smashed or whatever. I think we’ve got that in every single one of the actors in the film and I really like the idea that, even though you might not know some of their names, a lot of our actors are such familiar faces that there is a familiarity that as you are watching you feel like you kind of know this person. This was particularly the case with Leland Orser where I wanted it to be like you knew him from somewhere but you couldn’t put your finger on it. I think the one person who is probably most known for one thing is Lance Reddick from The Wire but the great thing about Lance is that he knows that so he likes to create characters that are completely different and he totally blew me away and he had this really interesting character that he carved out in Mick. I just loved working with everyone.
SCREAM: When you want to create a very dark and sinister story but inject it with humour it’s always going to be tricky to find that perfect balance. Did you find it difficult to add humour without detracting from the darkness of the subject matter in Faults?
RS: For me it feels natural and so that’s the thing that I like to do and The Cub is the same thing as it’s very dark and very funny at the same time. I know there are people who watch a film like Faults and don’t think that it works but I think it’s just a case of everyone having their own line that they feel a film can and can’t cross for them. I just had to make this for myself and know that that’s the kind of movie that I would watch and the kind of movie that I would want to make. Luckily a lot of people agree and seem to really like that. We started off in a little bit of a funnier place and it gets darker as it goes along but even in the opening scene it’s also so sad that Leland is at this destitute place in his life. Then at the end of the movie, even when it gets really dark, it’s also still got a sense of humour about it in a darkly comedic way. As long as humour is there, even in a smaller way, and as long as that humour is always kind of underlying, and you remember that, then everything will work overall.
SCREAM: And what does the future hold for you? Will you be diving into another genre piece or switching things up a bit?
RS: It’s funny actually because I never really thought of Faults as a genre movie, but now that it’s made I do feel that it is and it definitely has genre elements to it with the audience unsure whether things are supernatural or not. It’s also a space that I really enjoy watching as well as making so the next thing that I do will probably be very much in the same tone as Faults. At the same time I’m also reading other people’s stuff which is always interesting so we’ll see what happens next.
SCREAM: Thank you for your time Riley. It’s really appreciated.
RS: Yes, thank YOU so much guys.
We’ll leave you with the trailer to Faults and also Riley’s excellent short film The Cub: