Interview: 'Faults' Director Riley Stearns Talks Cults, Facts Stranger Than Fiction, and More

Interview: 'Faults' Director Riley Stearns Talks Cults, Facts Stranger Than Fiction, and More

Jun 30, 2015

There have been a few movies about cults in recent years, but none quite as smart and funny and weird and disarming as Riley Stearns superb directorial debut, Faults. In it Leland Orser plays a man who specializes in deprogramming victims of cult brainwashing. He's seen better days and is having a rough go of things until he encounters a set of parents who want to hire him to deprogram their daughter, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

Once those two meet, however, things get... strange.

Faults is out now on Video on Demand and is even a $.99 rental this week on iTunes, which is a heck of a great deal for a great movie. And that gives me a great excuse to finally publish an interview I did with Stearns earlier this year. In it we talk about other cult movies, what it's like to write a character for his real-life wife Winstead, and much more. You had this idea before there was a sort of resurgence of movies about cults, so when that happened did you ever have a moment of crisis where you thought, "Crap, all these other cult movies are coming out"?

Stearns: I always knew I always wanted to do a deprogramming film long before I'd seen Martha Marcy May Marlene or The Sound of My Voice. I'd never seen Holy Smoke or Split Image. And I wonder if unconsciously I'd done that so I wouldn't be affected by it. But I had the idea before I saw those other movies, so each time one would pop up I'd think, "I hope that's not like mine." But even if they were, I feel like I would have done a different enough of a thing that it would have made it worth doing.

It's easy to think that something is based on other things that are around, but things really do just strike up around the same time. I've had other people who have either heard about or seen my movie who have said, "Well, s—t, now I can't make my deprogramming movie" and I want to be like, "No! You totally can!" Everyone has different POVs. What's the process like of writing a role that your wife is going to play? How often would you show her pages from the movie?

Stearns: She obviously was who I wrote it for, but her character doesn't show up until almost 30 minutes into the movie since we're with Ansel for the start of it. I tend to write in 10 page chunks, so I'd give her 10 page chunks each day and we got a little over halfway through the script before she stopped and said, "Okay, maybe I'll just read this when it's done."

There were things where she'd make suggestions about her character, but I think the worry she had in the beginning was that her character was just there and that Ansel was the crazy character who really got to chew the scenery. I think she had a bit of, "Okay, can I do anything a little weirder?" So when she asked that – and it was perfect timing for this – the next day I wrote the scene in the bathroom where she's screaming. Around that is when she stopped reading and just trusted what I was doing. And then, when she read the end she said "Okay, you had this thing figured out all along. I shouldn't have said anything."

It was interesting, but she never put any pressure on my to write specific things for her. We have a good working relationship in that sense. How did Leland Orser get on your radar?

Stearns: I've been a fan of his in every movie I've seen him in. He comes in as the character actor who is super manic and crazy but you buy every second of it. He's really, really good. We were trying to cast this part for a long time. You have your list of the top 5, and they may not even be right for it, but you may have to offer to this or that person because it makes the right sense for other reasons. And so we'd go through the list, and either agents wouldn't respond or someone would come back and say that the character is too weak at the end, and it kind of started blowing my mind because I'm offering to people who I didn't even think were going to be good but were maybe the right choice.

And then Keith and Jess went off to New Mexico to film The Guest, and on the first day Leland is on set with a mustache, which is one of the few things I wrote as a character description, and they sent me a picture text of Leland on the monitor and just a question next to it that said "Ansel?" and I wrote back immediately like "Yes!"

He's one of those names that never came up, which I guess isn't too abnormal, but once it did everything made sense. He has the right look, he's the right quality of actor, and he's not as well known, which was right for the character. People say this a lot and it's a cliche, but now I really do believe that nobody could have played Ansel like he did. Everything worked out the way it was supposed to. I don't have any complaints and can't imagine doing it any other way. It's funny how fate works out some times. Did you research actual steps to deprogramming or is everything he does something you invented?

Stearns: I didn't invent it, but I did kind of take liberties with it. I'd always been fascinated with cults, even as a kid. I'd watch documentaries and read books, and as a kid and adult, the one thing that fascinated me the most was the deprogramming. It's not something that's used often and it's definitely frowned upon, especially when you consider it's actually quite illegal to kidnap someone and falsely imprison them. But for a while that was the only thing that parents had to get their family members out.

There are obviously people who are programmers who don't do it any more that I could have talked to, but I didn't. I did have a general knowledge of the deprogramming field, but I mainly just wanted it to have a heightened feel and worried that basing it too much in fact would bog down the script. One thing I did was get a book that had the steps that would be used, and then I used them loosely while filling in gaps in my own.

What's interesting is that Mary and Leland read this book by Ted Patrick, who is the father of modern deprogramming, and he talks about his experience, and a lot of the stuff that I thought I was just making up is in his book. It just shows that fact is stranger than fiction a lot of the time. Just a simple example, a lot of cult members would hate to be called by their real name. It's not that they don't like the name and are just rebelling, they just don't associate with it any more because they're so indoctrinated and brainwashed. That was just something I thought was weird, that she wouldn't want to be called Claire, but that's something that really happens. Now that the movie is out there, have you encountered anyone who is like, "Oh, hey, I was in a cult"?

Stearns: The most interesting thing was finding out, after we made the movie, that Jon Gries, who is Terry in the movie, was involved in a botched kidnapping for an attempted deprogramming. He was in Manhattan and a friend's dad asked him for some help with this thing and the next thing he knows he's speeding down the streets of Manhattan in the middle of the night, no cars on the road, and they're kidnapping this kid and he's like, "What the f—k is going on?!"

They stop some place and the kid punches the deprogrammer and runs into the subway, locks himself in a closet. They're trying to get him out and the police arrive, who basically say that they need to leave him alone. So Jon's telling me this story and I'm like, "Why did we not talk about this sooner? This is crazy!" It's interesting how many people have first or second hand experience with cults or deprogramming. A lot of people have mentioned it in passing. I won't be surprised if it happens more and more as the movie lives on.



Ending Spoilers Follow Did you always have the ending in mind and reverse engineer parts of the movie from it, or is the ending something you found in the development process?

Stearns: Before I made Cub, I was doing something a bit more dramatic and grounded in reality, and I was going to make a deprogramming movie that was really dramatic. But then when I made a few shorts that were really in the tone of what I like to watch and make, there was kind of this light bulb moment where I realized I should be doing things in that tone not just for shorts, but for features. Once I had that idea, that germinated the idea that she's the one programming him all along. And once I had that, the whole thing started writing itself. I got it and understood it more than I ever had before. I don't know that I necessarily reverse engineered, but once I had that I was able to work toward something. It kind of all just worked itself out. How do you craft moments like the locked bathroom scene that aren't outright misdirection but can definitely slide past some audience members?

Stearns: There are people who don't want to know that it's the parents [who unlock the door]. That's my intention, that the parents did it. And they're also not her real parents, they're just other cult members.

It's actually nice that there are people who haven't caught those details because they still enjoy the movie and get something out of it that's a bit more on the supernatural side. I like that, so long as they still enjoy it. If they miss a detail and it means they didn't enjoy the movie, it kind of is my fault, but I don't feel like that's happened a lot. Her having helpers was something fun to play with, and since you don't know that the first time around, it can make things seem more on the supernatural side. If after it ends you think about it or if you pick it up on a second watch, it's just nice to have things that you may see differently. What, in your mind, is the reason she chooses him?

Stearns: For me, it's not that she chooses him because she thinks he's the best, even though in his mind he is, but I think either she's using him as a test of herself or as a game. Mary and I have always seen her as a sociopath who gets pleasure out of hurting people. So even though he's a strong mind and has a strong will and should know the signs to look out for, she considers that a test.

And at the beginning of the movie he is at a place in his life where he's the perfect person to join a cult. So she's totally using him. I would imagine five years following the film, she's soaked up all the information and techniques and methods he has, and he'll be laying in a hotel bed after she's moved on. I never saw it that he was the best or the be all, end all, but his thinking that he is is what's important to her. So she'll use him and learn from the experience and move on and just keep doing it. It is fun to think about what would happen after. Have you thought about actually exploring that in another movie?

Stearns: No. It's a lot of fun to think about, but once I'm done I kind of just want to move on. Maybe we'll take it to Broadway, do Faults 2 that way or something.


Categories: Features, Interviews, Indie, At Home
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