Writer/director Riley Stearns‘ funny and tense thriller Faults made quite a strong debut at SXSW this week. It was definitely on my radar going in and I’m thrilled that people seem to be responding to it so positively. As you can tell by my review, I loved it.
The day after the premiere I sat down with Stearns and his two leads Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Leland Orser to chat about the film. I’ve been careful to cut around spoilers so, even if you think some of the film’s mysteries are laid bare here, don’t sweat it.
What inspired the deprogramming angle?
Stearns: It’s so funny because I haven’t been able to find any kind of record on this but when I was a kid I remember watching an episode of “Cops.” My Dad’s a police officer, just retired, and he and my Mom and I would sit down and watch it. Actually my Dad stopped because it felt like work, but I still watch it. And I remember this episode where this girl called the police and was like, “I’m locked in this hotel room and they’re not letting me out.”
The cops show up and she’s being held for deprogramming. The parents are there and they’re explaining that this is for her own good. Instead of the cops saying, “she’s an adult and she can leave” – which is legally what you’re supposed to do – they told her that her parents knew what was best and that she had to stay. And they left. And I was freaked out by that because even as a kid you realize there’s something weird about that – telling you that you have to stay in a place you don’t want to be.
The movie starts off with a fairly broad scene and kind of whittles at it’s tone from there, how do you find your character in that initial moment?
Orser: Yes, it goes from almost lighthearted comedy to very intense drama within 90 minutes. It’s a fine line to walk. Laugher and tears, going from humorous to dramatic. We were aware of that and our intentions were exactly that. There were films that we watched and discussed to define what parts of humor and drama and tragedy we wanted to infuse the character with.
Stearns: It’s about hitting rock bottom and finding a new bottom.
And Claire has to be a hard balance to play as well.
Winstead: It was, because I have to almost play a few different characters over the course of the film. Leland kind of reminded me the other day that there’s the “before cult” personality and the “after cult” personality, which is a nice way to put it without giving anything away. I had to sort of really keep track from scene to scene to remind myself of where she was – and I really stressed out about it. It was fun, but I stressed out about it more than any other role I’ve ever played. And then as soon as we started it all clicked and it was just the best feeling.
This is one of the first cult movies where you understand how they could really ensnare you.
Stearns: Yeah. And in a lot of cases it’s not big dramatic moments, sometimes it’s just that people want to be friends with somebody. You can be a super intelligent person and very happy with your life and still get into it. There are mind control tactics that these people have learned from the government. They have a handbook about how to get information out of prisoners of war and they literally took their handbook and used it on them. When it becomes a science, that’s when it gets scary. You don’t even know what’s happening – it could happen to anybody.
You could even question what we all participate in on a larger scale.
Orser: Your typical target is your disenfranchised youth, teenagers. So to see it happen on an older level, everyone is looking for meaning in their lives. Everyone is looking to be loved. It all depends on who you come into contact with and if they can either help you or take advantage of that.
The film is incredibly visually interesting even though a lot of it takes place in one room. Even home invasion movies get a whole house, but this is pretty much just a room. And it looks beautiful.
Stearns: Thank you! A lot of the credit goes to my DP Michael Ragan who I’ve worked with a lot on my shorts. He’s very talented and works with a lot of great people. We talked about how we could make things different. We didn’t want it to feel stale. The general rule is that when you’re in a space that space shouldn’t change. But we would change lighting set-ups depending on the scene. And in terms of staging and shot selection, it was just making sure that we selected things that spoke to what the actors were doing.