Interview: Riley Stearns
Maybe it’s something in the water. That’s one explanation offered by writer-director Riley Stearns for the recent deluge of films dealing with mind control and cult deprogramming. As Stearns hastens to add, though, the works themselves are tonally distinct and categorically diverse, ranging from elliptical thriller (Martha Marcy May Marlene) to soft science fiction (Sound of My Voice); from psychological drama (The Master) to found-footage horror (The Sacrament). Stearns’s addition to the canon, Faults—which screens tonight as part of Film Comment Selects—introduces a dark and idiosyncratic vein of humor, and complicates the standard hierarchy by making deprogrammer Ansel (an eye-opening Leland Orser) more unstable than Claire, the cultist in his charge (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, also the film’s producer).
After writing for short-lived but acclaimed TV series My Own Worst Enemy and Tower Prep, Stearns moved to short films, writing and directing Magnificat (11) and Casque (12), both featuring Winstead (to whom Stearns is married), and The Cub (13), a five-minute parable marked by the warped comic sensibility fast becoming his signature. The Cub, which screened at Sundance, introduced the “dubious role models” trope he identifies as a motif in his work, embodied in Faults by both the desperate, disgraced Ansel and Claire’s hapless, frustrated parents (Beth Grant and Chris Ellis). Theatrical in its economic and inventive use of space (confining most of the action to a drab motel room, as did fellow Texan Richard Linklater’s Tape), Stearns’s first feature exhibits deft and daring mood swings and refuses to shrink from its material when the going gets weird. Stearns recently spoke with FILM COMMENT about tight spots, false memories, and why cult movies are now enjoying much more than cult success.
How long has the story been germinating for you?
We’re kind of losing track of the years now. I probably came up with the idea a little bit before Sundance 2013. I had a short called The Cub, which I made the summer of 2012, and I was working on that, kind of waiting for that to come out. We got into Sundance and I had this idea for a script which ended up being Faults and I wasn’t sure exactly how it would be made, or the tone and where the story was going to lead, but I knew that it would have something to do with the world of deprogramming from a cult. After I made the short, I did realize that it didn’t have to be a straight-up drama, that I could be a little bit weirder and funnier with it. After Sundance that year, I went back home and wrote it in two weeks. There are actually very few changes from the first draft that I wrote.
Is it this true that the seed for it was planted from an episode of Cops that you watched when you were a kid?
That’s what I say, but I haven’t been able to find any record of that episode. I wrote that in my director’s statement for a festival (might have been SXSW), and it is as real as can be in my head, but I can’t find any record of an episode dealing with deprogramming. My dad doesn’t remember the conversation when I brought it up with him, either. So it’s funny that I do remember this so vividly, and it’s been this thing that’s stuck with me for years and years, but maybe it was some weird dream that I had. I don’t know. But I guess I’m still sticking to it that there is an episode out there of Cops where deprograming takes place, but as far as the records show, there hasn’t been an episode like that.
It’s so weird because I’m positive that it existed but, again, can’t find any proof.
I understand that one reference point was Ted Patrick—the father of deprogramming, if you will, and the author of Let Our Children Go. I wonder how his activities and his writings inform the screenplay.
He didn’t inform it at all. I knew about his kind of career and that he started doing this without any medical degrees or any real knowledge of cults, and that he was more than just this enforcer-y kind of dude who had a method and was trying to help people get their family members back. But Leland Orser, our lead actor who plays Ansel, referenced him heavily in building his character, specifically in terms of being this weird guy who isn’t necessarily someone you’d think would be the perfect guy for a job like this, but somehow does it really, really well. Leland read the book, and then gave a copy to Mary and myself. The funny thing is that Ted Patrick signed Leland’s copy, and our copy, which he found on eBay, was also signed by Ted Patrick. In our movie we have Ansel signing books for people and knocking the price off just to get a couple of bucks. I guess Ted Patrick did that a lot too.
But in reference to research, I did read one book from the Eighties, a guy who did some deprogramming and was involved with The Moonies when he was younger. He wrote a book after he got out, got his counseling degree and everything, and he was able to help people. So his deprogramming was a little more grounded in scientific research. I used his book as a blueprint of how deprogramming would go down instead, which got more into the specifics of it. I did throw a lot of facts out the window when I started writing it. I knew that our film, even though it is sort of real, is stylized as well. I didn’t want to be too grounded in reality.
Leland Orser has said that there were films that you and he watched and discussed to elucidate which part of the character is humorous and which part is tragic. I’m curious which films those were.
I am a huge fan of Yorgos Lanthimos, who directed Dogtooth and Alps, and I probably referred to him a lot to Leland. I was very much inspired by Lanthimos’s methodology, and his style of getting a removed performance from his actors—a deadpan performance, you could say. And I told Leland that I saw it as not being as removed in terms of performance as they are in his films. We have a similar thing in that a lot of the dark subject matter in our films are actually quite funny, and sometimes something that is so dark can actually be funny, even though you would not normally think of it as being that way. So we pulled a little bit from , and just the way Ansel talks most of the time—he said everything in a more matter of fact, deliberate way.
I can’t help but make the connection that Dogtooth, Faults, and The Cub are all about impressionable people who are placed in the charge of others with dubious motives. Is that something that you’re interested in?
Not consciously, but it’s funny, what you said about the parents and the being raised by people with dubious motives, be it a parental figure or actual parents. That’s kind of a thing with me, at least for the last few years. Not necessarily intentionally—I think that I like doing things about characters and about real people and having their surroundings be the strange part of it. It’s funny that the past two films, again super different from each other, share that common bond of dubious role models.
One of the most interesting things in Faults to me is the way that Ansel is introduced as being irrational, almost delusional. Then, later on when his competence begins to shine through, he’s still the most volatile and desperate figure on the screen. I wonder if you set out to invert the standard dynamic where the deprogrammer is the stable one.
Not to give too much away of the movie, but that’s his arc. He’s a guy who starts off in a bad place, but he refuses to take responsibility for his actions that have led him to this point. The film begins by just throwing it at the audience, just a day in the life of this man, and watching things breaking down—not even just the deprogramming where he’s supposed to be the strong one, but generally. A lot of times the protagonist is superhuman, and he makes all the right decisions and even if he makes some missteps here and there, it all comes around in the end. The way that I’ve always looked at this film, is that Ansel starts in a bad place, ends in a worse place, but thinks that he’s in a better place. And in his mind, at the end of this movie, he thinks that everything is better than it could ever have been and we know it be the opposite.
How would you describe Claire’s arc relative to that?
I think that she’s in a place where you never really know what she’s thinking. We’re inside Ansel’s POV the entire time, and it shows that people can be whoever they want to be to you, and you have no way of knowing the truth. If they say one thing, that’s the truth that you’re getting, and the only way you can go forward with interacting with them is taking that truth at face value.
The claustrophobia of the setting contributes to that anxiety too. What was the hotel room like to shoot in? How was that limiting and how was that liberating?
This is my first feature, and I’ve never had the budget to do the soundstage thing before—I’ve never had an idea that needed to be on a sound stage. But we did shoot all the interiors of the motel room inside a soundstage in Long Beach, California, which was nice because everything was controllable. We were able to do anything that we needed to do. We could remove a wall if we wanted. We still tried to treat it as if it were a real set, out in the real world. The color palettes were more of a creative process, which was really nice for our production designer. It’s the way that you position furniture that makes it feel more claustrophobic. So any claustrophobic feeling that there is on screen is a testament to the way it was shot, and the lighting and the production design—just everyone who was involved. We definitely transformed the space that was quite cozy actually, pretty nice, into something that feels a lot less desirable on screen.
In particular, an extended late scene in the bathroom…
Yes, which is my favorite scene.
Mine as well. You start with something that is already rather constricted and you move to a space that’s even more so.
Yeah. We always knew we were working toward that scene, so I met with Tom Hammock, who is a production designer who had done a few other films with my producer. He tried to get me to think about what the most important scene in the film was, and he said something that struck me: “What do you think the iconic image of the film would be?” I immediately thought of our three bathroom scenes. That’s where a lot of the progress or the momentum of the film is figured out. So after that, we made that bathroom feel like a completely different space. It’s a lot cooler—very blue. That was the one room that was a bit more constricting in terms of space to shoot in.
That really benefited the scene itself because the actors were in there with our cinematographer and our sound guy and a focus puller. I was by the camera every single scene of the movie except for that shoot because that room was just so tight and cramped. And you would feel it. They [Winstead and Orser] would come out of the room and they would be sweating and emotionally drained. The scene really needed to be urgent, it had to have a certain gravity to it. And I couldn’t be prouder of the way it turned out.
How long did it take for you to shoot that scene?
We had a day to shoot that and another scene—after we finished that, we had to shoot another scene as well. Luckily, it was our third- or second-to-last day of the entire shoot, so we’d been building up to it. Normally people like to get their toughest scene out the way early on, and I was glad that I had time to get used to the world of the film for this. A day feels like a very short amount of time to shoot 10 pages, but we ended up getting through it very quickly. It didn’t feel like we were rushing. It felt like we were moving on when it was right, and again that’s just Leland and Mary knocking it out of the park.
I’m a big fan of films about cults myself, and about deprogramming. In the past three or four years we got a lot of them. Do you think that’s a response to anything in the culture?
There’s gotta be something in the water. In the Seventies and Eighties it was Satanic panic and the cult scare, and I think the movies reflected that. And then we got Holy Smoke  and that was by itself, kind of in the middle of nowhere. Our trailer mentions Martha Marcy May Marlene, even though I had the idea of doing of a deprogramming film before Martha Marcy May Marlene. And I’m sure that Sound of My Voice had been percolating for a long time, and The Master was somewhere else inside Paul Thomas Anderson. It definitely feels nice that there are these films out there. Like you, I’m a fan of films about cults. I find them to be super-fascinating—I’ve always been afraid of them ever since I was a kid, the idea of somebody being able to control you even though you are a strong-willed person who is intelligent and aware of what’s happening.
They’re totally different from each other. Yours has a strain of absurdist comedy that is not in the others. I noticed that all of the characters, even on the fringes, exhibit this peculiar, almost cultist behavior. Like the Jon Gries character: he despises rudeness, he detests nicknames, and he hates informality. You seem to be saying that even if we’re not in a cult, we all exhibit these behavioral patterns that are programmed.
Definitely. The thing about caricature, whether it is grounded in reality or a little absurd, is bringing character traits out of people and having certain elements shine a little bit brighter than others. The Coen Brothers are masters of doing that and bringing interesting character traits out of their leads or their side characters. Everyone is given a back-story. And with us, I feel like that’s me wanting to make something that was interesting no matter who’s on the screen.
II want to ask about the nosebleed motif, because your characters, when they are having an epiphany or coming close to the truth, they get nose bleeds. What was the idea there?
I’ll give two answers. The first answer is that I wanted something that the characters could bond over. I wanted something Ansel and Claire could share, and have that be something that she sees happening with him, and then she’s able to share that later on and they feel a closeness or a bond they don’t have when they first meet. My second answer is that when I was writing it, I thought it was cool, and once I put it in there, it took on a life of its own and started to appear more and more. I didn’t really know why it was there. Sometimes you’ll have an idea and you don’t know why it needs to be there, but you keep going with it. When Leland, Mary, and I were sitting at my kitchen table talking about the script and what it meant, we got to the nosebleeds and Leland asked me what I thought it meant, and I gave an answer but was also like, I’m not sure.
That kind of scared me, that I didn’t know why something was in my script. I mean, I should know. And Leland said: “Well, I’ll tell you what the nosebleeds mean,” like the wiping of the blood in the bathroom for his character. He told me that when Ansel sees the blood and he’s cleaning it up, he’s envisioning the blood of Jennifer who was the cult member that he couldn’t help, who he wronged in some way. And when he sees the blood, all he can think about is her, and it’s a very abstract and internal idea for that character himself, but that starts to become a very real reason for me and I latched on to that idea. I know that people think of nosebleeds as being very cliché, but I’m glad that I didn’t know that when I wrote it because I wouldn’t have kept it.
What’s next for you?
I’m mainly just excited for Faults to come out. I wrote the script two years ago and we premiered at SXSW last year. The film will come out almost a year to the day from when it premiered last year. In the meantime, I have a short I wrote a while back that I still would like to try to do. I don’t want to stop making shorts even though I’m doing features now. I also have an idea for a feature that I started breaking the story for. It’s still a little too far away to put into words.