Q&A: Mary Elizabeth Winstead & Director Riley Stearns Make ‘FAULTS’ An Enigmatic & Memorable Feat

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Preston Barta // Editor


FAULTS | 89 min | NR
Director: Riley Stearns
Cast: Leland Orser, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Lance Reddick, Beth Grant, Chris Ellis, Nicholas Tucci, Leonard Earl Howze and Jon Gries

There is a sensitivity that writer-director Ryan Stearns and his wife/leading lady, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, inhabit in bringing their newest film, FAULTS, from page to screen. Also starring Leland Orser (THE GUEST), FAULTS marks 2015’s first jolt of cinematic electricity. It’s also a smartly constructed and emotionally resound thriller that is both funny and thoroughly entertaining.

FAULTS tells the story of woman named Claire (Winstead), who is part of a mystifying new cult called “Faults.” Desperate to be reunited with their daughter, Claire’s parents (Chris Ellis and Beth Grant) recruit a preeminent expert on mind control, Ansel Roth (Orser).

Winstead, who is continuing her steak of striking indie films, such as ALEX OF VENICE (2015) and THE SPECTACULAR NOW (2013), has capitalized in a big way with FAULTS. Approaching her character with the strength that made her a star as Ramona Flowers in SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010), she hammers her way into every scene she’s in, layering Claire with affection, grief and mystery. It’s something to be witnessed, next to the skilled-pen of Stearns, who wrote the words Winstead speaks.

Stearns’ script and direction offers a great, thrilling story, full of twists and turns. Clocking in around the hour-and-a-half mark, the film is detailed, precise and leaves you with material to chew on for days to come.

Fresh Fiction had the pleasure of speaking with Stearns and Winstead about their film, along with other films that left them with much to think about, and how the duo fleshed out Winstead’s complex character.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Claire in Faults. Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Claire in Faults. Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films.

Unfortunately, I missed FAULTS at the South by Southwest Film Festival, where it premiered, because I had to go home early. So as soon as I got the email about covering the film, I jumped on it real quick.

Riley Stearns: “[Laughs] Awesome!”

Mary Elizabeth Winstead: “Thank you!”

R. Stearns: “We appreciate it.”

No problem. I watched it last week and I still keep thinking about it. It’s one of those films that really stays with you. Are there any movies in which something like that has happened to you– maybe something that had you see life in a new way?

R. Stearns: “Well, not necessarily life in a new way, but I can remember the first time I saw PUNCH DRUNK LOVE (2002) and I didn’t know what to think at all. I almost didn’t even like it, even though I was a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson and had seen everything of his up until that point. But then I found myself watching it again a couple of months later and I was like, ‘Wait a minute. There’s more to it than I originally thought!’ Then after the third time I saw it I realized it was my favorite movie. That movie to this day is one of those movies I can watch any day and still find new things in it.

I think about movies all the time afterwards and that’s what I want. I don’t want to have everything explained to me. I don’t want it to be easy. I want to be able to think about it. So that’s so great to hear that you felt the same way about this.”

M. Winstead: “Yeah. I am the same way. I love movies where you leave the theater and continue thinking about days or even weeks after. One movie that did that to me recently was FORCE MAJEURE (2014). It really had a great effect on me. A month later, I’m still thinking about that movie. I love that it is funny, sad, thought provoking and all of these things at once. That’s the best thing. Yeah, I love movies like that.

Those are great choices. I love both of those films.

R. Stearns: “Oh, thanks!”

I want to next talk about the ending while not really talking about it. I want to preface by saying I loved what the resolution was– I am a sucker for films that go down odd rabbit holes. So, Mary, as an actor, when a film hinges on how the film comes together and whether it sticks, do you care about the ending? Would you bail on a movie if you loved the journey but didn’t favor the ending?

M. Winstead: “Typically, no. I don’t think a movie should really hinge on its ending per se. You know, when a movie has an ending that really blows you away, sums the whole thing up or makes you think about the movie in a different way, which I think our movie does do that– but at the same time, even if you’re seeing a movie and thinking, ‘Oh, I know how this is going to end,’ if it’s a good movie, makes you think, entertains you and the journey is interesting, then the ending doesn’t really matter. Even ambiguous endings that keep you wondering, those can be great, too. They don’t always have to be wrapped up.”

Leland Orser and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in FAULTS. Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films.

Leland Orser and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in FAULTS. Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films.

Riley, I know you made the film because you were curious and fascinated about cults. In your research for the script, after directing the film and then watching it, does it change how you feel about cults? Or like the audience, are you just kind of living through it vicariously?

R. Stearns: “I don’t think it changed my view on anything necessarily. This came about from watching things, reading materials and/or watching a documentary on a particular cult or something. So all of that stuff is what really informed this film. This film is a representation of my version of a cult film. Yeah, I think that’s all very true to what I thought before I made the movie as well.”

Interesting. Before the ending, I tried to picture myself as a parent and if my kid was going through something like this. I asked myself would I be able to let my kid go so they could be happy or fight to have them in my life. Was this something that you ever thought about during the making of the film? If you were in that situation, do you think you would be able to let your son or daughter go and be happy in their own world, or would you fight to help them and have them in your life if you felt they were harming themselves?

R. Stearns: “Well, that’s the thing that I thought was interesting. It’s almost the question that I asked when I was making the film, which was, ‘Who’s to say what choice you make is right or wrong?’ Even if you’re involved in a cult, you made that decision. If you had a bad life outside of that cult, who’s to say that decision is any better or worse? As a parent, I think you would obviously try to get your kid back and try everything you could. In an alternate universe, you start asking yourself, ‘Is the family she left any better than the cult itself?'”

For sure. I asked myself that during the film as well. But, there are so many layers to Claire that I can’t imagine it all being printed on the script page– unless you’re just that good, Riley.

R. Stearns: “[Laughs] All the subtext is written.”

M. Winstead: “[Laughs] Yeah, every direction was just written in.”

[Laughs] But I am sure no matter what was written, you still bring elements of your own to the character. For you, Mary, after you read your husband’s script the whole way through– I am sure you read treatments and his progress along the way–

M. Winstead: “Yeah.”

When you were trying to figure out how to take on Claire, what was the first question you had to ask about your character to better figure out who she was? It could have been a question to yourself, to Riley, or one you guys kind of explored together.

M. Winstead: “I know early on I was sort of pushing Riley to write challenging scenes for me and make sure there were fun things for me to do. My character doesn’t come in until the first 30 pages or something like that, and [the script] was so strong right out of the gate with Ansel, who is such a clearly realized character. I was instantly like, ‘I want to play Ansel! Such a great role.'”

Yeah [Laughs].

M. Winstead: “When Claire was being introduced, I was a little worried that maybe she would be more of just a plot device. I just wanted to make sure she was a complex, interesting character with a mind of her own. Riley–“

R. Stearns: “I gotcha.”

M. Winstead: “He already made sure that was happening. I sort of poked and prodded him along on that. And once I started reading more on Claire, I think the first question I had was whether or not I was good for the part, because I saw her as this magnetic, dark, mysterious and interesting figure. I don’t know– I think of myself as always being simple and wholesome, so I didn’t know if I could pull this off. I knew I could play the initial part of Claire, you know, where she is this girl from a cult who is kidnapped and traumatized, but I didn’t know if I could bring all those complex layers of darkness underneath that. I just put my trust in Riley and kind of pushed him to be like, ‘Are you sure I’m the right person for this part?’ Even when we were on set I asked him that: ‘Are you sure I am doing what you want me to do?’ But he knew all along that it was under control, that he knew what he was doing and that I was right for the part. And I am glad that I did.”

Well, I can’t envision anyone else doing it. You were great.

M. Winstead: “Aw, thank you.”

Ansel (Orser) tries to deprogram Claire (WInstead) in FAULTS. Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films.

Ansel (Orser) tries to deprogram Claire (Winstead) in FAULTS. Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films.

Because Claire is such a complex character– I mean, we are introduced to her as the vulnerable person, but then the narrative takes us to places we never expected with her. I know you guys shot for over 18 days, but when you pour so much of yourself, your emotions and your mind into this role, are you at all relieved to walk away from it? Do roles ever take a toll on you– whether it’s something like this or SMASHED (2012)?

M. Winstead: “You know, it’s interesting. Sometimes they do in a sense, but typically when the role is challenging and complex in the way that this one is, there’s something invigorating about that, too. So even though they are emotionally draining, I tend to be really happy in those environments and I feel really, really good at the end of the day. I remember feeling that way everyday on FAULTS. I thought, ‘Should I feel this good?’ You know, because I am doing these scenes that are so traumatic and intense [Laughs]. But, I felt happy, relaxed and good all the time, and I think that was because the environment I was in was so wonderful.

So, at the end, it was so rewarding to be finished, to know that we came through it and did it; that was a great feeling. But, I think it was more bittersweet; I was kind of sad for it to be over. I had so much fun making the movie.”

I bet. You’ve been in movies grounded in reality and others that are in fantasy. As an actor, when is it more difficult to lose yourself: in the unthinkable situation that no one wants to imagine or one where you have to imagine a superhero flying around?

M. Winstead: “Right. That’s an interesting way to put it. I think it’s a little bit harder on films when you’re having to put yourself in a situation that would not ever really exist in real life. It’s one more leap for your imagination to go because you have to, you know– at least with FAULTS, even though it’s crazy, it’s a situation you could imagine yourself being in, opposed to playing opposite a tennis ball or something in a big film. You have to not only imagine what that would be like, but try to get to the feeling of it and imagine something in a more real life situation. It’s just more leaps for your imagination to take and a little more of a process.”

Gotcha. That makes sense. And lastly, if you could teach a college course of your creation, what do you think you would teach?

R. Stearns: “Well, right now, I am really into making my own sushi. I would definitely would do a sushi 101 class. And on the side, I would take classes from someone who makes sushi better than me, so I could pass that along to my students in 101.”

M. Winstead: “Yeah?”

R. Stearns: “I’m serious. I’m really into the sushi thing right now.”

Did you watch a lot of [JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (2011] or something?

R. Stearns: “[Laughs] Yeah!”

M. Winstead: “We were actually just talking about hobbies with a friend recently and I was like I need to get some more hobbies outside of acting and music, which are the obvious choices. So my newest hobby is flower arranging, so [Laughs] I could try to teach that.”

R. Stearns: “[Laughs] Or, acting with your eyes.”

M. Winstead: “Yeah, exactly.”

R. Stearns: “Like getting really specific with it.”

M. Winstead: “Isolating body parts tactics. Eyes only.”

R. Stearns: “Super strong at that.”

M. Winstead: [Laughs].

FAULTS is streaming on Netflix today.

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About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.