SXSW 2019: Talking Martial Arts and Masculinity with the Director and Cast of ‘The Art of Self Defense’


Writer-director Riley Stearns’ new movie The Art of Self Defense, which premiered at SXSW, places toxic masculinity below a satirical microscope. In the film, Jesse Eisenberg performs Casey, a clumsy, touchy guy traumatized after a random mugging. Casey reveals reputation and power at a nearby dojo run by enigmatic alpha-male Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). As Sensei tutors Casey, he starts offevolved to warp his thoughts on what it means to be a “real guy.” Casey additionally notices that Anna (Imogen Poots), arguably the dojo’s maximum committed pupil, continues to be held again and omitted in prefer of her male peers. The more profound Casey gets into his experience at the dojo, the higher is revealed approximately, the darker purposes that motivate Sensei’s coaching and commercial enterprise practices. Like Stearns’ preceding movie, Faults, there are cult-like devotion, deception, and blunt violence during The Art of Self Defense. Here, Stearns uses them to comment on our lifestyle’s unhealthy information of masculinity, lady roles, and the use of violence as a show of personal electricity and manipulation.

SXSW 2019: Talking Martial Arts and Masculinity with the Director and Cast of 'The Art of Self Defense' 1

The movie’s martial arts placing also has a non-public connection for Stearns, a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Riley, what stimulated you to make this movie and make it the way you did? Riley Stearns: So, I have a particular tone I like to paste to, exploring matters which you’d normally assume positive things from and then subverting those expectancies. I knew I desired to do something within the world of martial arts; I’ve been doing Jiu-Jitsu for approximately six years. However, I didn’t want to do a traditional martial arts movie. It’s set within the international of karate, but it’s approximately such many different things. Particularly, on time I changed into writing it, in overdue 2015, I was questioning my masculinity.

Were the societal expectations of being a person something I become dwelling as much as? Did I need to stay up to that? Was it higher to just be me? All of those had been ideas that occurred to be things I turned into thinking about lots at the time and ended up locating their manner into the script. I’m delighted with the direction it ended up taking. What role do you watch violence plays in our know-how of masculinity to comply with up on that? Stearns: I think shocking pix for the sake of surprise isn’t interesting to me. But, if you use it inside the context of storytelling in a clever manner, that’s interesting to me. In real life, I’m so anti-violence. I exercise martial arts, but I don’t ever need to be in combat. I wouldn’t say I like looking at violent things. I don’t assume you need to be violent or full of uncooked emotion to be a person. What statements is the movie-making about masculinity? Jesse Eisenberg: Part of the comedy of the film comes from the idea that in a normal story like this, the aim for the primary person might be to come to be more masculine and to protect himself.

But because the story unfolds, you realize that’s no longer the goal for this main person. The purpose is something a long way greater inner and private. So the comedy within the movie comes from what you’re generally waiting for this film about. In that manner, the movie’s type of a statement of the absurdity of how we think about masculinity. Imogen Poots: The masculinity detail likewise comments on, within the case of Sensei (Nivola’s person), stupid human beings ending up on top of things and making silly selections based totally on gender or ability. The inherent absurdity of hierarchy and which finally ends up making the huge decisions, is essentially ridiculous in our contemporary culture. Alessandro Nivola: Also, the approaches wherein feeling impotent can bring about overcompensation. Sensei, in my mind…once I say that Casey (Eisenberg’s character) rings a bell in my memory of myself before becoming a person, I suppose genuinely that ought to be taken absolutely at face value inside the film. (Sensei) become a person who became suffering from feeling vulnerable and socially uncomfortable, and not certain how to navigate thru a standard day in his life.

He located there was this global that would empower him; however, because he changed into coming at it from such low shallowness and harassed identification, it has become a monster in him and subsuming him in rage and violence. Imogen, your individual, Anna, is the most effective female member of the dojo inside the movie. I wanted to ask you how you sense approximately the movie’s portrayal of female electricity. What approaches do you watch the movie feedback on compared to the manner it comments on the men? Poots: (In Anna) we see a lady who’s been suppressed with the aid of the machine. She’s a lot better than a variety of the human beings within the room at her craft and is looking for that danger to ascend in the ranks. Slowly that’s been fermenting, and they are boiling over with rage. The violence takes place, and I suppose it’s inevitable for her. She’s a boiling pot of an individual with her type of darkness, and they are underestimated.

But I favored how that isn’t flaunted in Riley’s writing. There was simply a type of this discreet know-how that there has been an energy that could be found out. I enjoyed the mission of playing a man or woman who wasn’t paint using numbers, and her movements weren’t truly predictable. So, let’s speak approximately the real martial arts element of the film. What changed into the enjoy-like of gaining knowledge to teach for this? Poots: I loved karate. I loved gaining knowledge of that. I notion it became so cool and splendid and exceedingly embarrassing and humiliating! You’ve got seven-year-olds who’re just killing the one’s movements, and you’re much like, now not functioning. Eisenberg: I didn’t love it because I wasn’t good at it right away. But, I additionally mustn’t be outstanding at it. Alessandro certainly becomes fantastic at it, and he didn’t have as much training as we did. He becomes simply obviously properly. Stearns (to Nivola): Well, you put within the work, the little bit of time you had, you placed in the work to examine. Nivola: Yeah, it was a laugh.

When I examine the script, I had a vague notion that I had so much karate-ing to do. I don’t forget having a conversation with Riley on the smartphone; I changed into South Africa running on some other movie, proper up until a day earlier than I started this. I don’t forget telling him, “I don’t realize if I actually have all the time to learn this tons karate.” He stated, “You recognize, there’s no longer much you have to do,” and it became out he turned into proper, it turned into simply this one little routine I had to do, but it’s a comedian ordinary, definitely. It turned into the type of a clown ordinary I had to analyze. Riley, between this movie and your first movie, Faults, looks like some shared subject matters, approximately personal manipulate and belief in almost a cult-like structure. The dojo seems to have its very own cult-like surroundings. Are those issues that interest you as a filmmaker? Stearns: I guess it wasn’t an aware choice. Faults explore one cult member’s private courting to a cult.

That was a laugh to discover because lots of cult movies tend to cognizant of the institution mentality, and right here, we’re singling one person out and getting their enjoy with it, whether or not or now not that finally ends up being made up by her. It became approximately the group mentality, and Casey wants to belong to something. In a cult, humans often want to feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves. In popular, martial arts tend to have a touch bit of that. Not in an evil manner; however, some locations generally tend to push that agenda. I find mind control and relationships charming, and it just occurred to be a thing that, two films in a row, has popped up now. In the 1/3 one, I’ll, in all likelihood, flow on from that, but I am curious about that subject matter.