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– by Nancy Tapia

Write what you know. That’s an adage that many a writer hears when starting out in their career. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t. For the new film The Art of Self-Defense, it was a starting point for writer-director Riley Stearns. Stearns did jujitsu as a hobby, and when he wanted to make a film, he turned to the martial arts. Of course, that turned into karate, but the kernel of the idea began with his love of jujitsu.

In our new interview with the director, we dig into that and the numerous other aspects that went into the film, including his experience working with actors Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, and Imogen Poots.

The Art of Self-Defense hits theaters this weekend!

LRM Online: Nice to meet you too. Thank you for your time.

Stearns: Oh, of course. Happy to do it.

LRM Online: First of all, I really enjoyed this dark comedy, I have to say.

Stearns: Thank you so much.

LRM Online: So I know you’re the writer and director, but as a writer, did you have the idea that it was going to be a dark comedy, or did that come later?

Stearns: Yeah. I mean for me, I think about home first and foremost. And my first feature Faults kind of had a similar tone and maybe was a little more grounded in reality but still had elements of kind of hyper-stylized things going on. But with The Art Of Self-Defense, I just wanted to push that more in that direction. So, I knew that it was going to be dark, I knew it was hopefully going to be funny, but it would be balancing of those tones, that’s the tricky part, and the part that I really enjoy and relish the opportunity to work with.

LRM Online: How did you come up with the actual story of The Art Of Self-Defense?

Stearns: I was kind of touring Bethels with it, and I knew that I needed to get started on the next script, and it’s taken a little too long in between writing the last movie and this movie, and one thing that kept coming about was I was doing jujitsu as a hobby, and I still do that. And I really realized that I enjoy that world so much, why I don’t I set something in that space? And it ended up being karate instead of jujitsu because I feel like it’s just slightly more cinematic, and people are more familiar with the steps for the sport.

But, I really just liked the idea of, “Why don’t I just do something that I already like?” That was the initial idea. I also really wanted to play with some thoughts and fears that I had in my own head at the time, and I think most people do, even if they don’t really want to admit it or talk about it. I think for me it was really just this feeling of not being a man enough and not being masculine enough, and was that good? Was that bad? How did that make me feel around other people? Just all those thoughts and fears had found their way into this … I guess the movie starts off more as a sports movie, so these things kind of sneak up on you.

I didn’t want to preach to anybody or make it a message film, but at the same time, I wanted to explore some ideas that maybe somebody watching the film might not expect.

LRM Online: I really like the idea of the belts, and giving you that confidence. Pushing you outside of your comfort zone where you feel like you’re strong and you can do anything and the aspect you brought about the belts, that was genius.

Stearns: Thanks, it’s kind of based around, again being in the jujitsu world, you see people identifying with their color and identifying with their belt and buying shirts that say that they’re purple belt, or buying a belt that happens to be the color that they are, or has a little bit of flair that represents their belt rank. It’s so silly, but I also see it in myself. When I got promoted to purple belt this time last year, I felt a connection to it. It’s so silly to think about, but I really did. And I just wanted to push that even more in the film and have Jesse’s character Casey just feel like it’s almost his security blanket. He needs it to be on him to feel that safety and that security, but also as the film goes along he realizes it doesn’t mean as much as he thought it did. He got it within him. Not be cheated, but it was in him all along.

LRM Online: How was it working with Jesse Eisenberg and Alessandro Nivola?

Stearns: Jesse is one of the nicest people I think I’ve ever met. I think people have this idea of him that he is incredibly intelligent, and that he’s super sarcastic, and that he might be hard to work with, or whatever it is. I know that I was intimidated the first time I met him to actually be there. Then once you start talking to him, he is the nicest most giving, trusting person. He just really was there for the movie, and there for all the crew, and he really put in the work, even with the stunts. He wanted this to be him as much as possible, and he’d be the first person to admit that exercise is not his thing. But, when it comes to making a movie he will do anything for the movie.

And similarly Alessandro, he came on three days before we started shooting, and he had no time to prepare really, just coming off of another movie straight into it and just did the work. He was there, he had a crazy monologue that he had to learn, and then fight sequences on top of it. I mean, I couldn’t have asked for a better pair of actors to work with.

On the peripheral too, Imogen [Poots] isn’t as featured in some of the earlier parts of the film, but she is a dream to work with, and I can’t wait to work with her again someday. All of them, I would work with any of them again in a heartbeat. The best trio of leads that I could’ve asked for.

LRM Online: I bet you were challenging them, it’s not just about a script, but also the physical aspect.

Stearns: Yeah, definitely. And they all embraced the physical head-on. They wanted it to be them. They wanted it to obviously, since they worked with our stunt coordinator Mindy Kelly, and the stunt devils to make sure they were safe. There were things that they couldn’t do, but for the most part they are in the movie, and particularly I want to just compliment Imogen. Her fight scene except for one shot is all her, and it’s just breathtaking.

I think the first time that we all got there and saw what she was doing with her really brutal night class fight scene. It was jaw-dropping, to say the least. She killed it. It’s just such an honor to write something to feel like it’s going to be this challenge and then on the day, it may have been a challenge for her, but she made it look like it was the easiest thing in the world. It was breathtaking to watch.

LRM Online: I enjoyed her role. In the film, it puts her … it covers making feminine tendencies being a limitation to really excel. In this case, to getting her black belt.

Stearns: Yeah. It’s a very liberal movie, the structure is very on the nose at times, but that’s part of the humor for me. And with Imogen, everyone in the movie is very black or white, and they say exactly what they’re feeling and exactly what they mean, and they don’t sugar coat anything for better or for worse. But Imogen, I feel Hanna’s the one character that just has a little bit of a gray area. She’s trying to find her place, and she really relished the opportunity to play in that space. And still get to be very deadpan and on the nose when she needed to be. But almost as a counter to what the guys were doing. She really made it her own, and working with her is just so rad.

LRM Online: There’s towards the end, when she’s speaking, there’s a part where … one line that stuck to me that I think a lot of society has in mind, that violence equals strength, and compassion equals weakness. That was a great line and I loved it, I loved it because that’s something that’s not … we don’t have that straight.

Stearns: Yeah, which, the whole movie again is in black in white, and everything thing masculine and strong and feminine is not strong, and there’s no ifs, ands or buts, about it. But, I wanted it to open up near the end, and her character especially challenged what the film has been telling you the entire time, and it was a fun way of doing it.

LRM Online: There was also a quote, I honestly really pay attention to certain lines and quotes. But, you as a writer, I enjoyed and now I can share with you, there was another one that mentions that it is wise to respect the past, but foolish to ignore innovation.

Stearns: Yeah, that’s the way that I think a lot of mixed martial artists, and martial artists in general like to go about the way that they train and the way that they compete. It really shouldn’t be that there’s one right way and one wrong way. You should be always be able to take from other people and other life experiences and backgrounds and ethnicities. That line is specifically for karate in this world, this movie, this stylized world. But, it really can be to a larger thing that we can all learn from each other.

I know it’s just a tiny little throwaway line in the movie, but I’m glad you picked up on that. For me, it means a lot more as well.

LRM Online: Of course, of course. There are some lines where I’m like, “Wow, that’s really good.” It says a lot.

Stearns: Thanks. That’s what you can hope for, and I know everything is very on the nose on this movie to a fault, or sorry, and a strength. That’s what I was after, but it’s fun to have a little bit of secondary meaning to something, and I think that that’s an important thing for an audience.

LRM Online: Yes, and an awesome job I have to say.

Stearns: Thank you.

LRM Online: You’re welcome. To finalize this, is there something you can share that you may be coming up? And I know right now you’re promoting The Art Of Self-Defense, but something you can tell us about to look forward to about your work?

Stearns: Yeah, I wrote a script in August called Dual, D-U-A-L, that I’m very, very, very excited about. I’ve got a couple of producers on board now that are equally as exciting. I can’t say much more about it other than it’s a pseudo-sci-fi clone thing that very much, if you like the tone of The Art Of Self-Defense, it’s more of that. It’s more creating its own world and vibe and feel, but in a slightly different setting. So, very, very excited to hopefully get that passed pretty soon and make it as soon as possible.

I just want to keep working and keep creating, and it’s been incredible releasing this movie so far. I’m excited to start the next one.

LRM Online: That’s great. We’ll look forward to it, and congratulations to this one, and many more successes.

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