Jiu-jitsu is not a hobby anymore. It’s not even a passion. It’s a part of my life.
Riley Stearns’ sophomore feature The Art of Self-Defense ends the 30-year reign of The Karate Kid’s Cobra Kai being positioned as the most sadistic karate studio in cinema history. Stearns first raised eyebrows in 2014 with his acclaimed debut Faults, a cult deprogramming thriller that posited the Texas-born writer/director as a budding auteur with a hell of a lot on his mind. Five years later, he returns in top form with a hysterical, knowingly dark and biting satire that’s out to skewer our age of toxic, performative and curdled masculinity. This is one of 2019’s best films.
Jesse Eisenberg leans into his dependable bundle-of-nerves persona as Casey, a painfully milquetoast and lonely thirtysomething accountant who gulps and mutters his way through a sad routine: tiptoeing through life trying not to offend anyone, with only his dachshund to call a friend, and dreaming of things he’ll never do and places he’ll never go. When he answers the phone, he’s all too comfortable when the caller asks, “May I speak with miss Casey Davies?” and when he’s brutally jumped by a band of motorbiking thugs one night for no apparent reason, the sad sack hardly puts up a fight. But thankfully, coming to, he resolves to toughen up and restore his dignity. One day, he stumbles on a local dojo lorded over by a walking ego of a hyper-masculine instructor known only as Sensei (Alessandro Nivola)—The Karate Kid’s John Kreese dialed up to an 11–signs up and becomes so engrossed in his new studies that he stops going into work at an office where his colleagues express zero interest in letting him into their bro circle. The nebbish accountant’s dojo ascendancy is marked by such patently ridiculous lessons as “kick with your fists, punch with your feet.” He comes into this world learning French and listening to adult contemporary, and by the time he’s truly brought into the fold, he has taken up German and blasting death metal because, according to his guru, the French are “known to surrender” and “metal is the toughest music there is.” Before long, a dangerous corner of the dojo is illuminated.
The Art of Self-Defense premiered at this year’s SXSW to universal acclaim. For this edition of This Course, an on-going food, drink and talk series, Anthem sat down with Stearns at Tequeria Coffee in South Korea during the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) to chat about his new movie and other “masculine” things. The festival ran from June 27 to July 7.
To mark the occasion, Anthem is also giving away one (1) copy of the official BIFAN film program signed by Stearns. For your chance to win, shoot over an email with “MOCHA” in the header and tell us what that word means as it relates to The Art of Self-Defense. The winner will be chosen at random on July 26 at midnight PST. The contest is open to entrants worldwide.
The Art of Self-Defense opens in select theaters on July 12.
Men are stereotypically not great at talking about their feelings and certainly not about their insecurities. I think that’s why movies like this serve an important function. We see ourselves up on the screen and it leads to discourse. It was interesting to hear that you never set out to make message movies because what you communicate in the film is high-impact.
With this project, I wanted to set it in the world of martial arts and there was that very obvious thing of, “It’d be cool to make a movie that had karate in it because I do jiu-jitsu and I would get to do martial arts stuff and that’d be fun!” But I really liked the idea that you could take something that had the core structure of a karate movie—or a martial arts movie or a sports movie even—and you can have an audience think they know where it’s gonna go, but really, you’re getting to put your own thoughts and fears into the story. In my case particularly, I had these thoughts and fears about who I was as a man when I was writing it. If I was in a fight, would I be able to protect myself? If a loved one was with me and something happened like an altercation, were they gonna get hurt because I didn’t know how to defend them? Those were big fears of mine at the time, but there were also micro-fears and insular ideas in my head about who I was as a man. Was it weird that I didn’t feel that same machismo that all these other guys projected? Do they really feel it? In the writing of the script and in talking to people after the fact, I started realizing that a lot of guys share these same thoughts. Especially nowadays, this idea of gender specificity is broken down. With the movie, even women are coming up to me afterwards and saying that they relate to it. It’s in a different way than I intended, but I love that intent doesn’t have to correlate to somebody’s processing of art. I just love that people are relating to it in general because it was a very personal thing for me. But it has also been nice to know that, hey, everyone thinks this way and everyone has these thoughts and fears. That’s a long-winded way of saying that they were very personal ideas that I think people are relating to in a way that makes me happy.
Do you think men ever stop asking, “Am I man enough?” Or is there no end in sight?
I don’t know the answer to that and I don’t think anyone can say for sure. But thinking off the top of my head, I would say that around middle school is where you start thinking, “Wait—I’m supposed to dress a certain way. I’m supposed to hang with this kind of group. I don’t really relate to jocks the way that these other guys do. I fit more into this skateboarding crew,” or whatever it is. You start finding your clique and that clique really starts determining who you are as a man or who you are as a woman. And that’s a really young age to start saying, “I’m closed off,” and I’m this and I’m that. I did feel like I was more the person who could relate to a few different groups and I did have friends in different groups, but for the most part, you find your group and stick with it. That has to affect you later in life. It has to determine your path and I think doing that from such a young age is why we are the way we are now. I’m glad that people are starting to question these stereotypes. We’re starting to ask, “Why do I have to dress a certain way? Why do I have to like this sport that I don’t like? Just because I’m athletic it doesn’t mean I have to be a guy that does sports. Why can’t I do ballet?” With all of that stuff, I’m just really happy that these conversations are happening. I wrote this script in 2015 at the very end of that year and these are the thoughts, questions and fears that I had. But it seems like had the movie come out then it wouldn’t have related to what was happening nearly as much as right now. It’s such a hot-button, important issue. I wrote it for myself so it’s cool that it’s connecting maybe in a way that I wasn’t intending.
You’ve been doing jiu-jitsu for six years now, is that right?
Now, yeah. When I wrote it, it was around two years.
I heard that you go like five times a week so it’s past the realm of hobby.
That’s the best way of putting it. It’s not a hobby anymore. It’s not even a passion. It’s a part of my life. Filmmaking and jiu-jitsu are the two things that I do. If I’m not making a movie, I’m training every day. If I’m not training every day, it’s because I’m making a movie. Right now, I’ve been eating and drinking at these festivals I’ve been at and I feel gross. I want to train. The second I get back to L.A., I’ve got two days that I can train. Then I go to New York and I’m gonna do press and prep the premiere. Honestly, my mind is on a couple of things right now: I want to get back home and see some friends and have a real night’s sleep. But mainly, I’m just excited to do jiu-jitsu.
What got you into jiu-jitsu in the first place?
I think the initial idea behind it was that I wanted to protect myself. I wanted to do some form of martial arts or boxing, but I didn’t want to get hit in the face so boxing was immediately out. And I had been watching MMA kind of secretly. Whenever somebody would come in the room, I would change the channel as if it’s something I wasn’t supposed to be watching. I thought, “I can’t look at this thing. Only certain guys watch that. The jocks. The meatheads. Brawlers.” But I started to really respond to the fact that it is a sport. There was more nuance going on and it wasn’t just people punching each other. Once it got to the ground, there were these smaller—or at least not as traditionally masculine of a body type—guys just choking dudes out and submitting them. I had to find out what this was and it was jiu-jitsu. So I knew that was what I wanted to do. I want to say that was in 2012, maybe 2011. I was starting to work on this show as a writer in Glendale and I was passing this gym every day called Gracie Barra. I had remembered hearing, “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu,” and that’s where I should go. I was in Glendale, but never went in. That show got cancelled and I kept thinking at some point I’m gonna go back. I never went back. Cut to three years later, I finally got the courage to walk through the doors. I was so intimidated, but I had a great time. Other than the fact that I was so out of shape and ended up throwing up after warm up—it took me a second for my body to acclimate—I really just fell in love with it. So it was initially for self-defense, but I also just felt like I needed something in my life. I felt like I was spending too much time alone watching television and just being unhealthy. I knew that I needed something that would help me work out, but also just help me talk to people and get out of the house so there was also that social aspect to it. In the movie, Casey is looking for a place to belong as well. He feels like an outcast. Martial arts becomes family to him and that was my experience as well.
Are you a fan of death metal?
Oh yeah. [laughs] I wanted it to be metal in the movie. You could argue that underground hip-hop is super aggressive or that other forms could be that overtly masculine thing, but just because I personally love metal I wanted it to be metal. I had this idea that Sensei probably went to a record store—again, in his masquerading as a hyper-masculine man—wondering what the most aggressive music is. The guy behind the counter probably said, “I would say grindcore or powerviolence,” and Sensei’s like, “I like the sound of those. Let’s get some of that!” In the movie, we use this band called Full of Hell. I really liked this one album they released with this Japanese artist named Merzbow. So I reached out to them and said, “Ya’ll don’t know me, but I’m writing this weird karate comedy and I would love to use some tracks of yours in it if it ever gets made.” The lead singer wrote back a couple of hours later and was like, “What the hell—I just watched your first feature a week ago. This is too weird. If the movie ever gets made, we’d love to be a part of it.” Cut to a couple of years later, we’re making the movie and they were game. They were featured so prominently in the film. They’re very loud, very in your face. I just love that we were able to do something with metal in a way I don’t think I’ve really ever seen on screen before, especially setting it in a comedic way. Being able to put something that I love in there, but also kind of make fun of it and probably annoy an audience at the same time? All great things.
You moved from Austin to Los Angeles when you were 19.
Yeah. From Pflugerville, Texas. It’s a suburb of Austin.
It appears that you had aspirations in music prior to becoming a filmmaker.
Yeah! I started out playing music at 12 or 14. I don’t know why, but those even numbers stand out. Bass guitar was my passion and I really wanted to be in a band and tour. If I was gonna go to college, I had aspirations of maybe studying sound engineering or music recording. I met my ex-wife at 17 and she’s an actor [Mary Elizabeth Winstead] and we hit it off so well. I realized that she had this passion for something that I knew nothing about and that was film. I was able to visit sets and see the behind-the-scenes and realized that, not only is this really cool, maybe I could be good at this writing thing. I had always thought that I was an ok writer, but I had never tried to write narratively. So I started writing crappy scripts and those scripts progressively got a little bit better. But it took a long time. There was a years-long period of learning towards Faults and a period of thinking that the music thing is maybe transitioning more to film. I started working behind-the-scenes in writer’s rooms and once I started doing that it was like, “This is for sure gonna be my passion and it’s gonna be maybe where I have a career.” But yeah, I initially wanted to be a musician. I knew that no matter what I wanted to do something creative, whether that was music or film. Photography has been a hobby of mine, but it was never a professional aspiration. These were all things that I loved and it’s always that creativity aspect that I’m after.
Filmmaking fell into my lap at a later age. I think most directors want to be a filmmaker from the moment they’re able to hold a camera, whereas I kind of watched movies here and there, but I was never a hardcore film fan. It’s been interesting realizing later in life that everyone else knows the names of all these directors, actors and films. They’ve seen everything and I can definitely say that I’m not a cinephile. But I love cinema. If anything, I’m better at knowing the names of a lot of records and bands and the names of band members because music was that passion initially.
In your group interview for Collider, Alessandro [Nivola] said, “The film I saw was almost identical to the movie that was on the page,” which it’s understood is exceedingly rare. It’s a great compliment to you. You’re very precise—a huge gift for any filmmaker. I often ask actors if they can sense during a shoot how things are going and how things will turn out. I get all different kinds of answers to that. Are you a very meticulous pre-planner?
I’m actually pretty free-form when I’m directing, but with the writing process you’re setting a blueprint for not only how the film is gonna look, but how it’s gonna feel. I think if somebody reads my scripts, they’re gonna know how the movie looks. If they read the action lines and the dialogue, they’re getting a good sense of not only the look and the shots probably, but the tone. It was a huge compliment to hear Alessandro say that because he then went on to say it in other interviews as well. That’s just something I had never thought of. But once he said it—also in the car actually, right after that interview—Imogen [Poots] and Jesse [Eisenberg] backed him up and they said the same thing. Like you said, it’s a huge compliment. It speaks to the comfort on set as well. With Jesse, he said in interviews and to me that he felt like every shot made sense on set. He understood where we were in the context of the film and why we were doing something in this particular way because it was on the page. I try to be very specific in writing, but in the direction I get to play around a little bit. I shot list—it’s more of an informal shot list—and once I get to set, I throw that shot list out. But I like to know what I’m doing so that other people know what they’re doing and then you can play around a little bit after the fact. But yeah, I’m meticulous in some ways and very not meticulous in others. With this next one, I want to be a little more meticulous in my directing just because I’ve always had a limited amount of time to shoot. This was 25 days and Faults was 18. I’m hoping for 30 for the next one. It’s a shorter script so that hopefully means I can experiment and also plan some things a little bit more directly.
You probably get asked a lot about the casting of Jesse, Alessandro and Imogen, but I’m actually more curious about David Zellner’s involvement.
I didn’t realize that he was a full-fledged actor outside of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter when I first saw that movie. He’s of course a director himself, along with his brother Nathan. They’re super cool guys. They also executive produced this movie. How did you all meet?
I met David and Nathan through Kat Candler who’s another director friend of mine from Austin. I moved from Austin to L.A. like we were saying at 19, but I wasn’t a filmmaker then so I didn’t know any of the Texas filmmakers. When my short played at Sundance, I ended up sitting at the Texas filmmaker table at Robert Redford’s welcome brunch for the directors, even though I was already living in L.A. and didn’t know these people. That’s how I formed a relationship with Kat and she introduced me to the Zellners. Actually, James Ponsoldt, the director of The Spectacular Now and Smashed, the movie my ex was in, showed me a short of theirs—I want to say years before that—called Sasquatch Birth Journal 2, which was so ridiculous and amazing. I really felt a kinship in the way that they make their movies and the way the movies feel. But it was Kumiko that I saw where I was like, “I don’t care how, but I need to work with them, particularly David.” Nathan tends to be more the director and the editor and he’s obviously involved in the writing process, but David is that lead actor kind of guy too, in addition to all of these other hats that he wears. In Kumiko particularly, he’s so incredible and so sweet. I ended up putting him in as a cameo at the beginning of Faults, which always gets a laugh in certain screenings because certain people know—“That’s David Zellner!” With this one, I wanted to put him in a bigger role. I really liked his sweetness and earnestness as a person. It made sense to put him in the role of Henry. He was the one person other than our crew who was there for the extent of the shoot. I also just liked having him around. He’s a friend. He’s such an intelligent filmmaker too. So for me it was a no-brainer. I hope I can use him in other respects down the line. And with the executive producing thing, right before my producer Andrew Kortschak came on, David and Nathan had read the script and offered, “We can help in any way.” I was like, “Ya’ll wanna be executive producers? You don’t have to do anything, but it would just be cool for me,” and they were like, “If that helps you, we’ll totally do it.” So they’ve been on it from the start, but more in a we’re-here-if-you-need-us type of way, which was huge for me. I’m such a big fan.
I had a conversation with Jesse many years ago and the thing I most remember is that he set up a Skype account for the first time specifically for our chat—his handle was [redacted]—and he has not logged back on since that I know of. He just seems very disinterested in stuff like that. He doesn’t have social media. I always found that very “masculine.” He’s devoid of attention-seeking impulses. He’s very anti-Hollywood as well, and more generally speaking, there’s no surface vanity, which society prescribes as “feminine” in a way. What did you observe about him in your collaboration?
I think Jesse is very direct in the way he takes direction. On this movie you’d go, “Maybe try this?” and he’d go, “Can you just give me a line reading?” With actors, that’s usually a no-no. When directors insist on a line reading especially, they don’t like that. But with Jesse, he really just gave me the confidence to say, “Can you say it this way?” I’m not a good actor so I wasn’t saying it exactly right, but he would immediately go, “No, I know. I can take what you’re saying and I can make it into my own thing.” So the trust is there. And just the lack of an ego was huge. I’ve been very fortunate in working with him, and more peripherally Imogen and Alessandro. On Faults also with Mary and Leland Orser, they had no egos. That’s been really nice and I’ve been very sheltered and lucky. I’m sure at some point I’m gonna work with somebody who makes you go, “Oh fuck. I’m going to have my hands full with this person.” But I feel like working on these two features has given me that confidence to work with people who are maybe traditionally more difficult or have a different process down the line. Jesse had no ego and I love that about him.
As an aside, with the whole social media thing: a couple of years ago when I went through some life changes and kind of removed myself from society and didn’t put myself out there as often and stayed home more, social media was in a really roundabout way the thing actually connecting me to people. So that was important for me. I definitely used it maybe too much at times, but it also felt like I kind of needed to. It’s funny because I feel like there were people who were making fun of that at times and saying it was more of a woman’s thing: “Why is this guy sharing his emotions and his thoughts on social media and online? Just keep that in. Don’t talk about that.” Again, it was that societal thing: men should do this, men are supposed to hide their emotions. Even more so than that and just in general, you’re not supposed to talk about your thoughts and fears in the public eye. Those are things you keep inside of yourself. I found that fascinating because that’s not what we should be doing. Maybe with sharing publicly it’s a little bit more that you don’t have to. But talking about it with people in general I think is an important thing, and as things progress, you hope that people are able to discuss things that traditionally we might not discuss with each other.
You chose to feature old technology in Self-Defense. You eliminated identifying details that would trap the film in any specific time period—or you defiantly skew to the past at the very least. I remember talking to David Robert Mitchell about It Follows, about him inventing this ‘60s-looking shell-shaped compact phone as a prop to make it anachronistic.
Yeah! I mentioned that in a Q&A the other day. I’m finally gonna put a cellphone in my next movie, or cellphone discussions, and I’m debating how to go about that in an interesting way. I respected It Follows so much for inventing technology that was specific to the film because it takes it out of our world and makes it into its own. Worldbuilding is one of the fun things about filmmaking. You can do anything you want to do. With Self-Defense, I wanted it to feel like this alternate reality and technology was one of the ways in which I tried to build that out. In every Q&A I get somebody asking, “Why did you set it in the ‘90s?” and I have to tell them I didn’t do that on purpose. It’s definitely set in a more timeless space. I wanted to it to be abstract. But obviously I failed if in every Q&A somebody says that. The intention is always to build a world.
And to make it timeless.
Were there a lot of ruined takes on this movie, just from cracking up?
Not a lot of ruined takes because Jesse and Alessandro and Imogen are so talented and so present on set. It was less from them and more from the crew. But even then, the crew in Kentucky was just so amazing and professional. The exception is probably the day we filmed Casey punching his boss in the throat and then he has this long monologue afterwards. It had to be this exact punch so it would sell on camera and then he gets this really fast, long-winded monologue about why he’s doing this and why he’s masculine and how bosses can’t be friends with employees. Jesse was cracking up after every single take. He was frustrating himself, but laughing too. That was the one day that I think the blooper reel will have 11 takes of. I probably used take 5, but we wanted to try it some more. For somebody who’s so good at being on point and never messing up dialogue, I think Jesse was surprising himself in how much he was laughing during that scene. It was cracking all of us up. And I didn’t mind doing a million takes because we were so fast and efficient on other days. Having an odd day like that where it takes a little longer is totally fine.
So we’ll be seeing that blooper reel at some point?
It sounds like it might be on the Blu-ray, which is funny to me because it’s not a blooper movie. But we had enough content for that to happen. We didn’t have a behind-the-scenes so it at least gives you a glimpse at making the movie. I’ve always been such a fan of behind-the-scenes special features, especially when they’re done really, really well like Hearts of Darkness. God, even the Final Destination 3 behind-the-scenes is so incredibly good. It’s an hour-and-a-half long. It’s actually longer than the movie itself and it’s so incredibly specific. It shows what it really feels like to be on the set of a film and there’s a narrative to it. I want a behind-the-scenes for one of my movies some day, but I also worry that there would have to be a great narrative on set and it would be the most boring and tedious documentary. On Self-Defense, I think we’re having bloopers because we literally don’t have a lot of other special features. [laughs]
You were actually on the set of Final Destination 3, weren’t you?
Not every day, but I visited the set three times during the extent of that shoot. It was actually one of those times that I was sitting with James Wong, the director and co-writer of that movie, at the monitors and he said something along the lines of, “What do you wanna do?” I told him I kinda wanna write someday and he goes, “You’re gonna direct too.” I was like, “I don’t want the attention on me. I’d rather just write and let somebody else direct,” and he’s like, “You’re gonna direct.” That stuck with me in a way that I’ll never be able to fully describe to people. I’d never thought of myself as a director or the person who wants the attention, but Jim’s confidence in me and him knowing that I was gonna be a director changed me that day. I know that I changed. I know that’s the reason I started directing movies. It took a while after that point to actually do it, but he flipped a switch in my brain and I’ll never be able to thank him enough for it. I don’t think he would even remember that conversation if he was asked about it today, but I’ll never forget it.
Jim was right.
Thanks, Jim! [laughs]
You mentioned earlier that you have a new project. From what I’ve read, it seems that you have at least one actor you’re already working with.
No, no. But I pseudo did at one point—I won’t go into details. We’re actively casting right now. I’m very, very excited about the movie and the producers are going to announce the project soon. I can’t wait for that because they’re amazing and so passionate about the project. We have the same kind of mindset and ideas on how we want the film to feel. It’s to their credit too that they’re letting me make the movie that I want to make. After seeing Self-Defense and reading my next script, I did have a lot of people that were excited to make it, but this producer felt like the right one.
With a clear winner like Self-Defense, audiences want to know what the director will do next. But for you, you’re still touring that baby around. It’s a longer game than people think.
Yeah. The really great thing right now is that when I go back to Los Angeles, it’s basically five or six more days before the movie is out in theaters domestically. I really see that as the finish line. Even though I’m gonna be touring international festivals for probably the next year or so, I feel like I can finally let go of it a little bit. It’s like I got a kid that’s about to graduate high school. I know I’m still going to be taking care of you and you’re still gonna be annoying in my life and everything, but at least you’re gonna be more on your own now. That’s how I feel about this movie. It’s always gonna be my kid and I’m always gonna go to a festival to support it if I can, but I’m ready for it to get a job and take care of itself. Then I can really focus on the next movie.