Riley Stearns on packing a punch with his latest, 'The Art of Self Defense'
Are you tired of being picked on? Do others make you feel like less of man? Would you like to fight back? Look no further than The Art of Self Defense. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola and Imogen Poots, the dark comedy hits the big screen today in a limited release with plans to expand to theaters nationwide on July 19. While it may not actually prepare you for a physical altercation, the original story from Riley Stearns may very well do you one better, confronting perceptions of aggression and masculinity with a deadpan sensibility that is simultaneously hilarious and deeply disturbing.
“I was writing something — or I tried to write something — that just wasn’t really working,” Stearns tells Moviebill of his new film’s origins. “I think I was trying to force an idea that wasn’t really fleshed out and ready to be worked on. It may never be ready. That frustration kind of led me to say after a couple of years, ‘Maybe you should do something with a little martial arts. Maybe that would be fun.’ I think it took a little bit of convincing the people around me, saying, ‘Trust me. It’s still going to be my thing, but there’s going to be karate.'”
The Art of Self Defense marks the second feature from the Texas born filmmaker. In 2014, he wrote and directed Faults, starring Leland Orser as a man tasked with deprogramming a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who has become part of a cult. Although Stearns himself has been practicing jiu jitsu for years, he admits that martial arts have their own cult-like tendencies.
“It’s about manipulation and about control,” he explains. “They’re really not too dissimilar. I feel like the world of martial arts can feel like a cult. To a certain extent, it can be negative for people to feel like they need a license to belong to a certain group, but I think that there’s a lot of good that comes from martial arts as well. When you think about the fact that you’re going to this place and wearing this costume or uniform and getting promoted to different levels. All of that stuff is very cult like in a lot of different ways. That can be something that people take advantage of in any walk of life. If someone is in control, they have the power to use that for good or for nefarious purposes.”
That fine line is one that Eisenberg’s character, Casey, finds himself walking when, after being randomly attacked in a parking lot, he discovers karate classes taught by Nivola’s intense Sensei.
“In the case of Sensei and his students, I think that he’s kind of drunk on power that he doesn’t get outside of the dojo,” Stearns continues. “Alessandro Nivola and I talked about this as we started making the movie. Sensei is probably not the coolest person outside of the dojo. He’s probably picked on by different types of guys. Inside the dojo, he gets to be the idealized version of himself and what it means to be a man. I think that he does kind of take a turn to the darker side and the true psychopath in him comes out.”
Although he has had dozens of prominent credits over the last two decades, Nivola has rarely had the chance to step into the spotlight.
“I like to work with character actors, like with Leland Orser in ‘Faults’,” says Stearns. “He’s someone that maybe people aren’t familiar with until they realize that he was that pivotal role in ‘Se7en’ or in ‘Alien 3’ where he’s a really frightening, scary dude. He always kills it in everything he’s in, but he’s always part of the movie and the story instead of himself. I think that Alessandro is the same way. He’s in so many things and you may recognize him from so many things, but he really transforms into his characters. I really like the idea of having someone where you don’t look at them and see that person. If you had Brad Pitt in the role of Sensei, it would take a minute for you to realize that this character is not the kind of character you’re used to. You need to train your brain that this is a different person. I felt that Allesandro could step into the role and the character and that the audience would immediately be pulled in. You don’t know where he’s going to go or what he’s capable of.”
The intensity of the main characters initially made it difficult for Stearns to cast the film, particularly the Casey role.
“Jesse came on in June or July of 2017,” he recalls. “I had been trying to figure out the lead for about a year at that point. I was getting a reaction from people that, at the time, was frustrating, but that kind of now make sense because it kind of vindicates that the movie was challenging. There was a note from a lot of actors that they didn’t want to play this character. They didn’t feel like they could go where Casey needed to go and be as emotionally stunted as he is. In retrospect, I understand why but, at the time, I kept asking, ‘Why wouldn’t you want this? Why wouldn’t you want to explore something that you haven’t explored before?’ To Jesse’s credit, when we started talking, he wanted that. He wanted to explore a different version of himself and explore new ideas… He was always there, trying to be the best he could be for the project. He’s so Casey that now I can’t imagine anyone else in the role.”
As fate would have it, The Art of Self Defense wound up retiming Eisenberg with Poots, his costar in the sci-fi thriller Vivarium.
“They were very familiar with one another and knew each other’s style,” Stearns continues. “They were friends. When I mentioned Imogen as Anna, Jesse was through the roof. He was so excited. And with Imogen, when I offered her the role, she already knew that Jesse was involved.”
Filming took place in Kentucky over the course of about a month, which wound up presenting some unique challenges. There are two dogs in the film, for instance, a dachshund and a german shepard, and production in the Bluegrass State meant that professional acting canines were in short supply.
“We didn’t have access to trained film dogs, so we wound up with a retired police dog who was a literal killer,” Stearns laughs. “Jesse was afraid for his life in every take we did and I was afraid for Jesse’s life. The crew all had to step lightly around the dog and refrain from sudden movements.”
Fortunately, though, Kentucky did prove the perfect locale for The Art of Self Defense‘s slightly heightened sense reality.
“We embraced older technology because I didn’t want it to feel dated at all,” says Stearns. “I didn’t want to watch it a few years from now and feel like it was a movie that came out in 2018. I wanted it feel like it either came out today or some years ago, but you’re not really sure. That feeling is something that I always really like and we tried hard to get it there… I don’t want to feel referential or that I’m forcing something to happen in some kind of way. I just want the movie to be what it’s going to be. I like filmmakers that kind of go their own way.”
Even as the new film opens, Stearns is already planning his third feature with casting expected to be announced in the not too distant future.
“I finished writing a film back in August called ‘Dual’ that I’m very excited to be making, hopefully, sooner rather than later,” he says. “I hope that after ‘Self Defense’ comes out, I’ll be able to focus on the casting process and move forward gung ho with it. It’s kind a pseudo sci-fi thing that is, in my opinion, a little darker than ‘Self Defense'”.