Yes, Sensei

The Art of Self-Defense writer/director Riley Stearns tells us about his singular new film.

Tone is fun. Tone is like a fingerprint, and I’m trying to figure out what mine is.” —⁠Riley Stearns

Leaning heavily into ideas centered around manliness, Riley Stearns’ new film The Art of Self-Defense feels pretty loaded. Although it’s clearly presenting itself as satire, the hot-button nature of its subject matter heightens the whole affair.

Set in what appears to be sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, or a cellphone-less present—you can never be quite sure—the film stars Jesse Eisenberg as Casey, a meek office drone who is violently mugged one evening. After recovering, he begins taking karate lessons at a local dojo and falls under the influence of his charismatic sensei, a man named… Sensei. Sensei is played by Alessandro Nivola in a hilarious performance that itself justifies seeing the film, but it’s worth it for several other reasons too, not least of which is a great turn from Imogen Poots, playing a fellow student.

Destined to be polarizing, The Art of Self-Defense affects a vibe that feels influenced in equal parts by Yorgos Lanthimos, Charlie Kaufman and Wes Anderson. For Stearns, who also helmed the 2014 cult-recovery feature Faults, a black comedy described by Letterboxd members as “terrific”, “inventive” and “original”, The Art of Self-Defense continues a never-ending exploration of tone, “the most important part of filmmaking”.

Letterboxd caught up with Stearns earlier in the year to talk jiu-jitsu, ambiguity, violence and the Coen brothers.

Writer/director Riley Stearns.
Writer/director Riley Stearns.

What was the impetus for you telling this story?
Riley Stearns: I think I started just worrying: what would happen if I got in a fight? What would happen if I got mugged? What would happen if I was with somebody I loved and something happened and I couldn’t defend them? And I just really didn’t know the answers to those questions. So I started looking into taking martial arts classes, and jiu-jitsu in particular is what I settled on. It was really out of fear initially, and now I do jiu-jitsu because it’s fun. It’s a hobby, it’s a sport that I like and it keeps me in shape. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself, but it really started out of fear.

When I started writing the movie, I’d been doing jiu-jitsu for a little while. I wanted to make a movie in that world, but I realized I could take my experience and my fear and put it into the story, and I thought people might relate to that. And the really interesting thing is some of the guys I’ve shown it to have felt like they saw themselves in the character, even though for me, it’s a stylized and exaggerated version of myself. I see myself in the character, obviously, but I feel proud that they see themselves too.

Is this film’s time period deliberately ambiguous?
Deliberately ambiguous, yes. I wanted to kind of be able to just mix technology. I happen to think that analog technology is more interesting-looking, and it adds a certain production design quality to the film that I really like. I don’t want people to have to think about the timeline too much. If you’re thinking ‘why is it ambiguous?’ that’s one thing. But thinking ‘oh there’s an iPhone 7, so this happened at that time’, I think it dates a film unnecessarily. I also try to stay away from cellphones just in general too. Because if you don’t have ’em and they’re never touched on, then you can’t use them, and that’s great, because it helps propel story. But yeah, it’s definitely an ambiguous timeline.

Having said that, your film delves into a subject that there’s so much discussion around right now in society: masculinity (and toxic forms of it). Is that a coincidence?
I started writing this in 2015. I think the conversations were happening then, it was just a smaller version. Recently it has really picked up, [with] the #MeToo movement, and there’s people questioning and saying ‘no we’re not gonna take this anymore’. I think that’s amazing, but this was already something I was looking at doing for myself. Just saying, like, I’m a white guy and I’m middle-aged and I grew up in a middle-class family and this is my perspective, and so this hopefully is how I can help. It’s karate and it’s got action and comedy and all that, but I do think there’s a message at the heart of it. At the end of the day, it’s entertainment, for sure, but I don’t want to make something that’s pure entertainment. I want to make something that says something, at least. That was my goal.

The character of Sensei is really something else. What were your conversations with Alessandro Nivola like?
For some reason I came up with this image that kind of started with Sensei: he’s the kind of guy who would wear sandals with socks. That’s who Sensei is. He’s a sociopathic character in the film, but he also is just a dork, too. I think he was the kid who was beat up in high school, probably started taking karate to be able to defend himself, thought it would make him cool. And at the end of the day, karate’s not necessarily the coolest thing in the world anyway. Anybody putting on a gi, you don’t look cool doing it. What you’re able to do from the martial art is one thing, but you don’t look cool in the gi.

I think Sensei just wants to belong. He wanted to belong to a group, and no group would have him so he kind of started his own, so he’s got his school, all these students look up to him, and he’s just pretending to be the cool person he always wanted to be. And he also just happens to be kinda crazy too. But yet, Alessandro had fun being that guy, just embracing the quirks of the character and not going the expected route.

There’s a declarative, deadpan tone to this film. Did you talk to your cast about tone?
Definitely. ‘Deadpan’ is a word that’s used, and I think I accidentally slip into it here and there, but I like to say ‘literal’. In real life, we kind of hide the truth a little bit to be nice or friendly, and we don’t always express exactly what we’re thinking. I like to think that in the world of The Art of Self-Defense, everyone says exactly what they’re thinking. It’s either black or white, there’s no gray. And I think that helps inform the acting at times. Just saying what you think, and also a lot of times with quote-unquote jokes in the movie, I don’t think they work as well if you play it as a joke. But if you don’t play it as a joke, you play it dead serious, that’s where the humor lies. And we were really able to find that on set.

It’s hard to say that it’s a natural-feeling film, but I didn’t want it to feel so stylized that it takes you out of it. I wanted you to feel like this is just maybe a dimension over from us, a minute shift, but it’s enough that it makes things feel slightly off but it gives it its own world. I like building worlds, even if it’s not in some grand Avatar kind of way. Just hone and feel an atmosphere.

For me, tone is the most important part of filmmaking. I would rather have a nailed-down tone. I don’t know that I’m ever gonna achieve that; it’s always gonna be a battle to figure out what is perfect, but that means more to me than doing some really cool camera move. Or having some big explosion or something. I look at the Coen brothers and I say, like: how are they able to do exactly what they want to do with every single movie, and how does it feel like a Coen brothers film for me every single time? That’s an aspirational thing for me down the line; I want to get to that point where I know exactly what I want, we’re able to achieve it every time, and everyone’s on the same page. Tone is fun. Tone is like a fingerprint. And I’m trying to figure out what mine is.

Violence is a big part of this film. Were you trying to approach violence in a specific way?
Um, not necessarily. I think that our society, in the United States especially, nudity and sex is so “horrible” to put on film, but everything gets away with violence. And I think that to a certain extent, that’s not a great thing, but I do happen to find a certain style of violence… when it’s used in a certain context. The films of Yorgos Lanthimos or… who else…

Paul Verhoeven?
Yes. There you go. Haneke. There are ways of approaching violence that don’t glorify it, and I do think that there is humor in violence, but I know at the end of the day I’m making a movie. In real life, I’m not a violent person. I don’t like violent things. But being able to explore it is interesting in the context of the film. Maybe it’s the shock of it. Maybe I’m just being clichéd or whatever. But I do happen to find [violence] an interesting tool to be able to use. There are moments in the movie where we show the violence and there’s moments where we have it off camera. And I think being able to decide that may be too much, or being able to say, this is just doing it for shock and not adding anything to the discussion.

Something I definitely did in conceiving the way that we shot it, anything with fists or feet, like punching, very analog fights, all of that could be very bloody. But the moment we used weapons or guns or anything, I wanted [scene description redacted to avoid spoilers] to be almost not bloody at all. I didn’t wanna glorify the gun violence. But with the karate side of it, we just went balls-to-the-wall. So there’s also a little bit of that too, knowingly adding more to certain elements that you want to enhance. I don’t think people need to see [scene description redacted]. That’s not entertainment to me.


The Art Of Self-Defense’ is in US theaters now. Comments have been edited for clarity and length.

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