'The Art of Self-Defense': Blending Darkness and Comedy with Director Riley Stearns
Filmmaking tips for finding your own thematic balance from the SXSW stand-out narrative feature.
As far as dark comedies go, generally speaking the darker the narrative goes, the funnier the comedy becomes. This is doubly true with Riley Stearns’ latest feature The Art of Self-Defense which stars Jesse Eisenberg as young man looking to “toughen himself up” by joining a local martial arts studio where he find his “Sensei” (Alessandro Nivola).
And while that all may sound familiar to those who grew up with the Karate Kid and No Retreat, No Surrender Saturday morning karate movies, The Art of Self-Defense tracks closer to Jody Hill’s The Foot Fist Way and Observer and Report in its odd, dark mood which contrasts sharply with some surprising and awkwardly funny moments.
At the world premiere of The Art of Self-Defense at SXSW in Austin, Texas, we sat down with Stearns to chat about walking that fine line between darkness and comedy, as well as share his advice for those looking to find their own filmmaking paths.
NFS: In your own words, how do you talk to others about The Art of Self Defense?
RS: "I don't, ha. The Art of Self-Defense is a guy figuring out who he is. Casey is a guy who just wants to belong. He finds this dojo, and these people, and this collective, and a seemingly interesting and charismatic sensei who is almost like a father figure.
And it's this idealized version of what things could be and then he's just starting to realize that it's not what he expected and it's much darker and much less the world that he thought.
I think that in the beginning when he goes into this dojo it's this idealized place of, "I'm going to learn how to do karate and I'm going to make all these friends and just have a place to belong." But at the end of the day it's just as fucked up as the rest of the world is."
NFS: The film walks a fine line between comedy and darkness, how did you set out to define this world?
RS: "I mean for me I think the way that I initially came up with the idea had none of that in it. If you think of the whole picture or if you've heard the expression, “if you start climbing the mountain thinking about reaching the top you're never going to make it. You've got to take it a little step at a time.” And so, the initial idea for this movie was literally just saying to myself, "I've been doing jujitsu for a couple of years, I should do something set in that role." Or I guess I changed it to karate but I really like that and it could be really fun.
Then the next step is I start saying, "Well what would I want this movie to say?" And at that point especially I was really thinking about who I was as a man.
What is society's expectations of me as a man? Am I masculine enough? If I were in a fight would I be able to defend myself? If somebody attacked a loved one would I be able to help them? All of those things scared me.
And I think I also read this quote from Tom Hardy where he talked about that he doesn't like going to the gym because he's intimidated by other men and that he doesn't find himself a masculine person - but he's a good chameleon. And he can pretend to be those men and become those people.
And so, it's like that really resonated with me and I had already decided that that was what the movie was about. But to have it stated the way he stated it really solidified to me that other guys feel this way. And so, that was the message. For me it was really just this thing of saying, "Who am I? What do I want to be? How can I help other people be what they want to be?" All of that kind of stuff. Just looking inside of yourself and saying, "who's the real me? I don't want to pretend any more."
NFS: Interesting. And at what point does the comedy come into the process from there?
RS: "Comedy comes into it because I just can't write things that aren’t funny. I always have to come at it from a subversive direction. So, Faults I kind of came at with the idea there's this guy trying to get this girl out of a cult but the thing is she's programming him all along and there's an innate funny, kind of darkly funny thing behind that. If you start thinking about what she has to do to do that. Self defense. It was really pushing the style and the tone more. I think I let myself go even more, even further with the weirdness of the dialogue and embracing self defense.
So, I had already made Faults and shown that I could straddle the tone. And so, I really just let myself have fun with the dialogue. In the opening scene the sensei has this monologue that he gives and he's doing karate as he's saying it. And it's on the page I was just like, "This is funny to me." I'm not going to not do something because I'm afraid if it's going to play or not. I'm just going to do what feels right to me. So, I think the comedy just comes in trusting your own voice."
NFS: Regarding the actual production. How was shooting? What camera did y’all shoot on?
RS: "We shot on the Panasonic VariCam 35. We also used the LT for some car mounted shots and we did have two cameras running for a specific stunt. but for the most part we used single cam. I never used dual cam for dialogue. I think that for me I'd rather just get each actor's part separately."
NFS: Why’s that?
RS: "I think it's more ... I'm not doing improv. I'm picking lines specifically so it doesn't matter if somebody matches up with the other person and I don't always do over the shoulders. I sometimes just do singles of people and so it's better for me. It's my working method. If I ever had to do any improv it would be different obviously.
But for me the production, I guess the hardest thing about any production is that you never have enough time. With Self-Defense it was a 25 day shoot and it was a wonderful experience but there was one day in particular where we shot almost all of a fight scene before lunch, broke for lunch, finished up a tiny little bit of it, and then had to shoot another extensive scene with dialogue and then a crazy special effects shot after that.
When you have one of those days on your schedule and you're looking ahead and you see there it’s there. You look at those days and you say, "I'm glad that's not happening yet". And as it gets closer you're still thinking, "Well I don't have to think about it yet". And then, the day that you wake up and you know that that's the day that you're doing that scene that you've been thinking about that whole time that's a really hard but exciting place to be. When you finish those days and your AD is saying, "We have time for one more shot and we go into overtime," and you're able to get it done before it goes into overtime it's a rewarding experience. The crew believes in you."
NFS: Last question. Do you have any advice for any aspiring filmmakers who are looking to work in this dark comedy theme? Or just in general as they start off and find their own paths the way you have?
RS: "It's a simple answer but I think the most important thing that I tell people most often is make shorts.
Don't put all of your money into the short either. If you do a Kickstarter that's one thing, but do something within your means. Practice first, find your voice.
I was talking to a filmmaker on the bus yesterday going to the filmmaker’s lunch and he has a short in the festival. It's his first time at the festival as a short filmmaker. He's made several shorts before but this is the first one that he actually felt like, "This worked. This was me." And when you're making it you're going to say, "This is great, or this is working, or whatever".
And then a little ways down the line you're going to say, "I should have done that or I should have cut that down. I could have made that better.” But you're going to make that one thing that resonates and works for you in a way that you can say, "this is me".
I think when you find that moment you'll know it. Don't force it, don't rush it, but definitely don't do a feature first, or don't do a 30 minute short, try a five minute or ten minute short and just do that until it feels right. It's a little little thing but once I did my first short I just knew that that was what I wanted to do. That's the kind of story I wanted to tell. And I was able to practice it before it became crunch time and go time to actually make a feature. I think that was an important thing: just practicing. It doesn't have to be a million things, it can be just a few but you'll know it when you see it."
The Art of Self-Defense is being distributed by Bleecker Street and is scheduled to be released on June 21, 2019.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.