Interview: Riley Stearns – The Art of Self-Defense

Writer and director Riley Stearns brought his new film, The Art of Self-Defense, to SIFF this year. Riley sat down to talk about his new movie, taking self-defense classes, the our ideas of masculinity.

I’ve never taken any self defense classes, but you have. What made you start?

Riley Stearns: I started taken Brazilian Jujitsu six years ago. It started in a similar place as Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) in [The Art of Self Defense], it came from a place of being afraid – not knowing what would happen if I got into an altercation. Or If I was with a loved one and couldn’t protect them, that kind of scared me. I wanted to know, at the very least; I could deescalate. I started as self defense but over the course of a year it became something I loved doing. It keeps me active and keeps my brain working. The more I train, the less I want to be in an altercation.

One of the things I appreciated about Casey’s journey is how his trauma impacted him and you see him take these steps that land him in the martial arts class.

RS: He doesn’t want to take the easy way out and wants to better himself. In a weird way, I can relate to him wanting to belong to something. The main thing for [Casey] is wanting to belong to a group and feel like he has friends. He’s a lonely guy and his best friend is his dog. He’s trying to fit in.

As crazy as Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) is, there’s a great scene when Casey comes to him and after a bad day in class and he tells Casey nobody can take this away from you. It’s an important lesson.

RS: The film is definitely a comedy and hyper-realistic but there’s an earnestness that I wanted to come across. Even with someone like Sensei, he genuinely wants the best for Casey. Sensei goes about it the wrong way. He gives him these ideas and trains him in ways that are doing more harm than good. I think that earnestness from Sensei is important.

I’ve been having conversations with my friends about the idea of masculinity. I asked them, ‘What makes someone masculine?’ Think about whatever that means to you. Now think about who has the power to give it to you or take that away?

RS: That was the main reason I wrote this movie. I was questioning what it means to be a man. I didn’t feel as masculine as I thought I should. I was out of shape, slightly depressed, inactive, and didn’t feel like I belonged to something. I started thinking about what the definition of a man is, and realized they’re all these archaic tropes. You can just be yourself. To think that there’s one version of a man is ridiculous.

Anna’s [Imogen Poots] deals with some masculinity issues working in the dojo.

RS: I think Anna’s dealt with it her whole life but particularly at the dojo. She’s told she’s never going to be better than the guys, but she obviously is. She puts her head down and quietly does the work. I think there are so many women in this world that have to do that on a daily basis. I’m doing an exaggerated stylized version of it but there are worse versions of it in real life.

I think that’s why your film spoke to me. Underneath all the stylized stuff and humor, these are real conversations and real types of people. The fear of not being able to protect yourself is a real thing.

RS: Even the ability to say, “I’m confident in what I know and who I am. I don’t want to get into a fight, but I’m not afraid.” These are things we always talk about and things happening in everyday life. I wanted to talk about in a way that’s less on-the-nose, and more direct in others. At the end of the day, I didn’t want it to feel preachy. Hopefully there are some takeaways that help.

How has the reception been from people since you first showed this film? Anyone come up say, “I’m just like Casey?”

RS: Prior to showing the film at SXSW, I screened it for some people. All the guys were saying they related to the character in terms of feeling like Casey did. That was huge. I was really surprised at how many women said it was very important for young women as well because it’s nice to see there are people out here that are thinking about these things. At the premiere, a woman came up to me and said she was assaulted in her early 20’s. She took up karate and got into it heavy and started competing. She related to the film very similar to the way I did.