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Riley Stearns on ‘The Art of Self-Defense,’ Yorgos Lanthimos, and Small Business Realities

Written by on July 12, 2019 

With only two films notched in his belt, Riley Stearns has proven to be one of the more distinctive voices in American independent filmmaking. Delivering both laughs and shocks with a considered precision–and often at the same time–Faults and his new film, The Art of Self-Defense, explore power structures and a twisted sense of community in inspired ways.

Starring Jesse Eisenberg as Casey, a lonely auditor who desires to prove his masculinity, he meets a mentor of sorts at the local dojo, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), and things only get more intense and darkly humorous from there. John Fink said in our review from SXSW, “The Art of Self-Defense proves to be a twisted comedy with hidden depths that gravitates at times between tenderness and restrained silliness.”

Ahead of the release, I spoke with Stearns about his precise pacing, how he feels being compared to Yorgos Lanthimos, the realities of owning a small business (even for psychopaths), visual punchlines, casting Eisenberg and Nivola, not having a specific timestamp, how he hopes the film will be received, and more.

The Film Stage: With both of these films [Faults and The Art of Self-Defense and Faults] there is a very precise, patient pacing, letting us really live in this strange environment. I’m curious how much of that rhythm that you’re finding is on the script or if it’s more translated as you’re filming and editing.

Riley Stearns: I mean, for me, the script is the blueprint for making the film. So, everything that I can put in there I want to–anything that gives actors or my crew a sense of where we’re gonna be at any point in time is huge and important for me. Jesse [Eisenberg] and Alessandro [Nivola] have said in interviews that, for them, this was the script that was the closest to the final product that they’ve ever seen, and, in a weird way, that’s a huge compliment to me. I really appreciate that people are able to picture what something’s gonna look like based off of that initial piece of material they see. Anything that I can do to get people an idea as close to what it’s going to look like at the end of the day… that’s important to me.

With this film, there’s a keen exploration of toxic masculinity. It would make a perfect double feature with Under the Silver Lake, where you’re really in the protagonist’s head  I’m curious if you’ve seen that film, and also your approach to this theme in today’s age.

I can’t really speak too much to [David Robert Mitchell]’s film because that’s more for him to talk about, but I did see it and I do think that it’s exploring many things through a different lens than I was trying to explore. And it’s funny, too, for me… I wrote this at the end of 2015 and discussions about this topic have been around for as far back as we can remember, but specifically in the past year or two years it just really came to the forefront of people’s conversations. 

For me, when I was writing it, it was less about toxic masculinity and it was more so my own personal fears and thoughts; who I was, and “was I man enough?” and all of those thoughts went into writing this script, but it’s just interesting it’s coming out at a time when it actually feels more relevant than had it come out in 2015.

You use distinct framing, as if we’re trapped in the dojo and you’ve mentioned that the palette gets darker as the film progresses. You’re also utilizing some long zooms that are really effective. Could you talk about the approach to cinematography here? 

I really liked to be a little free going into the shooting of the film. The script is so set in its way, like, I know how the dialogue is going to sound, I know what I want to do with the performance… but the fun for me is being more improvisational with the way that I shoot things. Showing up on the day and saying with my cinematographer, Michael Ragen, “Where’s this gonna be based on the blocking that the actors are doing?,” “How can we go about shooting this thing?” It’s fun for me to just experiment, and I would be lying if I said I went in with an exact idea of how I was going to direct the scene.

I do have a rudimentary shot list and I kinda branch off from that, but I really–like you were saying–did want the film to progress and get darker when the film got darker, and feel more gritty when the film got grittier… that was a huge deal for me. Part of that was just through our lighting and the way we color designed the film; it just gets a little more muted as it goes along. All of those things are just fun to play around with, but yeah, I’m not one of those people who go in and knows exactly how their film is gonna look. When they start directing it, part of the fun for me is figuring that out as I go along.

A lot of the humor here is derived from sharp visual cues. I love the opening with the French insults… and then you cut to the car–

[Laughs]

I’m curious about that balance of humor, ultimately being derived from the visual punchline. You are not necessarily feeding laughs to the audience. You let them discover the humor along the way.

That’s the first time, on that cut, where you realize, “Okay, this is the tone of the movie.” But even then, it takes another second. I would say the gun store scene is where you’d really start to say, “Okay, this is definitely different than what a standard film would feel. It’s got its own rhythm, it’s got its own voice.” Then, once you get further into the movie, or even just before the gun scene, the answering machine–that’s a good indication of the tone and just letting people to say, “Okay, I’m just going to go along with it. I don’t have any preconceived notions of where this is going, I’m just gonna let it take me there.” I like letting people figure out the tone on their own and not talking down to people, but at the same time giving occasional strong indications towards what I’m going for.

Even just like you were saying with the editing, I am of the school of a setup and a punchline with writing, but also in the way that I shoot things. So, I’ll show a wide of something, there’s something that’s said that is focused on a certain area of the screen, and then cutting to that area of the screen. Just being very on the nose about that kinda stuff sometimes can be humorous to me. For example, the shoes on the mat. That kind of very direct, like, “No shoes on the mat.” Cut down, there’s shoes on the mat! That kind of stuff is funny to me, so playing around with that and being a little on the nose is sometimes fun.

Since its premiere at SXSW, there’s been comparisons to the films of [Yorgos] Lanthimos, but I find your work with characters to be a little more full-bodied and with more heart. Do you feel honored by that comparison, or do you think you’re doing your own thing?

Both. I am hugely honored to be compared alongside him, and not even alongside him; just for people to say, “Hey, your stuff kinda feels like Yorgos’s.” I would be lying if I said I wasn’t inspired by his work and people like Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen brothers and Hal Ashby, but Yorgos in particular… I saw Dogtooth when it came out and it blew me away in a way that I don’t think a film had at the time, and it just let me know that there were other ways to go about making a film and other tones and feelings you could feel from movies. I was a late bloomer when it came to watching movies. I feel like around 17 was when I really started to say, “This is what I wanted to do.” So, a lot of my references are going to be things that are a little more recent, and his happened to be some of those films. 

But at the same time I’m trying to do my own thing. I feel like, like you said, I like my characters to feel a certain way, and I don’t think that anybody’s going to watch my film and be like “[Yorgos] directed it!” nor should they, because he’s a better visualist and satirist than me–he’s on another level. But I also find it funny that I know for a fact that Yorgos Lanthimos doesn’t have Google Alerts, but I love to picture that every day he opens up his Google Alerts and sees this dumb karate movie popping up in his mentions, and he’s like, “What the fuck is this movie?” So, I find a sense of humor in that, but again I’m trying to do my own thing.

Let’s talk about Alessandro [Nivola]. I loved him in this film. I remembered him from Face/Off, and now it’s 20 years later and he has The Neon Demon and You Were Never Really Here and this film, and he’s really coming into his own, in a sense. His character was super serious, but he was also concerned about the economic realities of his business–

[Laughs]

–with the charging 15 dollars for a lost karate belt and more. I’m curious about crafting that character.

It’s funny, I think you are the first person that’s brought up, in the year that I have been talking about this movie: the economic realities of being a small business owner. Like, you may be a psychopath, but you also have a small business to run. When the Zellner brothers came on board as executive producers–just friends of mine, and I’m a huge fan of [Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter] and Damsel–David Zellner was on the phone with me after he had read the script, and he was like, “There’s some scenes at the end of him cleaning up after a super horrible act, but he’s having to clean the toilet, take out the trash, sweep the floors.” And, I loved that David got that the reality is that he still has to run a small business. He still has all these day-to-day tasks to take care of, and that’s the dynamic that I wanted to play with, where there’s some real-world shit still happening… it’s still a movie, but life is still taking place.

Having Alessandro come in and play that role was so perfect for so many reasons: he’s such a great actor, but also I didn’t want it to necessarily be somebody who was super well known. I wanted people to come into the movie, maybe unaware of who he was, or maybe just didn’t have too many preconceived notions of what he does as an actor, so that when you see him in that first scene, he’s just doing his crazy monologue and doing all the karate along with it, that you really believe he is who he is instead of saying, “Oh, I know this actor.” And it takes you a while to get them to that headspace. So, the fact that he came onto the movie so late to the game and just knocked it out of the park the way that he did, we couldn’t have been any more thrilled.

I feel like it’s almost the opposite casting with Jesse Eisenberg in the sense that we know him as audience members, and when the rug is pulled out from under us with the violence and darker elements we buy in and then we’re kind of shocked. Did that idea have anything to do with his casting?

I mean, it was a happy accident with the preconceived notions with Jesse happen to throw people off on where the film is gonna go. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was just a huge fan of Jesse’s, and being an independent film, when someone of his caliber signs on to do your movie, it just puts you in a different category. We definitely appreciated the fact that he has name recognition, that he’s as decorated as an actor as he is, and that he was so incredibly game just to play every day and be there for the film. I mean, he’s been doing press more than me, it’s nonstop for him, and it’s because he loves the film so much and I can’t thank him enough for that. I feel like we ended up with the perfect person to play Casey, and it’s cliche to say, but I do feel like I couldn’t imagine anybody else in this role. It’s just so nice that it worked out in the best of both worlds; people know who he is and they’re hopefully excited to see him do something a little different, but at the same time I think it’s going to surprise people where this film goes.

What was your decision in terms of a timestamp on the movie? Some things seem like they could be in the present day, while some things feel like a decade or two in the past. How do you think it adds to the story?

I like movies that create their own world, and part of me creating my own world was deciding what did and didn’t exist in that world, and one of those things was that cellphones just don’t exist. It just makes it easier to never have to explain why a battery has run out or why cell phone reception is gone. If you just don’t put the phones in the movie, it just takes away that problem. But, I also wanted to be able to have it feel timeless. In ten years, when people are hopefully watching the movie, I didn’t want them to be able to watch the movie and say, “I know exactly what year that came out.” I wanted it to feel like it could exist in its own time frame. So that was why I went in and said to my production designer, particularly Charlotte [Royer], “This is going to be VHS, this part is going to have a DVD, we’re going to use CDs here, we’re going to have a car from the 2000s here.”

I’ve been enjoying what Bleecker Street has been doing for the promotional bit, and I believe there were with the film from the ground up, right?

Yeah, they bought the movie before we even made it.

I’m curious how involved you are to the fun things they’re putting together. I was looking at the website this week and the teaser videos that have come out

I can’t take credit for any of the really cool stuff they’ve come up with. They’ve been so on it with a ton of thinking outside the box and saying, “Alright, we’ve got a movie here that we know will play for certain arthouse audiences, like they’re trying to see something from the director of Faults or the actor who’s been in so many incredible films and indies,” but they also knew that they had something that could potentially connect with a larger audience. So, thinking outside the box and saying, “Why does it have to be promoted in this one way? Why can’t we go after different areas?” It’s been really exciting to see what they bring to the table. And like you said, whether that’s creating a really weird website where you make Jesse kick and punch and learn karate, or the imagery of the poster being darker but also having a sense of fun about it, it’s been really exciting working with them and I think they’ve gotten it from day one. It couldn’t have been a better partnership.

There’s been a lot of talk this summer, with all the studio films coming out that have disappointed at the box office, that it’s kind of at a stale time for movies, but then you look at the indie side: The Farewell, Midsommar, The Art of Self-Defense they’re all coming out at around the same time and there’s so much fantastic stuff out there. As an indie filmmaker, how do you see the industry shaping itself in these last few years?

Interestingly, I feel like I used to keep up with the box office on some things, and I was more present with what release dates were about to hit, but I feel like I’ve fallen out of that a little bit more. Maybe it’s one of those things where once you know how the sausage is made, you don’t really want to see that in your day-to-day as much. So, I try to not think too much about the box office, but I am excited by the amount of independent films that are coming out in the summer. I don’t think you really saw that as much, or you saw indies that were maybe dumped at certain time slots because they knew they were going to get demolished by the studio films, but at the same time, it was a counter to what was happening.

I do think that between The Farewell, The Art of Self Defense, Midsommar last weekend, The Sword of Trust coming out… it’s a really fun feeling. Like, I think people are going to see the studio stuff, but also we got three really great independent films coming out on the same day as well. It’s an exciting time for independent cinema. I also don’t know what’s going to happen box office-wise with the film, you always hope for the best, but you also have to say that, “We’re an independent film and we’re a little left of center,” and everything with the response we’ve been getting and the fact that I’ll see the trailer play before a big blockbuster movie and it gets the laughs that you’re hoping that it gets. I feel like we’re in a great spot and I think that people want to see something a little different, and hopefully this is one of those things.

The Art of Self-Defense is now in limited and will expand in the coming weeks.


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