After winning the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes last year, Molly Manning Walker’s singular debut How to Have Sex has been racking up BAFTA nominations and widespread acclaim to nobody’s surprise. The film is much more than a fresh look at female adolescence and early sexual experiences (read: hurtful disappointments), shining bright with actress Mia McKenna-Bruce’s lead performance as Tara, a bubbly teen eager to lose her V-card. What better place to do so than a Greek seaside resort where most of the things you can find on public display begin with a b, like: Brits, booze, and blowjobs. Tara, Skye (Lara Peake), and Em (Enva Lewis) are done with exams and embrace their first summer getaway far from home by partying alongside a pretty-boy type named Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) and his wisecracker friend, Badger (Shaun Thomas), to see where this can go.
Molly Manning Walker has been working behind the camera for a while now, but with How to Have Sex being the landmark British debut of 2023, she can rightly assume her place as a director-to-watch. Her commitment to crafting an emotionally realistic world and telling vital stories in an embodied, deeply human way illuminates every frame and second of How to Have Sex. Ahead of its U.S. release from MUBI, Molly and I talked about the practicalities, conversations, and silences involved in making the film.
The Film Stage: How to Have Sex takes place at a Greek resort where young Brits flock every summer to drink, party, and repeat. Considering much of what we see is true to life, how important was that kind of topos for the film?
Molly Manning Walker: The story can be translated into many different settings and I think it’s still relevant in terms of house parties, clubs, and even in relationships. On the other hand: I wanted to make something that was very cinematic, but not set in a domestic environment. But the reason that this particular setting felt perfect was that––at that time, as teenagers––it was where we would learn to or pressure each other into having sex and finding relationships. The post-exam getaway is also the first time of being away from parents, and it sets the backdrop up in a great way.
There’s freedom and there’s pressure: ground zero for the best and worst experiences.
Yeah, totally. It’s a little bit like a teenage Disneyland.
As a director who’s also a cinematographer, how did you approach the film’s visual style? How does one make the camera “see” as a 17-year-old girl would, in that wonderful, open way of looking that is also quite scary?
It was all about realism for us. We were trying to capture everything in a naturalistic way while seeing it as if through [Tara’s] emotion. That meant being very close to her face, and then setting up the film world in a way that would feel equally realistic to everyone else. Yes, as much as it was about [Nicolas Canniccioni’s] cinematography, it was also about the costume design [George Buxton], the art direction [Liza Tsouloupa], and the music [James Jacob], making sure that everything felt engaged within that world. As for the POV shots: what we wanted to do is be close to [Mia’s] face and eyeline at all times while never looking down at her, so we often ended up shooting over her shoulder or her face.
Molly Manning Walker
That’s interesting, because I’d hesitate to call the film “regular” realism, but something more akin to “emotional” realism springs to mind.
I guess it’s emotional realism in that we break into her headspace and the role of the music increases into her disassociation, but I’d say there’s still realism in the way I hope the feelings will translate onscreen.
But in the film’s first half, there’s a lot of characters at all times in front of the camera, until it whittles down to Tara’s world more explicitly. How did you strike the balance between the two, and also keeping up the energy levels so high for the first part?
So yes: the film is designed in two halves. The first one is meant to feel Disneyland-like, a best-holiday-ever kind of thing as we’re tracking the three girls in their excitement. We’re getting to know the space, and while the music is very singular, the soundscape is a bit more ethereal. And then, as you go through the film, the camera presses onto her face, so you’re really tracking her on her own. At that point the music clashes with the environment, so you can hear two soundtracks at once as the crickets in the background get louder. There’s more rubbish on the streets, the hotel room gets messier…
Does that mean that you shot chronologically?
No! We did it completely out-of-order. We shot all the parties in the first few weeks because all the extras were leaving the island, and then we shot all the hotel scenes. Actually, we shot the airport last, as it is in the film, because we had to wait until all the tourists had left.
At what stage did you start talking to Mia about the character of Tara, and how did these conversations evolve over time? You had prep and rehearsals together, but I’m curious about your relationship with her at first.
We met pretty early in the casting process, and I think we started talking about the character straight away. With Mia, it was always very easy to have an open dialogue about the film. She is such an amazing actor that, to be honest, she didn’t need much direction––she could get there pretty quickly on her own.
She seems to inhabit the role almost intuitively, although her character is not a typical protagonist that’s there to unite people. To her friends she seems a bit peripheral, but for us, the viewers, she’s in the center. So how do you approach such a character that is both in and outside of the group?
I don’t know whether it was on purpose. To be honest, for me, she was always a lead character that was flawed. You know, people sometimes would be like, “Oh, is it too much? She gets assaulted and fails her exams!” And I was like: that’s kind of a crazy thing to say, because we’re all real humans in that way. These things happen. And I don’t think people are so simple that only one bad thing can happen in their lives. So, for me, it was about writing a female character that everyone can recognize themselves in. Also, the boys [Samuel and Shaun] both recognized this was a story that needed to be told. Everyone understood the weight of what we were doing, and I think that’s what brought everyone together.
In that regard, what role did conversations about sex and gender dynamics play into your process––at the beginning, when you considered the idea, through the shooting, and then in the edit? Because in the film, the characters don’t have any of these conversations.
It was a constant dialogue. For example, lots of the men involved in the project––both on the crew and in the cast––were seeing such situations from a female perspective for the first time. As they were reading the script they were understanding new things about their own experience, and I think that felt quite radical. Then, as we were making the film, we hoped that this [process of understanding] would also be something that went on into the world. And it’s really nice that it has done just that.
I feel like certain conversations around sex and consent, unfortunately, take place later in one’s life, but How to Have Sex has opened up that space for a lot of viewers. On the flipside, did you feel like a person of contact for such conversations, especially given the writer-director role?
Yeah, totally. I mean, it’s been like that from the beginning, from the writing process all the way through. I think it’s a huge responsibility: it’s sometimes really nice, but having these conversations can sometimes be really hard. And I guess the more you know and the more you open yourself up, the more times you have the conversation.
As the film gets more introspective in the second half, right––with even less talking and more silences. As a filmmaker and writer, how do you treat silence? Do you embed it in the script, or do you just let it last when it happens?
Yes, the scenes were scripted and silences were written in the action. But often we would just plug the camera in, clear the set, and let the silence hold. There were times where I think we got really lucky––especially in the scene Badger and Tara share towards the end of the film, which we had scheduled really close to the end of the shoot. In that case, I think they were also perhaps reflecting on the period of making the film as well as everything that their characters had been through. As a filmmaker, you can really enjoy such moments when they happen.
And in contrast, how important was it to show the audience what happened to Tara instead of using, for example, ellipsis?
For me, it was about seeing that experience of violence through her emotion, on her face, rather than anything else. It was about capturing how she feels in the moment. Often, women are already over-traumatized by such scenes of assault in film, so I wanted to really stay away from that but also show how a person might be feeling in that moment.
How to Have Sex is now in limited release.