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How Jiu-Jitsu Helped an Unmacho Filmmaker Face His Fears — and Inspired the Year’s Most Off-Kilter Karate Comedy

Riley Stearns, the writer-director of ‘The Art of Self-Defense,’ talks about toxic masculinity, subverting the sports movie, and that time he was an asshole when he was 12

Soon after The Art of Self-Defense premiered at this year’s South by Southwest, filmmaker Riley Stearns was asked what inspired his delightfully and willfully odd dark comedy about an über-wimpy accountant named Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) who gets mugged one night and decides to learn karate. Not quite a sports movie, not quite a sendup of Fight Club and never quite what you think it’s going to be, the film is an exploration of the beta-male mindset that’s equally sincere and satiric. But Stearns’ answer was completely genuine. “I didn’t feel like I maybe was as masculine as society told me I was supposed to be,” he said, a comment backed up by his somewhat bookish demeanor.

It’s also backed up by the movie, which feels like the work of someone who knows from the inside what it’s like to feel smaller, weaker and less manly than those around you. The 33-year-old transforms those anxieties into deadpan comedy, following as Casey enrolls in a most unusual dojo run by a man known only as Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) who’s like the bizarro version of Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid — or a subtler bully than Cobra Kai’s evil sensei Kreese. Casey befriends the dojo’s one female member, Anna (Imogen Poots), but he soon learns that “self-defense” can have multiple meanings in this increasingly twisty, surreal thriller.

When I spoke with Stearns last week, he resisted the idea that Casey is a stand-in for him, although he couldn’t help but note the fact that, like his main character, he has a first name that makes the uninitiated assume he’s a woman. The Art of Self-Defense is his first feature since 2014’s Faults, and in the interim he’s had to deal with some emotional upheaval — particularly, the end of his marriage to actress (and Faults costar) Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 2017. (That’s presumably what he’s referring to when he tells me, “I went through some big life changes a couple of years ago that really had me questioning some things about myself and finding myself.”) But during that turmoil, he sought solace in a newfound personal passion — jiu-jitsu, which didn’t just inform his film but gave him a fresh perspective. (Deciding that jiu-jitsu wasn’t as cinematic as karate, he chose the latter for Casey’s martial art of choice, but during our conversation, he broke down the differences between the two — and why he likes jiu-jitsu more.) 

In The Art of Self-Defense, Stearns mocks the hobbies that get some men labeled as doormats. (Sensei informs Casey that he needs to trade in his adorable dachshund for a more ferocious dog — and he should only listen to metal. Oh, and he has to stop being such a Francophile — Russia is a far better and stronger nation to admire.) The movie nicely dissects the allure of guns — when Casey considers buying one from a shop, the interaction eventually devolves into an adult version of the peer pressure kids face in the schoolyard — and there’s also plenty of insights into toxic masculinity, a phrase that wasn’t nearly as prevalent in the culture when Stearns wrote the film’s script four years ago.

All of this comes in the Trojan-horse packaging of a “karate film,” and if audiences get thrown for a loop, that’s cool with Stearns. “I wanted to subvert the expectations of what a sports movie could be,” he says. “For me, the subversion is the exciting stuff. That’s the fun part of filmmaking.” During our chat, we discussed what it was like for him to step into a jiu-jitsu dojo for the first time, what happens when meek men try to act macho and why he was embarrassed to tell his friends that he liked MMA. But the conversation also prompted a long-forgotten memory for Stearns of something he did in childhood that he’s not proud of — a memory that reminded him that any of us have the potential to be a bully.

The scene early on when Casey gets mugged is upsetting and brutal. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was inspired by anything you’d experienced.
Not personally. When I was coming up with the idea for the script, I had been training jiu-jitsu for about two years. Part of the reason that I started training was that I was afraid of something like that happening to me. I really did myself a disservice — at the time, I was watching too many videos online of people being mugged, security-cam footage of robberies, things like that. I don’t know why I was doing that to myself — maybe it was the morbid fascination with the violence of it. The fact that it was people who didn’t bring that upon themselves — that they could be minding their own business, going about their day, living their life in as positive a way as possible — that was a hugely terrifying thing, and it made its way into the script. It was seeping into my subconscious while I was watching those videos. 

I imagine a certain percentage of guys go into karate or jiu-jitsu because they want to learn how to kick someone’s ass. Was that part of the appeal for you?
There were two reasons that I started training. The first is that I was afraid and wanted to be able to defend myself. It wasn’t about kicking somebody’s ass — it was being able to distance yourself from a situation, deescalate a situation, or if worst-case scenario it happens where somebody actually attacks you, you can protect yourself. I just had this fear that I’d be with a loved one and something would happen, and I wouldn’t be able to [protect] them.

As a side thing, I was also watching a lot of MMA secretly. Basically, I wasn’t telling people that I was watching UFC fights. I was a little embarrassed by the fact that I thought that it was supposed to be for certain types of dudes since it was this brutal blood sport. Everyone had been telling me, “This is barbaric. This is just for meatheads and jocks.” 

But at a certain point, I started realizing that it was an actual sport, and I started finding the nuance and the technical side of things so fascinating. The main thing was that I saw there were certain dudes and certain girls who just could demolish people on the ground. And I was like, “What’s that thing on the ground? What is that wrestling that they’re doing?” I came to find out it’s jiu-jitsu. I said, “I have to do jiu-jitsu, that’s what I want to learn. I don’t want to get hit in the face — I want to be more technical, I want to use leverage and I want to learn submission.”

It took three years after that conversation with myself before I finally walked through the doors of my first academy. Jiu-jitsu’s all about self-defense, so they have no issues with you coming in and saying, “I want to learn how to defend myself.” I think karate and other martial arts are a little different, where it’s more about finding inner peace for yourself, a strength inside yourself, and you’re learning stuff. But jiu-jitsu’s definitely a combat sport — you’re learning to go 100 percent and defend yourself, but also attack at the same time. It’s definitely more practical for everyday self-defense and fighting.

That said, my first day [of jiu-jitsu], I threw up after the first class — after the warm-up, actually, so I didn’t end up doing a full class. The next time I came back in, I did a full class. I was still exhausted, but I also was like, “Oh, this is going to be my thing. I love it so much.”

While watching The Art of Self-Defense, I thought about another karate movie, The Karate Kid, which is about Daniel learning karate, but more importantly, about life. That movie has so many tropes: the wise sensei, the path to self-enlightenment, etc. It feels like your film is playing with those tropes and subverting them.
In my first meeting with Jesse, I told him I wanted to make what people would think would be a traditional sports movie. Martial-arts films and sports films have that similar narrative: If somebody has been beaten down in the beginning, whether it’s socioeconomic or in a literal sense — they’ve been embarrassed or mugged or whatever — they start building themselves back up and they follow this path of reflection and self-improvement. Finally, there’s this showdown, and whether they win or lose at the end, you know that they “won.” 

With this movie, I wanted it to feel like it was going down that path, and then, halfway through the movie, I wanted to pull the rug out from under you: “Wait, what the fuck is that?” I want people to think that they knew where it’s going, and actually think that they can see the structure happening, and then say, “You have no idea. We can go down different paths than you imagined, and this is maybe a different movie than you imagined.” That was more interesting to me.

In other interviews, you’ve said that you never considered yourself an overly macho man. Casey is the embodiment of the beta-male — he’s almost like a parody of the wimpy guy. How much of Casey came out of how you feel about yourself?
I mainly put thoughts and fears into the overall script — what it means to be a man and what it means to not feel as masculine as society is telling you that you [should be]. But with Casey, [I drew on] little things. I have a dachshund [laughs] that lives with my parents now. I have a name that sometimes people think is a woman’s name, even though it’s kind of a gender-neutral name. Those are little details that find their way into the script. 

I’d say that there’s elements of myself in Casey, but I don’t see myself as Casey, nor did Jesse play him as me. I feel like we’re very different, but there are little mannerisms — for example, my sister will watch the movie and say, “Oh, I noticed that thing that you wrote right there, that’s exactly like something you’d say.” That’s fun for me, but it’s definitely not me.

Does making a movie that expresses those anxieties help release them for you? Does it lessen them?
I went through some big life changes a couple of years ago that had me questioning some things about myself and finding myself. I just think that I’ve naturally grown as a person [since then], and I kind of figured out some things on my own. You could maybe say that the film is a piece of the overall puzzle that led to a better version of myself and a deeper understanding of who I am. 

That’s what I was hoping to get at with the film: It’s not really about masculine or feminine. It’s not so black-or-white. It’s more about just being yourself. It’s a little cheesy, obviously, but I do feel like I just needed to find out who that guy was, and this [movie] is a part of that.

So how did it feel to be physical in that way when you started jiu-jitsu? Was it totally alien to you?
The very first time that you go into somebody’s closed guard — or you put somebody into your closed guard, which is basically them on their knees and you on your back and you’ve got your legs wrapped around their waist — it feels awkward in that initial moment. But then immediately after that, you’re learning a technique, and you just go, “Oh, this is fighting. If I’m in a fight and it’s all on the ground and I wrap somebody up in my guard, that’s going to be what protects me from getting hit. I’m [putting] them in a position where they can’t really be offensive, and I can be defensive and offensive.” Your brain starts reprogramming itself so incredibly fast. 

I often get [people] asking me, “When you [spar] with a woman, is there anything sexual about it? Do you feel like it’s weird being in that close of proximity with a woman? Or does she feel weird?” I can tell you that some of my hardest training partners are women. You’re in such a heat-of-the-moment [situation], especially when you’re live-sparring and you’re going 100 percent. It’s not like karate or boxing, where if you go 100 percent you’re going to knock somebody out and you’re going to cause damage. [Jiu-jitsu] is as close to fighting as you can get without striking, and I guarantee you’re not thinking about the weirdness of body contact. You’re thinking, “Oh, if I slip up right here, somebody’s going to choke me out.” That initial weirdness goes away so incredibly fast. It becomes more exciting, and you just realize how much you’re going to learn.

It sounds almost like a religion for you, and that it gave you a new sense of purpose or something.
That evolved over time. It started at “Oh, this is a new hobby of mine,” and then it became a passion, and then I started competing and going five days a week. When I’m not making a movie, jiu-jitsu becomes my job, in a weird way. I’m not making any money from it — if anything, I’m giving them my money — but I treat it like, “This is my job.” I go there, I do my work and I feel good about myself — and then I go home and I can eat whatever I want. I can have a drink or whatever later in the evening and not feel bad about it. It’s part of my life.

It’s been 20 years since Fight Club came out, and your movie talks about some of the same issues — specifically, the difficulty that men have with expressing themselves outside of violence. Was it an influence?
I first saw Fight Club in middle school — maybe eighth grade. I remember being one of the people who didn’t get that it was kind of making fun of men. Like a lot of people, I took it more at face value: “It’s about a cool fight club.” It’s also got its whole anti-corporate element and anarchist element — I definitely got that — but I never got the anti-toxic masculinity until I was older. 

I’ve never really compared [my movie] to Fight Club, but when I was describing [shooting] the first night-class fight scene in my film to my cinematographer and set coordinator, I described the brutality of Fight Club. I described that, instead of it looking like a fight scene, I wanted it to look like a brawl. I wanted it to look like a street fight, and that was important to me. But it’s been interesting hearing the comparisons to Fight Club, because obviously it’s an incredible film and it’s one that I’ve gotten a deeper understanding and appreciation for since I’ve gotten older and been able to go back and revisit it. We’re both trying to say the same sort of thing, but in a different way.

We hear a lot nowadays about “toxic masculinity,” and The Art of Self-Defense can definitely be described as a movie that’s about that topic. But it’s become such a generic buzzword that its meaning has kinda gotten lost. What, specifically, drew you to making a film about it?
It’s funny because when I wrote this, it was the end of 2015 — I know that that term probably existed, but people probably underestimate how much it’s [grown] in just a couple of years. I don’t know that I actually heard it used in quite that context before, or even at all. “Toxic masculinity” is such a new-feeling phrase; it’s one that feels like, “What’s the only word that we have to describe this thing that’s happening?”

When I was writing the script, I knew that these were conversations that people had — how men weren’t the coolest all the time, and how women were being treated a different way than men were. But these were just, like, overall topics in my head as I was writing the script — I was just making fun of men in general.

It wasn’t until we were shooting the film at the end of 2017 that all of the #MeToo stuff started and the Harvey Weinstein allegations came out — all of that was happening right when we were making this movie. All of us on set — most of my department heads are women — we were all having these conversations about, “Wow, this is so relevant. This is crazy that this is happening while we’re making this film that’s about all of the same sort of things, but in a more broader sense.” That was fascinating, but it was never really a movie about toxic masculinity because, when I wrote it, it wasn’t really a way that we were talking about it. It was just more about men in general.

Did #MeToo inform anything in the filming? Did you change anything because those conversations were going on?
Actually, the closest I got to changing anything was the gun-control stuff. When I wrote it, there were these gun stories and shootings at schools — these horrible things in the news all the time. I wrote it thinking, “If this ever gets made, I hope it comes out not at the exact same time as something tragic dealing with guns.” But then I started worrying, “Well, what if it does? Maybe I shouldn’t have this in there.” But then I had to remind myself that it’s something that’s never going away at the pace that we’re going in the United States. I need it to be in the movie — I kind of just had to go with it. 

But in terms of the discussion about what was happening in the news with [#MeToo] and toxic masculinity in general, if anything, my department heads were pushing me to go further with it. It meant pushing the dialogue — and the delivery of it — further into the realm of ridiculous [to say] “Look at how crazy this is.” When somebody [in the movie] says that [Anna] will never be a black belt because, unfortunately, she’s too much of a woman to be a man, that should be the most ridiculous thing that somebody can say. But it’s said with such conviction that that character actually believes it — that’s where all the humor’s going to lie.

When Casey is attempting to feel safer, he first tries to buy a gun, and the whole movie seems to be a commentary on how men are pressured into feeling that they need to do more to prove their manliness. You even make fun of men’s magazines that try to sell guys lifestyle products that will make them cooler or tougher.
Yeah, whether it’s a gun or “You need this sports drink” or “This magazine is telling you that you need this, and if you don’t have it, you might be laughed at when you go to the gym” — all of those things bombard us every day, and oftentimes we don’t even realize it. That’s part of the joke with having the men’s magazine in the film — it’s the most broad-reaching men’s magazine that talks about the best boobs and the coolest guns and “Wolves are better than dogs as pets.” That was me having a little bit of fun with that advertisement kind of culture where you’re being marketed every day, and it starts to seep into your consciousness and who you are. 

I see it all the time: I want to be myself, and I feel like a lot of other people are that way, but then there’s so many people who are just like… Even just people commenting on my Instagram posts [will say], “Why do you dress that way? That’s gay.” And it’s weird that people are still thinking that way — like you have to look a certain way to be a man, or you have to look a certain way to be a woman. Or if you’re a man, you can’t like ballet, and if you’re a woman, you can’t play football. But you see it daily. 

One last thing: I thought it was really interesting that when Casey starts to gain confidence because of karate, he becomes, well, an asshole. He beats up his boss and intimidates the coworkers who used to make fun of him. It feels pointed, as if you’re suggesting that, really, even the meekest man has the potential to be a macho nightmare.
There’s two things that I’ll say. The first is that Jesse and I really liked the idea of that section being so over-the-top in the way that Casey was going to deliver his lines. Casey’s almost performing being a tough guy. Everybody in the film gives a little bit of a stilted, very removed emotionally performance, and that’s part of the tone. But during that section, Casey adds even more of a [stilted] cadence to things. We liked to imagine that he practiced his tough guy [act] in the mirror: “Okay, I’m being a tough guy now. This is how I talk, and this is my slightly different voice, but it feels tougher to me.” But it should almost feel comical that he’s putting on such a show — that’s his version of being a man. He can’t be himself to be a man — he has to pretend to be something that he’s not, and he’s also even adding a voice to it. That was fun, and that was a way of indicating that Casey doesn’t really feel this way — he’s just putting on this act. 

But the other thing, too, is that — you talked about everyone has this potential for being horrible. While you said that, I was reminded, when I was in sixth grade, one of my first days of school, I had a locker above this other kid who was little bit of a nerd. And I was definitely a nerd, too, but he was more of a nerd, so that’s saying a lot. But I remember thinking, “I’m gonna push this guy, and I’m gonna make him get out of my way so I can get to my locker, and I’ll show him who’s boss.” I had no reason to — he was so cool and so nice. But I pushed him, and then he pushed me back so hard I froze and realized, “Oh my God, I wasn’t expecting him to fight back.” Then I thought, “Why did I do that? I’m not that person. Why did I try to be that person? That’s such the antithesis of who I am.”

I do think that that’s true of everybody — and maybe we have more of that when we’re younger, because we’re trying to [figure out] who we are as people, and we see these things happening around us so we try to mimic them. But even as an adult, we all have these things that we’re constantly battling, and if you let somebody embrace that [toxic] side of themselves, you’d be surprised what will come out. There’s a little bit of that in the film, but it’s so funny thinking back to that [memory].

Now I feel like a dick again for something I did when I was 12 years old.

Yeah, we think we’re all decent people, but there’s something deeply ingrained in our DNA that’s ugly and primal.
That’s a good thing to help remind us that we’re the kind of person we are because of our experiences — and if you slip up, you can turn out to be a different person. I’m glad that my brain didn’t let me forget that, because that would be kind of a bummer. I think I should remember the times where I was a shitty person, because it helps me form the better person that I want to be.