Riley Stearns Discusses His Dark Comedy The Art of Self-Defense

Filmmaker Riley Stearns debuted his second feature The Art of Self-Defense at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival where it world premiered in Narrative Spotlight. The film stars Jesse Eisenberg and is set in the world of karate. Eisenberg plays a man who is attacked at random on the street and enlists in a local dojo, led by a charismatic and mysterious Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), in an effort to learn how to defend himself.

"SXSW was a no brainer for us and our film. I’d premiered my first feature Faults at the festival back in 2014 and it was one of the best experiences of my life. The idea of going back five years later with a slightly larger profile film in the same category was extremely exciting."

Discover more about this film with our interview with Stearns below. Watch The Art of Self-Defense on Digital, Blu-Ray/DVD and on Hulu. Be sure to save the date, we will be announcing our Features Lineup on January 15, stay tuned!

Interview with Riley Stearns

In your own words, what does this film mean to you?

Riley Stearns: The Art of Self-Defense is about wanting to belong. It’s about altering who you are to better fit in to something that you are not, despite knowing you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. The film is incredibly personal in some ways but completely, outlandishly its own thing at the same time. When I was writing the film in 2015, I wanted to explore some of my own thoughts and fears about who I was as a man and how I fit in or didn’t fit in with other men. It took on new meanings at various stages of making the film; we were shooting in 2017 when the "Me Too" movement really kicked into gear so that definitely had an influence on how the film would relate to audiences, but the film has first and foremost always been about wanting to belong to something. And it’s also simply about how dumb men can be.

What motivated you to tell this story?

RS: I really wanted to create a world where people could say exactly what was on their mind. A world where every thought or statement was either “black” or “white” with absolutely no shades of “grey”. I felt like confronting certain issues head on through unsubtle satire could be fun and challenging; making something that had a clear point of view, but never felt like it was talking down to the audience or hammering them over the head with a message. Additionally, I really wanted to make a movie with martial arts in it. I’ve been doing Jiu-Jitsu for 6 years now and it’s gone beyond the point of being just a hobby. I thought it could be fun to set something in that world, convince the audience that it would be a certain kind of film, then pull the rug out from under them halfway through.

What do you want the audience to take away?

RS: It’s a little cheesy and cliche, but I really would like the takeaway for the film to be that it’s ok to just be who you are. I've learned a lot about myself in the past four or so years since writing The Art of Self-Defense, both personally and professionally. I wouldn’t be the person I am, for better or for worse, if I hadn’t made this film. But at the end of the day it’s just a film and I would love it if people at least have a fun time with the world. It’s not going to be for everyone, but I hope people at least say, “Well at least the filmmakers went for it.”

What made you choose SXSW to showcase your film to the world?

RS: SXSW was a no brainer for us and our film. I’d premiered my first feature Faults at the festival back in 2014 and it was one of the best experiences of my life. The idea of going back five years later with a slightly larger profile film in the same category was extremely exciting. Also, I grew up in Austin (Pflugerville to be specific) so there was the added bonus of family and friends being able to attend and share in the fun.

Do you have a past experience that impacted your decision to come back?

RS: Everything about the experience with Faults was so above and beyond perfect, so I knew coming back and being one of the few films to premiere at the historic Paramount Theatre in downtown was going to be everything I experienced in 2014 but to the Nth degree… it was.

SXSW is massive and it can be a little overwhelming the first time around so I felt like the second time there I was able to just enjoy it all a little easier. What other festival can you be walking out of a screening of your film and hear that a band you love is playing a surprise free show around the corner and your film badge gets you in? SXSW has something for everyone and I found some fun ways to branch out this year.

Do you have any advice to filmmakers submitting to SXSW or any advice to first-time filmmakers?

RS: My biggest advice to filmmakers is to not put too much into getting into festival A or B or C; or more importantly, not getting into those festivals. Having been rejected from all kinds of festivals myself, the initial sting is obviously there, but it is not always a reflection of the quality of your film. Festivals receive more and more submissions every year and they have such a limited number of slots to program. They are also often curating a very specific overall program and perhaps your rad film just didn’t fit with that program at that particular festival that particular year. Just know that if it’s a good film, it will find its home and you’ll be happy where it ends up. I promise.

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World Premiere of The Art of Self-Defense - Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SXSW

By Neha Aziz