Self Defense Art is not your average karate kid story. Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is an adult man who takes karate classes after he has survived a ripple. Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) gives him wisdom as "think German" and Anna (Imogen Poots) tries to help take Taj Casey up. Things go too far quickly.
The dark comedy from author / director Riley Stearns may be the anti-underdog story. There are no rousing victories, because Stearns prefers to bathe the entire movie in silence, and the audience can question who and what they root for at various points. Casey navigates in a world that masters violence, so how does a man stand up for himself?
Stearns talked to / Film via telephone about The Self Defense Art which premiered at this year's SXSW Film Festival. Self-defense art is out in theaters today.
This movie is so quiet. Did you have to take out all the surrounding sounds?
I really like movies that don't let the score affect the tone too much. I people know things because the characters feel it, not because I say you should feel it. With that said, we have a very tricky balance. One of the things is that the movie is very quiet, as you said. We do not shoot this on any sound steps. It was all found. There is a veterinary location in the movie. It should be sad and fun at the same time, but it is all atmosphere. There is no point over it. It was the highest, worst sound room I've ever hit. The amount of challenge that went into the sound design for that scene, cleans it up and shredded the horrible sound, our sound mixer Demetri [Evdoxiadis] did an incredible job. We took a few things and tinted them a little, but other things are just in the day. Sometimes we play around with sounds and quiet is usually the direction I go. That said, I'm excited about the next movie. I want to play a little more and add some more points over something or put it under it. I learn all these things when I go and figure it out and see what is right for the story.
Martial arts films are always about someone training until he can fight his bullies. This can be one of the first films where the bullied person stops becoming a bullying which is a very modern perspective. Is there anything you have been thinking about underdog / martial arts movies?
I guess it was a theme, not when it comes to martial arts, I thought more about what people were expecting. As you said, there are lots of martial arts movies where the track you have grown up in and are conditioned to accept, but you can take anything from any sports movie. Someone who is an underdog and trains and works hard and eventually overcomes, or is trying to overcome losses but ultimately gets more in their loss than they would have in their victory. I didn't want it to happen the same way. I wanted a movie that started in that vein, then as it went along halfway through the movie I wanted the carpet to be pulled out of you and you woke up in a way that you thought you knew what would happen, and you have no idea. Along the way, as you said, he takes on the bullying aspect. He tries to come to Sensei's teachings and most are very, very bad teachings, very openly horrible things that he surrounds. I believe that even in a destruction, even though he is overwhelmingly contemplating in the end, it is he who surrounds a little bit of the darkness he has accumulated along the way of the greater good. In my opinion, Casey can make some decisions in the way that he solves his problems that are almost like a self-sacrifice. I do this because I have to, so no one else has to go through it, or no one else has to deal with it in the future. For him, I think it's about honoring the dojo, which is so fun to say in an interview, but he is really looking for Dojo's honor and is really worried about it. He is willing to sacrifice his own morality for the greater good. That was what was important to me. It was something I definitely wanted to do.
We've started talking about, just in recent years, the previously bullied groups, like nerds and people who like Star Wars have been bullied in poisonous fandom, even though it's not physical. Do you stop commenting on it by Nature of Self-Defense ?
I don't think it was an intention, but it's about making a movie or some kind of art, you have intentions but something will happen that you didn't think. It doesn't make it wrong. So if people get something out of it that it was not our intention, then I think that is amazing. I didn't really think about people online or Twitter or such things, but I see the relationship and the correlation there. I think it's good. At the end of the day my goal with this movie was just the key to the nose, but it was really important to me that it is important to be yourself and not really think too much about what others think of you. As long as you are a good person and you do things that do not harm other people, whoever you are, just embrace it. Don't try to be something for someone else. I think it is a movie, and I said a lot while I shoot it, that I looked at it as of *** ed up afterschool special where, again talking about the structure of martial arts, I thought about it because this is high school for Casey. He joins a new click and the new click is kind of a bad click. He has this group leader who is almost like alpha of the click. All these things fit into the structure of creating new friends, you make an enemy to one of your friends who is the one who supported you most and all of it. At the end of the day you will overcome but you will overcome it in a different way than you expect. I like to play with those expectations and change them a little. It is definitely open to all interpretations that people have.
Are you sitting on underdog myth?
I don't want to think I am having fun with anything ever, especially my characters. I know some people feel that I am so meaningful and hit Casey too much. For me, I never look down on my characters. I see a lot of myself in Casey. Maybe why it's okay for me and I don't see that I'm meaningful to him, because I feel like a hit that he gets is like I take a jab in my own psyche and who I am and who I think I should be. Satirically perhaps not necessarily because I do not want to see it as amusing anything, and I think that satirizing something sometimes means that you think you are better than anything and I definitely do not. But I want fun with something and expectations. I want to play with those expectations and play with my opinion of myself and other men and who we are as a society. All of these are ideas that lie beneath the surface and in other cases, super strong nose just in front of your face. But I never want something to feel that it is preachy or talking down to the audience. I want people to still be able to relate and have fun.
Do you think poisonous men like Sensei will have it that he is not a good model and they should not be like him?
I can't talk to other people and I hope people who look at it look a bit by themselves in Sensei. Of course Sensei is a top character and he is a lot on the nasal representation of masculinity to a fault. That's what it should be. I hope some people see themselves a little and ask some questions about themselves. I also think many of these guys are tuned in their way too. Who should say, but if the movie is fun with something, it will be fun with that idea of toxic masculinity. There are two words I never thought of when I wrote the script because they were not thrown in the same way when I wrote it. In a strange way, even though I wrote it four years ago, I think it is more relevant now than it would have been if I did it that year. So everything happens for a reason. I hope people can get into jokes of it all, but I have no habits of greatness. I make no statements with this movie, but maybe a comment on it was important to me.
Sensei and Anna are not jokes. They believe in Karate, right?
Much like that. I feel like Sensei believes in Karate and is actually very good at Karate, but he is full of power at Dojo. As a character, he is probably outside the dojo still picked. If he goes to the grocery store he wears his socks and sandals with a tucked in shirt. I think people are sneaking at him behind his back and he feels it. So he takes the negative energy into the dojo and that's how he goes the way he teaches, especially in the night class. So I think he has a little pain in him and he reacts to it in a negative way. Anna is kind to him. She sees everything good that can come from Karate and that is why she stands around and she sees that there is the next generation of children coming up in the two. She sticks because she knows that even if it teaches her and the students in a way that does nothing good, she sees what the overall can do and she hopes that she may be able to influence people. It is one of those things where if she sticks around, she thinks she helps steer it in the right direction here and there and that is important to her. She, like Casey, sees honor in the dojo and wants it good but so far she has not been able to do much of an impact and it is frustrating for her, but that is also why she feels that she must stay. She must be there and just try if it fails. I would say that Casey is not necessarily good or evil. I think he's just smooth and formable and he's a mushroom. I think Anna is probably the good one but she encounters as a little more furious. She has this harder exterior. She tries to protect herself and protect her morality.
Cool posts from across the web: