The Art of Self-Defense, a dry, dark comedy in which Jesse Eisenberg does karate, is certainly funny. The second feature from Pflugerville native Riley Stearns, which premiered at SXSW on March 10, follows a 35-year-old dog owner, Casey Davies (played by Eisenberg), who signs up for classes at a local strip-mall karate school so he can learn to defend himself after surviving a brutal mugging. It features grown men and women screaming “hi-ya,” cringe-worthy conversations, and office bros who sit around the breakroom talking about sex positions, wolves, and push-ups. You’ll laugh out loud.
But as funny as it is, The Art of Self-Defense is also an examination of a kind of idealized masculinity, and how insecurity and delusion can create a violent, misogynistic, dangerous sense of self.
The Art of Self-Defense is Stearns’s second feature to premiere at SXSW (his first, Faults, landed here in 2014). Texas Monthly spoke with the Texas director about toxic masculinity, the inherent dorkiness of karate, and dog psychics.
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Texas Monthly: You grew up in Pflugerville. Did you ever come to SXSW when you were growing up?
Riley Stearns: I never went to the film festival, but I went to the music festival every year. I think I was fifteen when I first started really going—once I got my driver’s license, I was at the old Emo’s for a whole week. They would do a free week of music, and if you showed up first, you got to stay as long as you wanted—you didn’t have to have a wristband or a badge. That was my week of heaven. Hardcore, death metal, whatever it was in between, I just went and saw it all.
TM: So how did you transition from music to filmmaking?
RS: When I was nineteen, I moved to LA. I play bass, and I wanted to be a musician. In LA, my ex was an actor, and I started to realize that the behind-the-scenes of the acting world—the filmmaking—was really interesting to me. At first, I didn’t want the spotlight on myself—I didn’t want to be the director—but I thought I could do the writing. When l I was on the set of Final Destination 3 [Stearns was in a relationship with actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who starred in the 2006 film, at the time], the director, James Wong, turned to me and said, “So when are you going to make a movie?” I said, “Oh, I’ll probably write first,” and he said “No. You’re going to be a director.” That meant so much. It was an offhanded thing on his end, but it inspired me. A few years later, I started directing shorts.
TM: The Art of Self-Defense is about martial arts, but it’s also about toxic masculinity. Did one lead to the other?
RS: I’d say it was a karate movie first. A year after I finished Faults, I was thinking through this idea, and it just wasn’t working. I’d been doing jujitsu for about two years at that point, and one day it hit me: Why am I not just making a film about something I love? That’s how I figured out what the story behind it was. I wanted to explore my fears of who I am. Am I man enough? Do other guys feel like they’re man enough?
TM: Why did you make a movie about karate rather than jujitsu?
RS: People hear jujitsu and think, “Oh, it’s probably a martial art,” but everyone know what karate is. I think there’s also an innate dorkiness to karate. I met with a producer at one point who said, “I have a hard time imagining that you’re going to make karate look cool.” I said, “You have the wrong idea. I don’t think I’m going to make it look cool—it’s not a cool thing. The art form itself does have cool aspects, but dorky, big dojo, strip mall karate schools are never going to be a cool thing.”
TM: Parts of the film embrace the dorkiness of strip mall karate—there’s one guy in the film who pronounces it as “karaté,” and that’s never not funny. But there are also characters who take themselves extremely seriously as they’re doing an activity that many people did as a kid. It’s something viewers associate it with childishness, like a little boy pretending to be a strong adult man.
RS: I like starting the movie off one way, to set a certain tone, before it surprises you. With self-defense, it was a gold mine to start with the day classes, where dorky grown men kick and punch the air and saying “hi-ya!” Then when there’s a shift of tone in the night class, you’re not expecting it.
TM: The main character, Casey, is learning to defend himself, but as the film shifts, it becomes about offense. These guys are not just protecting themselves, they are actually seeking out “weaker” people and hurting them.
RS: Yeah, it’s fun when he’s doing it for himself, but he realizes it’s being used for nefarious purposes. Sensei is not a good person. When Casey starts to see that, he questions why he’s there. It’s self-defense at first, but then it becomes, “I’ve got to protect the honor of the dojo.” It’s silly to talk about dojos and honor and all that!
TM: Karate jargon can sound silly, but the idea that physical dominance, and often violence, is necessary to preserve a man’s honor or dignity is pervasive. Why do you think masculinity can take that toxic turn?
RS: Before I made The Art of Self-Defense, I was really sitting with some issues I was having with myself. I was asking myself questions like, “What happens if I’m in a fight and I get beaten severely?” Or, “What happens if I’m with a loved one and I can’t defend them if something wrong happens?” I was watching too many videos online of muggings or robberies, going down that horrible internet rabbit hole. I don’t know that I really felt like a man. Once I admitted I had that question about myself, I started letting go of it. Jujitsu helped me a lot in feeling more comfortable with who I was. I can’t speak to overall toxic masculinity, but I personally didn’t move past it until I became honest with myself and owned who I am. I feel super masculine now, whatever my own version of that is. Other people feel like they’ve got their version of it. When everyone decides that they have to be a certain way, that there’s one way to be a man and one way to be a woman, that’s when we go down the wrong path.
TM: That’s the thing about the sensei. He’s so absolutely sure about what masculinity and femininity mean, and it’s delusional.
RS: He’s making it all up as he goes along, going with other people’s perceptions of what that all is and acting in a weird way. He thinks, “Oh, this is how I’m supposed to be me: Learning karate is masculine, being able to kick and punch is masculine. He’s being very literal about the things he decides are masculine and feminine. It’s a comedic approach, but it’s just an exaggerated version of how guys aren’t supposed to play certain sports or wear certain clothes or whatever it is.
TM: There are two dogs who feature prominently in the film, a dachshund and a German Shepherd. You cast canine performers in these pivotal roles, and I read that the trainer for the dachshund was a pet psychic. What was that like?
RS: We had the best casting call of all time in Louisville where we had five dachshunds come in one day. We weren’t able to find trained dachshunds in Kentucky, so we had five dogs come in that were apparently well-tempered. I played with them and asked the owners, “Can they sit on a couch without moving away?” Most people were like, “Actually, probably not.” Mocha, the dog in the movie, was very timid—she wasn’t feeling the room and the energy. But her mom, who’s a pet psychic, went home and apparently told Mocha, “Look, I think you’ve got this in you. You’ve got to do this. You need to protect Riley. He needs your help.” She wrote us the most genuine email and said, “I had a conversation with Mocha. I think she’s got this. Y’all need to trust me.” We were running out of time to cast, and one of my producers, Cody, said, “I think we should trust her.” We did, and that dog was the sweetest. Jesse [Eisenberg] took care of her, and her owner kept reminding Mocha to take care of Jesse. It was a beautiful thing. I don’t believe in pet psychics, but as it was working out, I was like, “I’m not questioning any of this. This is great.” The other dog was insane.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.