'The Art Of Self-Defense' Cast And Director On Making 2019's Darkest Comedy [Interview]

During the 2019 SXSW Film Festival, /Film had the opportunity to sit down with writer/director Riley Stearns and cast members Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, and Alessandro Nivola to discuss the upcoming Bleecker Street release, The Art of Self-Defense.Given that this funny dark comedy is set in the world of martial arts dojo gyms, it only made sense that the press junket would be held at a dojo gym in Austin. As such, the rules were strict, including no shoes on the mat. Since the film itself is obsessed with the rules and idiosyncrasies of the karate world, it was only appropriate. Bleecker Street will open The Art of Self-Defense on July 12, 2019.Riley, how did you come up with the idea for the film?Riley Stearns:  I've been doing jujitsu for about six years now.  I really wanted to kind of write something set in the world of something that I was having fun doing and I also thought that setting something in the world of karate but then exploring ideas that maybe you wouldn't expect to explore sounded interesting.  It just kind of becoming a pretty organic process once I realized it was gonna be a martial arts film and putting my own ideas and fears and thoughts into it. It just came about pretty quickly.What was it about the script that attracted you to the project?Jesse Eisenberg:  To be frank, when I first read it—the first five pages or so—I thought I didn't want to do it because it seemed to me like it seemed to be kind of a well told story about a meek man who tries to gain self-confidence.  But I thought was so funny so I just continued reading out of curiosity because the dialogue was very funny and realized actually it totally subverts that idea. The movie is a very clever funny but also insightful commentary unlike say misguided aspirations of masculinity. So while the well-worn structure of like a character who's gaining self-confidence through some kind of physical activity has been done before, this kind of subverts that idea and makes you realize that his aspirations for that kind of confidence come from silly notions of what masculinity or the ideals of masculinity.Imogen Poots:  I thought it's one of the best things I've read.  I just absolutely loved it. It gave me the chance to rage and I was thrilled about it but no, I just thought it was the funniest script.  I loved the characters and loved the story. When I read it, Jesse was already a part of it so I definitely wanted to do it. I just loved it and then it all came together.Alessandro Nivola:  I guess I really like the idea of playing somebody who is both really funny and really scary. (Laughs)Imogen Poots:  Very.Jesse Eisenberg:  Like that answer. Case in point.How much training was involved in preparing for the role?Jesse Eisenberg:  Imogen and I did a lot of karate because we had some time before the movie and Alessandro didn't have as much time but they had to do the most.Imogen Poots:  I had a few sessions with a trainer, Mindy [Kelly], who's brilliant. She's a karate expert.Jesse Eisenberg:  She's one of the best in the world.Riley Stearns:  She's an expert especially specializing in trick stuff for film and somewhat.Imogen Poots:  She just sort of started us from like way up here.  She was incredible and then Alessandra, he had no time.Alessandro Nivola:  I had 48 hours but every one of those 48 hours were kind of taken up by sweatingIt paid off.Riley Stearns:  She came into my hotel room and just went for it for two days. It was kind of awesome.Jesse Eisenberg:  Clarification needed. (Laughs)Alessandro Nivola:  Are you just going to comment on everything?Jesse Eisenberg:  Yeah.Now that you've trained in karate for a film, do you think you could be able to defend yourself on the street?Imogen Poots:  The other day, I was walking in Sudbury.  It does matter where that is—it's in Ontario.  But I was walking and I felt really nervous. I was like, Oh, yeah, I know how to do a chop.  So I thought—worst case scenario, I could just throw a chop and it'll be fine. But it was totally—Riley Stearns:  Chop and run.Imogen Poots:  Chop and run.  I feel like I could attempt that if need be.Alessandro Nivola:  I know how to put my finger through a guy's forehead.Imogen Poots:  From the like annual?Alessandro Nivola:  Straight in.  If I only would use that if I if I was in real trouble.Jesse Eisenberg:  Say that, definitely.Riley Stearns:  What about you, Jesse?Jesse Eisenberg:  Nope.  (Laughs) I can't do anything but that's part of the charm...weakness.What were some of the challenges in making the film?Riley Stearns:  I would say the biggest challenge on any film is always time.  Just feeling like you've got finite amount of time you're gonna be there especially with an indie film like ours.  We had some big action pieces. We worked with dogs. We were kids. We worked on motorcycles. There's all these moving parts and if something goes awry, it affects everything else down the line. You're always thinking about the days that are coming up that are gonna be hard but at the same time, you have to be present for the day that you're there.  I think just juggling all that is stressful but in a way that is fun and kind of a rewarding experience once you get through it.Jesse Eisenberg:  Also, the tone of the movie is very unusual like which is to say like the comedy is not comic but very funny.  It's not like the people making the movie are kind of winking at the audience or letting the audience know it's all safe to laugh.  It's a very unusual comic relationship to people watching it. I think we were all—Riley's script as Imogene said is one of the funniest things I've ever read.  She did say that. I read and thought of that. I did have the same thought and so I think we all knew, right? You knew even though you came in quite soon before the movie?Alessandro Nivola:  I didn't know what the tone was until I think maybe day three okay when Riley called me up and told me I had it all wrong.Riley Stearns:  He's lying. (Laughs)  I remember there was one—I forgot who told me this but you were reading something in the truck to work or whatever one day. The line about this is your belt, "It's yours, it's sacred.  Do not come to class without your belt," and then you say it'll be fifteen dollars if you lose it. You were just realizing this is actually the funniest thing that you've actually read and that that I think that that kind of stuff when you catch on to one little thing, you can inform decisions that the rest of the movie.  I think we all had to be on the same page. It's a lot to trust.Alessandro Nivola:  I remember one of my challenges was just figuring out where to breathe in these speeches that I have.Riley Stearns:  He has a lot of monologues on the movie and that's just the nature of any martial arts class you go to.  The instructor always starts the class with a little bit something but definitely ends the class with a speech. Every ending of a class, you're giving a monologue.Alessandro Nivola:  But the way that they're written is that if you kind of—they have to be delivered from start to finish without pausing.  If you do pause, it's fucked. It's almost like singing or something. You have to figure out how much you can get out before you run out of breath.  I remember that.Riley Stearns:  Sorry. (Laughs)Is it a challenge to do the monologue while doing karate moves at the same time?Alessandro Nivola: Yeah, man.  That was a really big challenge.  That was the first day of filming—that particular thing where I had to talk about my shopping and do that.  That was like the main karate routine. I had just about gotten the karate routine down the day before without the dialogue and then Jesse's sister, who is a great actress herself, had been working on the film, too and she was helping me learn all the dialogue so I'm very grateful to her for helping me.Riley Stearns:  I forgot about that.  We all love Hallie!Jesse, how exciting was it to return to the Zombieland universe for the sequel due out later this year?Jesse Eisenberg:  Oh, it's good.  It's funny because I'm doing it now but also we're doing press for this movie and it's giving me insight into the different kinds of comedy.  The Art of Self-Defense is quite a risky kind of comedy to do.  The Art of Self-Defense, that is, because you're really entrusting that the audience will understand the kind of narrow margins of the tone.  I'm doing much more accessible comedy now—Zombieland, that is. It's also very funny of course but the tone of it is lets the audience know in a very explicit way.Imogen Poots:  Like broader?Jesse Eisenberg:  Yeah but it also like it signals to the audience in so many ways that this is funny and you're aware that it's funny you are aware that our plight is not exactly to be worried about you the audience whereas The Art of Self-Defense never really does that.  It tells the audience the plight that we're dealing with is very real and very grave.  And if people laugh at it, which I imagine they all will and most of them will. That's kind of like on their own.  We're never telling them it's okay to laugh now but it's great. As an actor, that's a gift to be able to do stuff like that.  They're few and far between just by virtue of them being probably a little probably harder to do.