'The Art Of Self-Defense' Director Riley Stearns Tells Us All About That Shocking Ending [Spoiler Interview]

If you're reading this, that means you've seen The Art of Self-Defense, right? You witnessed a satire of toxic masculinity for the ages featuring a pitch-perfect Jesse Eisenberg performance, and you were blown away by that wild ending. And, for that matter, you've also read the other interviews /Film writers have conducted with the cast and writer/director Riley Stearns. Good. Now, bow to Grandmaster and prepare to go in-depth with Stearns on that wild ending to the film.

In case you haven't gathered as much, there are going to be heavy spoilers for the last of act of The Art of Self-Defense from here on out. Don't say you weren't warned as I delve into the origin and implications of the film's climactic scene with Stearns.

At what point in the development of the film did you know this was how it had to end?

I really like to write a proper outline before I write a script, so the idea of how Casey [played by Jesse Eisenberg] was going to defeat Sensei [played by Alessandro Nivola] was pretty much set in stone from the day I began thinking about this movie. I knew I wanted to make something that started as a traditional sports movie in how it progressed and the structure of it all was all going to be rolled out, but then at the halfway point, once David Zellner's (Henry's) arm is broken, I wanted that to be the moment where you said, "I have no idea where this movie's going to go.

One of the things about the idea behind this movie is that Casey never becomes an expert. He's only been taking karate for about two months at this point. It would be crazy to write a movie – which, I've seen these movies before – where someone is a beginner, has their training montage, and all of a sudden, they're an expert. It would be insane for me to think in this world of the movie that he would defeat Sensei in combat. It was way more interesting for me to think how he's going to win, and I'd already been thinking about how I wanted to have a commentary on guns and gun control. Not necessarily message-y with it, but you can't watch that scene and not know what I think about guns. But also use that at the end of the movie for the character to take the easy way out and go against the belief system using that "evil" for defeating somebody who is doing horrible, unspeakable things. It was just funny that our main character had to use something that he didn't want to use to defeat somebody who needed defeating.

Most of us know the Chekhov's gun principle – a gun that goes up on the wall in the first act has to come down by the third. Did you want to tip off audiences to what might eventually be coming by having Casey visit a gun store early in the film?

What's funny is you said everyone knows the principle, and I, until recently, had not heard the term. I'm not the most literary versed person in the world, and I think I understood the concept in terms of how storytelling works because you've seen it a million times. But I'd never actually heard that phrase. It's funny that also has the word "gun" in it – it's literally referring to a gun. For me, when I came up with the scene in the gun store, I didn't know how it was going to come back in the ending. The way my brain works in writing is when I put something in, even if it's just an idea that's floating around in the beginning, I do try to find a way and say, "How is that going to come back? How is that going to be a part of the story? How is this not going to be dead space?" With everything I've done – Faults included, my short The Cub – there's always a set-up and a payoff. It just made so much sense that was going to be the payoff at the end.

You said maybe you knew it was coming back at the end. I think it surprises most people, and then there are some people who are writers that see that storytelling principle coming into effect. Then, even if you know it's going to happen, hopefully you have no clue that the Grandmaster finger through the skull element is going to come into play after that. Not only are we doing that set-up and payoff, but we've got another set-up and payoff that also happens. I hope that's an additional surprise for some people, but a definite surprise for everyone.

I definitely did not see the finger with the Grandmaster coming, so you got me there!

Good, good! That's the goal – if it's an expected payoff to some people, even though I didn't do that consciously, it's a funny gag to have the finger come back on top of it. It's really funny that it's almost like an additional subconscious pulling the rug out from underneath somebody. I do think, especially given the applause the scene gets where Casey shoots Sensei – that scene has gotten applause at literally every screening I've been at whether it's SXSW, the premiere, or, even just the other day, I watched that ending in South Korea. People applauded! It's just this cathartic moment. We want to see Sensei get his comeuppance and see Casey win, but I think subconsciously I didn't want that to be the only thing.

The finger through the skull is a funny visual to me. And the way Casey is able to use that cover his tracks is an important story beat as well in letting the other students know he did something honorably, and they're never going to know the truth behind it. There's a moment where Casey looks at the Grandmaster portrait right before he goes into the locker room to change and get dressed for battle, I think it's a wink that he's figured out what Grandmaster's story actually means. He's probably in the history and mythology of the school has been going out in the woods or areas where it's just him and the other Grandmaster, they have a fight to the death in combat, he's used this one combat technique, defeated everyone, he wins ... whereas Casey's like, "He's probably just taking people out into the woods, shooting them and saying that's what happened." He's using the technique in the real sense of how it's probably used instead of the traditional "this actually happened where he [Grandmaster] took them out into the woods, fought and used this signature finger through the skull technique."

I do like to play around with the fact that maybe not everything should be taken at face value, even though almost everything in the movie is very literal and stated in a way that's like, "That's fact. That's how it is." It's the one moment where Casey gets to say, "Maybe this wasn't a factual story. Maybe there's something more going on here."

You've mentioned that Sensei's murder draws applause wherever you go. The ending drew a wide range of reactions in my small screening room — some people cheered, others gasped, some laughed. Did you anticipate that people would respond differently?

I don't think I really thought about how that response would come about. Even as you write, you think, "Oh, that's kind of funny." I don't plan a lot of shots, but going into shooting and prep, I've got certain things that stand out to me. That was a shot I really wanted to be this formalistic, ritualistic, pre-battle feeling of reverential tradition and honor. And then, not to keep using the same term, pull the rug out from under the audience and say, "No, remember this is the movie you're watching and the more likely answer to how this is going to end." I wanted that feeling of suddenness to be there. But the responses weren't really in my head.

To be honest, I probably just assumed people would have one of those "laugh in your head" type laughs, a more cerebral laugh, and maybe the finger would be the more "laugh laugh" thing. It's been a fun surprise seeing how people react to it since. I think also because there's such moral ambiguity there, and Casey is taking the easy way out, cheating to win – I think a lot of people watch that moment thinking he's going against everything he wants to be and undercutting this ending for himself by taking the cheater's way out. But I think that's part of the humor of the film. It's important for Casey to sacrifice his morality for the greater good. He's making sure that a future generation of kids doesn't have to grow up with a Sensei that's teaching them things they shouldn't be learning. He's making sure the students that are there now have a better way of learning. I think he knows it's better for him to sacrifice everything for himself and then hold this lie for the rest of his life than let this evil person continue to live.

Is the ending a heroic moment for Casey? Is Casey breaking the cycle of toxic masculinity by murdering Sensei or just perpetuating it? Even though he uses his power for noble ends, the means through which he achieves it might make Sensei proud if he were alive.

He also has that moment where he says "I've got two things I want to say to you" – I think Casey is taking on that responsibility. He says, "You might say using this makes me the weaker man, and without question it does." I think even though Sensei values winning over losing more than anything else, he still hates guns because the most important person in his life was taken away by a gun. Even if it was an accident, it was stolen from Sensei via a gun, so he'll never appreciate guns as man's tool. At the end of the day, it was karate, using your hands, there was a sense of honor behind it even if you did dishonorable things. Casey goes around that and says, "Fuck your karate, I'm going to shoot you and win even though you've been training your whole life for this thing." I think that's why Sensei wouldn't like how Casey went about things, but then Casey is still sacrificing his morality at the same time.

In a weird way, it's a lose-lose-win for Casey. Sensei wouldn't have respected his decision, set aside the fact Sensei dies. He wouldn't have respected Casey using a gun to defeat anyone. Casey sacrifices his own morality in the process. Also, he wins. I think he wins in the end, and he's going to have to keep that with him the rest of his life, but I think he's probably sleeping pretty OK at night knowing Sensei's not around to fuck with people from that point on.

You mentioned the moment right after Casey shoot Sensei and delivers the words over Sensei's dead body – how did you settle on following up that big moment with this monologue to himself?

In talking about the character with Jesse, we really liked the idea that Casey was always acting. He's a sponge and has got this earnestness, so he takes everything he learns at face value. Any time when he's at his workplace and decides he's going to be more manly and aggressive, even when he's talking there trying to be more of a man, it comes out in this stilted, actorly way. Like a bad monologue. That was very much intentional. We like to think Casey, after he punches his boss in the throat and has this monologue about why he did what he did, probably practiced that in the mirror all morning having to pump himself up because it's so antithetical to who he is.

Similarly, at the end of the movie, he probably practiced that monologue to Sensei, which is really to himself, at least most of the morning after he's trained his dog in German and all this other stuff that has to happen. We really embraced that element. But I must have known that there was still some sort of reaction still happening at that point. Because of the uproarious nature of an audience watching that scene climax the way it did and be so surprising, you need a moment of calm afterwards. And then that moment of calm leads directly into a direct cut of Jesse saying, "I defeated him in unarmed combat to the death." Immediately, there's applause. I think there's an ebb and flow to the reaction of the audience, and you've got to navigate that and give people enough of a space to laugh at something again instead of being shocked, surprised, here's MORE shock and surprise, then it loses its steam. It was making sure we had these peaks and valleys that are important in setting up comedy.

Casey ultimately does a good thing by handing over control of the class to Imogen Poots' Hannah, since she's much more qualified than he is. But is that at all an empowering moment for her since the way she triumphs over the violent misogyny that held her back is through the benevolence of someone who also exercised a kind of violent masculinity of his own?

Of course. I'm glad you brought that up because actually I, in writing the script, knew it was never going to be a movie about her. At the end of the day, I had to embrace that the movie is from the point of view of Casey and always is. Instead of trying to find a way to have Hannah win at the end of the day AND Casey win and give everyone their thing, I really wanted to just embrace the meta-ness of "this is his movie, he's fixing the problem, but, in a weird way, this is still a movie about men by men." I didn't want to have this disingenuous voice of, "I'm writing a movie for women! It's a feminist movie, and I'm going to help fix things! Here's my movie about men, talking about men, only starring men except for one woman ... but I'm going to fix things for feminism overall?!" I wanted to make sure my voice was clear and present that I don't have any of the answers, but here's my perspective. I grew up lower-middle class outside of Austin, I'm a white guy, and I write movies. My perspective is a white man's perspective and nothing else. I can't speak for anyone else or say something I'm not versed in. It was more important for me to be genuine in my voice and have Casey be that filter it's going through.

I knew going into it that there would be questions about her activeness in the film, and if it felt like he was fixing the problem for her, but I had to trust the narrative is what it is. People, I hope, still see the film as pro-feminism and anti-toxic masculinity. It never claims to be something that it isn't, but at the same time, it has to embrace the certain voice. And that happened to be the voice I have. It's a weird thing because I knew it going in, had to plow through it and say this is what it is.

A film doesn't have to do everything, and it certainly helps to be aware of that and conscious.

To her credit, Imogen was like, "Fuck no, keep doing it! I like it this way. Be meta about it. Don't question choices because if you question things, then you lose the message and the style might get diluted." She really encouraged me to make it what it already was.

So much of the film aligns us with the quest for hypermasculinity, or at least positions us slightly outside it in a humorous way, before you pull back the curtain and show the dark underbelly. Is there an element of wanting to implicate the audience for having gotten a kick out of it, however ironic or distant?

Not necessarily. I think people are pretty smart. I wanted to give people credit for getting that it's so over-the-top and ridiculous, and that's why it's funny. I don't think people ever relate to the toxic elements of the film. If anything, I think people are laughing at how fucked up and stupid they are. In a weird way, Sensei is so charismatic and likeable ... except for these horrible things he's saying. That line where he says – I'm blanking on my own line! – "I realized she'd never be a man because she's a woman" gets such a huge laugh. It's not that we feel like it's funny that we're relating to Sensei – it's so stupid that it's funny. If anyone is laughing at the movie, it's because of that over-the-top stupidity. But I don't think I ever wanted to look down on the audience, and I never want to look down on the characters. I just want to make something that people can relate to, and, maybe at the end of the day, it starts a conversation.