Riley Stearns began writing The Art of Self-Defense in 2015, when the internet had accelerated and highlighted terrible behaviour acted out by men along traditional gender lines: Violence and action over words and feelings, now very commonly known as toxic masculinity.
“I was questioning who I was as a man, and what society was telling me what I was supposed to be,” says Stearns from Los Angeles. “I didn’t feel like I lined up with that.”
He was also two years into his jiu jitsu practice, and married the two things in an incredibly dark, very funny, occasionally shockingly violent script he also directed. “I really wanted to poke fun of the power structure at a dojo, or the fact that it really feels cult-like,” he says. “It could turn dark very fast. If it wasn’t used for good, what would that look like?”
What it looks like is Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), a meek office worker recovering from a violent attack at the hands of marauding motorcyclists, taking karate lessons from Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), who runs a small dojo with a tight list of rules and Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus-style ideals.
“I wanted it to wear its thoughts on its sleeves,” says Stearns. “There’s no doubt, it’s a very literal film, it’s very overt.”
What’s less obvious is the time period, a smear of Los Angeles Modern—Sensei makes VHS compilations of his students, at one point recording Casey with an over-the-shoulder 80s-era video camera; there are no Macbooks or Google phones; there are landlines and calculators.
“The 2000s car that Casey drives, cassette tapes, DVDs, it has everything,” says Stearns. “It felt like its own world. I didn’t want it to feel like it was going to be dated in a few years, especially if there were cell phones. The intent was for it to feel like it was timeless.”
Eisenberg, whose performance brand is often Smartest Man in the Room, was challenged by the art of doing less, says his director. “Jesse had to trust me that I was looking at this thing as an overall tonal balance,” says Stearns. “It had to be played almost emotionless. Casey is an infant, soaking up everything as fact, playing it at face value. He has real trust and faith in the other people—he wants to belong.”
The movie is a deeply weird black comedy that doesn’t follow many traditional story lines—in addition to its vague era, there’s little reflection amongst the characters, there’s no fallout for committing violent crimes, and the resolution is far from feel-good.
“Repercussions, I felt, were gonna bog down the story,” says Stearns. “The movie wasn’t about anyone trying to evade police. It was about Casey and Sensei.”