An Interview with Riley Stearns and Why Jesse Eisenberg Did His Movie Out of Pity
I met with filmmaker Riley Stearns when he was in town for the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) and had a fantastic conversation—well, at least I think so, he may have told the agency reps he never wants to see my face again—about his new movie The Art of Self-Defense (in theaters now), a darkly hilarious comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, and Imogen Poots.
Stearns is a charismatic, relaxed writer and director whose other film, Faults, is an overlooked gem (I didn’t watch it until after interviewing him). He also does, without realizing it, a terrific Jesse Eisenberg impression.
How many interviews have you done today?
Oh great, so I’m catching you early. You haven’t heard the same damn questions a thousand times.
People have been—it’s funny—it’s not the kind of film you’ve seen a million times so you don’t get the normal questions, like “What’s it like working with Jesse Eisenberg?” I don’t get a lot of those. Instead I get more, “What the fuck?”
OK, I better cross that one off my list…
I’d be happy to answer those because I love Jesse so much.
The problem with those questions is that this, ultimately, is a promotional interview and so you’re never going to get the dirt.
The thing is, there’s no dirt with Jesse. There’s dirt on other people—not necessarily on this movie—but there’s always some dirt. Jesse has no dirt. He’s one of those guys. You would think the other way, but… he’s like the best dude.
As I watched The Art of Self-Defense, it seemed obvious that the main role was written for Jesse Eisenberg. But that’s not the case. Did you have to adjust anything in the screenplay after casting him?
I didn’t write it for anyone. I try to specifically not write for people for the reason that I think you close yourself off and you maybe miss opportunities that could have been really great for you, or really let you see something different with the character that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
It wasn’t that I didn’t think of Jesse because he wasn’t right for the role—it’s just age-wise, I really did think while I was writing that it would be more interesting having someone in their 40s, feeling less a man than they should or could, and also a guy in his 40s taking karate with kids in his class… I felt that could be a bit more comedic or interesting. And kind of sad.
So that was my initial idea. Jesse is the first person who asked, “So who did you offer the role to before me?” Because he doesn’t care. He’s not that type of person. He’s not going to think that if I wasn’t the first person or I wasn’t the person you wrote the role for, I’m not going to do it. No, he wanted to know.
So I would say “so and so” and he’d be, “Oh, that’s interesting. They would have been very good. Interesting, though. That’s funny.” [picture Jesse Eisenberg saying this, and you can image how Stearns sounded]
Once we went through some 40-year-old dudes we realized that everyone was afraid of being vulnerable and looking not like a masculine dude—like literally every actor we showed this to said, “I don’t know if this is the right role for me, and I don’t know if I want to play weak.” I was, “Why are you an actor then?”
When Jesse’s name was brought up, I was, “Yes! He is the guy who is going to get it.” He told me, “I stopped reading it after five pages because I felt I had done that before and I knew where it was going. But I looked you up online and saw that you were going through some hard times in your life. So I felt sorry for you and then read some more. And then I realized I didn’t know at all where the story was going, and I read the whole thing and was, ‘Oh my God, this is incredible.’”
So I find it funny that Jesse felt sorry for me and that’s why he finished my script.
I’ll take it any day.
If Jesse Eisenberg wants to feel sorry for me to do my movie, I’ll take that any day.
As you’re writing, do you think about the type of audience you’re targeting? The Art of Self-Defense is such a quirky movie and the deadpan and dark humor is probably not for everyone.
I want people to see my movies. I’m not one of those directors who are, “All that matters is me. If I like it, I don’t care if the audience likes it.” I want to entertain people and I want people to like my movies and I want to make things that do well enough so I can make more things in the future. I want to have a career.
But at the end of the day, I do have to feel confident with the material for myself. I knew that it made me laugh, that it was stuff I’d been thinking about and had been grappling with, questions I’d been asking myself about masculinity and not understanding at times who I was or feeling confident enough in who I was. I knew that was stuff that other people felt, and so I trusted that even if comedy isn’t their normal thing or the style is dry or literal or whatever it is, I still think that people could relate to the feelings I felt.
And so it’s been surprising, in such a great way, how many people relate to it. I’m super happy in the way it’s turned out.
Toxic masculinity is an underlying theme in the movie. Since Imogen Poots is the only female in the cast, you purposefully brought in more female crewmembers. I’m curious what your approach will be in future movies?
I want to always write roles that are specifically related to my personal experiences, so the next thing is very much a personal film, but written from a female character’s perspective. That character also plays two versions of herself, there’s a clone element to it. It’s called Dual and I’m bringing a lot of the same crew back because I loved working with everyone on this film.
It’s just about being aware, kind of knowing that you have the choice in who you bring into your film and who you work with. That awareness is important. You always want the best person for the job, but a lot of the time the only people that you get sent by certain people are guys. I think it’s all changing and I’m seeing more and more people who are being brought up are women.
But it’s not to say I’m only hiring women and I won’t ever hire a man. Who does the best job? Who works the best with others? And who do I like as a person?
Imogen Poots said you have a unique and specific style. What does she mean by that?
In the production notes she said that, and I don’t know exactly what she is referencing, but Imogen is the only person I’ve heard do an impersonation of me directing. I’ve never heard an impersonation of me, period, and I don’t want to because it sounds terrible. She did it to my face near the end of production and it was too real. I talk too fast and I don’t know how I’m going to form the thought before I start speaking so as I’m speaking very fast to an actor the thought is formed, so by the third part of the run on sentence I finally say that one thing and they’re, “OK, that’s what I needed.”
It made me feel uncomfortable, I laughed a little bit, and I was like, never again.
I’m very open with actors but I tell them, you’re going to need to do it my way first. I don’t like improv, I write things a very specific way. After you do it my way, and I’m pretty easy—I don’t do a ton of takes, if take one or two works and the actor is comfortable and they want to try something else, that’s great. I know what I want. I’m specific.
Jesse and Imogen would ask me for line readings some time, which not all actors like. But they’re, “It’s your movie, you know what you need,” and I’m not a good actor, so I would say the bad version and then they’d do their thing.
You’ve written and directed your two feature films, and it sounds like you’re doing the same with your third. Do you see continuing this approach, or could you see yourself writing or directing someone else’s work?
I think that I would be more likely to direct someone else’s screenplay. Writing is so personal so as you’re going through that process. Writing is so hard that getting to direct that screenplay is the reward. I’ll never say never, and there could be a time I write something that someone else directs because something else comes up, but I do like the idea of finding something that someone else has written and/or collaborating with a co-writer.
But in the four or five years since Faults came out, I’ve only read two scripts that I’ve said, “I want this and I’m going to go meet on this.” I didn’t get either of them, but one of the writers is Joe Epstein, who I just saw at a screening last night. He and I both trained jiu-jitsu and we’re both into the same kind of music—I read a script of his called Health and Wellness a couple years ago and I fell in love with that script. So it’s great to see those things out there, a needle in the haystack so to speak. I’m looking forward to finding more of those, but I’m going to be very specific.
I like to write just for fun, and I think very visually about everything. I think, what if someone else directed it? What if they messed it up?
That’s the thing. I always told myself I just wanted to be a writer, I don’t want to direct—it wasn’t until, it’s a funny thing because it’s a horror franchise, but Jim Wong, the director of Final Destination 3, I was talking with him while he was setting up a shot and he asked me what I wanted to do. I said I just wanted to write, and he said, “Oh you’re going to direct, too.” I was, “No, I just want to write. I don’t want the spotlight.” He said, “No, you’re going to direct, I can see it.” And that was a huge boost of confidence for me and something that really stuck with me.
After working on a TV show in my early 20s, and seeing someone take your words and not only rewriting them but having someone else direct them in a different way than I would have, that was a huge rush of, “I don’t want that.” I had this realization that I wanted to be in control. So I started making shorts, and the shorts led to features.
And at the end of the day, if it fails, it’s on you. I don’t want something to fail because of someone else.
Are you a Yorgos Lanthimos fan?
Very much so. The first time I saw Dogtooth, I hated it. “Hated it” is a weird thing to say, because I also loved it at the same time. It was this weird feeling that I couldn’t put my finger on. But I knew that meant something. I think I said something like, “I’m probably never going to watch that again.” And then a couple weeks later I ended up watching it again and acknowledged it was maybe the most important thing that I had seen in terms of developing myself, my aesthetic.
Since then, I kind of take elements of what that discomfort was and do it in my way. I don’t feel like I am ripping anything off from him, but I’m hugely inspired by his dedication to doing what he wants to do and trusting that and creating worlds. Stylistically I love him, Paul Thomas Anderson, Hal Ashby. I like the people who are really adept at blending tones—Coen brothers—he is just one of many people that I admire and have been inspired by. But yeah, Yorgos is pretty rad.
As a kid what movies did you really like?
Anything Jean Claude Van Damme. I was super into Jurassic Park, that’s one of those movies that holds up. I had a pretty movie-free childhood. We didn’t even own a VCR so when we did watch a movie, we’d have to rent the VCR. You’d have to put down a $200 check as a deposit and then they’d rip it up when you return it.
It wasn’t until I was 17 or 18 that I started seeing movies as anything more than this two-hour thing that comes and go. I was really into music, that was my passion, but around that age is when it just kind of hit me there is something else here. It’s kind of like, I’m not an avid reader, but when I find something I like, like George Saunders, I just want to absorb everything. Once I found certain filmmakers around that age, it turned into, OK, film is incredible.
How good are you at jiu-jitsu?
Pretty good. I get beaten up by certain people at my gym every day, but I’m good enough to beat up other people.
If I can make movies and do jiu-jitsu for the rest of my life, I’d be very happy.