Things turn a lot darker than that bright yellow belt.

Movies

Above the Belt: Kickin’ It With The Art of Self-Defense Director Riley Stearns

The filmmaker's background in martial arts informed his dark satire about a nerdy accountant who begins a weird odyssey in karate class.

Martial arts started out as a guilty pleasure for Riley Stearns. He enjoyed watching MMA on television, but would quickly change the channel when someone else walked into the room.

At the time, Stearns was an upstart writer for a cable TV series in suburban Los Angeles, and noticed a sign for a jiu-jitsu academy opening down the street.

“I kept telling myself I needed to sign up. Cut to three years later, and I still hadn’t signed up. I didn’t feel like I had the energy. I wasn’t motivated,” Stearns said during the recent South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin. “It was the most terrifying thing, walking through that door for the first time. But everyone there was a beginner, too.”

Stearns figured others shared his initial trepidation about entering the dojo or donning a “gi.” So he channeled those feelings into the lead character in the dark comedy The Art of Self-Defense, which he wrote and directed.

“I have a respect for martial arts overall,” he said. “It changed my life in so many ways. Telling a story in that world felt right.”

It’s a satire of modern masculinity that follows Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), a timid accountant who’s brutally mugged one night by a biker gang. That galvanizes him toward learning karate, eventually leading him to a dojo operated by a self-serious sensei (Alessandro Nivola) who calmly exudes authority over students including a black-belt hopeful (Imogen Poots) who’s feisty yet sensitive.

“He’s trying to figure out who he is, and he’s not able to grow until he’s comfortable with that,” said Stearns, an Austin native.

Now a purple belt in jiu-jitsu, Stearns (Faults) said realism was important in the film. As the story gradually turns darker and more violent, he wanted to balance the quirky humor with an underlying sincerity.

“I think there’s an innate dorkiness to all martial arts,” Stearns said. “I wanted to set it up as one thing, and then subvert expectations. It starts out as a comedy and then skews very dark. I didn’t want it to end in the prototypical way.”

That realism extended to Eisenberg (The Social Network), who was comfortable with the physical aspects of the role. He was enthusiastic about training with experts prior to production, and did many of his own stunts in the film.

As for Stearns, he’s been active on social media promoting his growth and advancement in jiu-jitsu, which has drawn a positive response. He hopes The Art of Self-Defense will have the same effect on moviegoers who might want to get involved.

“I want them to sign up for their own well-being, and not because they want to get into some weird fight-club night class,” he said. “I know what it’s done for me. There are extremely important values that you can get out of martial arts that everybody can benefit from.”

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