When the preview for the upcoming dark comedy The Art of Self-Defense first hit the internet, it struck a familiar chord with jiu-jitsu practitioners. Sure, the movie is centered around karate rather than BJJ, but the little nods to “belt culture” and the expectation-versus-reality check that happens when you start training felt a bit too familiar to many of us in the jiu-jitsu world.
As it turns out, this was no coincidence – the film’s writer and director, Riley Stearns, is one of our own. Stearns, who’s a BJJ purple belt with six years of experience on the mats, has drawn from his own experience in jiu-jitsu (and, yes, a little bit of karate) to make his latest film an experience that both martial artists and “normal people” can enjoy. Coming off the heels of his last film Faults, Stearns told the Jiu-Jitsu Times that he hopes to combine his longtime passion for storytelling with his knowledge of martial arts mythos and culture. “Like most people, I did like, three months of karate as a kid and got my yellow belt,” Stearns said. Taking advantage of the free classes offered at a nearby dojo, Stearns father opted to put him in other activities when said dojo started asking for payment. Stearns wouldn’t have any further interaction with martial arts until his late 20s, where he’d be exposed to the acai-filled world of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
“During my early 20s, I started watching those first UFC [events] as a sort of morbid curiosity,” Stearns said. Despite his interest, however, he would put off going to his local Gracie Barra gym for three years before finally taking his first class in 2013. “It took me a long time to get up the courage to walk through those doors, but once I did, I felt that I’d found what I was looking for,” Stearns said. He’s since earned his purple belt under Shawn Williams and placed second at the 2018 No-Gi Worlds. These accomplishments helped inspire both the theme and plot of the film.
TAOSD revolves around a lonely auditor named Casey, played by The Social Network’s Jessie Eisenberg, who finds himself enrolled in a karate school after surviving a violent assault. The movie uses comedy to explore themes of masculinity, sexism, abuse and forming friendships as Casey becomes embroiled in the world of martial arts. Despite the karate dojo setting, Stearns says that the environment and style are both more of a blend of various martial arts disciplines. “It’s a stylized world, so I used the term ‘karate’ as more of a blanket term for martial arts in general,” Stearns said. Despite its comedic nature and the parallels that could be drawn from satirical martial arts movies such as The Foot Fist Way, Stearns is not looking to bash traditional karate. “I’m not making fun of karate here; I’m making fun of people who take advantage of others. The guys who’ll get a black belt in two years and put other people down are, in my opinion, more harmful to martial arts than a funny movie,” Stearns said.
The film wears its societal commentary on its sleeve. The gi-clad karate instructor known only as “Sensei” (played by Alessandro Nivola) routinely likens success and martial prowess with masculine traits, even suggesting Casey change his musical preference to metal and ridiculing him for his feminine name. Female lead Anna, played by Imogen Poots, is subject to constant sexism and harassment despite being incredibly skilled. Both protagonists have their various insecurities preyed upon by their master, with the promise that becoming a more aggressive and deadly fighter will provide them security. “When it comes down to it, I started BJJ because I was afraid. I wanted to know that if things got tough that I could defend myself,” Stearns said.
Fight choreography for the film contained mostly striking, but with very clear hints of Stearns’ BJJ roots thrown in. “I don’t think people rolling around on the ground is very cinematic, but I wanted to include some practical things like a rear naked choke demonstrated by Imogen’s character for a kid’s class,” Stearns said. In addition to extensive training for the three leads, Stearns rounded out the cast with a few real-world martial artists like Tang Soo Do black belt and Quest Crew dancer Steve Terada. “Everyone here learned the moves very quickly regardless of their initial skill level. The whole cast was completely professional,” Stearns said.
Regardless of the nods and inside jokes included for martial artists and combat sport enthusiasts, Stearns hopes the film reaches all people on a human level. “I think men that I know that have watched the movie, even if they don’t train, have felt that sense of, ‘Am I masculine enough? Am I man enough? Am I what society’s expectations of me as a man are?’ and I think that’s something people in general come away with,” Stearns said, “But I think that people who train will appreciate some of the in-jokes and scenes, like an older student helping you tie your belt in the locker room on your first day or how it feels to finally get promoted.”
The Art of Self Defense is set to release in theaters July 12.