First-time director at Cannes: Molly Manning Walker on her breakthrough ‘How to Have Sex’
CANNES, France — Molly Manning Walker was still pale from six months in the editing suite and rushing to finish her first feature film when she arrived at the Cannes Film Festival.
“It’s nice to have a deadline,” said Walker, 29, sipping an espresso. “I work best with chaos.”
Six weeks earlier, Walker had just gotten off the London Underground when his producer, a normally calm man, called him and shouted: “Where have you been? We made it to Cannes!”
The news set off perhaps the most surreal six weeks of Walker’s life. The sprint to finish the film began and stopped just 48 hours before Walker entered Cannes with his debut film How to Have Sex. It premiered in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section and won top honors on Friday.
Preparation for Cannes is rarely a smooth process, even for the most veteran filmmakers. More editing, mixing, or other last-minute adjustments are often required. Sales meetings must be arranged. A battalion of international journalists must prepare. And then there’s the looming pressure of one of the world’s most famous red carpets.
“Every manager said, ‘But what are you wearing?’ Walker says with a chuckle. “I’ll finish the movie!”
The whirlwind can be both confusing and exciting for newcomers. As much as the stars rule the red carpet and the famous authors enter the Palais, every year Cannes is arguably the biggest stage for the emergence of new directorial talent. Almost 50 years ago, it was Martin Scorsese. Last year, Charlotte Wells (“Aftersun”) debuted as a big new voice.
Walker is one of the most promising new filmmakers at Cannes this year. “How to Have Sex” is a lively, confident drama about 16-year-old Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce, also a revelation), who travels from England to Crete for spring break with her best friends (Lara Peake, Enva Lewis). -style vacation Tara, like many male protagonists before her, wants to lose her virginity.
But while “How To Have Sex” details the hard-partying, EDM-fueled hedonism of teenagers on a European vacation, it takes a more honest and unsettling approach to young sex than any similar coming-of-age film. In the few black and white Tara experiences, which are intoxicating, confusing, isolating and destructive.
For Walker, it’s a deeply personal story, drawn in part from his own experiences, about which he is bravely honest.
“When I was 16 I was attacked while drinking in London,” he says. “Part of what I did was to talk about it and why it’s not being talked about. You can exhaust the air from the room, but you shouldn’t. If so many people have experienced it, we should talk about it openly.”
Walker grew up in London and first got into filmmaking by documenting his brother’s punk band. His parents both wanted to be filmmakers and still are. He says that watching their film, which is not being made, got him fired up. “It’s my whole life,” Walker says of filmmaking.
As a teenager, she went on trips like How to Have Sex to Majorca and Ibiza. While Walker remembers them fondly (“I’ve got some wonderful pictures”), he began to question some of the things that A short “Good, thanks, you?” after. During the festival’s virtual 2020 edition, he made it to Cannes Critics’ Week, writing a 50-page screenplay, leaving plenty of room for improvisation.
Walker prioritized authenticity. Before filming, she held workshops in the UK with 16-year-old girls and slightly older boys to ask them about sex and how they interpreted what she wrote.
“Everything from what music you listen to, what movies you watch, to the concept of consent?” Walker says. “We’d say, ‘Here’s a scene from the movie. What does that mean to you? And none of them recognized it as an attack.”
After spending months raising money, Walker filmed “How to Have Sex” in Greece. Some of the most challenging days were immediate. The second day required hundreds of extras. Walker threw up on set.
“On the third day, I decided I was either going to make myself sick and be really nervous for the whole shoot, or I was going to enjoy the process,” she says. “And now I managed to flip a switch in my head.”
“Honestly, I had the best time of my life,” Walker continues. “I don’t know if it’s a combination of factors. You’re on a Greek island with a really young crew in a party town. I don’t know if this is it or if this is your first film. But I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Cannes in the South of France is of course its own glamorous summer vacation destination. “How to Have Sex” brought together a group of 30 actors, crew members and producers who wanted to party again.
Still, Walker had plenty of responsibilities. Interview day. Meetings with sales agents. Test screening the night before the premiere at 1 a.m. at the Debussy Theater. Walker was worried about the mix he had just finished and wondered what could be done to change anything in the middle of the night.
“I said, what if it’s not good? What if something goes wrong?” Walker says with a laugh. “My mom said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not your problem.’ I said, “I guess that’s my problem.”
But like Greece, he was determined to enjoy the moment. “Maybe it won’t come up again,” he shrugged.
The big day came on Friday: premiere, photo call, walking the red carpet. There was warm applause inside the Debussy as the final score rolled in, but not the response Walker was hoping for.
“I thought, ‘Oh, they like it, but they don’t like it,'” Walker said later that night. “Then the lights came on and everyone stood up.”
The ovation continued for eight minutes. Festival director Thierry Fremaux turned to the drooling Walker. “Look,” he said, gesturing to the crowd. “You did that.”
Walker made it a rule not to read the reviews until the next day. He needn’t have worried though; there were raves. Variety called it a “fresh, head-turning debut”. Before hitting the dance floor that night at a beach party for the film, Walker took a moment to reflect on what she had been through.
“It’s all very bizarre to be honest, especially when you’ve been editing in a dark room for six months and suddenly you’re in this very strange world,” he said. “It feels like I’ve been to 12 weddings in a row.
But Walker never seemed the least bit overwhelmed by the experience. He seemed completely ready and fully present. She said it was gratifying to see women connecting with the film. But the moment he felt most emotional wasn’t the celebration afterward. It was right before his movie.
“I just felt like getting to that point was the real deal.”
This story was first carried on May 23, 2023. Updated on 26 May 2023 to reflect Walker’s film winning the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section.
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