How to Have Sex Molly Manning Walker interview

Director Molly Manning Walker talks about her award-winning film How to Have Sex

An interview with the filmmaker about ritualistic partying in Greece, depicting sexual violence and cinematography and sound design in her feature debut.

Last year, Molly Manning Walker’s feature debut How to Have Sex premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Un Certain Regard prize. The viscerally charged movie documents a group of girlfriends, fresh off their exams, on a clubbing holiday in Malia, Crete. The resort town with a courtyard overlooking a sky-blue pool will soon be overflowing with Brits from across the U.K. as they drink, party and fuck.

From the beginning, we’re brought deep into the subjectivity of Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), a petite blonde with the gift for gab, who becomes our surrogate in this loud, noxious world. The film is structured into two halves: the first is a big party, the second begins as Tara’s friends cannot find her. A landscape of fantasy turned into a world of disappointment with glimpses of horror, the film manages to harness the specific to tell an unfortunately common story of sexual violence as a marker of coming-of-age. 

Molly Manning Walker spoke with Cult MTL over Zoom about making the film.

Justine Smith: Can you explain to people who are not from the U.K. exactly what is unfolding in How to Have Sex? For North Americans, the closest thing we have would be Spring Break.

Molly Manning Walker: The film’s about three girls that go on a clubbing holiday, a rite of passage that we do when we finish exams in the U.K. Often, a group of friends will go to a Mediterranean island or a Mediterranean resort. It’s a bunch of really cheap hotels in a clubbing destination with cheap clubs and cheap alcohol. You go and party and celebrate the end of exams. It’s the end of a chapter in many people’s lives in terms of that part of education. And often, they’re quite highly pressurized with sex. It comes at a time of life when we’re sort of naive in sex and relationships. It often comes with, like, the idea that you would meet the opposite sex — or that’s what it was at the time when we were there — and create bonds with them or have sex with them.

JS: One of the best parts of the film is the cinematography by Nicolas Canniccioni [a Montreal-based DOP]. I love what you’re doing here with the film’s two halves. The high-octane first half and the second half with the “disappearance,” where the familiar locations are suddenly alien, even abstract. I’d love it if you could discuss your vision for the imagery in this film.

how to have sex molly manning walker

Molly Manning Walker: The whole film is designed in two halves. The first half, like you said, is very fast-paced but often looks at the group and the dynamic of the group. Then the second half is more intimate with her, and everything, including the cinematography, becomes more pressured. The camera gets closer to her, but the bass gets deeper, the crickets get faster, and the music clashes: everything becomes more stressful. We designed the zooms where she’s missing because we are in this really intimate handheld setup where we are rotating around her face and what she’s looking at. But if she’s not there, what do we look at? We didn’t want to pick up a new character. We thought if we zoom past all their faces while hearing these conversations, you really miss this face that’s been present on screen before that. 

JS: In terms of working with actors, there’s so much naturalism, intimacy and vulnerability. How are you working with them in order to achieve this result, especially since it does feel as though we’re so close to them, almost intruding on their space — especially that first half? It’s very realistic, though, capturing that age and those spaces where everyone is just kinda on top of each other.

Molly Manning Walker: They had this instant bond. Part of it was the casting process, which was very extensive. We were testing them with each other the whole way through. We could feel when they clicked and when they didn’t. Creating that bond was really special, and they are all really good friends and they supported each other through the filming. You can feel that in the footage.

JS: How did you approach sound design? It’s very complex, dealing with so much noise and so many people while also having these moments of really intimate quietness. There are some scenes featuring hundreds of people; it couldn’t have been easy. 

Molly Manning Walker: It was 200 to 300 people daily in the first two weeks. It was intense. The sound was tricky, and the sound design is amazing. We were constantly building and layering stuff going on, like the conversation down corridors or whether it was like people in the pool while they were out in the hotel. It was this idea that there’s this whole world happening. There are so many teenagers around. (We were also) playing with how she disassociates and how the sound drops out during those moments and becomes very internal. You just get more and more uncomfortable. Every department was working on making the atmosphere more and more tense as it went on.

JS: The sound design is obviously part of the post-production system. How did the edit work? It feels like there must have been so many images, and you also have these two distinct halves, all these different emotional trajectories. How did you make them come together and feel a part of the same universe and emotional reality? 

Molly Manning Walker: I had my editor [Fin Oates] there with me, which was really amazing. We were editing live as we went. She was a real ally in understanding what we had and how we could move forward. We were shooting in one hotel, then the strip right next to the hotel. Often, we would pick up things that we felt we had missed. With such a live-wire shoot like this, we wrote little scenes that connected things together on the day of the shoot. I was watching assemblies as we went, which was a real blessing. 

JS: I find that fascinating, can you elaborate a bit more on having an editor on set? 

Molly Manning Walker: Sometimes we’d finish a day and say, did we get anything? It was so free form, maybe we missed it all. Seeing it put together really quickly was cool — this is working or, you know, let’s tweak this in the next scene. There’s so much to keep on track, like the emotional journey of six people, how drunk they were the night before, how hungover they are and how big the party is. A lot is going on. It was amazing to watch the assemblies every day and see where it was going. ■

Read our capsule review for How to Have Sex from TIFF. 

How to Have Sex (directed by Molly Manning Walker)

How to Have Sex is now playing in Montreal theatres. It will later be available to stream exclusively on MUBI

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