‘How to Have Sex’ Director Molly Manning Mined Her Own History of Sexual Assault to Create Buzzy Sundance Premiere

It’s already been a good year for the English cinematographer turned writer-director Molly Manning Walker. A film that she shot, “Scrapper,” won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, as well as praise for her vibrant lensing. Now, her first feature, the intimate, near-anthropological “How to Have Sex,” premieres as part of Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section. And to top it off, MUBI has already acquired the title for major territories.

“How to Have Sex” follows three female teens on a summer holiday in the loud, hectic party town of Malia, Crete. Having just completed their GCSE exams, the English trio are ready to let off steam by drinking, dancing and getting laid. This latter goal ranks as the most sensitive for petite Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), who still retains her virginity. The film shows how having sex as a teenager is complicated and the role that peer pressure and consent (or the lack of it) plays.

In 2020, Manning looked at the trauma caused by sexual assault in her short “Good Thanks, You?,” which screened at Cannes Critics Week. She thinks of “How to Have Sex” as a continuation of that film’s work. “As a teenager I experienced sexual assault,” she says. “For me it’s something that isn’t spoken enough, which in turn makes the experience worse. If when you bring up assault, the air is sucked out of a room; how are you meant to move on? I felt like I hadn’t finished expressing this.”

Working with casting director Isabella Odoffin, Walker tapped Lara Peake as Tara’s bossy, more sexually experienced friend, as well as Shaun Thomas and Samuel Bottomley as two guys with whom Tara feels a spark. “Lara I had worked with before and knew she was a star,” Walker says. “Shaun came in and blew us away. When Sam came in for another role and as he walked out the room we called him to come back to read for Paddy. He just had such a charismatic presence.”

Keen to keep the film’s youthful energy alive, Walker incorporated some of the cast’s pre-shoot improvisation into the script, adding some funny and naturalistic lines. “We had a week of rehearsals in London where we built the characters’ backgrounds,” she says. “I got them to interview each other on a Handycam in character about their lives. We played funny games like what would your characters chat up line be, etc.”

With Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” as an influence on the film’s look, Walker chose Nicolas Canniccioni as her DP. “I was looking for someone who was really good at handheld,” she says. “Nicolas comes from documentary and is a great handheld operator … You have to be less precious because you can’t put flags and nets everywhere — you have to be much more free. I knew that I wanted to run the set in this way in order to capture the wild nature of the holiday.”

Walker’s main takeaway from directing her first feature was to worry about what is in the frame rather than anything external. “There’s so much you can’t control when shooting,” she says. “I tried to stay free and not bog down in the script or previous conceptions of what it should be and instead react to what was working and not working. Some of my favorite moments are things we thought of on the spot.”

What’s next for this multi-hyphenate? “I’ve got a TV show that I’m writing and starting to think about the next film,” Walker says. “I really hope to continue to shoot. I’m not very good at sitting still and I love being on set.”

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