Bad Education: Writer/Director Molly Manning Walker on How to Have Sex
The act of recalling our earliest sexual encounters can unleash a wave of secondhand embarrassment for the people we used to be. What we previously said, did or even desired as unyieldingly hormonal adolescents will undoubtedly incite full-body cringes for as long as our psyches choose to preserve those encounters. Yet no staggering quantity of cautionary tales can—or, arguably, should—dissuade young people from fantasizing about the ideal circumstances for losing their virginity and navigating previously uncharted sexual waters.
While there’s nothing wrong with romantic idealization, the idea of experiencing pure satisfaction during a formative sexual exploit is, at the very least, somewhat unrealistic. There is also the very real threat of having one’s nascent boundaries ignored or outright violated, particularly for a woman traversing the power dynamics inherent in heterosexual relationships.
Writer-director Molly Manning Walker renders a hypernaturalistic portrait of British youth’s equivalent to spring break in How to Have Sex, which ditches the after-school special tone that many teen sex dramas blandly adhere to. Instead, the film lingers on intimate details—girls debating the perfect “out out” dress, sexual chemistry igniting from poolside glances, the final drink that sends one running to the toilet—that root the main characters’ experiences in a tangible teen reality. Manning Walker shaped the film by taking inspiration from her own life, including teenage trips to European party locales and a sexual assault at a London pub. Additionally, she recorded conversations during peak tourism season in Malia, Crete, to craft authentic dialogue tethered to this specific atmosphere.
How to Have Sex follows London-based besties Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis) as they arrive in Malia after completing their GCSE exams. The main goal of their getaway, at least according to Skye, is to “get laid,” which for Tara means losing her “v-card.” When the girls meet another vacationing trio via neighboring balconies at their beachside resort, Tara immediately warms up to goofy and kind-natured Badger (Shaun Thomas), though Syke convinces her to fix her eyes on the fitter Paddy (Samuel Bottomley). Despite the presence of a gender-nonconforming woman (Laura Ambler) amidst the boys’ friend group, Tara quickly finds herself in a succession of sexual situations that provide no pleasure or personal gratification. No amount of sexy neon dresses, European club remixes or free-flowing booze can ameliorate the shame of feeling used, no matter how often your friends insist that having sex is a rite of passage in and of itself.
I spoke with Manning Walker via Zoom as she navigated the bustling streets of her native London and occasionally managed to perch herself on vacant stoops or within alcoves between questions. We discussed the director’s long-standing appreciation for nonfiction filmmaking and the predominant depiction of (male-oriented) sex on screen, as well as how she plans to navigate her work as a writer-director and cinematographer on future projects.
How to Have Sex will be released on February 2 via MUBI.
Filmmaker: You’ve been pretty candid about mining from your own experiences during similar getaways during your youth. I wonder what the casting process was like in this regard, particularly when it came to finding Mia McKenna-Bruce, who plays your avatar of sorts?
Manning WalkerMia’s [character is] definitely not based on me. She’s based on a bunch of different people that I went on those holidays with. I guess [she’s based on] part of my own experience as well. But my main thing was that I wanted to create a character who wasn’t the typical victim in terms of what we see on screen. I think women especially are portrayed in a way that if something terrible happens to them, they never recover. Or they are hypersexualized, and that’s why assault happens to them, or they’re saved by a man. My biggest [goal with casting Mia] was to reject those norms that we’ve been taught and find someone really bubbly, loud and who can be annoying [while] experiencing these things. She doesn’t change, either. She’s still that loud person at the end of the film, but she obviously carries it with her. When I was assaulted, people were always shocked that it happened to me because they have a very specific image in their head of what a victim looks like or what their personality is.
Filmmaker: On a similar note, I am curious what you were looking for when crafting the characters of the boys in your film, as well as casting the actors who would portray them?
Manning Walker: We wanted to make a film that didn’t lock men out, that allowed them to also be involved in the conversation. Films often look down on these roles or make them really aggressive. I wanted to make something where we don’t judge them, and we understand where [sexual assault] comes from in their world, which was probably the hardest bit of the process. Especially with Paddy’s [played by Samuel Bottomley] actions, because the actor found it very difficult to understand why his character was doing this. Shaun [Thomas] came in first to audition, and he has such a lovely, funny, bubbly personality that we knew that he was Badger straight away. Then, Paddy actually came in to read for what was originally the character Greg, who is now Paige [Laura Ambler], because it was originally [a friend group of] three boys. I think maybe we’d been going down a stereotypical route for Paddy’s character in terms of him being what you would consider as the good-looking, aggressive jock archetype. I was actually so happy when Sam came in; he’s just perfect for the role.
Filmmaker: When you eventually settled on the core cast, how did you work with the actors to craft not only frenetic party energy, but the requisite trust needed to navigate the film’s oft-uneasy themes?
Manning Walker: It was really done in the casting process. We found Mia really early on, which we were quite shocked about because we expected it to be harder. But what was so great about that was she then screen-tested with every actor that was shortlisted, so we really built this friend group from the ground up. If [a certain actor] didn’t work in that group, but they worked alone, it didn’t work for us. This was obviously really complicated because we were kind of testing the actors twice, so the casting director [Isabella Odoffin] was a huge part of that.
Then, what was really great was I prepped [solo] in Malia. Rehearsal was six weeks before we shot, so they had six weeks alone to become friends without me involved, which was really nice. When they turned up in Malia, they had this energy and knew stuff about each other that I didn’t. Then, we all wrote backstories together, so we understood where each character came from. I gave them cameras, which they used to interview each other and make documentaries about other characters from their own characters’ points of view. So, they all had real information to sort of pull from when they were acting, which was great.
Filmmaker: Before I ask more about the shoot, I want to discuss the film’s dialogue, which genuinely nails adolescent party-speak. I know the original 50-page script you wrote made sure to leave a lot of room for improvisation. Are there any examples or instances you recall of the actors’ improv elevating a scene or interaction between characters?
Manning Walker: A lot of the dialogue that made its way into the film actually isn’t improvised, which is interesting. What I became aware of on the shoot was that having six actors improvising meant that the story sort of disappeared because you’re so far away from what you’re trying to say. One example where it really did work was when the girls wake up the night after they’ve met the boys for the first time, and they’re all really hungover and trying on clothes. They’re like, “The hair of the dog, my mom always does that.” That idea came from the stuff that we wrote in the backstories. At this point, it was quite far into the shoot, three weeks, which means it had been nine weeks since the rehearsals when we wrote those. They were just naturally pulling out this information, which was really cool.
Filmmaker: Can you speak to your past inclinations toward documentary—from your first filmic venture of shooting your brother’s punk band to nearly majoring in the subject during undergrad—have continued to broadly influence your work?
Manning Walker: I guess I’m quite obsessed with real people and reality. Even today, I was watching these two girls on the train having this conversation, and I wrote it all down [laughs]. That was a big part of how How to Have Sex was inspired. On the scout, I spent two weeks out in Malia during the height of the season observing the whole time, writing down what people were saying. At one point, these girls dropped their phone in the pool, then 10 seconds later they were like, “Oh my God, it still works!” A lot of these little details ended up in the film through observation. It’s interesting because the film is set in a very specific time and space that you can easily observe within. If you were making a family drama, I guess you could go and hang out with your family, but because [a party is] sort of like its own world, there are very few other scenarios that you can infiltrate and observe in that way.
Filmmaker: Speaking to that realness that you are so fascinated with, I know that you surveyed young British people during the film’s development to gauge where this generation stands on topics like consent and rape culture, and that you were quite surprised by their overwhelmingly regressive responses. This also comes at a time when young people are typically shying away from interacting with media that portrays sex. Do you think there’s any correlation there?
Manning Walker: We were so shocked that [attitudes toward sex] were so far behind. We had girls standing up in these workshops being like, “Girls should just wear more clothes. They have to be responsible for not getting drunk or getting assaulted.” And I was like, “Where the fuck has this come from?” My biggest takeaway from the whole thing was that when we were teenagers, we were performing for each other; these kids are performing for the entire world via social media, and I think that’s really complicated. When we were teenagers, we acted like we knew what we were doing, then we’d go home to our parents and be young humans, whereas [this generation] has this almost never-ending performance through social media.
Filmmaker: Which makes it hard to recognize what their own desires are, in a sense.
Manning Walker: Totally. I think there’s also this fear of having to uphold what you put out. I wonder if there’s a severe lack, or even a fear of, human contact, I don’t know.
Filmmaker: I think there might also be this sense that you’re afraid to explore, because by doing so you could potentially make a mistake that hurts somebody else. That’s such a grave thing to be accused of among this generation, which maybe makes you shut down and not want to explore because it’s almost dangerous.
Manning Walker: Something that we reject with this film is cancel culture. We talk about it a lot in Q&As nowadays: How do we move forward and protect people by canceling them and getting rid of them entirely? That’s why we always talk about not making a film that locks men out, because so often now the fear of being canceled stops you from doing anything. Let’s try and change it rather than just banishing everyone who’s done something wrong to an island, because we’re gonna end up with everyone on that island eventually.
Filmmaker: Speaking of islands, while watching this film I was surprised to find myself reminded of Love Island, which feels kind of rooted in this similar facet of culture that your film is critiquing. There are the perpetual bikinis donned by women, generally uniform body image standards across the board, a suffocating fixation on heterosexual romance. How do you observe these real-life party destinations influencing cultural norms and vice versa?
Manning Walker: I think it is naturally intertwined because of exactly that. We’ve taught ourselves that this is normal, and we have to deconstruct that. [Love Island] is a show of mystique—really macho men that we have pretended are the solution to the world putting pressure on female friendship. I think it’s all very interwoven, as it’s talking about exactly the stuff that we’re saying in the film. The pressure to be with “the right person” or the person that looks the best. Everyone’s forgotten about love or kindness to each other. Again, I think it comes down to the world lacking real human connection, care and kindness for each other.
Filmmaker: Instead of focusing on what’s steering people in the wrong direction, something I’m curious about is how you’ve stated that you hope the film will “reframe the conversation around how to have positive sexual experiences.” Yet How to Have Sex doesn’t really portray great sex between enthusiastic partners. Do you have references of films you love that contain not necessarily instructive, but perhaps aspirational sexual dynamics?
Manning Walker: It’s a really great question, but I’m struggling. Maybe Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I’m obviously thinking about gay films, because that’s what I am, but do you know what? This comes up all the time during Q&As. I often get this question, but I didn’t learn how to have sex. The rate at which it comes up makes me want to make an instructional video because I think the people are genuinely confused [laughs].
Filmmaker: Well, the people are demanding it at this point!
Manning Walker: I think that says a lot about a) the lack of conversation around sex in general, and b), the only resource that people have is the porn industry, and because it’s the only resource, everything gets very confused. It’s also obviously skewed towards a male POV. A newly single male friend of mine has been doing loads of dating. And he was like, “I went on this date, went home with her, and I was just really confused because she was desperately trying to be a porn star the whole time. And I was like, ‘You don’t have to do that.’ And she was like, ‘Oh, OK.’” She was clearly using porn as a reference. Sorry to everyone that [this film] wasn’t instructional, but there is a need for us to portray really great sexual experiences on screen from the female perspective. For so long, our media has been like, “This is how men have good sex,” but no one’s talking about how women could have good sex.
Filmmaker: This brings me to my next question, which is about the film’s more understated themes surrounding sexuality, particularly as it pertains to compulsory heterosexuality. There are elements of Tara’s character that seem inherently uncomfortable within these straight sexual dynamics, like she’s almost just going along with what her girlfriends and male partners tell her she should or does enjoy sexually. She never really verbalizes her desires on her own, though. Can you unravel this thread a bit further for me?
Manning Walker: I guess me coming out was a shock to no one but myself. That’s something that I was pretending about myself for a long time. I don’t necessarily see Tara as queer, although she’s very young, so she’s got a lot of time ahead of her. But I do recognize that rejection or confusion as to what we’re trying to do, who we want to be and how we protect ourselves from being what everyone else wants you to be. And I think this also doesn’t just [pertain] to straightness, because when I first came out I was like, “How do I be queer?” I was then pretending to be someone else, going to gay clubs and being like, “This is how you be queer!” Actually, I think we’re all trying so hard on some level to fit in and pretend to be someone else that we find it hard to just relax and be who we are.
Filmmaker: I’d be remiss not to highlight that your mother, Lesley Manning, is a director I’ve long admired. I’m actually wearing a handmade Ghostwatch sweatshirt as we speak, the 30th anniversary of which I interviewed her about last year. I wonder if she’s given you a piece of valuable advice on or insight into directing during any pivotal part of your career?
Manning Walker: That’s so cool! There’s so much, I don’t know where to start. I think the main one when I was a teenager was like, “It’s just a film, no one’s dying,” which I try to take forward in life. We have the best jobs in the world when it’s going right! [But even when it’s not,] no one’s dying and we’re not saving lives. She also trained as an editor before she was a director, so she’s particularly smart about edits. She told me to watch the film mute, so we watched the entire 90-minute film with no sound during the edit. The big piece of advice from the shoot was, “Worry about what’s in the frame. Just worry about what you’re capturing.” I could go on and on, there’s so much greatness.
Filmmaker: Speaking of your mother first training as an editor, looking ahead for your career, I’m curious if you’d ever like to combine your passion for cinematography, writing and directing on a future project of yours? Or do your professional proclivities lie in shooting films for others while focusing on writing and directing your own work?
Manning Walker: Firstly, I’d like to think of myself as a collaborator in general, whatever the situation requires of you. I’ve worked with directors who really love people commenting on the performance or having someone whisper to them, “That was so great!” I’ve worked with directors who hate that. I’m not going to say never, but I love collaboration so much that I think by doing all three of them, you sort of knock another helpful voice out of the arena. For me, the joy of filmmaking is working with other people to get your vision across. So yeah, currently they sit separately.
Filmmaker: I know you have potential next projects on the horizon already, including a semi-autobiographical series and a feature film. Are you able to share any further details on either at the moment?
Manning Walker: Not really, sadly, but I can say that I really want to continue making stories that are politically or socially engaged with human beings, just trying to say something about the world.