A filmmaker for the first time in Cannes: Molly Manning Walker on her breakthrough “How to Have Sex”
CANNES, France — Molly Manning Walker still had watery eyes after six months in the editing room, rushing to finish her feature debut when she arrived at the Cannes Film Festival.
“It’s nice to have a deadline,” Walker, 29, said, sipping an espresso. “I work best with chaos.”
Six weeks earlier, Walker had just gotten off the Tube in London when her producer, a normally calm person, called her, shouting, “Where have you been? We entered Cannes!”
The news sparked perhaps the most surreal six weeks of Walker’s life. A frantic sprint to finish the film began and didn’t stop until 48 hours before Walker entered Cannes with his feature debut, “How to Have Sex.” It premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the festival and won its highest accolade on Friday.
Preparing for Cannes is rarely a relaxed process, even for the most experienced filmmakers. More editing, sound mixing or other last minute adjustments are often required. Sales meetings need to be aligned. A battalion of international journalists must be prepared. And then there’s the impending pressure of one of the world’s most famous red carpets.
“All the executives were like, ‘What are you wearing?'” Walker laughs. “I’m finishing the movie!”
The whirlwind can be both confusing and exciting for newcomers. As much as stars dominate the red carpet and renowned authors parade at the Palais, Cannes has been, year after year, without doubt the greatest stage for the emergence of new directorial talent. Almost 50 years ago, it was Martin Scorsese. Last year, Charlotte Wells (“Aftersun”) debuted as a major new voice.
This year, Walker is among Cannes’ most promising new filmmakers. “How to Have Sex” is a lively, self-assured drama about 16-year-old Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce, also a revelation) who travels with her best friends (Lara Peake, Enva Lewis) from England to Crete for spring break. holiday style Tara, like many male protagonists before her, wants to lose her virginity.
But while “How to Have Sex” details the hedonism of Europe’s vacationing, partying, EDM-pounding teenage hedonism, it tackles young sex in a far more honest and disturbing way than any similar movie about coming of age. Few things are black and white in Tara’s experiences, which are boozy, confusing, isolating and devastating.
For Walker, it’s a deeply personal story that draws in part on her own experiences, of which she is courageously candid.
“I was mugged when I was 16 while drinking in London,” she says. “Part of the reason I did it was to talk about it and say we don’t talk about it. It can suck air out of a room, but it shouldn’t. If so many people have experienced it, we should talk about it openly.”
Walker grew up in London and fell into filmmaking documenting her older brother’s punk band. His parents both wanted to be filmmakers and are still there. Watching their movies not get done, she said, gave her restlessness. “It’s my whole life,” Walker says of the movies.
As a teenager, she took trips like “How to Have Sex”, to Mallorca and Ibiza. As Walker remembers it fondly (“I have amazing photos”), she began to question some of the things that she felt. After her short film “Good Thanks, You?” Entering Cannes Critics’ Week during the 2020 virtual edition of the festival, she wrote a 50-page screenplay, leaving plenty of room for improvisation.
Walker has made authenticity a priority. Prior to filming, she held workshops across the UK with 16-year-old girls and slightly older guys to ask them questions about sex and their interpretations of what she had written.
“Everything from the music you like, what movies do you watch, to what is your concept of consent?” says Walker. “We would say, ‘Here’s a scene from the movie. How does that sound to you? And none of them recognized this as an assault.
After spending months fundraising, Walker filmed “How to Have Sex” in Greece. Some of the toughest days were immediate. The second day required hundreds of extras. Walker was vomiting on set.
“On the third day, I decided either that I’m going to get sick and be really anxious throughout filming, or that I have to enjoy this process,” she says. “And I just 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 are on a Greek island, with a very young crew, in a festive town. I don’t know if that’s it or if it’s your first film. But I would do it again without hesitation.
Cannes, in the south of France, is its own glamorous summer holiday destination, of course. “How to Have Sex” brought together a group of 30 cast, crew members and producers who came downstairs eager to party together again.
Still, Walker had many obligations to meet. A day of interviews. Meetings with salespeople. A test screening at 1 a.m. the day before its premiere at the Debussy Theater. Walker fretted over his newly completed sound mix, wondering what could possibly be done to change anything in the middle of the night.
“I was like, ‘What if this isn’t good? What if something is wrong?'” Walker laughed. “My mom was like, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not your problem.’ I was like, ‘I think that’s my problem.’
But she was determined, as in Greece, to seize the moment. “It may not happen again,” she shrugged.
The big day arrived on Friday: the premiere, a photo call, the walk on the red carpet. Inside the Debussy as the closing credits rolled, there was hearty applause but not the response Walker had hoped 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.”
For eight minutes, the standing ovation continued. Festival director Thierry Fremaux turned to the gob-smacked Walker. “Look,” he said, pointing to the crowd. “You did it.”
Walker had made it a rule not to read reviews until the next day. She needn’t have worried, though; they were delighted. Variety called it “a head-spinning new 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.
“To be honest, this is all really weird, especially when you’ve been walking upstairs in a dark room for six months and suddenly you’re thrown into this very strange world,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been to 12 weddings in a row.”
At no time, however, had Walker seemed even slightly overwhelmed by the experience. She seemed quite ready and quite present. Seeing women connect with the film, she said, has been gratifying. But the moment she felt the most emotion was not in the celebration that followed. It was just before the release of his film.
“I just felt like getting to this point was the real thing.”
This story was first moved on May 23, 2023. It was updated on May 26, 2023 to indicate that Walker’s film won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP