Interview | How To Have Sex director Molly Manning Walker on her first feature film

Mia McKenna-Bruce as Tara in How To Have Sex.
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How To Have Sex is director Molly Manning Walker’s debut feature – we chat to her about consent, casting and cinematography.

With her first feature film, writer/director Molly Manning Walker explores many things. How To Have Sex is a tale about aimless teenage years spent blocking out worries about the future with boozy fun. It’s also about the ups and downs of teenage friendships and the wild highs and lows of partying. More seriously, it covers the societal pressures around the topic of sex and the importance of clear, explicit consent.

All of this is rolled into the story of three friends going on holiday in Malia ahead of receiving their GCSE results. Tara (Kindling's Mia McKenna-Bruce) is the one member of the group who remains a virgin, and so she resolves to have her first sexual experience on the trip. It’s often questionable whether that’s what she really wants, though. It seems to be the influence of her friends and of a sex-obsessed society that pushes her in that direction. As the partying gets out of hand, what’s meant to be the “best summer ever” doesn’t turn out that way.

Molly Manning Walker has spent most of her career as a cinematographer. Recently, she served as DP on this year’s wonderful British drama Scrapper, by another first-time feature director, Charlotte Regan. She’s made lots of short films, too, gradually building to writing and directing them. It’s clear she has a knack for it, as How To Have Sex has been well received at its various festival screenings.

We sat down with Walker ahead of the film’s UK premiere to chat about the personal experiences that inspired it, casting the lead characters and why she got into cinematography…

Read more: How To Have Sex review: a powerful feature debut

Where did the idea for How To Have Sex's story come from?

So it’s like a collection of holidays that I went on when I was a teenager. I had one particularly strong memory of this blowjob on the stage that I started writing from.

And why was it so important to you to create a story based around consent and the concept of that?

I was assaulted when I was 16, and it’s something that’s really close to me, and I felt the need to talk about it. And whenever I talked about it it sort of like sucked the air out of the room, and so I think just to open up that conversation, really.

That’s really good that you feel open to speak about it. Was there a moment where you felt more emboldened to do that?

No, I think I was always quite like that as a teenager. And I think I found it weird that no one else wanted to talk about it.

So what was the writing process like, this being your first feature? Is it much more of a challenge to do that with a feature length film than with a short?

Yeah, it’s quite overwhelming. I wrote like the first 60 pages all in one go and then sort of figured out the last 30. Sort of set myself challenges to like write the next five pages over this amount of time and then see what comes out and delete something, and go back.

When it came to casting with that main trio, had you seen them in anything before they auditioned for How To Have Sex?

I’d seen Shaun [Thomas] in something before, and Sam [Bottomley]. Oh, I’d worked with Lara [Peake], so I knew she was good. I actually asked her on set. I was like, ‘Do you think you could play 16?’ knowing that the film was coming up and she was like ‘Nooo.’ But I hadn’t seen the others.

Headshot of How To Have Sex director Molly Manning Walker.

Molly Manning Walker. Credit: Organic Publicity

So what about when it came to Mia? Did you meet her when she auditioned?  

Yeah, so she taped very early on in the process, and the tape was just really standout and I just knew straight away that she was going to be the one. She had this sort of high energy, bouncing off the walls, but also underneath there was vulnerability. You could see what was going on in her eyes that she was thinking about stuff.

The boys are really interesting characters in that you kind of hate them, but they’re also like normal boys of their age. What were you looking for when you were casting those parts?

I really wanted to not lock men out of the conversation. I wanted them to be able to see themselves in the role. So especially, it’s quite hard for you to see yourself in Paddy, but to see yourself in Badger, and yet he still like doesn’t say anything, he doesn’t stand up at the end. And so for me it was about making him sort of, like funny and like a bit bubbly and kind.

You decided on Malia for the location. What was it about that place that made you think to set it there?

Originally we were going to shoot in Magaluf – because that’s where I went on holiday and it’s where I saw the blowjob on stage. But they’ve got really bad press from that blowjob and so they kind of didn’t want us to depict that in Magaluf. So we started looking around, and Greece became an option. So we went to Malia, and we sort of knew that it could work, and the Greek tax credits are also amazing. 40%. We could put so much money on screen.

What was it about cinematography that made you want to start out doing that?

I just love visuals. I’ve always been like really into photography. So it was kind of like a smooth transition.

Which films and cinematographers inspire you in your work?

I mean, it’s basic but I’m a big [Roger] Deakins fan – so Prisoners. And then I try and do everything very simply, so Robbie Ryan [of Fish Tank and Medusa Deluxe] is really good at that. Very simple but beautiful cinematography.

What is it you love about film as a medium?

I’ve always loved movies, and the idea that you can change the world with art in that way is amazing.

How To Have Sex is in cinemas now.

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