‘How to Have Sex’ Director Molly Manning Walker On Her Award-Magnet Debut Film

A prize winner at Cannes and nominated for three BAFTA Awards, 'How to Have Sex' grapples with consent and teenage sexuality.

Molly Manning Walker, writer and director of How to Have Sex. Billy Boyd Cape

Molly Manning Walker had a successful career as a cinematographer before she wrote and directed How To Have Sex, an impactful British drama that grapples with consent and teenage sexuality. Walker never actually intended to become a filmmaker herself until producer Lauren Dark approached her on a set and asked if she’d ever considered directing. 

“I was like, ‘Wow, I’m not sure. I kind of like shooting,’” Walker tells Observer. “And then the lockdown happened. I’m really bad at sitting still and get quite bored so I started writing and now here we are.” 

How To Have Sex, out today, follows a trio of friends on holiday to Malia, Crete. Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) is still a virgin, desperate to finally have sex, while her pals, Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis) are seemingly more experienced. The group befriends their neighbors in the rowdy resort, which plays host to raucous pool parties and questionable games that make MTV Spring Break look like kindergarten. Tara eventually sleeps with Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) in an encounter that blurs the line of consent. The uproarious fun quickly shifts as Tara internally questions whether he took advantage of her while trying to keep having fun. 

“The whole film is about pretending and the unknown as to when that changes, when that slips from having the time of your life to something more complicated,” Walker explains. “I was assaulted when I was 16, so it’s something that I’ve always been wanting to talk about. I made a short film, Good Thanks, You?, which looks at how the authorities deal with assault. It definitely was a big reason to make the film.” 

Since premiering at Cannes last May, where it won Un Certain Regard, How To Have Sex has continued to gain momentum. It was released in theaters in the U.K. in November and Walker sees its release in the U.S. as the missing piece of the puzzle. But there’s still one more piece left: awards season. How To Have Sex is nominated for three BAFTA Awards, including Outstanding British Film, and four categories at the London Critics Circle Awards this weekend. “It’s been crazy,” Walker says. “But it’s been a beautiful ride of seeing audiences react to it in new places.”

Here Walker discusses how the film came to be, the importance of an intimacy coordinator and consent. 

Lara Peake, Enva Lewis, and Mia McKenna-Bruce (from left) in How to Have Sex. MUBI

Was this a story you’d had in your mind for a long time?

No, not at all. I went to a wedding just before lockdown with a bunch of old schoolmates and we started talking about these holidays that we went on and how they sort of taught us how to have sex without any information and guidance. And then I started writing and it came quite naturally. But it wasn’t something that I’d been dwelling on for too long.

For Americans, can you explain these European youth holidays and how old people are when they go?

It’s an after-exams holiday—we finish our exams when we’re 16 or 17. It’s like a weird Disneyland where everyone goes in on these package vibes where you buy a hotel for a week that has all-inclusive food. It’s super cheap and the flights are super cheap. There’s usually a strip that is one road with clubs and bars on it and everyone hangs out on that one strip. You drink, wake up late, starting drinking again, go out and party. You meet people from all over the country, mostly Brits to be honest. 

So it’s like our spring break?

Yeah. Although I guess the ages are slightly different in the U.K. I’ve been on loads of these holidays. I maybe did six of them between the ages of 16 and 21. 

Is it actually fun? 

I mean, I had some of the best times of my life on these holidays. Obviously, they’re very complex as well. One of the first ones I went on was like 16 of us in hotel without parents for the first time. It’s rowdy, in a good way, you know?

Is the resort in the film a real resort?

Yeah. They were really up for it. They kind became part of the process. And I’m not going to lie, I actually went back there for my 30th birthday. 

One of the most shocking scenes is when Badger (Shaun Thomas) gets a blowjob onstage at the pool in front of everyone as part of the party. Is that based on something that really happened? 

I saw that on one of our holidays when we were 16. That was kind of the basis of writing the film. I was talking about that memory and I thought I’d heightened it. And then everyone was like, “No, that did happen.” For Shaun, it was definitely the most complex scene. It’s an assault, really, as well. He gets pulled up on stage and doesn’t know what’s going to happen. With other scenes we had closed sets and they could be more protected and much quieter. His scene had to be performed in front of 300 people. 

It was very intense. We tried to not run it too many times. We tried to keep his close-ups with reduce people on set. But it was funny because I stood up at the beginning of the day and was like, “If anyone feels uncomfortable let us know. Please protect the actors in that. Don’t be filming them. This is very hard for them to do.” And all the people, all the extras, were local to the town and they were like, “This doesn’t shock us. We’ve seen stuff like this before now.”

Mia McKenna Bruce in How to Have Sex. MUBI

You used the locals as your extras?

They were fully onboard. They’ve also witnessed so much of that stuff that they were committed to making it realistic, which was really sweet. We shot all the party scenes in the first few weeks, so we had like 200 extras a day. Trying to get them all to dance to no music and resetting them was hectic. 

The film treads a very narrow line of what consent is. Did you have a lot of conversations about that on set?

Consent has become so binary and everyone’s so obsessed with “Yes” or “No.” But, actually, the reality of it is that two people should be having a good time. And we don’t teach teenagers what is good sex. Instead, let’s freak out about condoms, or let’s freak out about periods. But what what is good sex? What is female pleasure? The conversations become as long as you’ve got a “Yes” you’re okay. But no one talks about, she said “No” three times before she said “Yes.” For some reason, the “Yes” is fine but the “No’s” aren’t. 

The pivotal scene with Tara and Paddy is hard to watch. Was it challenging to shoot?

It was definitely the hardest bit of the filmmaking process. Also lots of men on the set were realizing some of their past experiences live. But we built a really safe set where everyone could talk about their lives. So it was complicated. Hopefully, everyone felt very protected. And we had intimacy coordinators and therapists and all sorts available for everyone to navigate that.

Mia McKenna-Bruce and Shaun Thomas in How to Have Sex. MUBI

Why does it feel important to use an intimacy coordinator? 

It’s madness to not have an incident intimacy coordinator. And for me it’s like, actors want to give you the world as a director and you’ve got such a tight bond when you’re making a film, where you’re discovering stuff and you’re exploring these characters. When you’re in a situation where you have to do intimate scenes, they should have the possibility to talk to you and say, “I don’t want to do any more takes.” Or, “I want to do this one more time.” Often they don’t feel like they have that space because they’re there to give you everything that you need as a director. Having an intimacy coordinator to bridge that conversation is so helpful. Intimacy coordinators do whatever it takes to make the actor feel more comfortable in the situation.

How have viewers responded to the themes of the film? 

The outpouring of women feeling seen and explaining their stories has been kind of mad. It’s both really empowering and also kind of worrying at what scale we’re at in terms of that. But also we’ve had lots of men also seeing themselves in the film. That’s been most powerful for me. If we can give people the language to understand that they’re making someone else feel uncomfortable or upset and change their ways, that’s amazing.

What was your reaction when the BAFTA nominations were announced?

We were actually at Sundance, so it was like 5 a.m. And we had set the fire alarm off by accident. So we had had the firemen around, we’d barely slept, the coffee machine was broken. We were YouTubing trying to figure out how to use the coffee machine as the nominations were announced. 

Have you thought about your next project?

There’s a couple of things bubbling. I’m going to try to write all of [my projects]. But we’ll see. We’ll see how we get going. 

‘How to Have Sex’ is in theaters now. 

‘How to Have Sex’ Director Molly Manning Walker On Her Award-Magnet Debut Film