CANNES – Molly Manning Walker was still bleary-eyed from six months in the editing suite rushing to finish her first feature film when she arrived at the Cannes Film Festival.
“It’s nice to have a deadline," Walker, 29, said while 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 got into Cannes!"
The news set off perhaps the most surreal six weeks of Walker's life. A headlong sprint to finish the film began and didn't stop until 48 hours before Walker stepped into Cannes with her feature debut, “How to Have Sex." It premiered in the festival's Un Certain Regard section and won its top honor on Friday.
Preparing for Cannes is rarely a relaxed process for even the most veteran filmmakers. More editing, sound mixing or other last-minute tweaks are often needed. Sales meetings need to be lined up. A battalion of international journalists needs prepping for. And then there's the looming pressure of one of the world's most famous red carpets.
“Every exec was like: ‘But what are you wearing?’" says Walker, chuckling. “I’m finishing the film!”
The whirlwind can be both discombobulating and thrilling for newcomers. As much as stars dominate the red carpet and renown auteurs parade through the Palais, Cannes has, year after year, been arguably the biggest stage for new directing talents to emerge. Nearly 50 years ago, it was Martin Scorsese. Last year, Charlotte Wells ("Aftersun") debuted as a major new voice.
This year, Walker is among the most promising new filmmakers in Cannes. “How to Have Sex" is a vivid, 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 a spring break-style vacation. Tara, like many male protagonists before her, wants to lose her virginity.
But while “How to Have Sex” details the hard-partying, EDM-thumping hedonism of teenagers on a European holiday, it approaches young sex far more honestly and disquietingly than any similar coming-of-age film. Little is black and white in Tara's experiences, which are boozy, bewildering, isolating and devastating.
For Walker, it's a profoundly personal story that partly draws from her own experiences, about which she's courageously frank.
“I was assaulted when I was 16 while I was out drinking in London,” she says. “Part of why I made it was to talk about that and talk about how it doesn’t get talked about. It can suck the air out of a room but it shouldn’t. If so many people have experienced it, we should be talking about it openly."
Walker grew up in London and first fell into filmmaking by documenting her older brother's punk band. Her parents both wanted to be filmmakers and are still at it. Watching their movies not get made, she says, gave her her hustle. “It's my whole life,” Walker says of filmmaking.
As a teenager, she went on trips like the one in “How to Have Sex," to Majorca and Ibiza. While Walker remembers them fondly ("I've got some amazing pictures"), she began to question some of the things she saw. After her short “Good Thanks, You?” made it into Cannes' Critics Week during the virtual 2020 edition of the festival, she wrote a 50-page script, leaving lots of room for improvisation.
Walker made authenticity a priority. Before filming, she held workshops around the U.K. with 16-year-old girls and slightly older guys to ask them about sex and their interpretations of what she had written.
“Everything from what music are you into, what films are you watching to what’s your concept of consent?” Walker says. “We'd say, 'Here’s a scene from the film. How does that read to you?' And none of them recognized it as assault.”
After spending months raising money, Walker shot “How to Have Sex” in Greece. Some of the most challenging days were immediate. Day two required hundreds of extras. Walker was throwing up on set.
“Day three, I decided either I’m going to make myself ill and be really anxious throughout the entire shoot, or I have to enjoy this process," she says. “And I just managed to flip a switch in my head.”
“I honestly had the best time of my life,” Walker continues. “I don’t know if that’s a combination of factors. You’re on a Greek island, with a really young crew, in a party town. I don’t know if it’s that or whether it’s your first film. But I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Cannes, in the South of France, is its own glamorous summer vacation destination, of course. “How to Have Sex” brought a group of 30 actors, crew members and producers who descended eager to party together again.
Still, Walker had plenty of obligations to attend to. A day of interviews. Meetings with sales agents. A test screening at 1 a.m. the night before her premiere at the Debussy Theatre. Walker was worried about her just-completed sound mix, wondering what could possibly be done to change anything in the middle of the night.
“I was like 'What if it’s not good? What if something’s wrong?” Walker says, laughing. “My mom was like, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not your problem.’ I was like, 'I think it is my problem.'”
But she was resolved, like in Greece, to enjoy the moment. “It might not come around again,” she shrugged.
The big day came on Friday: the premiere, a photo call, walking the red carpet. Inside the Debussy when the end credits rolled, there was warm applause but not the response Walker had hoped for.
“I thought: Oh, they like it but they don’t love it,'" said Walker later that night. “Then the lights came up and everyone stood up.”
For eight minutes the standing ovation continued. Festival director Thierry Fremaux turned to the gob-smacked Walker. “Look,” he said, gesturing at the crowd. “You did this.”
Walker had given herself the rule of not reading reviews until the next day. She didn't need to worry, though; they were raves. Variety called it a “fresh, head-turning debut.” Before hitting the dance floor that night at a beachside party for the film, Walker took a moment to reflect on what she had been through.
“The whole thing is really bizarre, to be honest, especially when you’ve been editing in a dark room for six months and then suddenly you’re thrown into this very strange world,” she said. “It kind of feels like I’ve been at 12 weddings in a row."
At no point, though, had Walker seemed even slightly overwhelmed by the experience. She seemed fully ready and entirely present. Seeing women connect with the film, she said, had been gratifying. But the moment she felt the most emotional wasn't in the celebration after. It was just before her movie played.
“I just felt like getting to that point was the real thing.”
This story first moved May 23, 2023. It was updated on May 26, 2023, to reflect that Walker’s film won the Un Certain Regard section’s top prize.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP