Molly Manning Walker was on a boat to Greece last May when she got a call to say she should probably turn around as soon as possible and get back to the Cannes Film Festival.
She’d already made a major splash in the south of France with her debut feature “How to Have Sex,” a cautionary tale following three British teenage girls on a wild and intoxicated summer holiday that takes a dark turn over the issue of sexual consent. The film, which had been picked up by Mubi prior to Cannes, became one of the breakout hits of the 2023 event, enjoying critical acclaim, standing ovations and earmarking Manning Walker as an exciting new cinematic voice. The festival had been, in no uncertain terms, a resounding success.
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“It was a such a magical experience — and what a place to have the birthing of the film,” she says, speaking from Sundance ahead of “How to Have Sex’s” U.S. premiere. “We had our cast and crew there, we had a really lovely party to celebrate the launch of the film, so I’d left in a very content manner.”
This content manner didn’t factor in actually winning the Un Certain Regard competition, so Manning Walker had packed up her bags, driven to Italy with some of her crew and was on a boat heading towards Greece (where “How to Have Sex” shot in 2022) when her phone rang and she was told to “just get on the next plane.”
Chaos ensued. Not thinking she’d need it, she had put her passport in the middle of her suitcase, which she was hastily trying to unpack in the back of a car speeding to the airport. Upon arrival, she ran to the check-in desk only to discover she’d booked a flight for the wrong day. She found another, one that would get her there just in time. But this was then delayed. Eventually, she landed in Nice, left her bag in the luggage hall and jumped straight in a car to Cannes, sprinting into the Un Certain Regard awards ceremony — wearing the unlikely awards ceremony combo of Adidas sports shorts and a green T-shirt — merely minutes after “How to Have Sex” had been announced as top prize winner (a delay that had prompted jury head John C. Reilly to sing to the audience while they waited).
“I was drenched in sweat — I stank,” she explains. “But I’m so glad I got there. I wouldn’t have realized how sad I’d be to miss it until I got there.”
Eight months on and the remarkable journey of “How to Have Sex” has continued long beyond that sweat-soaked Cannes awards ceremony. Following a short festival run, in late 2023 the film landed an stunning 13 British Independent Film Awards nominations (eventually winning three, including best lead performance for its breakout star Mia McKenna-Bruce), quickly followed by three nominations at the European Film Awards, where Manning Walker was name European Discovery of the Year (an award previously won by the likes of Pedro Almodovar, Kenneth Branagh and Steve McQueen). Earlier this week, it earned three BAFTA nominations, including outstanding British film; debut by a British writer, director or producer; and best casting (McKenna-Bruce also has a BAFTA Rising Star nomination).
“It’s amazing and very unexpected. I keep trying to enjoy the moment, because it’s easy to get lost in it,” Manning Walker says from Park City. Helping her along the way has been Charlotte Regan, the director of “Scrapper,” on which Manning Walker served as cinematographer. “Scrapper” — which coincidentally brought Manning Walker to Sundance in 2023 — also landed a BAFTA nomination for outstanding British film.
“It’s such an alien experience to so many people, so to go through that journey together and to be at so many of these events together and text each other like, ‘Fuck man, what the fuck is happening!?’… I’m really grateful for that allyship,” she says.
When a buzzy new director bursts onto the scene with a remarkable debut feature, the conversation inevitably turns to what they’ll do next and how they’ll take the next step on their filmmaking trajectory. It’s something that Manning Walker says she’s talked about a lot with Regan.
“There was a distinct lack of pressure with the first one, so you can kind of be yourself and be free to do your thing,” she says. “I guess to follow that, I kind of want to come in with the same scrutiny. I want execs to give notes. I want everyone to question what we’re making so that we make something that is of the same level, because I think it’s dangerous when you get to the second one, and everyone’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re just so excited to see what you do.'”
And for Manning Walker — who signed with CAA in November — despite whatever interest she may have amassed following Cannes and the ongoing success of “How to Have Sex,” she says she’s determined to “not just jump into stuff for the sake of it,” and keep making films from her own scripts.
“The thing I really enjoyed with ‘How to Have Sex’ was that, if a scene wasn’t working, we could pivot really quickly on it. I could rewrite it on the spot,” she says. “There was a real freedom, and I think I’d feel less comfortable doing that with someone else’s words.”
There are a “couple of new things lined up,” she offers without giving any more information, although she does say she plans to keep working with Film4, which developed “How to Have Sex” and have a solid track record of nurturing new talent and maintaining a relationship as stars rise. “I love their vibe. And I’m very grateful for everything they’ve done for the film,” she says.
Following the U.S. premiere in Sundance and the film’s domestic release on Feb. 2, the voyage of “How to Have Sex” looks to finally be drawing to a close. Manning Walker says that not only does the U.S. launch “feels like the missing piece of the pie,” but that returning to Sundance (where this year Regan happens to be on the jury) has helped her reflect on the last 12 months.
“Charlotte was texting me this morning and we just felt emotional about the whole journey,” she says. “Because I guess when we came here last time, for me it was the first film festival I’d ever really done. So it was really overwhelming and anxiety-inducing. And to come back, having lived the journey of the film, feels really nice.”
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