Swedish Helmer-Writer Ninja Thyberg Spotlights the Adult Film Biz in ‘Pleasure’

After a prize-winning short of the same name, Swedish director-writer Ninja Thyberg’s “Pleasure,” a drama unfolding within the shadowy world of the adult film industry, premieres in Sundance and moves on to Goteborg and the Dragon competition for best Nordic film.

What inspired the storyline of “Pleasure?”

I’ve been working on the topic for a very long time. I made a short film with the same title. It premiered in Cannes in 2013 and Sundance the year after.

I got the inspiration for that story while writing an essay about porn during a gender studies class at university. But I’ve been interested in porn as a subject for a very long time.

There are many things that fascinate me, but I am interested in gender roles, media images and different stereotypes. It’s very easy to find them in porn. They are very extreme in a lot of porn. And I’m interested in how media images shape our identities.

When it comes to pornography, it’s the only place where we really see explicit sex and it’s a huge part of our culture. People consume so much pornography today and it’s something that we never discuss publicly or talk about amongst our friends. It’s a huge part of our culture that exists in a world of shadows and that made me curious to understand more about it. I guess because it was taboo, that’s why I wanted to dig into it.

The short version of “Pleasure” came out in 2013.  Why did it take seven years to make the feature?  

When “Pleasure” premiered in Cannes, I was still in my first year at the Stockholm Academy of Dramatic Arts and I had to finish film school. I graduated in 2015, and in order to do this story justice, I felt I had to get to know the world of the film better. The short was based on research that I had done from my home, from my computer, reading books, watching documentaries, but I hadn’t seen this world from inside for real.

I knew that the story that I wanted to tell was something that I had to find. I wanted to find the real people behind the stereotypes and I wanted to see it for myself with my own eyes, so it took me quite a long time to dig my way into this world and get to know it from the inside. I had to do a lot of research and spend a lot of time in the porn industry.

How did you manage to gain entrée into the world of adult filmmaking?  

I had one first contact with a person who introduced me to the next one, and just continuing that way, taking each chance I had to interview a new person. From the beginning I just wanted to interview people and I wanted to understand them. I think they felt I was genuine in that sense. I decided from the start that I would not judge people or psychoanalyze them, but just believe what they said as a method.

Slowly I got to know people step by step and gained their trust. After a while I was in the middle of that community and became a part of it somehow.

The film plays as if you were able to incorporate some of the most appalling workaday stories that you heard.

Most of it is actually things I’ve seen myself. I started interviewing but after a while I spent a lot of time on porn sets. I also lived in a model house [like the main character] for a short time. I didn’t do any porn myself, but I came as close to Bella [the protagonist] as I possibly could.

Your casting, with one surprising exception, is entirely from within the adult film world.

Yeah, that wasn’t something I had planned from the start. I started to audition people for parts in the film quite early, interesting characters. I’m used to working like that in my short films. I mix regular actors with type-cast amateurs or people who are playing someone who is close to them in real life. I started to audition people from the adult industry very early, but we also auditioned regular actors for a long time. But I never believed their performances. The adult film actors felt more genuine.

We shot a lot of improv. Working with people from the adult film industry, they can improvise in situations, and I know they know what they are talking about. If I were to have an actor there, they wouldn’t know what to say or how to behave. When I worked with the real people I knew that they will always be 100% accurate.

You have real people playing themselves such as adult movie agent Mark Spiegler. Was it difficult to persuade him?

No, he was one of the first people I got to know and I’ve become very close to him. He’s been onboard since the beginning.

Some of the people play versions of themselves, but others play someone completely different. Evelyn Claire, who plays Ava, is a real Spiegler girl. The more unsympathetic characters, the antagonists, the ones behaving really badly, they are acting, not being themselves.

Some are porn actors playing directors or playing agents, not necessarily their real profession, but they know the world and are modeling their performance on people they have in mind.

What about your lead performer Sofia Kappel?

Sofia Kappel is not in porn at all. She’s just a regular girl from Sweden. This is her first performance ever. She’s never acted in anything before. She was a friend of a friend of a friend. I’d been looking for the main character for one and a half years and we were in contact with over 2,000 girls, but I just couldn’t find the one. Everyone thought I was just chasing ghosts, that I wanted a fantasy person that didn’t exist.

But when Sofia came into the room, it was like a fairy tale, there she is. I immediately noticed how talented she was in acting [even though] she had no experience at all in acting. She did an amazing performance.

It took quite a while before we decided to give her the role because I needed to get to know her and know that her parents and family and everyone around her was supportive of her doing this part because it was such a demanding part and she was so young. She was 20 when we shot it.

She knew what the part was when she came to the audition. Although she would never do something like [acting in porn], there are some similarities between her and Bella. She has something a bit rebellious about her. She felt that the subject and the story that I wanted to tell was really important. And there was something about the character that she really sympathized with.

Sofia wanted to do it from the beginning, but I wanted her to think it through. There’s no way for anyone to understand what they are getting into saying yes to this kind of part, especially if you haven’t ever been on a film shoot. It took quite a long time for me to decide that I could give this huge responsibility to her and feel comfortable with it. Also, before she did the part, there were more than a half a year of preparations. She got to follow me to do some research and to meet some of the people in the industry and get to know this world.

Sofia was also a huge part of creating the character because I had the script but we changed it a lot after she got the part, because I wanted the character to feel as natural as possible for her. I wanted it to feel very authentic: how a 19-year-old girl today would react to the situation. So, she was really a big part of shaping the character.

How long was the shoot?

The main shoot was 25 days in September to October 2018. Then we had an additional shoot in Gothenburg one year after, and then one more additional shoot in November or December of 2019. The main shoot was in L.A.

Is there already a Swedish distributor? When will it be released?

Yeah, SF is the Swedish distributor. We have a premiere date, the 28th of March. Right now, there are too many restrictions. No theaters are open.

Please talk about your collaboration with Platform Produktion, the company famous for Ruben Östlund’s films.

I met Ruben when I made the short film. And I’ve always been a huge fan of his work and always admired him. And when he suggested that I come to Platform with my idea for the film, I did.

After your experience in meeting with audiences and press live after Cannes in 2013, how do you feel about this virtual presentation experience?

I was feeling kind of down for a while, but the whole world is what it is. But, now since we finally finalized the film, I’m so enthusiastic about showing it and getting an audience. I’m so eager for people to see the film and so curious for their reactions. I feel that the film is so strong that it’s going to survive Corona and reach out no matter what.

Are there big differences in the way the adult industry operates in Sweden vs. in the U.S.?

We don’t really have any adult industry in Sweden. All over the world you can probably find someone in a basement shooting some porn and putting it up online, but there is no industry to speak of. That’s why I went to L.A. because that’s where the industry is. That’s the only place where you can find these 9 to 5, working-day offices.

Of all the things you learned during the shoot of “Pleasure,” the short, what came in most handy for “Pleasure,” the feature?

How important it is to get some chemistry between the actors. If they can find a way of playing with their characters so that the characters come to life and start to have a real connection with each other, that’s when the magic happens.

How do you make that happen?

Lots of improvisations. Laughing and joking. Instead of cutting each time I give new directions, I let the camera roll, I get them to stay in character and continue with the energy that exists at that moment. If you cut, and then everyone comes in and starts to do their thing, and the moment is gone. I keep the camera rolling and whisper some instructions and they continue to stay in the energy.

Did you encounter some unexpected challenges?

Yes. It was quite hard with some of the people from the adult industry because they practically shoot one feature length film per day. They never do a take twice. What happens, happens. I had the complete opposite way of working, doing things over and over again, improvising,

Also, we had a film crew from Sweden meeting a film crew from the U.S., also meeting a crew from the adult film industry. It’s three very different cultures with different ways of working and structures.

As a director, I’m always searching, always digging, always trying to find new angles and new answers to things. I don’t like to have all the answers. I want to have a very creative discussion, to hear everyone’s opinion and to keep things open for as long as possible. And that can be very frustrating because it is much easier if you just have a boss who says “This is how we’re going to do it and here are the instructions.” In Sweden, the people I work with know that is my method, and it can be annoying, but they trust me and know what I am doing.  But when we shot in the US, that side of me as a director was interpreted as a weakness, that I wasn’t sure. And that, in combination with my very unconventional method of work, made a lot of people insecure about if I knew what I was doing.

What filmmakers inspire your work?

Catherine Breillat has been a huge inspiration when I started making films. Lukas Moodyson and Ruben Östlund, two Swedish male directors.

What’s next for you?

I have two projects, my next feature and also a hybrid documentary. But it’s too early in the process to say much about them yet. Ideally, I want to shoot my next film in the U.S. I’m in the process of figuring out how I am going to work.

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