Ninja Thyberg‘s feature directorial debut, Pleasure, is the kind of cinematic experience that shakes you at your core in a way that only good filmmaking is able to do. With a breakout performance from newcomer, Sofia Kappel, the film uses the adult entertainment industry as a vessel to explore society’s often fractured understanding of ambition and independence. It’s a fairly layered film, and Thyberg spoke with Film Inquiry about her process as a director during the 2021 edition of the Sundance Film Festival.
Wilson Kwong for Film Inquiry: What made you want to adapt your short film into a feature film?
Ninja Thyberg: This feature film was a way to continue working with the same concept, and to again go behind the scenes of a porn set, but with different characters and a completely different story. The short film is actually on YouTube to watch for free if you want to see it. I knew when I made the short film that I wanted to make a feature, but at that time, I wasn’t in a position where that was possible. So I made the short film as a pilot for a longer version. I think the biggest shift in going from the short to the feature was that I knew what I needed in order to do this story justice. I needed to do proper research because the short film was made through research that I did from my home in Sweden. I read books, watched documentaries, and thought I was very well educated on the subject. At the same time, because my intention was to show the real people behind stereotypes, I felt that I was doing something false because I didn’t know anything for real about these people. And in order to really show the real world and the real people, I knew I had to go and find a story at the centre of the porn industry in Los Angeles.
Can you expand more on your research process for the film? I know there’s a lot of involvement in the film from people within the porn industry, so I assume you interacted with them a lot while preparing the film?
Ninja Thyberg: I started doing research in the summer of 2014, and it took me four years to complete all the research. I really had to dig my way into the core of the industry, so I spent a lot of time on porn sets. And after a while, I was able to move into a model house and actually live with girls who worked in the industry. I became friends with these people, and I became a part of the community after a while. So I went to the parties and hung out with them privately as well.
I was really impressed with Sofia Kappel, and was really surprised that this was her first acting performance ever. What was the casting process like, and why did you decide to cast an unknown for the role?
Ninja Thyberg: It took a very long time, about one and half years before I found her. We were in contact with over 2000 girls, and I met with 600 of them. And because she had to carry the whole film on her shoulders, I had very high expectations. But when I found her, I just knew immediately. It was very clear to me that this was it. And to answer why I chose to work with someone who’d never done acting before, I think when it comes to film, you don’t necessarily need to be trained. You just need to have certain talents and the right energy. I noticed immediately that was extremely talented.
How did Sofia prepare for the role? Was she also involved in the research process?
Ninja Thyberg: She was involved, but I had already spent three and a half years doing research when I found her. However, it took about eight or nine months from when she got the part till we started shooting. So she went with me to LA and was also part of the research process, meeting people in the industry and becoming comfortable with the subject. Sofia knew what she was auditioning for, but it still takes a while before you really see the layers. At first, it’s a shock to you. Everyone behaves so differently, and the nudity, with people getting undressed like it’s nothing. After that, I also developed the script in collaboration with her, because I wanted her gaze on the script and character since she was the same age as the character. I wanted it to feel authentic, and I try to stay close to reality because reality is what inspires me. So I tried to rewrite the character to fit with Sofia’s personality, and for her to give her opinions about the character as well. For her to do something like this, she really needed to be on board one hundred percent.
Can you also talk a bit about the shooting process? I would assume that this might’ve been a bit of a challenging shoot. Did you also get advice or help from the porn industry when it came to shooting certain scenes?
Ninja Thyberg: Not really, because for them, the thinking would be, “Yeah, but why can’t she just be naked? What’s the problem?” So it was actually the opposite, and I knew we couldn’t do it the way they did. And it was super important to find a way to do this in a safe way, and that she [Sofia] felt safe. I mean, it’s all about preparation. So we talked through everything and made very clear decisions. And for her to be comfortable with everything beforehand, we rehearsed a lot and everything was pre-planned. I usually like to work with improv and find things in the moment. But for the sex scenes, it’s the total opposite, and we talked and planned through everything. What you see on film also looks much worse than how it was shot. There were just three times where she was actually naked, and she would always be covered with a patch or small skin tone panties. And in a lot of scenes, she has pants on the whole time, so she’s not as naked as it looks.
Ninja Thyberg: When it came to the violence, people who’ve seen it have been very upset because they somehow felt that this happened for real, because it looks so authentic. But that’s because Sofia is such a great actress, so you believe that you’ve seen her being abused for real. But if you start to analyze it, you can tell we moved the camera and that obviously happened another time. And there are also cuts between all these different camera positions, but you feel like you’re watching it in one take because her performance is so strong.
I know it’s hard to know since the film only premiered at Sundance, but I know that the response so far has been very positive. But I am curious if people in the porn industry have seen the film as well, and what their thoughts might’ve been?
Ninja Thyberg: Very few of them have seen it, and I haven’t heard their response yet. So I’m definitely very curious.
I wanted to also ask you about the cinematography in the film. Everything appears very striking, and it seems like you used a lot of natural lighting, with a lot of the scenes looking very bright and welcoming. Can you talk about your approach to composing the appearance of the film?
Ninja Thyberg: For me, because I started out making paintings and working in photography, I care a lot about the image. I care about composing the colours and I want every frame to be pretty and beautiful to watch. And because the film contains a lot of dark content, I really wanted to have a colourful and ‘easy-to-watch’ kind of visual language. I used a pop culture-inspired visual language when it came to the set design, colours and lighting. Personally, my taste leans more towards pop culture, rather than art house. And the stereotype is that in art house, people are usually in the shadow, and in pop culture, they are in the light. For me, I wanted the characters to be in the light and not fall into the trap of making the visual language dark and gritty just because there is dark content. But of course, the scenes vary, and some of them are also darker and grittier because it was important for the character arc.
I must also add that the scenes are really well complimented by the sound design and music. I know there isn’t a lot of music in the film, but the choir-like thematic sequences you have throughout the film was very interesting. What was the inspiration behind using that, as opposed to a more traditional recorded soundtrack?
Ninja Thyberg: I feel the same way with music as with anything else, in that I’m a bit allergic to the conventional cliches. So for me, everything needs to have a purpose and be incorporated with the core of what I want to say. So to just use sad music because the scene is sad, I wouldn’t want to do that. But I used the choir, because one layer of the film is that it’s thematically familiar with the whore-Madonna complex. Historically, the good girl and the bad girl are both patriarchal constructions that limit women’s freedom of becoming full human beings. And I felt that the choir and the opera was an interesting contrast. Like in the opening sequence, when we first hear the woman moaning in porn, which is an example of the ‘whore’. And then it comes to a beautiful choir-like opera, which is the Madonna version of sticking to stereotypes, culturally. And it was also to use the female voice and the expression of the female body as the main instrument in the film, because that’s what the film is about.
Film Inquiry would like to thank Ninja Thyberg for taking the time to speak with us!
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