Swedish director Ninja Thyberg is earning rave reviews for Pleasure, the full-length feature that expands on her award-winning 2013 short of the same name. At once an intense coming-of-age drama, a dark study of unbridled youthful ambition, and an insightful look at the relationship between abusers and victims, the indie film tells the story of a newcomer to the adult film industry.
In the film, Sofia Kappel plays 19-year-old Linnéa, who arrives in Los Angeles, takes the name Bella Cherry, and dives into hardcore sex work. Her choices bring career success, but they come at a cost. The A.V. Club spoke with Thyberg about how she researched the industry, the reasons she cast Kappel for this unique role, and the ways that cinema can bring some corrective balance to a warped culture.
The A.V. Club: You’ve talked about having an academic or intellectual interest in pornography when you were in school, studying gender studies. When did that translate into the idea for a film?
Ninja Thyberg: I had already started [at] one film school, and all my films were about gender issues and sexuality. And then I went to another film school, to study script writing for a year, and parallel with that I also studied gender studies, where I wrote a thesis about porn online. I did a study analyzing different clips, and then I became so curious about the people making porn. Because I was a filmmaker already, I was so curious of the interactions in between takes. For example, I could tell that they have moved the camera here [for a different shot], so what do they say to each other? And what do they say before they start? Or, like, after? And also there was a lot of porn where they’re obviously playing a role—like, super-stereotypical gender roles that a lot of the time can be very problematic. I was curious what they think about that. So that’s how I got the idea of the short film. And I did a lot of research for that, but I had never been to a real porn set. So I felt a little bit like a hypocrite when I was saying in interviews that I wanted to portray the real people behind the porn stereotypes. I think when I started the short film I had in my head already the idea that it could maybe be this stepping stone to make a longer version. And then when it got a lot of attention and won an award [at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival] and it was at Sundance, it just felt like I needed to continue it—but to do it the proper way, and do more research.
AVC: So you spent four or five years shuttling back and forth, visiting adult film shoots in Los Angeles, and building relationships in the industry. The idea of using four big sex scenes to track Linnéa’s story and career, did that narrative arc come directly from what you witnessed on sets?
NT: Yeah. I mean, it started as just in the beginning writing down things that fascinated me, just different scenes that had no connection. It was just things I thought about. Then, slowly, it was just putting it together, and after a while, it just tells me [what works]—everything just fell into place, because in a way I was also telling my story of coming to L.A. and getting to know the industry step by step. But I also thought that it was a very good way to bring the audience along on that journey, slowly unfolding. I knew I wanted to capture as many different types of shoots as I could, because through that we’re representing a very common journey too. That’s how you start, and then you have to build yourself up, and then you do more and more advanced stuff. So it just felt like the natural way to show it.
AVC: How quickly were you able to gain entry into that world and earn the trust of the adult film community?
NT: Since I had made the short film already, I could send that around. And that helped a lot because then they could see and understand what my intention was, and what I really needed and wanted to know. They saw I was focusing more on human relationships rather than saying that porn is bad or something like that. I was so genuine in wanting to learn, too. So, for example, I met [porn agent] Mark Spiegler I think on my first day in L.A., and he was just very open and willing to talk. And so I started to do interviews, and every person I talked to just increased that networking. It took me maybe 10 days until I was on actual porn sets. And people were much more open than I thought. They are so stigmatized, and people have so many weird ideas about what the job is, but the thing you notice when you come to a porn set is that it’s just a job and they are just normal people. It’s a different job, yes, but as soon as you get over that first really weird feeling of people being naked, it’s more the same than you’d think. In the beginning, you project your own thoughts and ideas on it. So that took a long time, but I remember when I all of a sudden started to stop projecting my own ideas and really started to listen and understand, and that’s when I think we were able to find the keys to really do this properly.
AVC: I know you saw a lot of young women for the part of Linnéa. What were you looking for in the role and, and what did you see in Sofia Kappel?
NT: It was important, because the [character] was going to be young, that she had to look young. But at the same time, it was important that the audiences wouldn’t feel like they wanted to go in there and rescue her, or that it would be too painful to see someone who’s almost like a child. The character is someone that you can feel has agency, she knows what she’s doing in a way. You trust her because she can feel like she’s in control over her situation. She’s very intelligent and smart, and also she has a thick skin, she’s been through stuff in life. She’s not this total baby, she’s been through some stuff and learned how to handle herself and handle the world. So we needed all that, but also humor was so important, because humor is the best way of making a connection. And Sophia is just so witty and charming—she had that exact quality that I was looking for, and that type of toughness, too. And then she had to be incredibly good at acting.
AVC: Did you make any changes to either the character or her backstory based on casting Sofia?
NT: Yes, but I also knew that I was going to do that. I’m not a big fan of just making things up. I like to pick some things up from reality. So the characters in the script are based on people [I observed], and she was this empty canvas, as a character. I felt she was very flat as a character, because I was just looking for the right person to carry that position, be that anchor for the film, and then build from there. So when she came on board, yeah, I interviewed her a lot and she had also a chance to really create the character. So it’s really based on her in some ways, because I felt in a way that I’m a little bit too old to actually do a 19-year-old justice in terms of how she feels. So Sofia had to bring a lot more of that, for the authenticity of the character. We developed a lot of the dialogue together, through improvisation. She’s so talented, and she brought so much to the character and to the film.
AVC: The visual aesthetic of the film is open and bright. Was that always integral to how you wanted to tell the story?
NT: Yeah, I really wanted to stay away from making it dark or gritty or heavy, and focus more on the light and colorful, because I think that that’s Bella’s gaze. Like, she has a glittery phone case and most of the colors in the film come from her wardrobe because she’s a 19-year-old girl and she likes that type of aesthetic. Also, I like that type of aesthetic. I prefer films that are bright and colorful. I love eye-candy.
AVC: I know at one point you were looking at a possible TV series, and a documentary, as well as other features. But is anything definitively next for you?
NT: I cannot really talk about it, but my next project is going to be an American film because I’ve always been drawn to and interested in pop culture, and the American audience is my main target, I think. I want to be part of this epicenter of pop culture—this is where I want to be working and present. I want to get my voice into it, because I think there are so many things that need to change that I want to contribute to. And I don’t want to do that in a little, obscure arthouse corner, but to do it where you actually have an impact on the culture. So I’m always going to work with these types of topics—the female gaze and gender roles.
AVC: When you say that your audience is an American audience, is that thought or feeling something that’s always been in your mind, even dating back to the film school?
NT: Yeah, I think, maybe—because that’s the culture that I have consumed and also that’s shaped me and shaped the people around me. And I feel that a lot of how it shaped me and the people around me was in a bad way, and had a lot of negative consequences. So I always felt like I needed to go there and make it change. I’ve always felt that this is where I want to be and work. Sweden is such a small country, and now that I’ve tasted that it’s actually possible to reach this audience, I don’t think I could go back, to be honest.