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Sex is a Good Thing: Ninja Thyberg on Pleasure

Shot over the course of a year in 2018 and 2019, it’s been a long and winding road to release for Ninja Thyberg’s adult film industry-set drama “Pleasure.” After the world premiere pivoted to a virtual Sundance in 2021 when the 2020 Cannes Film Festival was canceled, it was acquired by A24 with plans for releasing both uncensored and R-rated cuts. This then pivoted again, with Neon acquiring the "Pleasure" without any mandated cuts. Finally, U.S. audiences can experience the film uncut in theaters later this week. Featuring a transfixing debut performance from newcomer Sofia Kappel, as well as a supporting cast filled with performers from the adult film industry, it’s hard to imagine the depth and poignancy of the film working as well as it does in any altered version. 

Kappel plays a 19-year-old Swedish woman who comes to Los Angeles to work in the porn industry under the stage name Bella Cherry. Thyberg’s film follows Bella from her arrival at LAX, through her first shoot, her life at a model house, and the lengths she must go to match the aspirations she has herself in the industry. This is not an easy watch. Thyberg’s clear-eyed, almost clinical depiction of the machinations of a shoot allows viewers to see the love these workers have for their jobs without judgment, but also unearths the uneven power structures at play within any capitalist industry, which sometimes affects the performer’s safety and mental well-being. Like any great piece of art, “Pleasure” doesn’t tell you what to think or how to feel, rather it poses questions about its subject while also inspiring viewers to question themselves. 

As its U.S. theatrical release approaches, spoke to Thyberg over Zoom about adapting her short film, creating new images she’d never seen before, and working towards a more sex-positive society. 

Before I saw the feature film at Sundance a year and a half ago, I watched your short film of the same name and read that it came from your research in a Gender Studies class. Could you talk about how that research informed both films?

Everything with the film came from the research. I had made the short film based on porn clips that I had studied when I wrote my thesis. I became so interested in who these people were, and what do they think about their job? How are the dynamics on set? Because I was already a filmmaker, so I knew how a film is made. It’s like they're cutting here, they're moving the camera there. But what is happening in between that? What do they say to each other before they start or at the end? So I did as much research as I could, to try to create this fictional behind the scenes story, like before they start to shoot. But it was all just based on assumptions. I read a lot of biographies and watched documentaries, but you still don't really know. It’s still fiction in a way. 

Then the short film got a lot of attention. And I got to travel. And I said in interviews that I wanted to portray the real people behind the porn stereotypes, but I had actually never met anyone. I always had this feeling that someone from the industry would come out and call my bluff, or say that's not accurate at all, you're just making these things up. So I knew that I wanted to make a feature length film. The plan from the beginning was to use, or I had in the back of my head that I could maybe try to make a short film first and then maybe that would help me to make a feature version. 

When I started with the longer project, I decided there was really nothing with the short film that I wanted to use. I wanted to start from scratch. So I went to LA in 2014, the first time with a very open mind. I just wanted to learn, and I wanted to gather as much inspiration and just really try to get to know this world from the inside. I wanted to challenge myself because I felt that there was something missing out. I have been engaged in the porn debate and I have been engaged my whole adult life. But I still had this really strong feeling there's something I'm missing here. There are pieces of this puzzle that I don't have. I was trying to search for some answers but I didn't know what they were. I knew that I was going to build the story based on what I found. That’s how it all came together. Then I did bring some elements from the short film in the longer version. But just like small details.

A lot of the film focuses on “bad days” at work as Bella calls them, but you do a great job of balancing the things she loves about this industry and the aspirations of these women within it. How do you balance between the bad stuff and the joy that she sometimes has in doing this job?

That was really the tricky part to get at. It’s really a balancing act. I didn't even know myself how it's going to feel to look at the movie, because I tried to create scenes or images that I hadn't seen before. New images, and I didn't know how I was going to be affected by them. It was a really long process of fine tuning everything. I shot a lot of material to really have enough to get it right, because that was so important to me. It would have been so easy to fall over to one or the other side. I tried to add as many layers as I could because I've been working on it and I myself have been standing in so many different corners, having so many different ideas or thoughts or positions on what I think, and I wanted to add as many of those as I could so the film can also work as a platform for discussion and debate where you can find different types of examples. That's also why it took such a long time because it was so important for me to really get it right. The editing was a really long process of balancing and balancing and balancing.

Can you talk a bit about casting Sofia Kappel as Bella Cherry? I know this was her first acting role. She's just really stunning in it. She isn't a porn star, but she does these really intense scenes. 

Yeah, it's intense. She had never acted before. I know that I was putting a lot of really big tasks on her. So first, it took me one and a half years to find her. It was a crazy process. We searched all over Sweden, and we were in contact with thousands of young women. I thought that I was chasing a ghost. Because I had invented this fantasy figure that didn't exist. And that was the reason that I never felt that anyone was good enough. But I knew that I had to find someone that was like, really, really talented and had those qualities that I wanted. Finally when I didn't find anyone I wrote a description of how I see her and I sent it out to a lot of people that know a lot of people. One of them happened to meet Sofia at an after party where she was the center of attention. She was just so fun and charming, but also tough and raw and brutal and had this sense of humor and was really young, but also with thick skin. 

So he asked if she wanted to go to an audition, and she looked me up and understood that it was something serious. She came to the audition and she was so good. But I had to bring her back several times and try different things. And also get to know her. It took a long time before I knew that I wanted her and actually offered her the part because I had to make sure that she had good support from friends and family. Also to question myself, like can I do this to someone this young? To bring her on this journey? Because of course I didn't know how it would end. Also I told her that if she would do this part she's going to be naked on the internet forever. There's a risk that she's going to get a lot of hate. 

But when I finally offered the part, she really wanted to do it. We started to collaborate and create a very strong relationship where she was really involved. I rewrote the whole script based more on her. I wanted her perspective on it because I felt that I was a little bit too old to relate to this character or do the character justice. So she helped me, saying no I would never do something like that, or someone my age wouldn't do that. Then she came with me to LA. I took her with me to research and visit the porn sets and meet with people. She got to interview women in the industry. Then when we auditioned for the rest of the cast she was part of the audition process. She got to meet everyone and do scenes with them to see whether she had good chemistry, and if she felt safe and comfortable with them. She had a lot to say in who got the part or not, and if there was someone that she wasn't comfortable with that person, especially for the sex scenes and especially very violent sex scenes, it was all about finding the people who she felt comfortable with and trusted. I think that was crucial to do something like this. 

Also, it was good to have all of these industry performers there because they really helped in so many ways. For them nude is nothing. They're so used to being naked. It created this mindset that nothing is uncomfortable. They took care to make sure Sofia was comfortable and showed us a lot of tricks on how to make it looks like you're having sex when you're not. And then we of course discussed all the boundaries, where she was comfortable with them or not. It looks like she's naked a lot more than she actually is. In most of the film she's dressed from the waist down and then we make this just a wide shot where she looks naked from a distance, but she's wearing like a patch. Then when there's close-ups she's dressed. It’s a little bit of movie magic making her look more naked than she was during shooting.

The film explores a lot of really complex ideas about gender, race, consent, all sorts of aspects of how porn is made, how porn is consumed, and who porn is for. How do you think a movie like this might impact the way we talk about sex in media and in general?

First of all, I just really hope that the most important thing is that people start to talk about it and acknowledge it. We have to stop stigmatizing the performers, and also to stop putting shame on them for our fantasies. They're just workers who are performing fantasies. Everything is based on what people are searching for online. The bad things that happen to Bella in the film don't have to do with the fact that she's having sex on camera, it has to do with problematic power structures that exist in any industry where profits rule over solidarity or empathy. There is just maybe a more extreme version of that in this industry, but the mechanisms are the same. It's mirroring our society. Sex is a good thing. It's about connecting with other people and embracing relationships and attraction and embracing your body and other bodies. So sex should be a positive thing. Not something treated as dangerous. All the taboo and stigma around it is what's creating the problem, not the sex.

"Pleasure" will be available in theaters on May 13th.

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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