• Interviews

Upcoming Filmmaker Ninja Thyberg on “Pleasure” and New Perceptions about Sex

She’s back in Stockholm after spending a few days at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where she presented her first feature, Pleasure, in front of a live audience. Her name is Ninja Thyberg and in the eyes of Hollywood, she is the next big thing. In March she signed a contract with CAA and just a few days ago, Warner Bros announced that she’ll be the director of a remake of The Witches of Eastwick, which she will also write. They have reasons to see her that way: Pleasure, which was accepted last year by Cannes before the festival was canceled and was later included in the Sundance Film Festival slate, is a powerful female examination of the porn industry through the eyes of her protagonist, newcomer Sofia Kappel, who plays Bella, a young Swedish girl who wants to make it big in the adult industry. Ninja (yes, that’s her real name) spent several years in Los Angeles researching that world and was able to be very realistic in her approach. She’s also working on another feature, that she plans to film in English. Pleasure will be distributed in the US in the next few months.

How was the experience of showing Pleasure in Karlovy Vary?

It was great. To be able to walk on the stage and face a real audience and also Q and A’s afterward and I can hear their questions, that’s what I have been waiting for the last six years. So it really meant a lot.

It took you six years to make this film.  Do you feel now that all the hard work was worth it?

Yes definitely, it was definitely worth it. I am so proud of the film and all the work that we put into it. And Sofia, who plays Bella, the main character in the film, it’s really my baby.  And I am so honored for all the good reviews. And I really think that even though, despite the pandemic, it seems like the film is going to reach its audience. So I am super proud and happy.

You mentioned in other interviews that this is a taboo world because we don’t talk about porn or admit to watching it. Do you expect the film to change this attitude? That we could be more open about it?

I hope so. That’s one of the reasons I made the film because I think it’s really about time that we start to talk about it and admit it. And yeah, I also think it’s really weird for sex to be something that we should keep in the shadows, it’s such an important part of being a human. What I am hoping for is for sex to be able to be shown more, to tell stories about sex that are not just made as porn, cause now it is like porn is the only place where we show explicit nudity. But the film is not only about the porn industry, it’s also a story about being a woman in a male-dominated society. And yeah, in a way the film is also a metaphor for things that are experiences that I have had, maybe not like that, but like power structures and mechanisms that exist in every industry. 


Sofia Kappel is a key to the success of the movie. She is a vehicle that allows the viewer to connect with the story because we are seeing it through her eyes. How much were you aware that it was going to depend on finding the right actress to reach your goal?

I knew that was the number one most important thing, so that’s why it took me one and a half years to find her. And we searched all over Sweden. I think I met with 600 women before finally finding her. And I remember people around me, they felt that I was just like a bit crazy that I had made up this fantasy figure that didn’t exist and she was something that I created in my head and that’s why I didn’t think anyone was good enough because no one matched my imagination. But I really knew that it had to be someone special and talented and to also have all of those things, to have the strength and the courage and the humor, but also that vulnerability and someone that the audience could really relate to and connect to emotionally but also stay in a way with trust, to have a certain type of strength so we don’t get too worried about her. 

I know you did a short seven years ago. But how did this interest start for you?

I have been very interested since an early age in gender roles and how media images affect our identities and also our sexuality. And I am also interested in very different types of power dynamics. So this environment was really the perfect place to bring up these issues.

Why did you want the movie to feel like a documentary sometimes?

I think it’s because it’s based on all the research that I have done. And I had a lot of ideas about what the porn industry was. When I made the short film, I had never visited a porn set at all, so that was made out of research I had done from home, from my computer, watching movies, reading books. But I felt a little bit like a hypocrite when I said in interviews that I am interested in showing the real people behind the porn stereotypes, because I didn’t really know them, and I didn’t really know that world. But I kind of thought I did and then going there and then spending so much time and really getting to know this world from the inside, it in many ways kind of turned my world upside down. And I think I felt like I wanted to give as much authenticity to the audience as possible because in a way it’s like trying to paint a portrait. Then if I get as much realism in there as possible, to let them make up their own mind as opposed to pointing too much in one direction. I think there’s a lot of switching between the very realistic and then there’s also this very enhanced slow-motion moment with a lot of music and of course it’s fiction, I have written all the scenes, and so yeah, it really isn’t a documentary, that’s important too to say that, that this is my perspective.


How open were they when you showed up in Los Angeles years before the film, saying you wanted to see how a porn film is made?

They were much more open than I thought. And I think because I said I wanted to make an honest film about the industry, and they feel like they have been criticized a lot and they wanted to show it the way it was. And also, because I was very open and honest that I was genuine, and I really wanted to learn and know. But of course, it took a lot of time, I was there for about five years, going back and forth between LA and Stockholm. So, it wasn’t like I just opened the door and went in. It was slowly, step by step. I gained friends there, so after a while, they kind of saw me as part of the community.

All the people in the film, except Sofia, are in the porn industry. Why didn’t you have traditional actors instead? 

That was not something we planned, we auditioned. I felt from the beginning that it would be a combination because I had been working like that before and also because there are so many in the industry that are such interesting characters. Mark Spiegler for example, I am never going to get someone to play him and be as much of a character as he is himself. So, I knew that I wanted at least some of them to be in the film. So we auditioned regular actors just until a month before shooting but none of them got the part. And that is really the truth, (laughs) that is just the way it ended up being, that everyone from the adult industry, they were just better, just better suited for the parts because I believed them. Of course, there are endless super talented actors that could have done it, but as a director, that would have made the job much harder for me in a way because I would have to make them build a character and use that lingo and that language and be part of that culture. And also, since I am not from the U.S., it’s also harder for me to translate a culture on point. And then what was really helpful for me was because I always had people from the industry playing the parts on the set, they always knew what was accurate, because I still had sometimes some things that I wasn’t sure about, like how does this normally happen and what would you do in a situation like this? They were always there so I could just always ask them. That helped a lot with the realism. But it wasn’t something that I had planned from the beginning.

In the global cultural mind, we think of Sweden as the most open-minded country in the world. Do you think that plays a part in you being able to do this?

I mean yes, it depends on what you mean by open-minded. I think it’s the other way around. I think we are very square when it comes to certain things. So, I mean when it comes to gender equality, I think we are at the top, I don’t know if we are the number one country, we used to be. So it’s a huge difference between what it is like being a woman in Sweden versus the U.S. when it comes to equality. And that’s definitely been huge, that’s probably the reason that I wanted to make this film. But then yeah, it’s really been for me a clash between these very different ideas and just like the very individualistic view on society or on people in the U.S. versus more like a very collective view in Sweden. In Sweden, we are also very judgmental and I thought I knew everything, I thought I kind of knew more than the women in porn about patriarchy and stuff like that when I came, I thought I was very educated. And I had studied gender at University. But I really was thrown off my high horse in a way with realizing how they view things very differently, but in a way, they knew so much more about these things than I did. 

Talking about gender equality, porn is still an industry that’s made for male fantasies. Do you think that the change will reach that industry at some point? 

I definitely hope so. Things are changing even though it’s going very slow when it comes to content. I don’t know the exact numbers, but I would say 99 percent of all porn is made for male viewers. So, on that point, we still have a very long way to go. But when it comes to the working conditions and the power structures within the industry, things are really changing for the better. During the time that I have spent there, it’s really been a shift. So even though there’s also a lot that needs to be done, especially with social media, the women can get more power now that they can sell their content directly and not being as dependent on male agents, producers, directors, and the companies.

When did you know that you wanted to be a film director?

I had actually already started my first film for school and I didn’t think that I could be a director, I thought that I would maybe be an editor or a DP or set designer or something, but I had all these ideas for all these films I wanted to make. Then I had this moment where I was walking on the set with all my notes, I had organized everything, and someone said now you are a real director. And I was just like no, I am not the director, no. And then I realized that this film doesn’t have a director and I guess I would be the director. And then I understood that okay, maybe I can do this, there’s nothing more mysterious to it than just having the idea of making it happen. So, I think one year after starting film school, that is when I started to really be there to dream, I also started to call myself a director.

How did University shape you as the director that you are today?

My parents are sociologists and the first thing I studied at University was sociology. And so, I see things very much from that perspective. I come from a very theoretical background, so most of my ideas are based on having a very theoretical side to what I do, and I think that’s quite obvious when you see my films that there are a lot of thoughts behind them.