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In Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure, a (Porn) Star Is Born

A portrait of Ninja Thyberg
Courtesy of Getty Images. Treatment by Ashley Peña for W.

Director Ninja Thyberg lost count of how many porn sets she visited while researching her debut feature, Pleasure, a new fiction film which follows a young woman who travels from her home country of Sweden to sunny, seedy Los Angeles in search of porn stardom. “I think I can say that this is the first film about the modern porn industry that has been done in this way,” Thyberg said recently. The filmmaking style isn’t moralizing or titillating, but rather a genuine attempt to chart the career path of one Bella Cherry (the protagonist’s nom de porn). Bella hustles to get into the elite circles of the industry, while rooming with other aspiring porn actresses in what’s called a “model house.”

Pleasure faithfully shows Bella (first-timer Sofia Kappel) navigating explicit film shoots, with actual figures from the porn industry playing actors and other characters, like Bella’s roommates and agent. The unrated film, which originally premiered at Sundance, opens theatrically May 13. Thyberg (who cites Catherine Breillat as a big inspiration) spoke with W about making Kappel feel comfortable, avoiding a heroes-and-villains narrative, and the camera techniques she used to stay close to Bella’s experience.

What did you learn from visiting porn sets?

Like most people, I originally saw it as something spectacular, weird, both shady and exciting. But as soon as you see it as a neutral thing that people are naked, it’s really just normal working people going to their job. It’s not the actual having-sex-in-front-of-the-camera that I am that interested in. I think the film is more of a metaphor for our society and power structures.

What drives Bella to succeed in the industry?

As a writer, of course I’d written a lot of backstory. But I wanted her to be an empty canvas and to focus on the world she’s entering, more than psychoanalyze her. It’s also an allegory of being a young woman. And class is a huge part of the film. The most important class aspect is that she’s Swedish. Bella doesn’t need to do this. She’s at a level of privilege where she can explore “what do I want to do in life”—as an identity thing, or rebelling against stuff. She’s so much more privileged than a lot of the people working in the industry, like Joy, her roommate.

What qualities were you looking for in casting Bella? Sofia Kappel makes an amazing debut.

She was supposed to look very young because that’s the age of the character. But it was important to me that it was someone that felt really strong and mature and with a lot of agency, so that as a viewer, you don’t feel like you immediately want to go in there and save her. Humor and charm—that was really important to connect with the character. And being very intelligent. Also, she needed to have a bit of a thick skin—someone who’s already been through some stuff in her life.

The movie takes viewers behind-the-scenes in the industry. Bella signs consent forms before each shoot.

I tried to stay authentic. That’s how they do it. But there’s always been this weird meta level of the story and the reality. Because Sofia was also [around] 20 and a girl who had no experience, coming to L.A. for the first time, being in front of the camera, signing contracts saying she’s going to do all these very extreme scenes. When you’re young in a room where everyone expects you to do something, it’s really hard to say no. But Sofia and I built a really close relationship before we started to shoot, when she came to L.A., and we lived together there. And she helped create the character. So we have a mutual trust. But I was much older and in a power position. You always have to question yourself when you’re in a power position, especially with young people.

How did you handle the tougher moments in the film, like when Bella shoots a rough porn scene?

We had rehearsed, and Sofia had a great relationship with the guys and really trusted them. That day I had several safety precautions. Sofia had her best friend from Sweden to sit there next to her the whole time. And also Zelda Morrison, who plays Joy, was sitting there. I had my best friend there, who is also a director working with sex scenes. We were a small crew, and we had this rule that everyone was allowed to say “cut.”

I wanted to show the brutality of the scene but to never show her naked body being exposed to sexual violence. I am really fed up with how the naked female body is always being violently sexualized everywhere. So, for example, in most of the film when we see Bella, she’s dressed. They’re doing stuff with her face but not really with her body. When the actual sex happens, we’re turning the camera around so it’s only her POV. So we’re with her.

That style made me think of the film Lilya 4-ever.

Yeah! Lukas Moodysson is my number-one inspiration and idol. I remember when I saw that film for the first time. There’s one scene where she’s being raped by several guys, and it’s only her POV, looking at them. I had never seen that before—I thought, “Oh my god, we always see it from the male perspective when we show sexual violence!” So I just knew, I’m going to copy that and use it in that scene.

The bonds between the women in the film are so important, like between Bella and Joy, but Bella makes some tough decisions.

For me, it was really important that it wasn’t “she’s a woman, so she’s going to be this pure victim.” No, like everyone, she’s human and has flaws, she’s egoistic, and she’s also a part of this system. I wanted it to be multilayered and complex and have an intersectional perspective. And this is also a very traditional coming-of-age story: she has to choose the wrong path in order to get redemption and make the right decision.

Bella has this funny line at one point on her journey—about Swedes “feeling sorry for themselves.”

We have a norm in Sweden, the Jantelagen: that you’re not supposed to think so highly of yourself. Sweden is very different from America. Today a journalist asked me, “Oh, in America, we’re so prude, but in Sweden there’s an idea of you being sexually liberated.” And it’s funny because in Sweden, we don’t see the prude part of America. For us, America is MTV, Baywatch, all this sexualized pop culture. And porn—that is America to us. Of course, that’s not what we think about everyone here!

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