When Swedish writer-director Ninja Thyberg decided to adapt her 2013 short film “Pleasure” into a feature, she understood the documentaries and books she had consumed for research weren’t going to be enough for an expanded look at the porn industry. So she made a trip to the heart of the industry, Los Angeles.
During a two-week stretch in 2014, Thyberg conducted 400 pages of interviews, then took them home to Sweden to review. About 18 months later she returned to L.A., but this time she stayed for six months.
This second trip was the key for Thyberg to understand the industry.
“I was just by myself in that world,” Thyberg tells MovieMaker. “I didn’t have anyone from my world or my ideology to confirm my view on the world.”
Being completely surrounded by those in the porn industry allowed her to start seeing “things from their perspective,” she says.
“And that happened quite fast, like, but I had to let go of my own world in a way,” she continues.
Entering and documenting a community Thyberg was not a part of required a frank acknowledgement of the preconceived notions she carried.
“In the beginning, you just confirm your own beliefs,” Thyberg says. “One thing that I did was to try to really believe people, and see what happens if I didn’t project my own assumptions on them. So instead of thinking like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is what you have to tell yourself in order to be able to do this,’ what happens if I take what they say as the truth? And what happens to me when I do that? And what kind of new questions come up when I do that?”
“You can put yourself in everyone’s shoes if you take it seriously enough. It’s about trying to see yourself out there rather than looking at the other,” Thyberg adds.
Pleasure follows Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) , who is newly arrived in Los Angeles from Sweden. She has bold plans to take over the porn industry. It’s a narrative we’ve seen before: a young naive upstart becomes a seasoned vet, on top of the world, but always faces the same question: At what cost?
Pleasure‘s familiar narrative is aided by a documentary-like feel as Thyberg shows how the industry operates. Thyberg cast real porn stars, porn crew members and porn agents in the film.
Casting non-professionals exclusively was not always the plan.
“I started to audition people in the porn industry quite early, but I just thought that it would be like a handful of them. So I auditioned regular actors, until just a few weeks before we started to shoot,” Thyberg says. “I never made a decision. … It wasn’t until all the parts were cast, that I realized that none of the regular actors got the parts.”
Much of the dialogue in Pleasure is improvised, and having non-professional actors who knew this world inside and out made this element much easier.
“Even if I had a lot of knowledge and felt that I knew the world really well, there was always new things coming up where I didn’t know exactly how the procedures usually are in the situations,” Thyberg says.
She could then ask her cast questions, or she could trust that their improvisations would feel authentic.
First Time on a Porn Set
Thyberg recalls her first trip to a porn set, when the men had fun intentionally making her more uncomfortable. Only one other woman was present, a performer.
“Everyone thought it was really fun that I was there. They were laughing at me. I was very shy, but I was very curious,” Thyberg says.
“Then the main performer came and he was naked, and he was masturbating to get hard,” Thyberg says. “And then he came up to me with his dick in his hand and started to talk to me. He knew what he was doing because I was blushing like crazy. I didn’t know where to look and everyone was giggling. It was so fun to see me so nervous and uncomfortable. But they were very friendly.”
But Thyberg’s shyness quickly wore off.
“It took me maybe two or four times on the porn set until I didn’t notice anymore that people were naked,” she says. “It was the most natural thing in the world, looking at people having sex.”
“It is shocking because you haven’t seen it before, but it doesn’t really take long to make that shift,” Thyberg continues. “Especially since everyone else around you are so comfortable in the situation. If everyone in the room behaves in a certain way and thinks something, you’re going to adapt.”
Pleasure, written and directed by Ninja Thyberg, is now in theaters. Main image: Sofia Kappel is Bella Cherry in Pleasure. Photos courtesy of NEON