Small incidents, to paraphrase director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, can make large explosions. They can also make telling movies. In her first narrative film, Jacobsen explores a blip in the life of an adolescent girl and how a minuscule event can morph into something that leads to personal and social revelations. Based on the novel by Olaug Hilssen with a screenplay written by Jacobsen, Turn Me On, Dammit! is a sensitive and unapologetically blunt look at the convergence of sexuality and growing up. The film brings to light those many things we’ve been taught to ignore, yet have all thought about and experienced by default of having survived teenagehood.
“Making a film showing female teenage sexuality as something normal while using comedy and visual poetry was to me the perfect combination for my first feature,” says Jacobsen. She reveals her subject with admirable care, knowing when to pull back and let the moment speak for itself. The moment, though told through the eyes of confused and kind-hearted Alma (Helene Bergsholm), is actually our moment. Watching the film was much like revisiting the awkward adolescent years, this time from the relative safety of the living room couch. Jacobsen allows us to see what we once experienced as the ultimate tragedy as, instead, the moment we began to truly change. The big challenges of back then become no less important but infinitely smaller and more manageable. We get to see what we were and what we knew—and this time we get to understand it.
Jacobsen took the time to chat with MovieMaker about her feature narrative debut and her take on exploring the oft-taboo subject of female teen sexuality.
Laurel Dammann (MM): Turn Me On, Dammit! tackles a frequently silenced subject matter: The burgeoning sexuality of a teenage girl. What inspired you to use this particular theme for your first narrative feature?
Jannicke Systad Jacobsen (JSJ): Reading Olaug Nilssen’s book inspired me to make the film. I loved the characters, the sense of humor, the small everyday drama where a small incident creates an earthquake. I love the way the stories were told, mixing reality and imagination. It wasn’t solely the topic that inspired me. I didn’t expect this to be such a big deal, as I’m an adult woman and I consider female sexuality a normal part of my life. Actually, I think if I had made the film mainly for the topic it would have become more bombastic and sensational, which I’m glad it’s not. Having said this, I believe the topic of the film is important to voice. Making a film showing female teenage sexuality as something normal while using comedy and visual poetry was to me the perfect combination for my first feature. This mixing of elements and making them dynamic is sort of what I always attempt with my films.
MM: You tell the story of Alma with a unique combination of sweetness and brutal frankness. How do you feel the film’s tone contributes to its story?
JSJ: The tone of the film plays a very important part in the storytelling. I don’t think the film would have worked as well if the tone didn’t have this contrast. I find the duality of the in-your-face honesty and the naïve idealism typical of teenage mentality and behavior, and it was interesting to use this contrast creatively in the film’s production design, costumes and locations. This duality also influenced the casting and directing and cinematic mood. The Alma character is both sweet and normal while being too much for her own self to handle at the same time. She is like most people; she is more than one thing, so to understand and relate to her we had to use and show both sides.
Jannicke Systad Jacobsen (l) with lead actress Helene Bergsholm.
Photo courtesy of New Yorker Films.
MM: Turn Me On, Dammit! is rich in philosophies and issues that live in the subconscious of many societies. What would you like your audience to take away from the film? What lessons do you see each of the characters learning?
JSJ: I think any film is a peephole into someone else’s life, where you may recognize some of it and let it resonate with your own life or people you know. When I watch films I always hope they will let me experience something that gives a new insight on life that makes me feel less alone in the world somehow. I hope this film can do that, too.
MM: You both wrote and directed this film; were your primary concerns while writing the script different from how you approached the film from a directorial standpoint? Or was it more like one big job? How did the film evolve over time?
JSJ: The way I have made films has always started with getting an idea, developing it, writing a script and then directing it. For me this is the most organic and pure way to make films from the heart. I always think of finding the idea’s visual style while I’m writing. When I’ve made documentaries, I have written scripts with scenes and a structure and had very certain ideas of how we would shoot it. All the parts of making the film, from writing the script to editing and sound designing, were very creative and evolved from the same idea… This was my first attempt at writing a feature script, so it was also a great learning process, and I had an excellent script advisor in Norwegian scriptwriter Ståle Stein Berg. The script had a certain urgency in it concerning both the story and the characters. This urgency gave plenty of energy to both visualizing and directing the film. Working with cinematographer Marianne Bakke to find the film’s universe in Skoddeheimen came very much out of a clear, consistent voice that was in the screenplay.
MM: You’ve done documentary work before and directed some shorts, and now you’ve done a narrative feature. What unique challenges did directing each style of film present?
JSJ: Directing short documentaries like The Clown Children and War on Paranoia made me develop working methods for finding a specific visual style that would help to tell a specific story in the best way. This gave me a conscience about the relations between content and style that I have developed and possibly personalized in longer documentaries, such as Sandmann – The Story of a Socialist Superman and Scenes from a Friendship. Having the experience of seeing my storytelling ideas work in these films has given me more confidence to believe in a project’s potential from an early stage.
Making Turn Me On, Dammit!, I used the same methods, but the number of people working with me to make it happen was a lot bigger; it was a very smooth kind of machinery that I was not used to from documentaries. Still, I think the main challenge is always to stick with an intentional idea while developing it to its maximum potential—from start to finish—and to remember why I was drawn to it in the first place.
Turn Me On, Dammit! begins its limited theatrical release in the U.S. on Friday, March 30th with screenings at the Angelika Film Center and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York City. More screenings in other cities are to follow. To find out more about the film, and to see if it’s screening in a city near you, visit turnmeondammit.com.