Pleasure’s Sofia Kappel, Ninja Thyberg on Penetrating the Porn Trade

After being selected for last year’s ultimately cancelled Cannes Film Festival, the provocative drama Pleasure finally made its world premiere at Sundance this past week, and Collider was lucky enough to speak with the film’s writer-director Ninja Thyberg, as well as its courageous star Sofia Kappel.

Kappel plays a 19 year-old Swedish girl named Bella Cherry who moves to LA with the goal of becoming the next big porn star. The sexually explicit film doesn’t shy away from the difficult realities of the porn industry, which has embraced aggressive and degrading videos featuring rough sex that involves spitting, choking, slapping and hair-pulling. For Thyberg, the film was the culmination of a long journey, and as any great director should, she speaks like an expert on the subject.

“I’ve been interested in porn as a subject for 20 years now, and for many different reasons,” said Thyberg. “I started out as an anti-porn activist, so that’s how the journey began. There are so many different reasons why this subject fascinates me, and one of the reasons is that it’s taboo and no one wants to talk about it. And also I am very interested in gender roles and media images and how those affect our identities, so when it comes to porn, it’s really very traditional gender roles taken to their most extreme form.”

People don’t make a habit of openly discussing their porn preferences because it’s considered tacky or inappropriate, but believe me, almost everyone you know is consuming pornography on the internet, and there really is no shame in that.

“They say that 80 percent of all the traffic on the internet is porn. People consume this insane amount of porn, so of course it’s something that really affects us and is a huge part of our culture, but it exists in a world of shadows. No one wants to talk about it and we don’t really acknowledge it publicly. That’s why I feel like this film really needs to exist, because this is something that exists,” said Thyberg, who explained that she wanted to reverse the male gaze that dominates heterosexual porn because she’s interested in exploring power from different angles.

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Image via Collider

Kappel said she was super nervous and “shaking” at her first audition, but once Thyberg put her at ease and made her feel safe, the young actress eventually empowered by the physically demanding role.

“I wouldn’t say there’s anything about the movie that ‘scared’ me, but there were things that were very challenging… but I think that there’s a huge difference,” said Kappel. “Of course, I needed to have a lot of courage to do this movie, because I’m giving a lot of myself, but I think the hardest part was [knowing] that I’m so much like Bella, so sometimes I had trouble keeping them separate and knowing who is Sofia and who is Bella. It was hard sometimes, but Bella is a great girl, so I don’t mind.

Though Thyberg didn’t initially intend to do so, she wound up surrounding Kappel with an ensemble of performers who had actual experience in the world of porn.

“That wasn’t my ambition. I knew I wanted some people, because that’s how I’d worked before,” Thyberg said of combining professional actors with non-professionals. The director was aiming for something specific and wanted to cast people who had lived that porn experience in order to do it justice. She still auditioned actors, they just didn’t get the part because the non-pros “just did it better, and it was much more believable. There was such a difference auditioning them. I do a lot of improv [on set] and people in the porn world were able to improvise,” said Thyberg. And when the director didn’t know about certain technical details, she knew she could fall back on the expertise of her cast. “That was a relief for me,” she said.

Thyberg began doing research for Pleasure back in 2014, and it took a long time to earn the trust of porn professionals, though she kept an open mind and was honest about her own preconceptions of the industry. “I think they felt that I was honest in my ambition of really getting to know them. One person would introduce me to the next one, and it didn’t take me that long to get access to shoots and visit porn sets,” said Thyberg. “I didn’t go to the famous porn stars at the beginning. It was the crew members, who aren’t used to people chasing them or wanting to interview them. The crew weren’t used to someone paying them that much interest, so that was a good way to start, and then after spending so much time there, after a while, everybody just got used to me and just saw me as a part of their community, I think.”

Still, the most important person whom Thyberg had to convince to trust her was her leading lady, Kappel. While there are several sex scenes in Pleasure, there’s one in particular that’s especially violent, so Kappel and Thyberg began blocking it out with actor Bill Bailey a couple weeks before production officially started.

“We started blocking out positions in which they could move me easily while at the same time looking really, really rough without it actually hurting me. We practiced him pulling me by the hair, because there are a couple tricks that you can do,” said Kappel, who was open about her own boundaries in terms of how far she was willing to go, and how far she was willing to let her co-stars go. “Between takes they’d kiss me on the forehead and give me hugs and tell me nice things, to [reinforce] the psychological part of it — that it’s not for real, and they actually care about me, and all these people in the scene are guys I trust. Because we talked about that for a long time before doing the movie, which guys I would trust to do the scene with, because that was really important to me. I think Ninja can vouch for me when I say that shooting this scene is when I was happiest. I thought it was a lot of fun. I had a super rush of adrenaline all day, even though it looks horrifying.”

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Image via Sundance Film Festival

While Pleasure is a 2021 release, the film was shot back in 2019, before most indie productions began to use an intimacy coordinator for sex scenes, though Thyberg did her best to fill that position herself.

“We didn’t have [one], because I didn’t think it existed at the point, or I had never heard of the term. I think I tried to serve that function and take all those things into consideration, but I think it’s a really good idea, and looking back at it now, yeah, maybe that would’ve been a great idea, to have a person on set where that’s their only job. But I think that’s pretty new,” she said.

Since Pleasure is incredibly graphic, it’s unclear what kind of release the film can expect in the U.S., where sex is considered a bit more taboo than violence.

I’m really praying to all the gods that it’s gonna be in theaters. That’s what we’ve been promised, but we don’t even know if they’re gonna still be there when this COVID thing is over,” said Thyberg, who acknowledged that the film is “definitely going to be X-rated.”

“That’s going to limit things, but if you look historically at that type of limitation, it’s not going to shrink the audience.It’s actually going to have the opposite effect and people are going to be more interested. A lot of Asian countries though, they just aren’t going to show it with those kind of explicit images, but I’m open to blurring the penises if that’s the only way, I’d rather blur than cut away, because that feels false. It feels like it’s shying away from telling what the story is,” explained the director, who joked about replacing all shots of male genitalia with corresponding emojis.

Kappel and Thyberg also addressed how Hollywood depicts sex. “It’s not realistic, I’d say. It’s really hard for me to define how sex should or should not be portrayed in movies because there’s a spectrum, and there are people who do stuff that I find terrifying, and there are people who don’t like sex at all. So sometimes it’s misleading in the way that spectrum is portrayed,” said Kappel.

“You’re not really allowed to show explicit sex in Hollywood, and the way things are shot, Hollywood isn’t really much better than PornHub when it comes to the male gaze,” added Thyberg. “I’m a sex-positive person. I think sex is a good thing, I don’t think sex is dangerous or dirty, I think it’s a positive and beautiful part of humanity, and a beautiful connection between people. It plays an important part in our lives and we’re missing out if our culture isn’t able to show this huge part of human life in an honest way,” said Thyberg, who lamented the fact that the movie business is afraid of genitals, especially if they’re male.

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Image via Collider

Though Pleasure takes place in the U.S. and the American audience is Thyberg’s main target, she said it was important to her that Bella Cherry be an outsider from Sweden.

“It felt [more] natural, to be able to tell her story and be honest and able to relate to the character. In Sweden, we’re so influenced by American culture, so I thought we’re almost the same, but I realized that the cultural differences are huge. It has taken me so long to be able to relate to and understand American people, so I felt like my main character had to be Swedish for me to tell her story,” said Thyberg, who hopes that the rave reviews out of Sundance will allow her to make her next feature in the U.S.

As for Kappel, she hopes to continue acting, and said she cried when Thyberg told her the film was accepted into Sundance. “I poured my heart and soul into this movie, so it means a lot. I’m super proud of me, but I’m also super proud of Ninja, and I’m super excited that the movie will hopefully get the recognition that it deserves.”

As of this writing, no U.S. distributor has had the chutzpah to acquire Pleasure, but stay tuned for more on that front, because there’s no question that this film marks Thyberg as a director to watch, and introduces an exciting fresh face in Kappel, who gives a fearless performance here.

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About The Author

Jeff Sneider
(1461 Articles Published)

Jeff Sneider is the Senior Film Reporter at Collider, where he breaks film and television news and curates the Up-and-Comer of the Month column in addition to hosting The Sneider Cut podcast and the awards-themed series For Your Consideration with Scott Mantz and Perri Nemiroff. A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Jeff started his career at Ain’t It Cool News before moving to Los Angeles to write for Variety and later, TheWrap and Mashable. Jeff also served as Editor in Chief of The Tracking Board and has contributed to MTV Movies Blog, Hollywood Life magazine, Washington Square News and the Colorado Springs Independent. His Oscar picks have appeared on the LA Times’ Envelope site, and he agrees with screenwriter William Goldman who famously said of Hollywood, “nobody knows anything.” Jeff hails from Needham, Massachusetts and has never eaten a salad. He can be found on Twitter, Instagram, Cameo and Blogspot by searching his nom de plume @TheInSneider.

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