Porn and 'Get Out': What Inspired Ninja Thyberg's New Movie 'Pleasure'

The director of the NSFW film describes her influences.


When Swedish filmmaker Ninja Thyberg was first introduced to porn at the age of 16 by her then-boyfriend, she was enraged to the point she became an anti-porn activist. "I knew that he was masturbating to these women, but then he was also talking down to them," she remembers. '''Oh, they must be so damaged.' That made me just so furious."

She immediately counters that notion in her new film Pleasure, a brutal but judgment-free examination of the porn industry through one neophyte's eyes. In one of the opening scenes, her heroine, Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), is asked why she came to LA to get into the business. Bella at first jokes that she was raped by her father. She laughs off the idea that she must have been traumatized. No, she just wants to have sex for cameras.

Thyberg's own opinions about porn have gone through an evolution through her years of research, and now she unleashes Pleasure onto the world. The unrated film is as fascinated by the mechanisms of porn as the actual sex, even as it pushes the boundaries of the MPAA. With the movie out this weekend, we dug into Thyberg's influences.

Sofia Kappel and Revika Reustle in 'Pleasure.' | Neon

Mainstream pop culture and eye candy

Broadly, Thyberg isn't really interested in emulating gritty, serious indies for her films. She's more influenced by the universal language of mainstream media.

I prefer pop culture. I prefer color. I prefer bright colors and generally bad taste. I can be very provoked by art-house snobbism. I don't think because something is accessible and easy to understand that it has less quality. Because my parents are sociologists, they taught me very early to analyze commercials and to be aware of how I'm brainwashed by the commercials and by Hollywood. So very early, I started to be very aware of all these images that influence us, and how that creates gender roles and stereotypes. And then so the contrast of these stereotypical ideals versus the actual humans and how they interact. I wanted to make films that are dealing with stereotypes, but challenging them.

I love everything that attracts eye candy. And also I love very traditional well-composed images that you immediately understand. And that is symbolism. That something is very clear, you see it and immediately understand it. It's very well communicated instead of being too artsy and obscure like, "We're going to make it really hard to understand what it is and you are really smart if you understand it. And make sure that most people won't understand it." To me, it's like firmly the opposite.

Bella, she's 19, and she has a pink glittery iPhone case. Most of the colors in the film come from her wardrobe. So it was also a way to stay true to her. And the last thing I wanted was to do something gritty and dark or heavy.

spring breakers
'Spring Breakers' | A24

Spring Breakers and Ruben Östlund

Fellow Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, best known for his comedy Force Majeure, is one of Thyberg's mentors, but for Pleasure's color scheme, she turned to the neon hedonism of Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers.

I'm really bad at saying my references because I'm not aware of it. I think I get most of my inspiration from my conversations with my feminist friends. But I know Spring Breakers was the inspiration color-wise and Ruben Östlund, who is my big inspiration and also my mentor. His parents are also sociologists. So he's a bit observing, like looking at social dynamics, how people behave and power structures. I'm really inspired by the way he looks at [the world]. And how he sets his frame and serves the people and everyone. The people are so human, you identify with them and you always feel they're just like you, like we're all the same. But Ruben Östlund and Spring Breakers, it's totally opposite.

ninja thyberg
Thyberg and Kappel, center and right, at an AVN party. | Instagram/@ninjathyberg

Her immersive research

Crucial to Thyberg's process was inserting herself into the porn world. While she didn't perform in any films herself, she did act the part a little, venturing into events alongside porn notables, trying to get a feel for the industry.

At first, I was absorbing it from a distance and writing and looking at them as "the others," identifying everything about them that is different from me. The more time I spent and starting to be part of the community, the gap between the people back home grew. When I came back, they were talking about the people that I now consider my friends or that I knew in a way where I felt was not accurate and also a bit disrespectful.

I brought my own camera, so I was constantly taking pictures and videos for research purposes and trying to find my look on it. I think I tried to imagine being Bella as much as possible. I was able to go with [porn agent Mark] Spiegler to parties and come in with him as if I would've been a Spiegler Girl. I got to go do the red carpet with them as a group. I had never worn a certain type of outfit, crossing the boundary of wearing something that was too far in being sexy or slutty or too high-heeled, and posing for a camera in a certain way. I was pushing some boundaries myself, of how to use my own body, and realizing nothing happens.

If I look at an image and I see a woman posing for the male gaze and making herself an object, I'm assuming in a way that she's feeling something because I'm projecting my male gaze on her, making her an object. I tried to do it myself, like, "When am I going to feel what I'm projecting on her?" That never happened. Of course I would never participate in any porn, but just trying out that type of costume or just posing in front of the mirror or just taking selfies in sexy outfits, buying all of those things.

Get Out
'Get Out' | Universal Pictures

Get Out

As for what kinds of films she wants to make, Thyberg cites Jordan Peele's Get Out as the sort of wildly entertaining but also thought-provoking material she wants to emulate.

One of the best [movies] that really does something that I want to do as well is Get Out because it's so entertaining and it's working with clichés and it's so smart. I felt looking at white people in a way that I've never done before. I think it's so amazing when a film can do that. It's so powerful.

That type of film, it's so smart and it completely changes things and it had such an impact on our culture and society. And it's also done in the most entertaining way. That's what I want to do as well.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.