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Here’s how the explicit indie drama ‘Pleasure’ accurately nails the feeling of a porn set

A woman with tattoos sits on a couch next to some throw pillows in the 2021 drama “Pleasure.”
Sofia Kappel in Ninja Thyberg’s “Pleasure.”
(Neon)
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The day before shooting began on “Pleasure,” Swedish writer-director Ninja Thyberg’s feature debut about the adult film industry and the imbalanced power structures within it, she and the film’s star (newcomer Sofia Kappel) got matching tattoos.

“She asked if she could get a tattoo of [her character’s name] Bella Cherry, and I thought that was a good idea, [because] it would really work with the character,” said Thyberg. “And then I decided that I would do it with her as a friendship tattoo. I don’t have any other tattoos, and I thought I would never get one, but it felt like this bonding [moment].”

The movie — starring Kappel as Cherry, an ambitious young porn amateur determined to ascend the ranks of the industry as quickly as she can — premiered at last year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival and is now playing in limited release in an unrated and uncensored cut from the indie distributor Neon.

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Thyberg says her goal in telling the story was to expose the insidiousness of the male gaze and patriarchal systems. “Porn is the essence of the male gaze because almost all heterosexual porn is made from a male perspective,” she said. “But to be able to deal with the problems that exist and to avoid exploitation, we have to support and listen to women. Because porn is not going to disappear, it’s such a huge part of our culture. If you look at the statistics, people watch so much porn and then don’t talk about it. We pretend it exists in a parallel world of shadows, and we stigmatize the [workers] and project the shame of our own secret desires on them. I was interested not in saying something about the porn industry but rather about power structures.”

The drama ‘Pleasure,’ directed by Ninja Thyberg, is a daring dive into L.A.’s adult film industry.

May 13, 2022

Finding a star

When she began pre-production for the film in 2014, Thyberg decided to hold off on completing the script until she’d cast her lead “because I wanted to really involve her and [write] it in a way that worked with her as an actress,” she said. “I always knew that I didn’t want to decide exactly what the film was going to be and then just execute it but rather constantly merge and fine-tune it because it’s such a delicate subject. And it took me 1½ years before I finally found Sofia.”

Upon meeting Kappel, an actor with no industry experience (porn or otherwise), Thyberg knew almost immediately that she’d found her star.

“She was just so good,” the filmmaker said. “It was important for me to have someone with a lot of humor, but also [someone] who you really felt has agency and knows what she’s doing, because I didn’t want the audience to feel like she was someone they needed to rescue. She also had to be extremely talented, because it’s such a demanding part to do. So I met with her four times before I offered her the part even, though I knew I wanted her. I had to make sure it felt OK to bring her on this journey.”

Keeping intimacy safe

The role required Kappel to film several challenging sex scenes, including one involving sadomasochistic bondage and another featuring overt psychological and physical abuse.

“The bondage scene was very heavily choreographed,” said Casey Calvert, a performer and director who has been in the adult industry for 10 years and was very involved in the production. “Ex Libris is an incredibly experienced rope rigger, and we really talked through exactly what we were going to do that day. We worked out the bondage position in advance, had Sofia in bondage for the shortest possible amount of time that we could and had a lot of conversations about what she felt comfortable and uncomfortable doing. And I was present for a lot of the aftercare of helping her come down from the experience of being in strenuous bondage.”

“We knew beforehand, of course, that that was going to be very difficult,” said Thyberg. “So we prepared a lot. Since she had been on board so early and was at that point so engaged with the story and really wanted to tell it, we were so synchronized in what we were doing. She knew what this film was, but it was very important that she always felt safe.

“At the time, we didn’t have an intimacy coordinator, because we shot all the sex scenes in 2018 and I’d never heard of an intimacy coordinator. So I did that job without knowing what it was or having experience with it. But I also made sure to have others around me to help with that, so we were this close little circle of key department and crew members. And most of us were Swedish and women so everyone was really looking out for her and making sure she always felt comfortable.”

Sofia Kappel in the 2021 drama “Pleasure.”
Sofia Kappel in Ninja Thyberg’s “Pleasure.”
(Neon)
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Getting the details right

“Pleasure,” an expansion of Thyberg’s 2013 short film of the same name, is the culmination of seven years of research that began while writing her gender studies thesis on pornography. “So I’ve watched a lot of porn and I’ve been fascinated by the subject for so long,” she said. “A big part of my research was spending time on porn sets and trying to visit as many different types of sets as I could. And also hanging out with people and going to parties.”

She also spent time living in a model house, where performers in the industry live together to cut costs. “It was a very long period of really getting to know the world from the inside,” she said. “After a while, [the line] was blurred between research and my life because I started to collaborate with people and they became my friends. And I’d decided beforehand that I was going to let the story come to me and build it on my experiences, so everything is based on things I’ve seen and people I’ve met.”

As a result, many of the actors involved in the film actually work in the adult industry. Some even play themselves. “I started to audition really early to find people that were good for different parts, but I thought it would be a combination with regular actors,” said Thyberg. “It wasn’t until the very end of the casting process that I realized everyone who got the job was from the actual industry.”

And while a few of performers in “Pleasure” have subsequently criticized its view of the porn world, the film’s vision ultimately comes from Thyberg and the years of research she put into the project.

“One of the reasons I felt comfortable working with her was because she really wanted to portray the truth of the industry, the good and bad of it,” said Calvert. “Right now, there’s still very delineated roles in this business of what a man does and what a women does, and I’d love for some of those barriers to break down.”

“I mean, everyone [in the cast] is not an adult performer; there were also a lot of people who just work behind the camera in the industry,” Thyberg added. “But to be good at acting is about being able to be very present in the moment and to mentally block out the camera and film crew to connect with and react to your co-star. And if you’re having sex on camera, you have to be really good at that. There’s this idea that porn stars are bad at acting, but that’s just because no one is watching porn for the story, so usually the scripts are really s—. So it’s been such a privilege to get to work with people that are so good.”

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Sofia Kappel and Reza Azar in the 2021 drama “Pleasure.”
Sofia Kappel and Reza Azar in Ninja Thyberg’s adult film drama “Pleasure.”
(Neon)

The future of porn

Since filming wrapped in 2019, unprecedented change ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of OnlyFans has affected the business of porn. In fact, former performer Mia Khalifa said the platform helped her understand “the difference between ethical and unethical ways to consume porn” in an interview with Fast Company. “The pandemic made the industry shut down and all content was moved to social media [and OnlyFans],” said Thyberg. “Now what happens is the performers are in total control. All of a sudden, [they’re] shooting material in their own homes where they’re dictating everything from hiring male talent, a photographer, a director.”

“OnlyFans has given performers so much more power than they used to have,” said Calvert. “It used to be that a performer was very reliant on producers, directors, agencies and [production] companies to determine whether or not they were going to be successful, but now a performer doesn’t need any of those things. You can be a completely independent content creator on OnlyFans and be very financially successful, even more so than some of the biggest porn stars have ever been able to be.”

“It’s a very challenging job, and I think it makes total sense that the people who are getting undressed in front of the camera are the ones who should be setting the rules and owning the material and making money out of it,” said Thyberg. “I don’t think it will ever go back to the way it was before.”

That spirit of change has even spread to the traditional porn outlets, Calvert says. “People not being able to go to work provided an opportunity for a lot of people to step back from what they were doing and think about the way they operated: the kind of scenes they shot, the kind of business they wanted to run and the kind of ethics they wanted to live by. It’s really changed things for the better. We’re really moving in a direction of so much more performer empowerment. Less gender and racist stereotypes, more consent-based sets and pay equity. All of it is moving in the right direction.”

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