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Looking at Sex and the Small Town in Turn Me On, Dammit

Director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen on a Girl's Coming-of-Age Story

Turn Me On, Dammit is a coming-of-age film, based on an already notorious book by Norwegian writer Olaug Nilssen, that takes a gentle but unblinking look at adolescent sexuality as experienced by a small group of teenagers in their hated small town. There are no actual sex scenes in the film — events are set in motion by a fleeting moment of intimacy outside a party that has disastrous social ramifications for the girl involved. Director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, an experienced documentarian, cast non-professional actors from small towns in western Norway to play roles that could be drawn from their own lives, shooting on Super 16 to capture the immensity and isolation of the Scandinavian mountain landscapes. Picked up by New Yorker Films in the U.S., it opens today in New York City and April 13 in Los Angeles, with a platform U.S. release continuing into June. We talked to Jacobsen via Skype about adaptation, influences, shooting film instead of digital, and how audiences around the world have reacted to the subject matter.

Note: the trailer below may be slightly NSFW.

StudioDaily: Talk a little bit about the book and what attracted you to the material. Was it a popular book in Norway?

Jannicke Systad Jacobsen: I wouldn't say it was "popular" — I think it's more of a cult book. The writer is a strong voice in the media. I think the book was kind of her breakthough. It has four different parts about three different characters, and this story about Alma got a lot of attention in the media. More people probably heard about the book than actually read the book. But she has strong opinions about culture and society and most people know who she is. And the Alma story made the book a sensation in Norway. A theater director asked her to adapt it into a play, so it was staged at one of the main theaters.
 
I tried to make a multi-plot film with all three characters, but in the end I realized that Alma was crying for the attention, so I skipped the others. It meant I could develop this story further, and some of the other characters in it could have more space for their own stories. The story in the book is short, only 44 pages, but there's a lot going on inside Alma's head. It's about how she experiences the events. The book is darker. It's in her thoughts and her self-esteem and how she feels about sexuality and her wants and needs. I remember feeling a bit dizzy when I read it because you're so inside her head, and she has a lot of fantasies. You're jumping around in time and space, and you never really know what's happening and what's not happening. I thought that would be interesting to try and adapt into a movie.
 
Helene Bergsholm
Actress Helene Bergsholm
 
How did you start thinking about translating the material to the screen?
 
I had to visualize how her daily life actually was — what the places actually looked like, who were her friends, and what were the situations. I visited the place that the writer is from, that [the fictional town of] Skoddeheimen is based on, and it helped a lot to realize how lonely you can feel in a place like that. You're surrounded by all of this powerful nature, and you're only a tiny person.
 
But you didn't grow up in that kind of place yourself?
 
I grew up in the suburbs of Oslo, where there are more people around and not so much nature.
 
Did you talk to the writer about your adaptation, or did you work independently?
 
I worked independently. The theatrical play she wrote had gotten so much attention that she was done with the story, in a way. She had to live with it for quite a while. But she was happy that I wanted to adapt it into a screenplay and said I could do whatever I wanted with it. I asked her questions about some things I wondered about, and I kept her informed about the process. She read two drafts and she's happy with how it turned out. She's a very cool person.
 
Did you look at other coming-of-age films for inspiration? Were there any other stories about teenaged girls that acted as signposts for you?
 
It didn't really start out to be only this story, so there were many other references along the way. But I did look at a lot of coming-of-age stories. I tried to see the ones about female sexuality, but often they're about a young girl finding out she's a lesbian. F—ing Alma, the Swedish film [aka Show Me Love] is the main film that people thought of when they heard about this story. They'd say, "It's a bit like Show Me Love," and I'm like, "No, I don't think so." I don't think it is, but a lot of people feel it's similar. There was a French film called Water Lilies that I watched. It didn't really influence me. But there was a really good English one called My Summer of Love. The Virgin Suicides, possibly. But I didn't really find that there were a lot of other films about this subject. I was looking more at Twin Peaks for reference. It was Twin Peaks and some of Wes Anderson's films and A Swedish Love Story [directed by Roy Andersson in 1970]. That film has a great way of showing how emotions are very powerful when you're young, which I think shows how this is dead serious to Alma.
 
Did you consider shooting digital?
 
No, I didn't consider it. I think we spoke about it at some point. We were shooting with amateurs, so that way we wouldn't have to think about film stock. We could just roll. Then again, as far as the aesthetics that the cinematographer [Marianne Bakke] and I wanted, digital can be too sharp. There's no grain, it's very clear, and there's not that much depth to it. Also, we didn't really want the film to look like 2010. We wanted it to feel like looking back on something that happened a few years ago. It's not supposed to look modern or feel time-specific. That's one of the reasons we felt Super 16 would be good. The film is a bit unplugged in its style. It is acoustic. It's not digital.
 
Director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen (l) and actress Helene Bergsholm
Director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen (left) and Bergsholm
 
You mentioned the cast of non-professional actors. Did you find your documentary background helped you work with them?
 
Probably because I've done documentaries before, I didn't find it that terrifying. It's risky to put non-professionals in front of the camera, but in the casting process we tried to teach them a lot of different techniques for acting and relating to each other. They are not typecast, but the young actors are all actually from places that are like the setting of the film, so they know what it's like. When they read the script, it was easy for them to relate to the story and the feelings these characters had. Maybe somebody who hadn't worked on documentaries wouldn't have thought in that way.
 
It's also very different because I had a big crew, and I'm not used to that. Also, the cinematographer and the sound recordist had both worked with me on documentaries, and that helps to make the atmosphere closer to a documentary atmosphere — a bit more lo-fi, in a way.
 
The climate for this kind of film is difficult in the U.S., partly because we have a ratings system that often gives films about teenagers a rating that restricts teenagers' ability to actually see the films, and partly because depictions of sexuality involving minors are still taboo. Is the climate different in Norway?
 
The book had already shocked some people when it came out, and some were offended by it. I think it's the same [type of] people, but there are fewer of them here. My experience with this film, showing it in many places around the world, is that it's really the same all over the place. This is not the kind of story that gets told a lot.
 
Did anyone ever point to something in the script and say, "Oh, no, you shouldn't do that"?
 
Not really. The Norwegian Film Institute subsidizing our development was very positive all the way. I learned that the Norwegian distributor thought the script was a bit vulgar, but they never told me. It's a shame you can't see me, because I look friendly! I'm not a vulgar person, so even if I can write something that seems a bit vulgar, it will not be done vulgarly.
 

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