In thrall to her raging hormones, Alma, the 15 year-old protagonist, thinks about sex constantly in the Norwegian coming-of-age film “Turn Me On, Dammit!” which won Best Screenplay for a Narrative Feature Film at the 10th TriBeCa Film Festival. Alma’s conversation with a phone sex operator while her mother is out is the opening scene, setting up the teen’s awkward sexuality. Puberty comes to everyone, and no one can control being interested in sex. The Norwegian female film director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen gently depicts with humor the complicated and sensitive theme that is rarely talked about, that of a horny teenage girl in a small, mountain town in Norway. Besides exploring teenage sexuality gently, because Alma has a great imagination, as if the truth disappears into the deep woods, the Twin Peaks-ish mysterious storytelling is its charm.
Alma (Helene Bergsholm) lives with her mother (Henriette Steenstrup) in a remote town called Skoddeheimen; the same scenery of woods continues on and on, and she is bored of being there. She fantasizes about sex, her heart-throb Artur (Matias Myren) and getting out of the suffocating town. Tragedy strikes when she goes to a school party with her best friends Ingrid (Beate Stoefring) and Sara (Malin Bjoerhovde). She sneaks out of the party to drink beer, Artur follows her and pokes her thigh with his bared penis. Too excited, she tells her friends what happened but they don’t believe her and Artur denies it. Now she is outcast and branded ‘Dick-Alma’. Was her experience only a delusion? Her life falls…
The director Jacobsen was intrigued by Olaug Nilssen’s book’s vividness and realness, and adapted it for the screen. The film features a lonely Alma, but she is everyone who is embarrassed about his or her interest in sex and can’t talk about it to anyone and who doesn’t know what to do about that frustration. Moreover, the story has an aspect of how Alma’s mother, who wants to ignore her daughter’s sexual awakening, accepts her daughter. Along with her mother’s realization, Alma, who stepped onto the path of maturity, begins to understand simply moving out of town won’t help her.
COOL met with the director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen (left) and the lead actress Helene Bergsholm (right) to talk about their first feature film “Turn Me On, Dammit!”.
First I would like to introduce our readers to a new talented filmmaker from Norway. Do you remember when you first wanted to be a filmmaker?Jannicke: Yes, I began to think about being a filmmaker right after high school. I got in the university and I was studying philosophy, I thought it was a bit too theoretical. I had gone to a high school that had a lot of creative subjects. I was very into photography and writing and I thought, “Oh, film could be the perfect match for my interest.”
Artist are influenced by many elements in everyday life. What are those influences in your case?Jannicke: I think mine are film, music, literature, and photography.
What photographers inspire you?Jannicke: Oh I like Tim Walker. There’s many others…there’s a great Norwegian photographer called Julie Pike. There are many cinematographers that I like.
Are there any movies that influenced you?Jannicke: There are many movies! [laughs] I really like Sofia Coppola and Spike Jonze, also a Swedish director called Roy Andersson. He made a very beautiful film called “A Love Story” back in the ’70s, which was an inspiration for this movie.
About your first feature film “Turn Me On Dammit!”, movies about horny girls are very rare especially teenage girls. Was the story based on someone’s experience? Are there any reference such as books and movies to write the script?Jannicke: Yes it is based on a novel by Olaug Nilssen. I think the story is based on her experience, not necessarily about being horny, but about being a young girl with a lot of hormones in a very small place. It could be many girls.
The title has a big impact. Why did you decide to use this title?Jannicke: It’s the best translation we could find for what the book is called, and I like that is has sort-of a double meaning. It doesn’t have to be “turn me on sexually”, it can also be like a light switch, to turn on some thing. And “dammit” is to express the urgency of it.
People who watch this film wonder if Alma is delusional or not. Why did you make the story like a mystery?Jannicke: That’s one of the things I really liked about the book, it felt like you were in this foggy state where fantasy and reality was blending into each other. I enjoy that in a film: when I don’t necessarily know what is what, and it’s not feeding me with a spoon but letting me think for myself. I thought it was nice to work this way for the audience. If the movie feels a bit like a mystery or a puzzle, then that’s hopefully a good thing.
People seem to love this film at TriBeCa. They applauded at the end. Jannicke: Oh, that’s nice! I did the last bit of creative work on the film about a month ago, so it was just finished. We finished editing right before Christmas, and then we were selected by TriBeCa. Everything has happened very fast for us, so we are not that prepared [laughs]. But it’s been very nice. Our premiere in Norway is in August.
Oh, really?! This is so much earlier.Jannicke: Yes! That’s why we are not so prepared [laughs]. But it’s a good warm-up for us.
Could you talk about casting?Jannicke: Are you familiar with Norwegian geography?
Hmmm….[laughs]Jannicke: No? [laughs] Norway goes like this [she explains with her hands]. On the western part there is a county called Sogn og Fjordane. It’s the west coast of Norway, and there’s a lot of fjords and tall mountains. People there have a specific sense of humor. Because we wanted this to be authentic, like from where the novel was based. Our casting director went to all the high schools and junior high schools around this county to look for the characters. We had open auditions.
So you wanted to find someone unprofessional.Jannicke: Yeah, I think with this character — it’s going to be a fifteen year-old girl, it’s going to be an unprofessional either way. We had all these open auditions where they could try different things. Our casting director is quite good at making people feel relaxed, and improvising, and she has some very nice methods.
How was the audition? Helene: It was fun. And I learned a lot. And it was scary too.
You’re from a small town, right?Helene: Yes.
I’m from a small town too. There is a lot of nature and the town is beautiful but sometimes I was annoyed by the environment. Because everyone knows each other, and I was kind of suffocated. Could you talk about growing up in a small Norwegian town?Helene: Yes, it’s like you said. Everyone knows everyone. For the teenagers of the town, it’s not the time to be abnormal or unlike everyone else. So you have to fit in, or else it’s much harder. So I get Alma’s frustration in the movie over living in that small town and wanting to get out.
You wanted to get out?Helene: Yes [laughs].
Do you know any girls like Alma?Helene: No, not really. She’s not unusual, so I guess there are many girls who can relate to Alma. There’s nothing weird about her actually.
Could you talk about the background of Alma’s family?Jannicke: She lives with her mother and her dog, that’s what we know. Her mother is from this place and has grown up there. What I took out from the book and also in the casting was that she probably got Alma when she was quite young. So she didn’t have a chance to leave and do something else. She was stuck with Alma. I always imagine that she was in Greece, on a Greek island, and she met someone like a Dutch marine biologist, maybe? [laughs]
So the mother also understands what Alma is feeling.Jannicke: Yes, exactly. She has also probably experienced it in the past, and then everyday life and bringing up a child took over and she’s been suppressed for a while.
About Alma’s friend Sara, why is she interested in people on death row?Jannicke: She’s against everything. She was the radical one. I think this is her main cause. Alternative.
Writers usually sympathize with the protagonist, that’s why protagonists could be writers themselves. But I thought the old woman next door is you, who sees Alma and her mother from a third-person view. What do you think about that? Jannicke: Magda and the family? I guess she’s the annoying woman next door who knows everything in this small place and keeps track of everything. I feel more like I’m Sara.
What do you think made Alma horny all the time? Jannicke: I think when you are a teenager and you have this chaotic hormone salad inside your body and you don’t know what to do with it, it’s very frustrating. It’s like you are not shaking but there’s little ants in your pants. I think she just needs to get it out. She needs to relax.
Yes, also she is very nice on the outside, nice to people etc.Jannicke: That is what we wanted. We wanted her to be a normal, sympathetic, and nice girl, but she had these things that she didn’t know how to deal with inside.
Alma is an outcast in school, and annoyed by herself and the town. But the story is, after all, very sweet. What would like people to understand?Jannicke: That it should be OK for a girl to have these feelings that Alma has. I didn’t want to make a very provocative film; I don’t want to provoke to provoke. Because this is something I strongly believe is normal, I didn’t want to make it something sensational. So that is why it’s sweet, so people won’t be put off by it.
text by Taiyo Okamoto & Joseph Reid
photo by Taiyo Okamoto