TURN ME ON DAMMIT! INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR JANNICKE SYSTAD JACKOBSON

Provocative and humorous, “Turn Me on, Dammit!” is a coming-of-age movie that presents a unique perspective – that of the unbridled sexuality of a young girl from a small Norweigan town who is obsessed with sex. Masturbation, phone sex, school harassment, and falling in love for the first time are just a few of the day-to-day dilemmas of the young Alma, who brightens the screen with her fresh-faced look that belies her incessant sexual urges. It is a film that is totally unexpected in its honesty and sensitive yet humorous portrayal of the angst of being a female teenager and being hopelessly horny.

The movie revolves around the quirky, innocent, yet sex crazed character of “Alma” who in the midst of her high school years can’t seem to contain herself from her sexual fantasies and urges. Her out of control hormones seem to get her into constant trouble, with her embarrassed mother, incredulous friends and the subject of her fantasies, the young Artur. Actress Helene Bergsholm’s funny and moving performance manages to navigate through the subject matter of the film with such a sweet honesty, it is impossible not to smile at her portrayal of Alma’s sometimes down-and-dirty daydreams and blossoming sexuality.

I sat down with up-and-coming filmmaker Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, director / screenplay writer of the recently released film, to talk about her inspiration and the making of this wonderfully refreshing movie. “Turn Me On, Dammit!,” Jacobsen’s feature debut, has been the winner of numerous international film festival awards – including “Best Screenplay” at the Tribeca Film Festival, “Best Debut Film” at the Rome Film Festival, and “Best European First Feature” at the Mons International Love Film Festival (Belgium). Adapted from the best selling Norwegean book by Olaug Nilssen, the film maintains its strength with it’s well developed characters and brilliant portrayal of teenage angst. Writer/Director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen studied film directing at FAMU, the Czech Republic’s national film school, and at the London International Film School.  Her documentaries, including the television documentary Sandmann: The story of a Socialist Superman (2005) and the documentary feature Scenes from a Friendship (2009), are notable for their documentary feature Scenes from a Friendship (2009), are notable for their sense of humor. Sandmann was nominated for the Norwegian national television prize for Best Documentary and her short documentary The Clown Children (2005) was shown at more than seventy film festivals worldwide and won several prizes.

IC  – It’s lovely to meet you today and talk about your feature debut “Turn Me On Dammit”.  Can you tell me about your inspiration behind the film?

JSJ – The main inspiration for the film was the book. It had very cool characters that were real to life. It had a great sense of humor, and it had a way of story telling, mixing fantasy and reality, that I thought would be interesting to try to adapt into a film.

IC – I heard you won the award at the Tribeca Film Festival for Best Screenplay for this adaptation. That must be a very exciting achievement. Were there other festivals the film has received any awards from?

JSJ – Yes, we got an award at the Rome Film Festival, for “Best Debut”. Also “Best First European Feature” at a festival in Belgium.

IC – That’s exciting, congratulations!

Can you tell me about your character development of Alma and Artur and the choices you made with regards to those characters in your adaptation?

JSJ – I think Alma, the main character, she is the protagonist so you want your audience to sympathize with her. At the same time, she is quite obnoxious in the way that she does things. I think it is interesting to have a character like that, that has these two sides. That she can both be sweet and sort of too much and in your face. I think she has this developed more than the other characters in the movie. I think it’s also part of being young, growing up, being full of hormones, and not really knowing who you are and finding it out. To be complex, to be two sided. I don’t think the Alma character is funny, but the things she does are funny. She is quiet serious, but all the other characters and how they react to what she is doing; they are funnier in a way. She is very sincere in what she does. I think what she does is, and the situations she comes up in are funny.

IC – I thought it was interesting also the harassment Alma had to deal with – it brings to light the topic of high school bullying which is an issue that recently has become extremely newsworthy in the media, with the anti-bullying movement going on. You really addressed the way she was treated in school, when she spoke up about what happened to her, and everybody turned on her, rejecting her and making fun of her.  She became the ultimate outcast. The film dealt this in such a dramatic yet humorous way, it was very clever. The way she was treated by her peers clearly was a major part of the film, how ruthless kids can be to each other.  I thought that was a very interesting subject that was brought up in the movie.

JSJ – I think if you live in a very small place, like in this film, it’s very difficult to be young and be different from everyone else. It’s not socially accepted. I think in a bigger environment she would find some other people that were sort of outcasts. It’s easier to find your own in a bigger place than a small place. I don’t think grown ups are that much better. Kids can be especially cruel to each other. I think that’s part of life, where you want to belong and find yourself with your friends and in a group.

IC – Exactly, being in a small town it’s exaggerated.

JSJ – I think that when you’re a teenager, especially, you want to belong to a group. You don’t want to feel like an outsider. Kids can be very cruel if your different, it’s a hard period of life to be different, but also I think it’s good to find out that when you’re young that you can be who you are and not pretend to be something else.

IC – Can you just tell me a little about the choice of the location, this little Norwegian town called “Skoddeheimen” where you shot the film?

JSJ – This actually was part of the original book. The location was loosely based on where the writer grew up. It’s a very small group of houses outside a very small village about 20 KM up in the mountains. I went there and saw what it’s like. It’s very isolated, like when it gets dark in the evenings it’s completely dark. It has this very lonely feeling to it. We found this bus shelter just by itself, so we wondered why there are no houses here and what are they doing with this bus shelter in the middle of nowhere? We didn’t shoot in this exact place, but a place that was similar. It was a tricky puzzle to find all the locations that would fit into the film’s style and would also be practical. We had to change where we stayed three times. The town in the film doesn’t really exist. I don’t think you can see that, but it’s actually shot in three different places.

IC – Oh is it? It’s hard to tell that, that’s the magic of cinema you can make it seamless.

JSJ – Yes! We just had to make sure the car would drive the right way when we looked out the window. So it all makes logical sense!

IC – The casting was really amazing. How did you cast all of the characters?

JSJ – I mostly made documentaries before. Coming from that background, you have a different approach to naturalism or realism when you make fiction. I wanted to cast these teenagers from a place like this town, Skoddeheimen. I went to this very isolated area where there are not a lot of people at all. I had to find teenagers who had the experience of growing up in a place like this, who would be able to relate to this atmosphere and story. They knew what it was like to sit in this bus shelter and wait for a bus that’s not coming and all this. So our casting director went around to schools and held opening auditions in this county. They would tell them what this film was about and those who were interested could audition. It was a very time consuming process but it was also very interesting and a lot of fun to meet these kids. I think it’s because it’s a remote area of Norway, I don’t think casting directors come there very often. I think this was probably the first time, so I think they were excited about it in a different way. I think Molly who plays the Sarah character showed up to be nice and to get out of class. There are many different motivations, they had something like a special quality to them being from this place and having this dialect and this experience of living in a place like this and knew what it was like to be in these situations. While doing the casting process, it was like a little acting school, we would give them different challenges each time.

IC – None of them obviously then were real actors. They were actually just real students, kids going to school. Was some of the subject matter considered controversial? Female masturbation is not often addressed in cinema with kids that age. So to be filming a movie with teenagers dealing with those issues, I imagine it must have been to some quite shocking.

JSJ – The kids were very different with their hesitations or willingness to do something. It’s very interesting really, Helena who played Alma, who did it very well and with a great sensitivity, I don’t think the masturbation scenes were her main problem doing the film. We made it in a way where she could think about it technically and not emotionally when she was doing it. I think she had a much harder time shouting at her mother since she’s not used to shouting. She did not want to show her breasts so we had a stand in. But Bata who plays Ingrid, she had no problem with this and she’s two years younger. We also tried Molly who plays Sarah for the Alma character and when we did that she was like freaking out because she didn’t want to do these scenes.

In Norway, everybody knows the story from the book. The book came out in 2005. This story and the book caused quiet a bit of a media sensation. I think in Norway people were not that shocked, and some critics were hoping the scenes were even rawer. I think it wasn’t seen as very controversial, I think in general where we’ve shown the film people appreciate it a lot. They’re happy somebody’s talking about this.

IC – It’s a natural progression that obviously with boys has been dealt with a million times, and I don’t recall any movies where it’s been addressed with teenage girls. I think it’s an important topic to be raised in regards to the stereotypes surrounding gender and all these sort of issues that are obviously put on people about how you’re supposed to be and how you’re supposed to act rather than the reality.

JSJ – I have been a bit surprised, maybe I’m a bit naïve – but I didn’t think the topic in itself would be such a big deal when the film was released. It’s very surprising to see even in Norway, or Scandinavia or Europe that female sexuality can still be considered taboo. But when we start observing it, I think I saw the film “Kick Ass”, like right before we started shooting. It’s a very typical scene in the movie depicting the young man, he’s masturbating and he’s doing it and it’s very comical, it’s funny. If you imagine a woman doing the same thing – it’s often considered gross.

IC – I think that perhaps in Norway and a lot of European communities it’s a little bit less taboo then in the American cinema. It’s often the boys who are allowed to go down that path and female sexuality is very rarely addressed with teenagers. It’s always “Oh she thinks so and so is cute” but it never goes into detail of real female sexuality or urges. The real deal is just not addressed the same way it is with teenage boys. I think it’s great, that it’s kind of groundbreaking. It’ll be interesting to see if it starts a new movement in filmmaking with addressing those topics.

IC – Aside from the brilliant screenplay, I thought there were quite a few other unique qualities to the film that made it stand out. I loved the de-saturated look that gave the film a bit of a 70’s vintage look. These days most films in the cinema have dramatic bright colors and contrast. “Turn me on Dammit!” has a more vintage looking, real tone to it.  Can you tell why you pushed it in that direction?

JSJ – The cinematographer Marianne Bakke and I went through a very thorough development of finding the film these kind of cinematic moods and colors. We thought that this script was a bit like an “acoustic” film, so we shot it on Super 16 film, which has a lot of grain and has all the qualities of this analog look. For the story we didn’t want it to look contemporary. I think people often when they make a film about teenagers they try to make it very modern and trendy. This is something that happened a few years ago. We don’t know if it’s five or ten years ago or longer, so it’s sort of like looking back at something that happened and now she’s sort of moved on. We tried to make it a bit timeless. I think the visual quality in the photography is a great part of that.

IC – It does give it a retro feel. At the same time I felt that those very qualities made it very contemporary. It looks new all of the sudden, when you compare it to what you see in the cinemas now.

JSJ – We looked a lot at Polaroid photos as references – actually taken with the Polaroid camera, not the Instamatic. I guess like the Hipstmatic and the Shake It! and all of these apps you have on your iPhone, the look is very trendy now. We wanted the film to look very natural with it’s lighting, to make it look like it’s not lit but it is. The visual language is not that complicated, it’s simple. We wanted to put the energy and the money into the quality of the light and the story.

IC – I think it really lets the story speak for itself. In the sense that the there is a purity and a simplicity in the way that it is lit and with the visual language of the filmmaking that really lets the story come through. I love the way you approached the subject matter of female masturbation and all these things with a subtle humor. There we a lot of moments that were quiet humorous, tongue-in-cheek and amusing yet at the same time it is still a serious movie. There was such an enormous amount of humor in that it made the topic far more palatable.

I think it’s exciting, you’ve gone out there done something new, addressed some interesting topics in a really brilliantly sensitive, humorous way. One of things I really loved about the movie was the purity of the characters; it wasn’t done in a vulgar way at all. It was very innocent. You have the juxtaposition of a very sexual topic with innocence. I think it lends itself to the movie being very modern and having strength to hold it’s own with very serious storytelling. Often sexuality is perceived as being potentially vulgar, yet in your film it’s done in such a pure way that there’s nothing vulgar whatsoever about the film, it’s done in an honest, innocent way. It’s refreshing.

JSJ  – Thank you, I think that’s an important issue – in this messed up world how young girls get an idea of what sex is through mass media and pop culture, I think this can maybe be a counter balance to that.

Director Jannicke Systad Jacobson was interviewed by Indira Cesarine in New York City on March 29, 2012.

 “Turn me on, Dammit!” is currently playing in theatres in the US – for screening information check out the movie website or your local listings.

Turn Me On, Dammit! (Norway, 2011) Written and directed by Jannicke Systad Jacobson, based on the novel by Olaug Nilssen. Produced by Brede Hovland and Sigve Endresen. Cinematography by Marianne Bakke. Original Music by Ginge Anvik. Edited by Zaklina Stojcevska. Starring Helene Bergsholm, Malin Bjørhovde, Henriette Steenstrup, Matias Myren, and Beate Støfring. Distributed by New Yorker Films.

– Indira Cesarine for The Untitled Magazine

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