By Don Simpson | May 28, 2012
Adapted from Olaug Nilssen’s novel of the same name, writer-director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen shows us how the repressive tendencies of small rural towns can really screw with the adolescent minds of its inhabitants. The teens of Turn Me On, Dammit! feel locked up and oppressed (they hate their town so much that they flip off the town limit sign every time they pass by it) and hormonal tension is boiling inside them.
The cast is played primarily by teenage actors, lending Turn Me On, Dammit! the aura of an authentically awkward adolescent world that is saturated with overwhelming sexuality. In Hollywood, these kids would have been total horn-dogs, talking raunchily about wanting to get into each others’ pants; but Jacobsen’s film is incredibly subtle, approaching teenage sexuality naturally rather than exaggeratedly. The high schoolers in Turn Me On, Dammit! are way too shy and timid to discuss sex with each other, thus causing their brains to become overloaded with closeted thoughts and desires.
Don Simpson: What does the film’s title mean to you?
Jannicke Systad Jacobsen: It is a bit tricky. It was the best translation of the Norwegian title that we could come up with. The Norwegian title is the same as the book it is adapted from, and the title of the book is based on something a news reporter once said. The news reporter was waiting to get on air to do a live news report and he shouted to the studio “Get me on the air, goddammit!” But he was already on the air, so it was a huge embarrassment. The Norwegian title means something like “acknowledge me” or “look at me” – it is not anything sexual.
DS: When I first saw the film at Tribeca 2011, it was titled Turn Me On, Goddammit and now it is Turn Me On, Dammit!
JSJ: The New Yorker took out the god and then added an exclamation mark. English is not my first language and I don’t really know U.S. culture but I get an idea that the title is a bit edgy here. For me it has sort of a double meaning. You can think of it in terms of a sexual awakening – the turning on of the light switch, the switch of turning from a child to a grown up, a right of passage… Marketing is not my area, but I think it is an eye-catching title, and maybe it will get people to be curious about the film and go see it. Yesterday when I was going through immigration, I was wondering how I should answer when they asked me why I am visiting the U.S. I figured I would say that I am here to promote a film, but then they would probably ask me what the title of the film is, and I thought that I would just say that that it is called “Alma and Artur.” That was one title that I thought might make a nice working title in English, but on the other hand it is very bland. It is not a movie you would want to see. It sounds pretty boring, “Alma and Artur,” doesn’t it? It sounds like a children’s movie. Turn Me On, Dammit! has the same sort of force in it that the story of the film has.
DS: Can you discuss how you approached the adaptation of the book, primarily your decision to focus on Alma?
JSJ: In the book there are three different stories that are not really linked; they are all related to each other, but it is still three different stories. When I first started, I tried to put all of the stories together in the script. It was kind of weird and funny, but it was always the Alma story that stood out, that people gave the most attention to. In the end, I cut out the other stories and developed the Alma story more. The Alma story is really just 44 pages of the book, and there is no beginning in the story. It just starts with Alma screaming out that Artur poked her. So I could set up and introduce her universe, her friends, her family, her life; so there are a lot of things that are inspired by the book but are not in the book. In the book you have the scene where Alma’s mother finds the phone bill from the calls with the phone sex operator, so then I could imagine how the calls with the phone sex operator would be and I put that into the film. Also, the story of Sara writing the letters to death row inmates, the character Kjartan who smells, and the neighbor and the dog — I could invent things like that. If I was a more skilled screenwriter I would have just taken the story and done all of that immediately, because it seems so obvious now.
DS: What qualities were you looking for while casting for Alma?
JSJ: We were looking for someone who was very average and normal, which is very hard to find. We didn’t look for the prettiest or most popular girl in school, but not a bully or the most unpopular either — so someone who you wouldn’t really pay that much attention to in the school yard. Someone who could be anyone in a way… She would also need to be capable of a great emotional capacity. Alma is very sensitive to the world around her and she knows what it is like to grow up in a small place like this.
DS: You did most of your casting in the region of Norway where the film was shot, right?
JSJ: Yes, all of the teenagers are from those locations. None of them had acted in a film before. One of them is studying drama in her high school, but that is it. Also, for the character of Alma, we were looking for a sort of untouched quality in her. At the same time you need someone who understands what they are saying “yes” to doing. We wanted someone who knew what Alma was going through, but could experience it for the first time as well. That was the tricky part — for moral reasons, but also for the acting because you have to have some hormones to play a hormonal girl. Helene [Bergsholm] and I got to know each other quite well, we met many times before we started shooting. We spent a lot of time together and we talked about how we were going to do things, to try to make her feel comfortable. There was also not much crew in the room. We would rehearse and choreograph the scenes beforehand, so Helene could think about her character technically rather than emotionally. I think that helped her.
DS: The setting plays such a very prominent role in your film. How did you determine where you wanted shoot?
JSJ: The author of the book [Olaug Nilssen] based it on where she grew up, a very small — not even a village — road about 20 kilometers from a very small town. So I asked her a lot about that place and I went there and Olaug’s parents guided me around. I saw what it was like — how far it is between each house, and how there is no light on the roads. You don’t just walk over to your friend’s house because it might be 5 km away. We also found this bus shelter that was all by itself that we wound up copying it in another location. There were no houses around there at all, but there was a bus stop, which is very strange. Compared to the cities of Norway, when nighttime comes, it is just completely dark and empty. There are no street lights or anything. We were trying to recreate all of that, but we did it in another area of the country which is kind of similar. All of what is written in the script was inspired by things that we found in these places. The places inspired the feelings that the characters would have. It was tough to find all of the places. There were three areas where we found the ideal spots; for example the youth house, when we saw it we just knew that it had the right atmosphere. The distance between each location was so far though.
Turn Me On, Dammit! features a much more realistic and frank portrayal of the sexual awakening of a teenage girl than we typically see in the United States. Was your intention to provide the audience with a perspective that we have not seen before?
JSJ: I didn’t want to make a film that was sensational. For me the reason I made this film was to say that this is something that is normal, that young girls have a sexuality just like boys. That is not something that is vulgar or sensational in any way. I guess the opening scene when Alma is on the floor — that is a bit shocking, but once you shock people they can go anywhere with you. In Norway, the book and the story were well known; so they had expectations that other countries would not have, since they wouldn’t know the book. Some critics in Norway thought it was not raw enough. Most critics and audiences who have liked the film appreciate it because it is talking about something that is very rarely talked about in Northern Europe.
DS: In Hollywood, it seems normal or commonplace to show a teenage boy go through a sexual awakening, but not a girl.
JSJ: And, in Europe, if there is ever anything about a girl’s sexuality it is about her becoming a lesbian. That always seems to be the topic. Of course while you are watching a film, you know you are watching a film; but you want to be taken into it, it creates its own universe. Most sex scenes in Hollywood films have a very fictive quality about them. Also, women always wake up with make up on, their hair is perfect, and they sleep with their bra on — they even have sex with their bra on. That is something that creates a distance from trying to be realistic. That is a moral standard that is very different. Most European sex scenes have a more honest approach.
DS: Do you feel any pressure to start making English-language films?
JSJ: It is sort of like Plato’s Cave story. I was making documentaries. When you make documentaries in Norwegian, you have a very limited distribution area. I made one documentary without dialogue and that went all around the world. That was very interesting. And then I made a fiction film and because it is fiction, it can go all over the world to play in film festivals and art houses. But if you really want to reach a much larger audience, then English-language is essential. I want to make the films that I want to make, but of course I want to do it for an audience as well. It would be interesting to have an even bigger possible audience. But if I made something with English dialogue, its story would still be very Norwegian.