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Turn Me On, Dammit! is a whimsical and refreshingly honest coming-of-age story about the blossoming sexuality of 15-year-old Alma, who shortly into the film gets nicknamed “Dick-Alma.” Throughout the film’s 76-minute run, a 17-year-old girl with no previous acting experience carries its weight on her shoulders. Casting this character proved a great challenge in many aspects: practically, artistically and morally. Here is the story.
On page one in the screenplay, the character of Alma is introduced:
“Alma (15)—a natural looking girl with long hair and an innocent childlike quality—lies on the patterned linoleum floor with the phone to her ear. Her jeans are below her knees and she has both hands down her underpants. Her eyes are closed. She is enjoying herself and moaning.”
After this sort of shocking opening, we quickly get to know Alma in several other ways: As a naïve and romantic dreamer who is in love for the first time. As a daughter living with her single mother. As a dog owner. As a friend. As someone who speaks without thinking. As a frustrated outcast. As a shop clerk. As a bad pot smoker.
From writing the script, my basic understanding of Alma was that she was a typical teenager, full of contrasts. She is kind, smart and likable on one hand, annoying and behaving offensively on the other. She is tough and powerful and grown up, but also vulnerable and in need of a hug. In a school yard, you would not spot Alma as the prettiest or most popular girl; neither would she be the sad, bullied girl. She would be somewhere in between. She would be normal. She could be anybody.
In the screenplay, Alma was 15 years old. For the production, we knew it would be best if the girl who played Alma was over 18, the legal age in Norway. At the same time, she needed to have some untouched quality that would make an audience believe she was experiencing all these hormonal things for the first time. However, given the film’s topic, it was of moral importance to us all that she was mentally grown up enough to understand what she said yes to. For the characters and story to be believable, I wanted teenagers who were in this weird no-man’s land between being a kid and adult. If the young cast was too grown up, the realism and innocence would get lost.
The story was set in Skoddeheimen—a small village in West-Norway (Vestlandet). This place is a literal creation of Olaug Nilssen, who wrote the novel from which the script is adapted. She describes it as a typical place in the county of Sogn og Fjordane, characterized by mountains, fjords and constantly changing weather (plenty of fog, lots of rain, rarely any sun). Few people live there, and the distance between the houses tends to be great. It’s a deadly boring place to be a teenager, but well known for its quiet, dry humor filled with understatements. An essential part of this, in my opinion, is their dialect: the way it sounds and how they express themselves, the words they use.
When I optioned her book, Olaug Nilssen gave me complete freedom to do whatever I wanted with the adaptation. Her only expressed wish was that the characters would speak Sunnfjord-dialect. I agreed, because without the dialect, the comedy would lose its identity. Practically, this meant the teenagers who would be in the film would have to be from the county of Sogn og Fjordane, but there are only 108,000 people there. This dialect issue could very quickly have turned into a career suicide for me.
In Norway, there are 5 million people. We don’t have a Mickey Mouse Club to produce young movie stars. (No Miley Cyrus. No Britney Spears. No Lindsay Lohan. Certainly no Ryan Gosling.) It is usual to cast inexperienced young amateurs for films about teens. In our capital Oslo, the density of teenagers with acting experience from drama groups or film/television is certainly greater than in the rest of the country. But the idea of flying city kids over the mountains and expecting them to understand what it was like to live in Skoddeheimen—and give an honest account of it—felt absurd, like the recipe for a parody, which was not my intention for the film. The only right thing to do was to look for Alma and her friends in Sogn og Fjordane. These kids would know the feeling of sitting in a bus shed drinking beer, being bored and dreaming of somewhere else, knowing that a bus out of there would not come any day soon.
As we knew amateurs would fill the roles, the casting process involved teaching film acting basics, giving the teenagers the opportunity to learn to concentrate, be in the situation, listen, respond and relate to one another. Casting director Ellen Michelsen went on her first of many school tours scouting for Alma in November 2010; she visited all the high schools and junior high schools in Sogn og Fjordane. First she would introduce the film and the story in an auditorium. Then those who were interested would audition. Ellen would make them speak a bit about themselves, in order to get comfortable and relaxed. Then they would improvise a simple scene with three different temperaments. In total, there were around 450 young girls and boys up for the five parts. From this we selected the best candidates and invited them to travel many hours by bus and ferry to Førde– the small centre of Sogn og Fjordane county. We did general improvisations to check for the specific traits and emotions required, and we worked with text and scenes among different combinations of characters.
Helene Bergsholm was 17 when we first met her. She was very shy and careful. Her voice was low, and she seemed a bit fragile and thin-skinned. Helene looked both normal and special. She had a strange beauty, with porcelain skin, big expressive eyes, some peculiar front teeth and a brain inside her head where there was obviously a lot going on. Something happened when Helene was in front of the camera. She seemed more alive, stronger, more vulnerable. She was open and tried what we asked, and she made things work sensitively. She created sympathy with small motions, and was empathic with others—she was very good. When we turned the camera off, she would become shy again.
Both the casting director and I felt like shaking Helene. We felt sure there was more inside her, and that she could handle it. So we kept asking her to come back for several rounds of auditions, giving her new challenges. When we offered her the part, Helene couldn’t understand why she got it or what she had done. Luckily she said yes. Her parents agreed after reading the script and meeting with us, as she was underaged. This lead role in a feature film was in fact Helene’s first job ever.
In April 2011, the film had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of the World Narrative Competition, opening to positive and enthusiastic audiences and critics. Since then, it has traveled the world. Around the globe the thing that seems to make people excited about the film—along with the topic of young female sexuality, rarely described in such an honest way—is its use of contrasts: comedy and gravity, charm and brutal honesty, emotional innocence and rawness. This duality is the foundation for Marianne Bakkes’ cinematography, Sunniva Rostad’s production design, costumes by Sabina Cavenius, the editing of Zaklina Stojcevska, Hugo Ekornes’ sound design, the music of Ginge, and the acting of the cast. But most of all, it is personalized by Helene Bergsholm’s brave and honest performance as the completely normal, yet so very special “Dick-Alma.”
Turn Me On, Dammit! opens in New York on March 30 at Angelika Film Center and The Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.