Writer-director Yngvild Sve Flikke and actress Kristine Thorp discuss their subversive pregnancy comedy, Ninjababy, one of the best of the Berlinale.
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Rakel (Kristine Thorp), twenty three, is a bit of a mess — but joyfully so. “She’s really just enjoying life,” said Yngvild Sve Flikke, writer-director of the delightful Ninjababy, of which Rakel is the main character. “She doesn’t know what she’s going to be. If she wants sex, she’s having sex, and she doesn’t really remember who she had sex with.” Her hair is permanently greasy, hanging loose or pulled back into a functional ponytail, and her clothes are mismatched and oversized (although enviably comfy). In short, she hasn’t quite figured herself out yet, but she’s in no rush to. A spanner is thrown in the works when an unwanted pregnancy threatens to catapult Rakel toward responsibility, right at the moment in her life when she was revelling most in irresponsibility.
In its portrayals of sex, womanhood, motherhood, and pregnancy, Ninjababy is a refreshingly subversive film. With Rakel, Flikke creates a female character who loves sex and has no interest in motherhood. Rakel discovers she’s pregnant six and a half months in — too late for an abortion. Flikke immediately challenges our expectations of what a pregnant woman’s body looks like by showing that some women, like Rakel, don’t grow a huge stomach during pregnancy. What follows is a tumultuous and stressful pregnancy, as Rakel works out what to do with the rapidly growing foetus that she didn’t even know she was carrying. Give it to an adoption agency that won’t let her have a say on which family the baby ends up with? Offer it to her older half-sister, Mie (Silya Nymoen), who had previously tried unsuccessfully to conceive with her partner? Or leave it with the father, a casual hookup nicknamed Dick Jesus (Arthur Berning) by Rakel and her flatmate, Ingrid (Tora Christine Dietrichson).
The film does a good job of showing Rakel’s care for the foetus she’s carrying without implying that her proximity to it triggers some innate desire to be its mother. Rakel is horrified to find out that she was pregnant while she was partying, drinking, and doing drugs, because she doesn’t want to harm the foetus she’s carrying. She grapples with the fear that she might miscarry, which is no less devastating just because she doesn’t want to keep the child when it’s born. She even has imaginary conversations with the foetus, who appears in hilarious animated form as Ninjababy, so named by Rakel because it snuck up on her without warning and “thinks it can chill there for nine months and then sneak out.” She grows a kind of friendly rapport with Ninjababy, growing attached to the extent that she wants to make sure she finds the right home for it, but not to the extent that she wants to parent it herself.
Sex is depicted frankly and humorously in the film, because as Flikke told me, “I’m kind of sick of poetic sex scenes.” The first sex scene in Ninjababy is raucously cringe-worthy: Rakel is speaking to Akido-Mos (Nader Khademi), a man she slept with a few weeks before, and she can’t stay focused on their conversation because she keeps remembering them having sex. While Rakel and Akido-Mos talk in the foreground, we see their past selves having sex in the background, Rakel’s loud moans punctuating her present-day conversation with Akido-Mos and making her wince. Now, in the light of day and stone cold sober, she’s painfully embarrassed by all the awkward sex sounds and facial expressions that seemed so natural at the time. There are several more sex scenes in the film, all shot very realistically, never glorifying sex as something beautiful and perfect, but also taking care to show and celebrate the pleasure Rakel finds in sex.
Flikke also depicts the men around Rakel as uncommonly sweet and nurturing, bucking stereotypes about masculinity as much as stereotypes about femininity. We first hear about Dick Jesus through Rakel and Ingrid’s mocking nickname and their jokes about him, and our confidence in him isn’t lifted when he first appears in the film, ‘Blaze the Lord’ poster and all. But although he first seems like a bumbling and vain slacker, he soon surprises us when Rakel’s pregnancy triggers strong paternal instincts in him. He demonstrates a care for the foetus and for Rakel, and a willingness to change his lifestyle (and get rid of his poster) if it means getting to be a dad. Rakel’s love interest, Akido-Mos, is another example of a sweet, sensitive man who’s unproblematically supportive of Rakel as she goes through a difficult time. He’s a nerd who loves martial arts and tabletop games, but who’s also really good at sex, and who falls into few of the trappings of hyper-masculinity; the film refuses to put him in any one box.
Before the film’s international premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, I spoke with Yngvild Sve Flikke and amazing breakout star Kristine Thorp about the subversive gender politics of Ninjababy, crafting the film’s humour, and making a live-action film with animated elements.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you both get involved with Ninjababy? What drew you to this story?
Yngvild Sve Flikke: I got the idea when I was finishing my debut film [Women In Oversized Men’s Shirts]. I had a couple of animations in that film that were put in really late, and it didn’t really interact with the live action. I wanted to explore animation as an expression, together with live action.
I also wanted to go into the notion of being pregnant and how that can be. The ambivalence of it and that it’s not only pure and nice. And then I remembered Inga Sætre’s graphic novel called The Art of Falling [about a sixteen-year-old who finds out she is pregnant]. I really enjoyed that so much. She has this wonderful humour and expression in her drawings. I knew she was also an animator who had worked with the animation studio Mikrofilm here in Norway. So I contacted her and told her what I was planning to do, to see if we could collaborate. We didn’t know each other, but we were really on the same page.
[Ninjababy is] not an adaptation of that book. She also has this comic strip called Grubby Girls, which I really, really connect to. We took a little bit of different stuff. And then, I came up with some stuff. We started working on [Ninjababy] and on how to really use this animation. She did all the animation. [It was a] one-woman show.
And then, [co-screenwriter] Johan Fasting came along. When we were working on this, I also did two seasons of a TV series called Home Ground. Johan Fasting was the showrunner of that. I really like his approach to script writing. He writes beautiful dialogue. It’s funny, and it’s restless. He came in, took everything we were working on, and transformed it into the [finished] script. He really understood what movie we wanted to make.
One of our big goals, Inga and I, was to make a female character that was more the way we feel women are: Rakel [has] an attitude; she’s tough, but she’s vulnerable. We needed to find a young actress who could fill that role. We had hundreds of casting tapes. And then, Kristine came along and really just popped out. She had an amazing presence that really came out of the frame. I just knew I had to meet her.
Kristine Thorp: I remember being called by the casting agent, [who told] me a short pitch for the film, and I really liked the idea. He also told me that it was based on a graphic novel. So I went to the library, got a copy of the book, and fell in love with it. I got really eager to get the part very early on.
7R: What was it that appealed to you about the story?
Kristine Thorp: I liked that it portrayed characters who I could really identify with, the way they talked and the way they interacted with each other. And [I liked] the way Rakel is as a person. She lacks a filter, she has a sexual drive, and she dares to stick with her choices, which is not what you usually see in film. She dares to really be herself and trust herself to make the right decisions.
7R: I gather that the character in the graphic novel is sixteen. Yngvild, why did you want Rakel to be in her early twenties in the film?
Yngvild Sve Flikke: Because we didn’t want people to feel sorry for her. We didn’t want people to feel pity for her. We wanted her to be a strong female character that surprises us.
Also, I really like that age, when you move [away] from home. When you meet her in the beginning of the film, she’s really just enjoying life. She doesn’t know what she’s going to be. She’s a student, but she’s not studying. If she wants sex, she’s having sex, and she doesn’t really remember who she had sex with. She’s just living the life. When I worked in national broadcasting, I worked a lot with that age group, [who have] moved away from home and are trying to establish themselves as a grown up. I really like [to explore] the challenges [this age group faces], because I can still relate to them. I still don’t feel like a grown up, even though I’m forty six. I don’t think I’ll ever be, because you always feel like you’re fucking up and you’re making mistakes.
7R: After the film was cast, how did the two of you collaborate to create the character of Rakel?
Kristine Thorp: Because I live in Copenhagen, and Yngvild is in Norway, we sent each other a lot of ideas. It would be like, What kind of music does she listen to? [How does] she dress and what is she interested in? We used so much time [before the shoot to] find the character so that I would really know Rakel. Then, on set, I could just shift in and out of character quite easily. That made room for a lot of improvisation and a lot of space to play with the material.
Yngvild Sve Flikke: It’s a really nice way to work with the actors, when you know what the character can and can’t do, so in the improvisation, you know immediately: this is wrong for the character, or this is right for the character. We came to a spot where we could play with the character a lot on set.
We also knew that Rakel didn’t have a big closet of clothing. She puts on what she finds, and if it’s clean enough, she’ll put it on. We had a day with Kristine going to vintage shops and just looking [at clothes] and trying them on. Can she have this? What kind of shoes [does she wear]? How does she walk? When you put on clothes, the clothing will give you direction on where to go with the body language.
7R: I really loved the costumes and how comfy they look. Can you tell me a bit more about working out what Rakel would wear?
Yngvild Sve Flikke: Comfort came first. Rakel wouldn’t wear something that wasn’t comfortable. It should be, to put it [bluntly], ugly. She would never buy a t-shirt that matches her jeans, because she wouldn’t spend time thinking about that. She spent time on different stuff. If she doesn’t [want to] a shower, she’ll not shower.
The response [from viewers to the clothes in the film] has been really interesting. I almost feel like [they think] we were trying to do something very trendy. Really what we set out to do was not to be [trendy].
Kristine Thorp: It was really, really important to make her style not calculated. She hadn’t thought about what she was wearing. It was a lot of mixing and matching. In my head, all of Rakel’s wardrobe is things she has found or stuff people have given to her. There’s no idea behind her wardrobe. Everything is random but comfy and way too big.
7R: Rakel is so funny. Was the comedy found in improvisation? How much of it was written in the script?
Kristine Thorp: I don’t know if I could say a percentage of what was written and what was improvised, but I feel like we improvised around every scene. The script itself is really funny, so it wasn’t that hard to just take that and add on a little when you know the character.
Yngvild Sve Flikke: I think that the humour was in the script and the actors added to that. We really felt, right away, when we went too far.
A lot of the humour is also in the way Kristine has transformed her body. When she moves as Rakel, she is not Kristine. She’s different. She has these small things that she does with her arms, and gestures that are funny because they seem so real. We worked on that in the editing, [to] put in not too many [of these quirks] but not too few, to really find and build her as a character that you can relate to and who is funny.
Some of the scenes were just hysterical to shoot, I had to leave the room because I was laughing so much. Kristine, when she’s on, just continues more and more in the humour direction. But finding a balance was also a challenge throughout the whole film, because it is a funny movie, but it’s about something very serious. We had to find the balance. Most of it, I think we did through intuition.
7R: Kristine, how did you think about how Rakel would move and speak in a way that’s different from yourself? And also, how that might be impacted by the way pregnancy is changing her body?
Kristine Thorp: I had a lot of ideas on how she was as a person, but [it was only] when we got the costume and figured out the way she dressed that I really felt her. Before that, I felt like I was acting her, but when I got the costumes, I became her. For me, that was a huge help. The shoes she’s wearing were really important, because they were quite heavy and large. [They give you] the posture. The clothing was also a bit heavy, like the jacket she was wearing. Everything just felt very natural when I got the costumes and the shoes.
Yngvild Sve Flikke: And the olive oil!
Kristine Thorp: We used a whole bottle of olive oil in my hair, because [Rakel] always has this greasy hair. Also, and this didn’t help with my acting, but I drank a lot of water [to become bloated] in all of the nude scenes and the scenes with underwear, because I had to have a little tummy.
I didn’t shower that much during the shoot. (laughs) Especially from the middle of the film, she feels so shitty about herself, and she’s so low in her self-esteem. I wanted to feel that in my own body, as well, and really try to not feel fresh. I didn’t really eat nutritious food. I tried to not be energized.
7R: Rakel’s flat and her bedroom are really important in the film. How did you create that set, Yngvild? And Kristine, you’re also a set designer, as well as an actress? Did you collaborate on the creation of Rakel’s room?
Kristine Thorp: A lot of the stuff she has in her bedroom is made by me. I also illustrate and write children’s books. There’s also this oil self-portrait of me in the room which I made. It really felt like my own space, because we mixed it up so much with my own stuff. I was able to draw the illustrations, copying Inga’s style.
Yngvild Sve Flikke: I actually have some drawings in the film, too. If you do really examine the lines, you can see [the different art styles].
It was such a pleasure for me to work with a person who can hold a pencil the way a person who draws a lot does, because Kristine does draw a lot herself. It’s like having an actor pretending to play the piano. Here, we didn’t need to pretend, because it felt very natural to Kristine to sit and draw on her desk.
7R: I really loved the way that the film challenged so many stereotypes about women and motherhood, from the fact that you’re supposed to know when you’re pregnant within the first trimester, to the fact that Rakel maintains she doesn’t want to be a mother, even throughout an emotional pregnancy.
Yngvild Sve Flikke: And also the male characters. We wanted to twist and turn the stereotypes. Dick Jesus’s character is categorized and stereotyped by Rakel and her friend. We can see he also has good sides.
I’ve been working on that in all my work. You need to broaden the space that women and men can operate in. We need to use cinema as a way to show that there are many ways to be a woman, and there are many ways to be a man. It doesn’t really have to do with gender. That was something that was in the project from the very, very beginning.
I think we wanted to show nice male characters, like Akido-Mos. It’s very important to show that men can be very empathetic and they can be good fathers, if you just give them room to be that way. Society puts on the pressure that you should act and think certain ways. And [that pressure] also comes from yourself. As women, we need to be much more brave to speak our minds and say what we feel, and not try to please people all the time.
7R: Could you tell me a bit about the process of working with animation and choosing when and how to incorporate it into the film?
Yngvild Sve Flikke: From the very, very beginning, we wanted the animation to be integrated into the story, not just put on top as decor. It should be a really strong part of the visuals and also the narrative. We wanted it to represent the comedy of it. We wanted it to represent the emotional spine of the movie.
When Johan came up with that Ninjababy character, which we just loved, we were so frustrated that we didn’t find that character ourselves. It was so obvious. This was just perfect in this movie. When we found that, we started working on how to express a lot of emotions in that character, which is Rakel’s unconscious. She’s talking to herself.
In the editing process, Inga was there in the next room animating. Towards the end, we put in new animations and tried out new stuff. It was an open and very flexible and dynamic process.
I had to get Kristine to [act against] someone that was not there. I hadn’t done that before, and Kristine hadn’t hadn’t done that before.
Kristine Thorp: Yeah, that was a bit weird. It’s hard to really be in the moment when you’re acting with air. But we got this spy earpiece, so during the shooting, [an actor would be reading Ninjababy’s lines] in the same house. That was really nice, to have someone to react to and do the lines with.
We started using marks [to indicate] where I should look, because the Ninjababy was moving around. It’s really hard working with marks. But at the same time, Inga is adjustable. She’s really good at adjusting her material to what I do. So if I was looking all over the place, she would animate it that way.
7R: Can you tell me about the sex scenes in the film? They feel very real and honest, but they’re also funny.
Yngvild Sve Flikke: I wanted it as close to reality as possible. I’m kind of sick of poetic sex scenes. I think, for most people, and especially in your early twenties, [sex is] very clumsy, and it’s more fun than it’s poetic and beautiful. We really wanted a woman that had a sexual drive. [Rakel] is a woman who goes out and has sex if she feels like it. It doesn’t have to be a boyfriend. It can just be someone she met for that night. That liberated and free-spirited woman was important. But we also wanted to show the the clumsiness of sex. Even if you’re in it, and you feel it’s just wonderful, if you see it from the outside and think about it [too much], it makes you kind of embarrassed and laughing at its clumsiness.
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