In Sick Of Myself, Main Character Syndrome Goes Into Overdrive


In Sick Of Myself, Main Character Syndrome Goes Into Overdrive

Kristoffer Borgli on his film Sick Of Myself, 2023's most unforgettable black comedy.

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The “main character” archetype can be an exhausting one to live alongside in life. They cheat out to a camera that’s not there, they turn every conversation back to themselves, and if that’s not enough, they will resort to more shocking grabs for the spotlight: like poisoning themselves for attention. And in Kristoffer Borgli’s Norwegian black comedy Sick of Myself, his protagonist Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) does exactly that.

Wrecked with jealousy that her boyfriend Thomas (Eirik Sæther), is making a splash in the art world, Signe stumbles upon the answer to her troubles: a banned pharmaceutical floating around the dark web that inflicts the patient with a horrific, incurable skin disease. Signe wastes no time, feverishly consuming the pills in secret as her skin warps, tears, and bleeds. Soon, she’s a medical mystery to doctors, pitied by her friends, and signed to a modeling agency that specifically highlights models with disabilities. In other words, things are working out beautifully.

Borgli marries Signe and Thomas’ unhealthy, hyper-competitive relationship dynamic with body horror to a twisted and delightful effect. The world within Sick of Myself is a serious one; blind to their own wretchedness, Signe and Thomas each see themselves as the magnetic focal point — and it’s there that Borgli is able to extract the film’s most bleak and compelling humor.

“I think it's an interesting place with the main characters who are so competitive and narcissistic, because that isn't a typical Scandinavian trait. I think you're kind of conditioned to the tall poppy syndrome. You should blend in with the herd,” says BorgIi. “If you grow up in America, you're told you can be president if you want to. And in Scandinavia you're told, ‘Don't even f*cking think that you can become president. Be normal, stand back, don't be naive. Don't be foolish.’”

Ahead, Borgli spoke to NYLON about the inspiration behind Sick of Myself, how the film’s skin disease took shape, and more.

How did Signe’s character change throughout script revisions? What was she like at the beginning when you ideated her to where she lands in the film?

The script was actually written over the course of many years, and the first iteration started in 2017, through the Norwegian Film Institute, which is very bureaucratic. It's delivering a draft, then waiting three or four months for feedback, and then getting money to write another draft. It took a really long time and it's almost like, I can't really remember the first draft. But I've always had an image in my head of a smiling, cute, blonde, privileged, Norwegian girl with a horrific skin disease. And that image has been in my head for probably 10 years.

Around 2016, I noticed a pretty significant change in the fashion industry where inclusivity became the most important front-and-center element and new body types, new faces started appearing. I suddenly saw, "Oh, now there's a market incentive for a person to inflict themselves with a skin disease." The image in my head suddenly started making sense as a story in a cultural context. I was always dealing with how does a somewhat normal person go from just a person you could see in your friend group to suddenly ending up in the fashion industry with a skin disease? And the script was trying to figure out how that journey was going to look like.

You've mentioned how you wanted the film to take place in the real world, especially in an environment you had observed in Oslo. Was there something specific that you witnessed in this sort of art world, I'm assuming, that sparked the dysfunction that we see play out?

The first couple of elements were about this girl and her journey. Then, at the same time when I was thinking about this story, I kept hearing things about a group of people in the art world, who were stealing very expensive designer furniture and expensive wines. And I felt like, "Wow, that's so interesting." I kept asking more and more about these people. I had friends who were friends with some of them, and they were talking about specific stories about passing a hotel lobby when there's a party there, just going in and picking up the furniture and leaving it during the party. Kind of fun, Bonnie and Clyde-esque stories of the modern world.

I was like, "Okay, so I have these two very different story elements," and then I forced them together. That's kind of how the relationship between Signe and Thomas started appearing. And then I just fell in love with the competition between them. I was like, "Who is the main character?" And that's the battle in the movie. It's them trying to compete to be the main character. That's an idea that was reiterated with the camera work. It constantly is panning hard between the two people as though it's a movie looking for its main character and being confused who it should be.

I didn't know that the art theft plot was rooted in reality.

There’s more to it. When we were in production with the movie, six or seven guys were caught by the police and arrested and headlines in all the national newspapers started appearing about a bohemian group of art thieves. There were surveillance camera backlogs from years of doing this in different lobbies. You can find them online. There was talk about, "There is a movie actually being made about this." And then suddenly there were news articles that were trying to say that this is all a marketing ploy for a new movie called Sick of Myself, so there was real confusion as to what was fiction and what was reality because it was happening at the same time. It was kind of nuts.

It's interesting that they happened at the same time because so much of the film involves hallucinations, or not understanding what's reality or fantasy. Also, you couldn't ask for better press than that level of confusion.

I really did love it. In Norway, this was kind of the main story for a while. We premiered the movie in Cannes, and I stepped out of the theater down there and I’m met with Norwegian TV journalists with a microphone in my face, asking, "Were you inspired by the real story? What can you tell us? How did you know about this before they got caught?" It was one of the main points around the release of the movie in Norway.

Do people buy into conspiracy theories often in Norway? Is it part of the culture?

No, I would say that has been very niche and not really that present in the culture. Outside of Oslo, you take a boat out from the fjord, you come to something called Nesodden, which is like a half island, where for whatever reason, the more kind of spiritual woo people moved out there. You will find the most kind of vocal anti-vaxxers conspiracy theorists are living out there in this kind of spiritual life. It's been labeled already: conspirituality. It's conspiracy and spirituality merging somehow, being skeptical of anything that's not natural. We have a little bit of that culture in Norway, but I guess a lot of people were online more than they were seeing other people. I think even Norwegian people got conspiracy-pilled during lockdown.

I know that you dabbled with electroshock while filming. Were you trying to shock Christine so that she would get more into character?

It was for the effects of the drugs that she's basically poisoning herself with. In the script it described that she started having spasms and involuntary body shakes and convulsions, and we were not sure how that was going to look on camera and wanting it to look very real. I was toying with the idea that maybe it'd be helpful to use electroshock to create real spasms. And she was down to do it, but asked me if I would try it on myself.

That's fair.

And I felt this strong reluctance to do it, and then that made me think, "Maybe this is a bad idea, let's actually not do it." I think our production coordinator who traveled out to where we were doing rehearsals with all the gear, he ended up trying everything on himself, and then we just said, "You know what? We're not going to do it."

That's really funny. I'm always fascinated by actresses because they're really a vessel for the director and the art.

Yeah, all fun and games until you have to do it yourself.

The prosthetic makeup in Sick of Myself is so horrific and compelling. I'd love to hear more about working with Izzy Galindo and how your vision came to the screen.

It was described vaguely in the script. I didn't have a very clear vision. When I finally met Izzy and found a collaborator in Izzy, we started off just looking at existing skin diseases. I didn't know that there were so many of them. I got nauseous looking at all these photos. And for Izzy, this is just his job. He looks at these images, and to him, it's all just white noise. But for me, it was just one horrific image after the other and I was like, "There's no way that we're going to sit through 90 minutes of this kind of ailment. It looks horrible. I want to look away just from the image." We needed to find something that was compelling. One, to not appall the audiences, but also to be realistically photogenic enough to get a girl a modeling career.

What we started doing was looking at exotic plants and leaf patterns. That felt really interesting. It's visual. It still feels very natural. I thought if you took the patterns on exotic plants and put them on a face, what would that look like? And that's when he started sketching this thing. As soon as I saw it, I was like, "This is it. This is what it's supposed to look like."

The scene that I'm constantly thinking about is when they're shooting the fashion commercial. What was it like directing actors in a scene like that, something that's so haunting and visceral, but also it's meant to be funny?

I was in front of the camera myself, but in that scene, I'm playing the director. I actually had to have a friend of mine who's a director come and help me direct myself and others and kind of be actively watching the takes and giving feedback. I didn't have to go and watch the whole take because we were in a very exclusive setting that they would only give to us for one day, this beautiful museum.

We did rehearsals and we talked about the whole scene, how it was going to pan out. The general rule for anyone in this film was that we're not making a comedy. We are living inside of a drama and everything is serious, and that's why it's going to be funny. You weren't allowed to go for a joke or try to make it seem like we knew that this was funny for the audience. It had to be extremely deadpan and take everything very seriously and try to play from the top of our intelligence and not go for anything easy or funny.

And I mean, if that situation were happening in real life on a professional set, you really have to act like nothing's happening.

Yeah, that was natural. Scandinavian society paired with the political correctness of the advertising industry. If she shows up with that horrific face, I don't think anyone would say anything. I think maybe you could whisper something, but you don't want to be the one who's like, "You look fucked up."

Can you tell me more about how Scandinavian culture played into this?

I think it's an interesting place with the main characters who are so competitive and narcissistic, because that isn't a typical Scandinavian trait. I think you're kind of conditioned to the tall poppy syndrome. You should blend in with the herd. Don't try to think that you're better than anyone else. If you grow up in America, you're told you can be president if you want to. And in Scandinavia you're told, "Don't even f*cking think that you can become president. Be normal, stand back, don't be naive. Don't be foolish."

I think just those characters are kind of extremes anywhere, but especially in a society like Norway because it's so unusual to try to grab everyone's attention all the time. I don't think the friend group knows how to tell them that you're being a loud, obnoxious narcissist. They're kind of just like, "Okay." We don't have the tools to cope with such behavior because it's so unusual. But maybe also, that's why it's intriguing to some of the friends to be around the chaos of these characters.

The characters themselves can't even admit it. They're doing everything they can to warp it and make it seem like they’re coming from a place of humility.

And also the couple, Thomas and Signe, they're kind of equal. Inside of their house, that's what's normal. I don't think they're noticing how unusual or extreme they are because they just accept each other. They've grown into this pattern of behavior that they don't even notice. It's white noise to them.

Something that I’m drawn to are “unlikable” protagonists. Ones who are kind of disgusting or they’re their own worst enemy. Is this something that you're also drawn to in the art that you take in?

Yeah, definitely. I think I've been fending for “unlikable” characters for most of my creative career. I kind of hate the word "unlikeable" because I have this feeling that people use likability as the barometer of quality. And if it's unlikable, that has something to do with the quality of the film, that you weren't able to write a likable character. I come to fiction often for thought murders. There's the Saul Bellow quote, "A thought murder a day keeps the psychiatrist away." I think the catharsis of fiction makes me a better person. I think that we should investigate our darker, more despicable sides in fiction so that we might keep them out of reality.

Also, we have a lot of negative feelings, negative traits, negative incentives. And it helps me to feel a little less alienated when I find these characters in fiction. I see that, “oh, someone's actually even worse than I am.” And it's like a bridge that makes me more connected to humanity. Because I think we're all somewhat corrupt. Everyone has unlikable traits in them.

Everyone can be a piece of sh*t.

Exactly. I've been so grateful for that type of honesty in fiction from other people, and I wanted to pay that forward.

I know that you're working on a project in the US. Is there anything you can say about that?

We wrapped in November of last year and it's in editing right now. It's a script I wrote, set in the US. Nicolas Cage plays the lead as a father and a husband and a professor who lives in a kind of beautiful suburb of Massachusetts. And then strange things start happening…

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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