One of John Waters’s favorite movies of 2022, Sick of Myself possesses a distinctly American outlook despite being the creation of Norwegian filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli. Indeed, the ego-driven, crime-ladden pursuit for fame and recognition are as present in Sick of Myself as they are in many of American trash ambassador Waters’s films. “No, it’s not Female Trouble,” wrote Waters in his Artforum blurb of the film, “but it’s just as nuts,” and the film’s overtly American satirical edge has everything to do with his decision to relocate to Los Angeles several years ago.
Sick of Myself follows Signe (Kristine Thorp), a young woman living in Oslo and working a dull cafe job. One day, she witnesses a freak accident on the clock, prompting her to step in and help an incapacitated customer while everyone else stands around in shock. When medics arrive on the scene, she receives a pat on the back for being a good samaritan. As she walks home with someone else’s blood smeared across her white shirt, the concerned looks she receives from passerby make her realize that she desperately wants to be a victim. She begins taking a recalled Russian anxiety medication procured from the dark web, which causes her skin to swell, lacerate and ooze. Soon, her shocking appearance (and her affliction’s apparent lack of a cure) overshadows the work of her live-in artist boyfriend Thomas (Eirik Sæther), inciting a bitter struggle for pity, power and professional fulfillment between the two—especially when Signe is scouted for a European fashion brand’s growing roster of “inclusive” models.
Sick of Myself opens in theaters today, April 12, from Utopia Pictures. Over a Zoom call last week, Borgli spoke to me about how his previous shorts directly influenced this film, the Oslo art thieves whose case he closely followed during production and the process of scaling up to realize his first English-language feature script, the Nicolas Cage-starring Dream Scenario.
Filmmaker: Early on during the film’s development, you weren’t entirely sure if Sick of Myself would be made in the USA or Norway. What led to the decision to make this a fully Norwegian shoot, aside from the obvious answer of funding?
Borgli: Hah, exactly. I kind of randomly moved to LA because of seasonal depression in Norway, and because LA makes sense for a filmmaker. I didn’t really have any footing out here. I didn’t know where to go with an idea if I had one. So I was just thinking, “Let me start putting the idea together, and I’ll find an opportunity to support myself writing this—it could be US-based, it could be Norwegian.” It was just easier for me to get the Norwegian Film Institute on board. As soon as that decision was made, it started making sense to me. It started being obvious to me that living in LA while writing this movie impacted it, because I was writing this character who didn’t feel like she belonged in Norway. The influence from the environment around me here really did something to the story and to the character. The personal traits of her being hugely ambitious, opportunistic and maybe even a little bit of a narcissist were things I bumped into more frequently here than I did in Norway. But I think the combination made it interesting, though, because she’s more of an alien in Norway.
Filmmaker: How do you think it would have manifested differently had it been a US-specific shoot, and what has reception in Norway been like? You say the character feels like an alien among Norwegians, so I’m curious if that same satirical punch landed there.
Borgli: It’s just being released now, but I have been to at least two screenings here in the US, and I often hear, “I’m so her” or “She is so me.” I didn’t hear that as much in Norway. I think the film is maybe more relatable for an American person. So that’s interesting. I think that the parts that are exotic to a Norwegian audience are more familiar here, and both are kind of interesting elements to play with.
Filmmaker: A requisite level of self-awareness was definitely needed from the two lead characters. The actor who plays Signe’s artist boyfriend, Thomas, is an artist in his own right, and as an actress, Kristine Thorp must encounter a decent amount of self-absorption in the craft on a regular basis. How did you help shape these demanding performances with your actors? As far as you know, did they take inspiration from any other artists or individuals?
Borgli: Eirik [Sæther], who plays Thomas, has been a friend of mine for a decade or more. I think he functioned as a kind of a visual placeholder in my head when I was writing this [character], but I never thought to cast him. As you said, he’s not really an actor, he’s an artist. He makes sculptures and paintings. It wasn’t until I floated the idea [past him] that he just said, “Could you at least audition me?” I reluctantly said yes, because I wasn’t sure if he was gonna take piss out of me or the process, like it was a prank on me that I would let him even audition. But he took it very seriously, and he was so good, convincing and authentic. I think it’s because he has lived this life. He’s been at those gallery openings. He’s been at those dinners. I became so confident in him as Thomas. He has this speech during a dinner where he thanks his gallerist and all that. That’s something that he wrote, because he has done it so many times.
Filmmaker: I’m interested in what research you may have done on Munchausen’s or skin diseases for the development of Signe’s character and her ailment. Was there a specific case that intrigued or fascinated you?
Borgli: No, not really. It was a complete work of fiction inspired by a million little things. This is not about the skin disease, but an element of inspiration was the designer furniture thievery in the art world. That’s something that happened in Oslo that I got privy to. It was like a secret little niche part of the art world. There’s this little bohemian group who lived this fantastic life surrounded by great design, wine and everything that life has to offer. But instead of paying for it, they steal it all. These guys were caught when we were in production, and it became a major headline in Norway. It overlapped with production and the release of the movie to the point where there were news articles in Norway that said maybe the court case itself was a marketing ploy for the movie. That was maybe the only real story that I was following [at the time]. Walking into a hotel lobby during an event, picking up furniture and just leaving with it—this open daylight robbery that they could do. That was one of the elements that came after I decided to make the film Norwegian. I think it’s one of the very specific Norwegian things you can do: go for years without suspicion or fear of getting caught because of the politeness and trust we have for each other in Norway. That wouldn’t work in the US.
Aside from that, I was reading up on Munchausen’s to the point where that wasn’t interesting to me. The thing that made sense for me was getting a character motivated to that [level of] self-harm, which felt like it was dealing with a cultural moment to me. When I started writing this in 2017, it felt like the fashion industry was a clear example of inclusivity being the most important [cultural] element; we will bend over backwards for inclusivity. At the same time, there were a lot of stories that were really paying attention to marginalized people, to victims. Though there were good intentions, an economy formed around being a victim, being marginalized or looking differently. That’s what incentivized me to think that placed in the wrong hands, it could have a very fatalistic outcome. That’s what I was tracking with the movie, and the reality of that had to make sense. I tried to get the details of the fashion industry, like how they’re talking about inclusivity, but other than that I just felt free to come up with whatever was funny to me in the moment.
Filmmaker: You said you began developing this film in 2017, and it does feel like a natural expansion on a lot of your short film work. When Signe begins bleeding profusely and becomes really visibly ill but they’re still trying to make the shoot happen, that obviously reminded me of Former Cult Member Hears Music for the First Time. And the design of her skin disease felt very reminiscent of Eer. Even at the beginning when she’s walking around with the bloody shirt like it’s almost a badge of honor, it reminded me of that “open bleeding” concept in Eer as well. Did the process of making any of your shorts directly overlap with the making of Sick of Myself?
Borgli: Yeah, I think a lot of my short films come from impatience. The writing and development of this movie took so long, and it had so many great things that I just want to get out there. Then there are tangential ideas where, “Oh, save it for the movie” would be the normal process, but I saw opportunities to give them their own little lives. The Former Cult Member one, I think just seeing the chaos at the end of that, or when they’re trying to solve the situation there, made sense for that scene in Sick of Myself. I was learning how to make a feature from doing these short films. And Eer was actually made because of the process of making Sick of Myself.
I was developing prosthetic design with an American designer called Izzi Galindo. The pandemic hit, and the whole movie was paused for a full year, so I wanted to make something with prosthetics. Eer just grew out of the impatience with wanting to make something with body horror elements that tackles ailments and how we talk about diseases. It also was about my frustration of living in the US and not having healthcare, and how I was trying to shove the problem under the carpet and not look at it. I thought a visual version of that would be if I had this swollen, ugly ear that I refuse to talk about. At the same time, I was doing prosthetic design with Izzy for Sick of Myself. There was overlap with the ideas and they influenced each other.
I think I’m very comfortable with repeating ideas until they are perfected. I even tried a version of Sick of Myself in 2006 or seven. I made a music video about these young kids with horrific skin diseases. I just didn’t feel like I was done with the image or the theme of it, and then Sick of Myself was like the final form of that idea.
Filmmaker: I know that this isn’t your debut feature, but you’ve previously stated that you’re considering this to be your de facto debut. Can you elaborate on why this film feels more fully formed to you than Drib, your hybrid doc feature debut from 2017? Does it have anything to do with a move away from non-fiction?
Borgli: Maybe it’s kind of superficial to put these retrospective cosmetics over your resume, but Drib was very experimental, both in form and process. It’s not a pure fiction film; it’s not a movie, per se. It feels like a docu-fiction experiment. To me, it doesn’t feel like it meets the requirements of a movie format. It does something else, and it does some interesting things. Drib is an experiment more than a movie.
For a couple of years, they had this thing at the Norwegian Film Institute where you could apply [for funding] with a very vague idea. It was supposed to be process-oriented filmmaking, where the process and end result would overlap and culminate in whatever it needed to be. Drib was very much that. But I needed to do that; I needed to experiment. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do as a filmmaker. It felt like a good moment to do something kind of unhinged and strange. Then I landed back on the track of wanting to make movies that feel like movies. Some conventional elements are important to making a cohesive and coherent work of art that people can watch—in the same way that I love watching other movies.
Filmmaker: I also love your short The Loser, about you interviewing David Shields and Bret Easton Ellis. Now that you’re doing a decent amount of press, do you perceive the tables beginning to turn at all?
Borgli: Well, nobody has been as lousy of an interviewer as me [laughs].
Filmmaker: Give it time.
Borgli: That short was not planned at all [laughs]. I was talking to David Shields at the time, because I was a huge fan. He saw Drib and we talked about it over email and he was like, “I’m actually coming to LA.” I just called a friend of mine and said, “Get a camera. We’re meeting David Shields, let’s go.” I did not know that I was going to end up in Bret Easton Ellis’s apartment that day. It was a very improvised thing. But David Shields was in on it the whole time; Bret Easton Ellis was not. He did not know who I was or what I was doing in his apartment.
Funnily enough, I hadn’t talked to Brett since that day. I recently reached out to him and said, “Hey, I don’t know if you remember me. I was that weird guy in your apartment in 2017 or whatever. Since then, I made a movie, and I think maybe you’ll appreciate it.” He saw the movie and reached back and said really wonderful things about it, and I asked him if I could use it as a blurb. He said, “Yeah, go ahead.” So, one of the official blurbs is from Ellis. It was worth pretending—or maybe not pretending that much—to be an extremely awkward loser in front of him [laughs].
Filmmaker: Your next feature is a US-shot production starring Nicolas Cage, Michael Cera and Kate Berlant, among others, of course. What can you share about this project right now?
Borgli: They’ve been reluctant to share too much of the plot and what the movie is about, but it’s my first English-language script. Nic Cage plays a father, husband and professor in a Massachusetts suburb who’s leading a very unremarkable, normal life until very strange things start happening. He finds himself at the center of a strange phenomenon that will suddenly make him, for better or worse, really famous and infamous.
Filmmaker: Can you share how this shoot differed from Sick of Myself in terms of filming in the US with your English-language script?
Borgli: At one point, I wasn’t sure which movie was going to come first. I had both Sick of Myself and Dream Scenario, which is the title of the US movie, ready to go. They were both set up during the pandemic. It just happened to be Sick of Myself first. Benjamin Loeb, our DP, shot both of these movies. We really benefited from doing these movies back to back, getting really warmed up, ripped and ready to go. For what it’s worth, Sick of Myself was such a problem-free shoot. There were no major issues. It went really smoothly, there are no horror stories [laughs]. Scaling up and doing a much bigger movie, there were so many more moving pieces and bigger stakes.
I think that making a somewhat smaller movie in Norway first made a lot of sense. The process does feel very similar. When you’re making a movie in Norway, it’s the same as making a movie over in the US. It’s just that you have to go around all of these union rules. There are more rules and more money [in the US]. But in the end, it feels like what I’m doing is just looking at performances and trying to gauge a specific tone that I’m going for.
It was all very similar. I think it’s just when you think about it, you zoom out, suddenly see Nic Cage [and] go, “I’m making a movie with a legend.” What that means when it comes to placing yourself in the greater context of American movies, with a company like A24 that I’ve been really admiring. Ari Aster and Lars Knudsen being the producers. Meditating on those things is when you realize that it’s almost too good to be true. But the day to day on both projects just felt like what I’ve been doing for the last 15 years of my life.