The fitness influencer has become its own branch of celebrity and Sweat director Magnus von Horn knew that going into his second feature. Well, not enough to know it would make good movie. Before starting production, the polish filmmaker was fascinated by an Instagram fitness influencer who would share every bit about her life with total strangers over an app. At first he watched with disturbed fascination. Then he questioned his own reaction.
That exploration led to writing a screenplay, which then led to the brilliant casting of Magdalena Kolesnik. Fresh from drama school, Koleśnik plays a fitness influencer struggling to connect and find balance with the outside world. Both von Horn and Koleśnik brilliantly explore what’s it like to be on the other side of a parasocial relationship in the digital age. I got to sit down with both director and actor to chat about Sweat’s philosophy and the true emotions that emerge while working out.
I just watched Sweat yesterday and was very much blown away. It’s such an intimate portrayal of a social media influencer who struggles to connect with everyday people in her life. Magnus, talk to me a little bit about how that dichotomy came about, somebody who is so good at connecting with somebody over the screen, but then just cannot form intimate relationships in their own life.
Magnus von Horn: For me it was never in the beginning about wanting to prove something or to make a film about some kind of idea about social media that I have. That would be something you know, like “Oh, she has so many followers, but she has no one in her private life.” It becomes a punchline that is maybe used to market the film in a way, but in the beginning it was never important to me. It was more about my own fascination with an influencer I started following maybe five years ago and the access she gave me to her private life or what she wanted to show and share, which was a lot and a lot of normal everyday things. That kind of got me hooked, but I was also very judgmental in the beginning and thought it was very shallow and I was quite provoked by it, but I kept coming back and kept watching for more.
I wondered, “Why do I have this reaction? Why can’t I just embrace her? Be as happy as she is? Why do I have to sit and kind of quietly criticize her and think that what she does is silly.” I felt that was a problem in me and it was something I wanted to kind of overcome in a way. I thought that could maybe be similar to someone watching the film, or I felt like it was a process for me. And I was thinking that maybe in a film, it can be similar for an audience who start watching a film with an influencer and during the course of the film, we change our relationship to her because we get to know her more and we see the human being. I think that was the beginning, but then it took many different turns and I’m not going to say it was so articulate and aware as I’m saying it now, back then it was a much more intuitive process.
Social media seems to becoming the focus of so many films now. The health and fitness influencer seems to be that is sort of an area that film hasn’t really touched upon yet. Obviously you have films like Eighth Grade, which explores social media through the lens of the middle schooler. And then you also have Mainstream which just came out with Andrew Garfield. Why do you think that this topic is attracting so many filmmakers now?
MVH: When I started writing Sweat, I was thinking just the opposite, like why aren’t more filmmakers doing films about this? That was also a reason in the beginning because this was some years ago, it was not yesterday. Social media is everywhere and was everywhere yet it was difficult to find a film that would portray it in a serious way or use it in a serious way. It was always a gimmicky kind of a way or conceptual way, or some elevated horror or very stereotypical way of portraying it or to prove a point or moral. I never thought that was interesting or it doesn’t interest me in general in life. What is interesting is to take something that I think causes so many emotional reactions in people. You can you just say influencer and people already have a reaction. So it’s good material to put in a film because it’s kind of it self serves. The audience is very good at filling the gaps and making the story and what it’s about themselves. The film doesn’t need to do that for them because the audience already has so many ideas and feelings about social media and influencers. At least to me, why it’s interesting to put on the screen.
Magdalena, you play said influencer, and I found it really interesting that you didn’t have much of a social media presence before making the film. Talk to me a little bit about diving into that world and that year process that you took in order to play Sylwia.
Magdalena Koleśnik: It was my task to work on social media because, in the beginning, I was not able to play this character because I didn’t have a presence on Instagram and I knew nothing about it. I wasn’t natural in recording myself because it was so artificial for me. So my work was to do it every day, lots of videos and to fight with my ambitions. I wanted to record very interesting movies, short movies, and it took me whole days to do it. And then I realized that it’s impossible and that showing something normal is also sufficient and it could be interesting. For me, it was also my private fight with a thing that I don’t like about myself – my ambition,
Is there anything about doing that every single day that you learned about yourself besides kind of fighting with your ambition? Is there anything that you like didn’t like about the social media world?
MK: Social media is, for me, a quite dangerous field because when I post something, I realized that I’m checking how many likes I have. It began to be an ego trip. So for me it’s quite dangerous. It’s so pleasant to have all these likes and comments and to be the center of attention. Is it the most important thing for me to have those likes? I prefer to just like myself without those likes. I think there’s quite a dark side of Instagram for me, for sure.
And we see that a little bit in the film. You look like you’re having so much fun during the workout scenes. Talk to me a little bit about how those routines came about and what the training was like for you.
MK: I worked mostly with weights because that’s how you could build muscles. That’s the quickest way to change your body into toned and muscled. So I was working with kettle bells and first it was so boring for me, doing these simple movements, but then I found very interesting things in it. Small details if I wanted to improve my techniques and also emotions started to appear during workouts and very deep emotions even. Emotions lives in the body and when you have a hard workout, you somehow wake it up. It happens many times I was crying or screaming or something like that. So it was really interesting.
That scene when you’re working out with your personal trainer and you let out this yell of emotion, was that real you or did you channel that from past work outs?
MK: It was real because it was so hard! My trainer put on so many weights and it was really hard to do it. But also I had an image or memory in my head of my experience of how my workouts looked like. So you never know how it will flow through your body and how you will act sometimes. It was honest and also it was kind of controlled.
For both of you, what is one thing that you hope the audience takes away from watching Sweat?
MK: I didn’t think about it during the process. It appeared after shooting, not long time ago. For me, it’s about responsibility that we as viewers have. When we follow this kind of person who shares intimate things from her life, in this case, it’s about my responsibility as a viewer. What I want to do with this, fragile content with this figure with this human being. Do I want to judge her or just treat her very gentle? I think that it’s the most important thing for me that I would want to tell with this movie, like to focus on us as the viewer on this responsibility.
MVH: Well, I agree with Magdalena. I hope it’s just very simple, that you really like Sylwia in the last scene. I think it’s great if you can just connect to her emotion at the last scene. It’s takes place on a morning show sofa. Sylwia is all dressed in pink. There’s going to be fitness. There’s so many kinds of things we need to get past, but when we get past these things, these kind of artificial things, there’s a true emotion there. And I think if we can just connect to that for a moment, then it’s great.
MK: Also maybe that you’re a superhero when you are just you. No matter if you, in this moment, if you’re the best version of yourself. You are more of a superhero when you are not in super mode, when you are just normal. That it’s a courage to be normal, to be vulnerable, to be just normal.
Sweat is available in select theaters and coming to the independent movie app Mubi soon. Watch the trailer below. Read our review here.