Thelma's queer supernatural body horror and how to be a positive director

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Nov 10, 2017

Early into my conversation with Joachim Trier, I know things are going well. Or at least that Trier thinks my analysis about his new film, Thelma, is a solid soundbite for promotional purposes.

"I think you're right, that's well put," he says, lighting up. "That's what I'm going to say now, because I've had that question a lot, but I think with your statement there, that was good, you should write that. That's good."

Now to explain: People have compared his movie to the Stephen King/Brian De Palma classic Carrie, but I see it differently. The movie, about a young Norwegian woman (Eili Harboe) who begins to discover supernatural powers at the same time that repressed memories and emotions rebel against her body, does not depict an abused woman seeking vengeance. Bad things happen to those that mess with Thelma — including a creepy religious father — but it's more a function of her clearing a path to her true self, not mowing down everyone and anyone that hurt her. 

Thelma is a supernatural story that mixes elements Norwegian folk lore, Japanese manga (including Akira), and '70s body horror films. It's an eclectic mix fitting for the filmmaker, who has directed four very different movies, including the 2015 drama Louder than Bombs, his only English-language film. On a rainy afternoon in Manhattan that must have reminded him of home, Trier gave more insight into Thelma and answered some SYFY WIRE Survey questions about his career thus far.

 

There's a lot going on in this movie, with the political and supernatural and even some superhero elements.

The story is very much a story about repression and suppression and liberation and the loss of control, which we're all scared of but we're also yearning for. That ambivalence of us. So first the loss of control of the body and the cramps and then the loss of control of just falling in love with someone who you shouldn't be falling in love with. 'Thelma' comes from the Greek word 'Thelema.' Alice Decrawl, the occult writer wrote a lot about it, and it means 'true will,' really.

I think it was liberating for us as filmmakers, too. It was liberating for us because I was allowing myself to be doing visual type of imagery I've never done before, CGI, more fanatical things for the big screen. In this day and age, when everyone is saying you're not a real director until you develop a TV show. I was like f*** that, that's great too but can't we just also do feature films, is that cool? I love going to the movies.

Did you develop the rules of her transformation on your own, or was it a matter of taking from other mythos, mixing and matching?

We develop the rules as we went along, and we pick and mix. The idea of the horrific powers of the innocent child, we took a lot from manga, like Japanese comic books. Akira is a classical example of that sense of the adoration in the society of the child, in the culture. And the mythology of nature is a very much Norwegian fairy tale landscape. The idea of the city and the bourgeois life and its ambivalence to the woods and the creatures in the woods. The witches as seductive and beautiful yet dangerous. We were trying to do a modern feminist version of that with more of an empowering story rather than just the stigma towards the other, being the other and experiencing that with her.

Credit: Getty Images

What was the first script you ever wrote? Whether it was as a teenager or a film student, a first feature script.

First feature script after film school was Reprise, the first film that we made. I've never written a script that I haven't made. You know, I write for what I'm going to shoot. I've never written just to write. When I was a kid, I filmed. To me, it always started with a camera. I've filmed since I was a child. My parents were making film sound and my mother worked in documentary. My grandfather was a filmmaker, so I always filmed from before I could write with the Super 8 or animation films, stop motion.

To me, a script is a working tool. It's not something that I'm very skilled at. I write with a skill and we do it to create images, ultimately. That's our goal. He's a director too, even though I directed films that we write, he's directed a wonderful film called Blind, a feature film that he directed himself. A feature film a few years ago that won an award at Sundance.

What's the hardest scene you've ever had to shoot or write?

One of the toughest scenes I've ever done is the ending of Oslo, August 31st. It's a one shot that lasts for almost nine minutes. A complicated tracking shot around a house. There's a guy playing piano that's sticking a surge in his arm. It's ultimately about mortality and it's a very complicated scene and during the shooting we almost had to give up, but we couldn't give up because it was the end of the movie. We were sad and it was the first time really I'd killed a character that I'd written. That was tough, kind of beautiful and scary thing to do.

It took a whole day. One day of rehearsal and one day of shooting to get it. People had to move furniture around, it was a huge team, we had three boom operators sneaking in under the camera. It was very complicated. It was on a dolly. We didn't want the steadycam feeling, we wanted it to be sort of balanced, very measured and trapped, very slow, which is tricky.

 

What's the best creative advice you've ever received?

So many actually. I think a very good creative advice was given by Eric Skjoldborg who did the original Insomnia movie that Christopher Nolan remade. Eric met me a week into my first feature film. He said, "Okay, so here's the thing: when you have a bad day, forget it, when you have a good day, forget it." Every day is an important event when you do a feature film. You can't get bogged down if you carry your grief and if you're too celebratory, you'll get sloppy. So every day, try to start from scratch, start from zero.

Every film I've done, a few times during any process — during writing, during shooting, during editing — I've encountered the feeling of complete hopelessness. "This is not going to be interesting, this is not going to be good. I'm a complete failure." I've reached that point with everything I've done, and you've got to get over it. You also have the incredible experience of feeling like you're making a masterpiece and then that can cause this type of expectation inside as well of the next day. I just think that was the cleverest advice, just to stay eye on the ball at all times.

What's been your best day on set?

On Thelma, a film with 200 CGI shots and tons of extras and effects and all kinds of things, I was shooting a telephone conversation that Thelma has with her father. I had several angles and a camera on the father, on a soundstage in a different room, so I could cut between them. I was sitting watching a close up of the main actress, and she was so good.

She’s such a good actress, I knew I was going to end up staying in that close up for the whole scene, and that's what I did in the film. No cuts, several minutes I stay on her. I thought, that's what it's about, the surprise. Not that it's surprising that Elle Harboe is good, cause she's damn good as an actor already at a young age, but it was just like wow that this will carry. This is so pure and simple, that's great.

What's been your worst day on set?

When I was young and I was in film school, I made a lot of personal films with my friends, and suddenly I was having to train a big, big, big team with people with different expectations, when they weren't always there for the passion in my project. They were there as a job.

There's a pressure on you to perform and be a leader and all that stuff. Be a chief on set. I had to find my style and my comfortability with that. There was a day on the short film in the first year in film school, I thought I was playing a fake role. I wasn't myself and an actor was screaming at me that I was a bad director. I took him aside and said, "Okay I'm a failure. I don't feel great today either, you're probably right. What can I do to help you?" And he revealed that he was just scared and oh I can just be vulnerable to him as a director and be sensitive and not try to play a role and be myself. That’s much better as a work strategy. So learning that, so the worst days have been when you feel like you have to play a fake role.

It's kind of like parenting, you sort of have to hide what's going on and that's part of the job as well. Some days are s***ty, and you know you're going to lose shots, or it's raining when you need the sun. You've got to keep smiling. So a part of you have to learn to deal with that and have the faith and carry the faith for everyone, but at least do it in a human way. I've allowed myself to talk in front of the team and say, "listen everyone, I'm having a bit of a difficult time today because we're up against these challenges, but I believe we'll do it."

I think that's actually been a good experience. People are like okay, he's a human guy we're rooting for. You don't have to play the hero all the time or be the funniest or smartest as the director. Most of the time you have to be humble and be the clown, and take the pressure off situations.

What is your dream project as a filmmaker?

I think it's what I've been doing. I've always done the dream, that's why I make every script I write. The hardest thing is to figure out what you want to do. The moment you know, then a whole new set of troubles begin. in the writing room we have this rule: I'm not allowed to think production, because you're supposed to be this naïve idiot when you write. If we want snakes and fire and Thelma to levitate, you're not supposed to think, how the hell am I going to form all that? Then I jump the fence and I'm a director and then I start figuring that s*** out. You can't lower your ambition for practical reasons.

Who is your creative hero?

To mention a couple: Stanley Kubrick, because he's one of the people who wrestled the biggest machine, technically, in terms of technical and formal brilliance and efficiency and ability, yet his films are philosophically so provocative and so original and therefore I assume very personal to him. To then venture into these crazy big projects, time and time again that are all so different but also feel very much like him. That's ideal.

I also want to mention, in present day cinema, I really want to mention Martin Scorsese because he's been around for a while and he is, to me, the bridge to the past of the directors I admire today. Someone who has an amazing knowledge of cinematic history and the intimacies of cinematic language on a very, very high level.

With his generation, we're going to lose the bridge to the past in a way. It's important that we try to build new connections and that my generation, the new generation of filmmakers and critics keep watching the old movies and know where we're coming from and know the full history. But he's someone who has combination of knowledge of the past, yet cutting edge kind of aesthetics that he's pushing, even in the studio system, which is remarkable in this day and age. So I don't think we give the man enough praise. What an important film, historical figure he is.