It’s safe to say that Joachim Trier isn’t known for horror movies. His previous films Reprise, Louder than Bombs, and Oslo, August 31st earned him a reputation as a filmmaker with a knack for contemplative character dramas and subtle, soft-touch investigations of the human condition. For his latest film, Trier takes those qualities and funnels them into the realm of witchcraft and the supernatural with Thelma, another thoughtful character drama that boasts an added flourish of surrealism and sensuality thanks to the freedoms of working in the genre sphere.
Thelma stars Elli Harboe as the title character, a sheltered smalltown girl who heads off to the big city university in Oslo, where she soon starts experiencing terrifying seizures. At the same time, Thelma finds herself drawn to her gorgeous new friend Anja (Kaya Wilkins), and as their bond deepens, Thelma uncovers new truths about the dark supernatural nature of her newfound medical condition.
With Thelma now playing in theaters, I recently hopped on the phone with writer and director Joachim Trier to talk about his venture into the realm of genre filmmaking. We discussed discovering new imagery and storytelling techniques in the realm of the supernatural, the complicated relationship between Thelma and her father, the grueling performance from Ellie Harboe, how Thelma evolved into a queer love story, and more.
Collider: What was the appeal of jumping into genre for you, because you’ve mostly made straight character dramas.
TRIER: True. First of all, I will say the genre I’m doing here is “drama director out on a limb” genre. Or drama director trying something that he loves but hasn’t done before genre. I guess I grew up watching all kinds of films, and even though I’ve often been asked in interviews like this about my love for Stanley Kubrick, or Antonioni or Bergman, I actually also grew up loving people like Brian De Palma, or Dario Argento or Tony Scott. People who’ve done interesting human stories, but with different types of images. And I think we wanted to liberate ourselves a little bit from the expectations and what we’d done in the past, me and my team, because I’m still working with the same writer and editor and cinematographer I’ve done on the previous work. But we’re all trying to stretch our abilities a little bit here. So I think it’s liberating to allow ourselves, to answer your question, I think it was so liberating to allow ourselves to use different types of images.
We shot it on Cinemascope, we were able to do two hundred digital shots with fire, and snakes, and underwater sequences, and really try a lot of fun stuff. And it lead to more subconscious images. The effect … The writing process, you know. Images that are of a much more sinister nature than we’ve done in the past, and that was just … I think we needed to do this.
Did you find new challenges in trying to write a script with those kinds images instead of perhaps more straightforward ways you might be used to telling a story?
TRIER: Yes. It was challenging because we also wanted to do a suspense story. I’s much more of a plot-driven film in the past, and we didn’t want that to kill the thematic treatment of this coming of age story and this character story. So, it’s balancing the two. On one hand, do a naturalist, specific story of a human being, and relationships. Particularly, father-daughter relationship, but also the fact that she falls in love with another girl, which is challenging for her because she’s from a very conservative Christian background. And to make that truthful, and nuanced, and real, balanced with that kind of expressionistic, larger than life setting of these supernatural powers, and all these animals, and all these concept scenes.
And that was fun, but, sure, it was challenging, because very often when you write you find that plot kills thematic treatments. You’ve got to make the plot or the concept — it’s kind of a more high-concept story — becomes something that thematically locks you in. As an example, we don’t work with a monster here. The horror comes from within. It’s kind of a new take on the body horror film, because it’s actually her true will and her real wishes that start manifesting themselves in the world, that that is the horror. What if you had your deeper passions happen beyond your control? And that throws you into more of an existential story, than just a flash or a jump-scare kind of suspense story. And trying to find that balance was part of the interesting thing about this.
Yeah, and it is when you have a character whose desires are coming true outside of her control. It goes into interesting, tricky moral territory.
You really see that explored, and you mention this, the relationship with her father. Can you talk a little bit about coming up with that relationship and sort of your perspective on it? Because it was something me and my friends discussed a lot after we saw it.
TRIER: Thank you. Yeah, no, I think that I see this, and always saw it as a sort of tragic love story between a father and a daughter. And I think all humans, regardless of culture or gender, will have to deal with trying to reach some sense of autonomy in their life. That’s growing up. That’s the coming of age aspect. And I think that that throws into question the whole idea of how we perceive ourselves, and how … What are the conditions under which we have learned to accept and love ourselves? That’s an important theme. Or at least I care about that. So, that is the father-daughter story. Her double-bind. Her need to be validated by a dad who actually is a much more complicated relationship than she thought. And that’s an exaggeration of what we all in some version have to go through, I guess.
Can you talk about deciding to make it a queer love story? Was that something that was fundamental and there from the beginning? Or did that evolve?
TRIER: It actually wasn’t in the beginning, but as we were exploring psychogenic epilepsy, which is a true thing, not neurological, but more psychologically triggered epilepsy. We were doing a lot of research and talking to doctors, and one of the doctors … In the original story Thelma had a brother who was gay, and actually, the doctor asked us when we described just her character, “Oh why? Why does she have this? What is so suppressed in this girl’s life? Because my experience as a doctor,” he said, “Is that a lot of people who come from religion backgrounds … ” Out of the PNES, the psychogenic non-epileptic seizure group that he’s been treating, several of them were actually young women who were lesbian and had a difficult time coming out. And that caused this tremendous stress in their lives that caused these cramps. And so we were like, “Wow!” It was just … But then we focused the story, and it actually tracked much better when she was having that conflict with herself and her father. And that then became a driving force in the story.
When we write, people always think when the film’s done and the posters are hanging in the theaters that we had all this control over our creativity, but we really try to be open to what happens along the way. And most of the time I feel like I’m fumbling in the dark, just trying to create something that I find exciting or beautiful. And along the way stuff will stick that you care about. And you just expose yourself with that creative process. That’s my experience.
Yeah, so with that approach to creativity, how do you sort of know when you’ve got it? When you’ve got the right thing, and when your script is finished? Especially working as a part of a pair?