Director Joachim Trier isn’t exactly one to rest on his laurels. He has spent the best part of the past decade cultivating a brilliant, introspective body of work, with naturalistic dramas, Reprise, Oslo, August 31st and most recently, his English language debut Louder Than Bombs.
His latest feature marks a significant change in tone, shifting gears to supernatural thriller territory. Drawing on the influences of Brian De Palma and the Giallo films of Dario Argento, Thelma paints an unsettling portrait of a shy young student who leaves her religious family to study in Oslo.
While adjusting to her new life, Thelma experiences a violent seizure, which appears to be symptomatic of inexplicable, often dangerous, supernatural abilities. She soon finds herself drawn towards another girl and, conflicted by her emotions, is eventually confronted with the tragic secrets of her past and the terrifying implications of her powers.
It’s a brilliantly unsettling affair and one that makes for a gripping addition to Trier’s already fascinating filmography. Paul Weedon caught up with the director at the London Film Festival to discuss his work on the film and his musical influences, as well as his short-lived skateboarding career.
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This is obviously a very different film for you. Was the supernatural something you’d always been keen to explore?
Yeah. I think so. I grew up in the eighties and listened to a lot of synth music… That whole very seductive, larger than life type of cinema felt liberating to try our hand on because we’d done three films that I felt are very different but they are in a more natural world… There was something liberating about doing Thelma. We could access different images and different situations that were more subconscious and more intuitive, and that felt freeing.
On the other hand, I didn’t want to do a monster chase or slasher film. I wanted to do more of an allegorical film about a human situation and, in this instance, the liberation of a young woman who tries to find acceptance in herself and who she is, but also in her very strict parents. And I was also really interested in doing something romantic.
Was there a particular image that served as a starting point?
Yeah, there were a lot of scenes. We just brainstormed and came up with cinematic moments that we wanted to do, almost like an album. You start with songs and then you start piecing it together… One of the early things that came to mind was the idea of a young woman, shy, starting at university, wanting to connect with other people, but having the humiliation of having this seizure and the birds crashing in to the window and the audience understanding that, first of all she lost control and secondly, what is going on outside? What’s the connection? And we went from there.
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I was trying to second-guess who your cinematic inspirations were. The obvious comparison is De Palma and Carrie. Am I right in thinking that there are shades of Dario Argento in there?
Sure. Argento – not in the sense that his films are explicitly gory, but the way he shoots and cuts. He’s a formalist on a very high level and I think that’s a big inspiration. And of course, Don’t Look Now by Nicolas Roeg is a big inspiration, not in the specifics of the plot or the story, but just that spirit of doing philosophical horror movies, where you can think about the human condition and time. I love Don’t Look Now.
The score feels more in line with those kinds of films too.
Something that I discovered before I started work on the film a few years ago, was that it felt very odd to be listening to Tangerine Dream, or all these eighties movie soundtracks. But by the time we came to edit Thelma, it felt like a lot of people were riffing off that kind of thing. Stranger Things had arrived and a lot of things had happened in the meantime… I felt like I was more inspired by more romantic soundtracks – Bernard Herrman and Hitchcock and actually, the retro eighties element wasn’t so prominent after all. But inspiration is inspiration. You’d never want to copy anything.
This is the fourth time you’ve worked with your writing partner, Eskil Vogt. It must be a massive creative asset to have a shorthand with a writer like that.
Absolutely. He’s the starting point. We always start off with the blank page and go through a few weeks where we do no writing and just talk about movies and just watch films… For this one, we sat down and started watching films every night. Our girlfriends were going mad because they had to sit through fifty bad Italian Giallo movies. We’d take away like fifty each. I saw so much crazy shit, man.
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Inspiration is inspiration. You’d never want to copy anything.
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And Giallo isn’t exactly easy going.
Yeah. And a lot of them are so sadistic and it also made me realise something. Yes, there is a sadism to Thelma, but it’s not about exposing Thelma – as a female body – to being victimised. That was something I didn’t want to do. Yes, it’s painful, it’s complicated and it’s a sinister story, but we wanted to be on her side. That was important to us.
There’s a great tradition of religion and horror going hand-in-hand with one another. Your depiction of Thelma’s parents is quite sympathetic, in a way. They’re strict, but not fanatical. Was that something you were keen to avoid?
Yes, I guess. I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in God, but I respect faith. I think the world is mysterious, which is perhaps exactly why I’m sceptical of certain forms of religion, but what I primarily played with as a plot point was this idea that religion can be misused in society or in a family. And I will always be on the side of liberal freedoms to the individual – to allow yourself to be who you want to be and to love who you want to love… Amongst many things, I’m also a disco DJ… Disco was always misrepresented as one of those marginalised groups in the 70s, and disco was all about liberation… These attitudes inform you as an artist. So when I deal with conservative religion, sure, I have a clear view about it, but again, the film is not made to nag at religion.
It’s interesting how that’s informed your perspective as a storyteller.
[Laughs]. I don’t know if it’s relevant… I have a club in Oslo [Trier’s club is called Noble Dancer] and we just had Egyptian Lover, the old LA electro legend, play our club with us. And right now, I think music is big part of what I do.
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Are you interested in combining the two interests – music and film?
The problem is sometimes they just become biopics, and they’re rarely interesting. Control was a film that I really enjoyed because it used that culture and time and character as a sort of backdrop to tell a larger story about love and individuality and a time and a place… I think we all love the indirect music film. If you look at someone like Martin Scorsese, one of the best musical films ever made is Goodfellas – the way that he interweaves different musical pieces to create montages.
It’s a masterpiece.
Yeah. I can watch it again and again. It’s fantastic. It’s really one of the best. So in terms of that, yeah, to do something… I don’t know if I want to do a disco film, but I’m interested in that kind of… When you write this, put ‘soul disco’ because people will misunderstand it…
It’s nothing to do with ‘disco sucks’.
The disco sucks movement in America in the 70s was reactionary, white hillbillies who wanted radio stations to play rock and it had slight sub-currents of racism. I’m completely pro-disco, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the soul roots, because I’m so happy that, even in Norway, I grew up with a father who was so in to jazz and soul. I grew up listening to that music.
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Moroder took that sensitivity and turned it in to dance music.
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It’s funny. We spoke to Moroder briefly a few years back and asked him how that affected him and he just replied, “What disco sucks era?”
Ah, great. Fuck ‘em. Yeah. That’s wonderful. Moroder is actually the tie-in, connection for what we discussed previously – the synth culture in Europe – progressive European 70s synth music… Goblin, who made all the music for Argento, their lead guy, Claudio Simonetti, is a genius. Moroder took that sensitivity and turned it in to dance music.
Touching on DJing, it’s always kind of fascinating to hear about what film directors do when they’re not tied up with the day job.
Yeah and I’m also doing a documentary on the side here at the same time with Karl Ove Knausgård, the Norwegian writer who wrote My Struggle – this hugely internationally successful novel, and he invited me to do a documentary about Edvard Munch, the painter, about the late phase of his life where a lot of people didn’t think he did anything interesting because he wasn’t ‘rock star’ anymore, but actually he did some of his most important work. So yeah, I’m inspired by different kinds of art. I’m not an expert on art at all and I learned a lot. It’s intriguing.
Is there something you’re keen to explore next? Is there a genre you’re keen to tap in to?
We don’t know yet. We’re just finishing the documentary. I haven’t had the chance to sit down with Eskil again and write, but I’m optimistic that we’ll find something good. And it might be different again, but it was fun to do something erotic and dark, so let’s see what happens.
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Thelma featured more CGI shots than you’ve ever dealt with before, right?
Yeah. 200 CGI shots.
Was that quite an intimidating prospect – working with that many CGI shots?
Yes and no… It was daunting, but I like a challenge. That was part of the fun – trying to use CGI creatively in an artful way with our tastes in our style… Since we were inspired by things like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby – things that are more tangible – the texture and tactility of it. That was challenging because we were dealing with animals and flames and water and glass, which are some of the hardest things to do well.
There’s a scene involving fire towards the end of the film that, without spoiling anything, is pretty unsettling. Was that particularly challenging to shoot?
Yeah. There were many, many layers in that one. One of the hardest things to do in CGI are flames and one of the hardest things for a stuntman to do is to burn. We had both and it was fun. But I’m an old skateboarder – I’ve had people break their arm in front of me holding a camera – but they wanted to jump down that staircase. In this case, I’m asking a professional stunt teams who’ve done this before to do it and the responsibility is removed from the director, yet if anyone got hurt on the set, I would feel terribly responsible.
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That was part of the fun – trying to use CGI creatively in an artful way...
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It’s funny you mention your skateboarding background. There’s a fair a bit of old footage of your skateboarding days online…
[Trier winces] Baggy pants, huh? [Laughs].
Do you still dabble?
I don’t, but I still have a board. I feel like I’m almost breaking my neck every time I make movies, so why not do it on wheels again? But I haven’t had time I guess is the fair answer… I’m worried about hurting myself. And you will get hurt.
Even before I skateboarded and while I skateboarded as a kid, I jumped out of windows and buildings and tried to make parachutes. I’ve broken both my arms, my leg, three of my ribs, I’ve had three concussions. I was an idiot as a kid. So I guess I grew up a bit and realised that a broken arm will be terribly impractical and painful. I guess I wimped out a bit…
I really miss that physical component in my life. On sets, I’m on my feet. I stand next to the camera, so it becomes a physical thing – not in the same way as skating, but I’m in to the tracking shots and the movements. Maybe on some level that comes from that background.
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Thelma is in UK cinemas now.
Words: Paul Weedon // @Twotafkap
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