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Talking 'Thelma' with Joachim Trier - Supernatural Lesbian Love in Norway

by Frank J. Avella
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Nov 17, 2017

The supernatural powers of a Norwegian girl manifest with a vengeance when she's suddenly attracted to a fellow student who also happens to be female in Joachim Trier's riveting thriller/love story, "Thelma."

This cinematic genre-mash up, written by Trier and Eskil Vogt, examines the disturbing dangers of repression and the explosive power of love.

Newcomer Eili Harboe plays the titular character with startling intensity and Kaya Wilkins excels as her confused crush.

Trier rose to directorial prominence a decade ago with "Reprise" and recently directed the powerful "Louder Than Bombs," his first English-language film, featuring Isabelle Huppert.

"Thelma" was selected as one of the Main Slate presentations at this year's New York Film Festival and is Norway's official Best Foreign Language Film entry. The film is in limited release in New York City and Toronto; it goes wider later this month and in December. For a list of openings, visit the film's website.

Eili Harboe in "Thelma."

EDGE spoke with Trier on the day of "Thelma"'s NYFF premiere.

EDGE: That opening scene is a provocative way to start the film. So many questions are immediately asked. Did you always have this scene in mind for the beginning?

Joaquim Trier: No, actually, the first scene that we came up with for the opening was a scene that comes later when Thelma is having her first seizure at University and some birds are flying into the windows and we start understanding that something is looming in the story, something is not quite as it should be. But then we realized that the core of the story was the tragic father-daughter relationship and the story of a young woman coming into an acceptance of herself and her autonomy. So we started exploring childhood imagery of Thelma's past and this idea of the opening came up.

I realize now the film, which has opened in Norway and done very well in the last few weeks, that (the opening) is a kind of perversion of the classical, idyllic Norwegian situation: the parent and child in the beautiful, vast winter landscape. But then there's that horrific thing we bring to the forefront-without revealing too much. In America you have these amazing directors like David Lynch and the way he uses all-American childhood, parent experiences, the white picket fence environment, and he brings it this unheimlish mood. Without actually being aware of it, supposedly in Norway, several people are triggered with anxiety by the fact that I'm taking these classical motifs of Norwegian happiness and perverting them. So I guess I'm doing something right.

Eili Harboe and Joachim Trier on the set of "Thelma." (Instagram)

EDGE: You are. It perverts what we're supposed to believe. What inspired you to write 'Thelma' and did you do so with a directorial eye?

Joaquim Trier: Yes. I think what was special about this one was that I was in the middle of doing 'Louder Than Bombs,' my previous film, in New York and I just really felt I had done three films in a row that had dealt with a more naturalist dramatic context in terms of genre and I felt, together with Eskil Vogt, the co-writer, we wanted to liberate ourselves and try to do something that was more in the vein of nightmare and subconscious imagery...

In our writing process we wanted to be inspired by different moods and different themes... Because we kept writing during pre-production and for financial reasons I had to storyboard big parts of the movie, because we had 200 CGI shots in it, I was able to use the visual aspect of drawing and bring that into the writing room with Eskil and look at images together, that I had come up with specifically, and let that influence the writing as well. That was an organic way of including the directorial eye, as you say, into the writing process. And Eskil Vogt is a director himself. He's directed feature films so we're sitting there together thinking very visually about how to approach the script and I think that's an inspiring starting point.

Eili Harboe and Kaya Wilkins in "Thelma."

EDGE: In terms of the story, I'm curious, what made you decide to explore repression via same-sex attraction?

Joaquim Trier: I think it's a shout out to anyone who has ever felt like a freak. Most people that I love, friends, have at some point in their life felt alienated, felt lost, not knowing how to accept who you are in regards to the context that your in -- particularly adolescence. This is a big theme for many of us. That we don't quite know how to belong or maybe the way we look at things is different from everyone else. This is a very human thing and, in this case, also a gay love story between two women. And in Norway, there haven't really been many films that deal with that.

EDGE: Did you run into any issues or pushback because of the subject matter?

Joaquim Trier: Well, now that the film has been released there is a discussion among religious people in Norway, particularly on the west coast where the parents in the film come from, about whether it's a realistic portrayal of Christians... I'm very happy to see that most Christians in Norway are now coming to terms with and accepting homosexuality, which is very important. But there are still some groups in the more extreme environments, what we call the bible belt on the west coast, that are very critical and unaccepting of people's choice of love which I just think is ridiculous and embarrassing and I'm happy to cause a stir in those environments. These things should be discussed and we should also make films for young people that have real themes for them. This one is bordering on almost a superhero story, a supernatural story, so I think it's okay to deal with serious subject matter even though you're doing it in genre context.

Eili Harboe in "Thelma."

EDGE: In terms of cinematic influences, beyond the obvious DePalma/'Carrie' comparisons, I was feeling Ingmar Bergman. Who are your influences?

Joaquim Trier: With this film I think I was able to explore a vast spectrum of influences. I come from a mixture of loving Stanley Kubrick and Brian DePalma and many people who did original things with genre on the one hand. But I also come from a love for Tarkovsky and Bergman's philosophical type of cinema. And Nicholas Roeg's 'Don't Look Now' is a great allegory. It's a ghost story, a supernatural occult story but also deals with real human characters. Thank you for bringing up Bergman. I will say the dynamics in terms of mise en scene for this film is between the intimacy that I've explored in the past, which is very inspired by people like Bergman, an almost claustrophobic intimacy, but this time countered with CinemaScope, a much wider lense, a much bigger special treatment, which is more in the DePalma vein. But I don't do these things consciously.

EDGE: How did you find your two leads, Eili Harboe and Kaya Wilkins?

Joaquim Trier: I saw hundreds of young actors for the role [of Thelma] and it became very clear that it was going to be Eili. She's able to go from [portraying] extreme emotions to very subtle naturalism... some genre films feel like porn movies where you're just using acting to get from one action sequence to the next. I wanted this to have that that dramatic nuance to it as well. And Eili brought that...[She] is only 22 and already has the kind of power in her to pull off this physically demanding, emotional role.

Kaya Wilkins is very exciting because she's a musician. She's never been in front of the camera. She came in and I talked with her about how she wrote songs and I encouraged her to try and think the same about this character, to draw on real experiences and allow herself to feel things. And, suddenly, great work came out of her. She found a strange way of aligning her musical sensibility and her songwriting sensibility to her acting. It was a great experience to work with her.

Eili Harboe in "Thelma."

EDGE: The film blends the deeply personal with the highly technical. How do you work with your actors to achieve the right balance?

Joaquim Trier: At the beginning, I try to get to know them and understand how I can help their specific process. We spend a lot of time together talking. Then we rehearse whatever we need to... very pragmatic. But then on set I try to support their process because they need to find the answers. And I think that if you cast right, the actors will bring something if you give them the freedom to explore.

I was very impressed with the intelligence of Eilie Harboe as someone who hasn't done many feature films, still having a savvy, smart way of approaching the day on set, because you always have time restrictions and we were doing very technically complicated shooting a lot of the time, and to find a way to sustain energy and to be in the right state of mind, to find the technique to go between these emotions.

I always try to stand close to the camera and close to the actors while we shoot and try to support them as much as I can. And try not to micro manage them. Sometimes I do jazz takes to try to give them an opportunity to loosen it and try something else or explore.

EDGE: How are you feeling being invited to take part in the New York Film Festival and having 'Thelma' selected as Norway's Oscar submission?

Joaquim Trier: I'm thrilled. The amazing thing I'm experiencing right at this moment is to have a film that was both at Fantastic Fest two weeks ago and playing the New York Film Festival tonight, a double experience I am so grateful for.

"Thelma" is in limited release in New York City and Toronto; it goes wider later this month and in December. For a list of openings, visit the film's website.

Watch the film's trailer.

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He is also a proud Dramatists Guild member and a recipient of a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship. He was awarded a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts, the 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and the Chesley/Bumbalo Foundation Playwright Award for his play Consent, which was also a 2012 semifinalist for the O'Neill. His play, Vatican Falls, took part in the 2017 Planet Connections Festivity and Frank was nominated for Outstanding Playwriting. Lured was a semifinalist for the 2018 O'Neill and received a 2018 Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant. Lured will premiere in 2018 in NYC and 2019 in Rome, Italy. LuredThePlay.com


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