Director Joachim Trier discusses Thelma, the dynamic between the subjective and objective gaze, portraying a dysfunctional father-daughter relationship, and the stylization of his first genre film. This is the second feature in our Special Issue on Thelma. Read the rest of the issue here.
Norwegian director Joachim Trier makes his genre film debut with Thelma, his fourth feature and his first to feature a female protagonist. Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a young woman from rural Norway who has moved to Oslo to pursue studies in biology at university. When she falls in love with a classmate, Anja (Kaya Wilkins), it awakens supernatural powers that had hitherto been held in check. Her religious upbringing and close relationship to her father (Henrik Rafaelson) means that she tries to suppress these feelings to disastrous effect.
We talked to director and co-writer Joachim Trier about the making of the film and collaborating with the team he’s worked with on all of his films, including his co-writer Eskil Vogt, cinematographer Jakob Ihre, editor Olivier Bugge Coutté, and sound designer Gisle Tveito. We also discussed the similarities between Thelma and his previous films — Reprise (2008), Oslo, August 31st (2011), and Louder Than Bombs (2015) — and the kinds of genre films he was inspired by.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you approach getting into Thelma’s interiority in the film? In your previous films, you often use montages. In Thelma, it’s more in the nightmares or what goes on as her powers are about to be evoked.
Joachim Trier: It’s a specific kind of mise en scène question about how I’m framing her, how I’m cutting around the different emotions. This is slightly more aligned with my approach in Oslo, August 31st than Reprise and Louder, which are more essayistic, more montage-driven: the presence of a character defines the frame in most of the situations, and there’s linear plot structure around them. The mystery becomes what they’re exposed to — the individual and the space.
I think what we’re playing with in movies, and how you create your vibe or style as a filmmaker, is your relationship and dynamic between the subjective and objective gaze in the movie. In this one, there’s quite a lot of the objective gaze, the all-knowing gaze from above — angles and situations that are not human eye-to-eye that I’ve done in the past. I think that element is a new thing for this one even though a lot of the scenes are very present and close-up driven dynamics of trying to feel and sense Thelma, and being drawn into her interior through that. A lot of that has to do with Eili [Harboe]. It’s about performance and positioning of camera and how we structure the cutting.
I also think there’s another element here that I haven’t done before which is that kind of gaze from another place. I only do it intuitively because I don’t have a language for it. There’s something new going on.'What we’re playing with is the dynamic between the subjective and objective gaze in the movie.'Click To Tweet
7R: Where did the idea for this ‘gaze from another place’, almost a bird’s eye view, in Thelma come from?
Joachim Trier: Thelma has a more dynamic mise en scène in terms of combining the extremities of claustrophobic subjectivity, or being close to the characters, and regarding them from afar, and being away almost in a paranoid perspective. The viewers are able to see more than Thelma in her surroundings.
The opening shot has the primary relationship of the father and daughter, walking on this vast space on the ice, the clear, frozen lake. There’s two things. One is the paranoid representation that we probably know from Alan J. Pakula and The Conversation by Coppola, this sort of bird’s eye look. You also have it in Hitchcock, almost like it’s pre-empting their destiny or their vulnerability: they’re just like little lambs in a big, vast space.
That also has an existential implication. It’s setting up the idea of destiny and randomness and the feeling of how small humans are in the eyes of a bigger perspective, in the eyes of time perhaps, or if you’re religious, in the eyes of another perspective bigger than humans.
I’m very inspired by filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick or Nicholas Roeg. It’s not only the shots of being from above, but it’s the perspective of looking at humans and their frailty, looking at them in a more philosophical way, not only identifying with them psychologically. I think that combination of the psychological and almost anthropological look at humans manifests itself in some of those shots.'THELMA's mise en scène combines claustrophobic subjectivity and an almost paranoid perspective.'Click To Tweet
7R: When I talked to Jakob Ihre, he said the locations you chose had a huge effect on how stylized the film ended up being on the spectrum from genre film to realist drama. In Oslo and Reprise, the backdrop of the city was really integral to character development. How did you think about locations having tonal or emotive force in Thelma?
Joachim Trier: I think Reprise and Oslo are about characters who inhabit spaces that are known to them. It’s a part of Oslo where they grew up. In Reprise, it’s almost inspired by I Vitelloni by Fellini. It’s like someone has to leave at the end. The departure away from home becomes an important dramaturgical thing. In Oslo, he revisits the places of his past, perhaps for the last time, is the feeling. Having inhabited these spaces, in those two films, is very important.
But in Thelma, I’m using Oslo as a completely new and alien world. Thelma comes from the west coast, from nature and the lakes and the woods, and into the city. I’m trying to look at this very ‘70s, almost brutalistic, concrete architecture that you have a lot in East Oslo and also at the university campus of Oslo University. I’m trying to use that for the monumentality that makes you humbled as a human. The spaces are less inviting, perhaps scarier, in this one. That’s part of the whole spirit of the film.Trier's 'gaze from another place' has 'existential implications... a feeling of how small humans are'.Click To Tweet
7R: How did the Oslo Opera House come into Thelma?
Joachim Trier: That’s kind of an exception in a way, isn’t it? But not quite an exception, perhaps. It’s a beautiful building. It’s brand new. We thought about it as a Hitchcockian: let’s use a landmark to do a suspense scene. I thought that building is really interesting. So we decided to create a suspense scene there.
But it also has a socio-cultural aspect to it. Anja comes from perhaps a more middle or upper-middle class Oslo family that would go to the opera as an experience. Thelma comes from the countryside and hasn’t had that experience. She’s feeling out of her depth. There’s pressure on her to perform correctly and to fit in. The film is very much about that: trying to find a place to belong. I think that space, culturally, was interesting to put up against Thelma as a character.'We thought about it as a Hitchcockian, 'let’s use a landmark to do a suspense scene.'' – TrierClick To Tweet
7R: Thelma’s relationship with her father feels like an expansion of the Jesse Eisenberg/Isabelle Huppert relationship in Louder Than Bombs. They’re both children who have a loving relationship with their parent, but it can also be so close that it’s destructive. How did you think about portraying that delicate balance between a relationship that’s genuinely loving but also abusive?
Joachim Trier: I think that’s a very good observation that you’re doing there. I’m very drawn to the big drama that all humans have to deal with, which is becoming an autonomous human being, which is almost impossible. We are so dependent on our past and so yearning to find a future. The drama in trying to negotiate, within a family, the release of a child from that care, upon which we are so dependent, is not only the fundamentals of psychoanalysis, but it’s also biblical, the idea of a father sacrificing a child.
I didn’t want to make the father just an evil antagonist. I’m trying to humanize him and understand him in Thelma. The way that he’s perceived in the film is very often, in the beginning, someone with a sense of control. He’s quite tall — Henrik, wonderful actor — and I’m letting him be tall.'I’m drawn to the drama everyone deals with: becoming an autonomous human which is almost impossible.'Click To Tweet
There’s a moment of tenderness very early in the film when Thelma confides that she finds the whole social context of university very challenging and difficult, and the father is comforting her. That’s the first time we see him sitting on a bed with Thelma. There’s this moment of intimacy. This scene, we tried to take it out at one point. It was one of the most radically bad decisions to try to remove it. We needed that tenderness. And then I realized that I’d shot him very much in control, except in that scene. To humanize him, also, creates a much, much tougher conflict because we then start identifying with Thelma’s need to be validated by him when ultimately, you know their destiny is different than that.
In Louder Than Bombs, it’s very clear that he [Jesse Eisenberg’s character] is going back and almost worshipping his mother through looking at these images from her past. So the mise en scène there is very much about separation and disconnectedness and longing to connect with someone that you’ve lost.
7R: There’s that scene where Thelma calls her father to confess, but she can’t confess the thing that she really wants to confess. There’s a physical separation between them. How did you think about shooting that scene?
Joachim Trier: That’s an interesting example of being aware of what you actually get and not what you had planned. I shot an angle on the father and one on Thelma with two cameras set up in the studio, so that one would be of Thelma calling from Oslo and one would be of the father in his bedroom on the West coast. We had both of those locations available on the same sound stage, and we shot simultaneous cameras. I would direct both of them, and the whole conversation was done on set, between them, at the same time.
Even though the father’s angle was remarkably well acted, when I saw the rushes, and also on set, I already had the feeling just to stay with Thelma and be in real time, and just see the development of that balancing act of not wanting to reveal how vulnerable and sad she is, at the same time, trying to negotiate, without him knowing, some sense of respect or closeness to him. The mise en scène was all about her performance. It was just about not cutting and staying with that one shot that lasts for quite a while in the film, several minutes, and just see a young actor be at her best, which ultimately, I think, can be very cinematic. I’m very, very proud of her performance.'We stay with that shot that lasts a while and see an actor at her best, which can be very cinematic.'Click To Tweet
7R: Jakob Ihre and Eskil Vogt both said that they thought the film was going to be a lot more stylized, and then it became less and less so. Were you able to explore new things because of the genre context?
Joachim Trier: I think it happened through the writing more than anything. I think we wanted to make much more of a giallo, bad taste B movie, with a pseudonym, some kind of liberating crazy film we never would have allowed ourselves to do in the past. But then we care too much about human stories and characters so we ended up making a family story again.
I think good stylization is when you, afterwards, remember images, but you didn’t really think they were too flashy when you were perceiving them. I like beauty. I like things to be elegant. I wanted this to be an elegant film. It has a lot of complicated grip work and camera movements. It’s shot in cinemascope.
Art always needs contrast. You need to contrast the control and stylization with the wind and the trees. I wanted there to be that balance. I feel that some directors who get very much in control can almost make films that feel like they’re in a vacuum. There’s not enough wind in the trees. Someone that I admire very much, like David Fincher, has great control over his work. But I also see, sometimes, in his films, that he’s less interested in tactile elements of wind and earth and how the texture of things are varied in the world. His textures are very slick. That’s his art.
I’m different. I want there to be more of a smell to what I do than he does.'We wanted to make more of a crazy B movie we never would have allowed ourselves to do in the past.'Click To Tweet
7R: It’s interesting you’re talking about the sound of wind and trees. A lot of the complexity in the sound design of Oslo and Louder Than Bombs came from the subjective soundscapes, like Anders in the cafe, or Conrad when he goes into a daydream at school. But sound in Thelma seems a bit more there for creating mood.
Joachim Trier: I wanted it to have a strong sense of otherness, even though the images are specifically places you can recognize or identify as real. I wanted the sound to bring us into that other world.
I worked with Gisle Tveito. He’s done all four films. He’s a wonderful sound designer. We wanted this one to be louder and more engulfing, more extreme. It has much more music. We have the romantic scoring of Ola Fløttum again, which is more orchestral, more classical. Then we have a lot of drones and synth scapes and all kinds of things created between several other composers. But a lot of that drone work and those sound-scapey things are made by Gisle Tveito himself. He’s also a brilliant musician on the side.'I wanted a strong sense of otherness, even though the images are places you can recognize as real.'Click To Tweet
7R: Jakob Ihre mentioned that sound would sometimes guide the camera movement. How did you think about sound throughout the whole filmmaking process?
Joachim Trier: My father is a sound designer. He’s retired now. But I grew up with feeling the importance of sound. A lot of directors don’t think about sound. You see the films, and you feel it’s very random or very conventional. I think sound is a great opportunity to emphasize an element in an image that goes beyond what the eye immediately appreciates or looks for to create a bigger picture with sound.