If you’ve seen Joachim Trier’s other movies, like Louder Than Bombs or Oslo, August 31st, you might not have expected him to make a horror movie about a young woman with superpowers. But the Norwegian director says Thelma is all about getting back to his fairy tale roots.
Out now in theaters, Thelma tells the story of a titular character coming to grips with sudden bouts of weird phenomena that start when she moves away from home. It’s a quiet, hauntingly awkward work, one that represents a fresh direction for Trier. When we spoke on the phone last week, Trier talked about how he wanted to come at a “person with powers” story a little differently and how his Scandinavian background figured into Thelma’s conception.
io9: Thelma carries some of the same beats as a superhero genre movie and almost feels like it could be an origin story for an X-Men character. Was it a conscious decision to try and tap into the current superhero moment through a different angle?
Trier: I grew up in Norway with a big fairy tale tradition and the fairy tales usually were parables or myths that you could relate to with human questioning. At the moment, we’re seeing a lot of these superhero movies that don’t really use the myth of empowerment for anything but thrills. And that’s fun as well. But, in the 70's and 80's, I grew up watching these films that had a more allegorical, human throughline. And I also grew up with a lot of Japanese cartoons and comic books. So, my feeling is that it’s possible to wrangle this genre into a corner where what’s going on [allegorically] is more identifiable.
You’ve also seen it in the mainstream. Parts of the first season of Heroes had moments that I thought were really kind of cool, with that sense of symbolism and discovery. Of course, Stephen King has been an important inspiration because, at his best, he makes humanly relatable tales. If you look at something like The Dead Zone, the David Cronenberg film that Stephen King wrote, it has that kind of tragedy of a man who, when touching people, can see their destiny. And that makes him incapable of having relationships. You notice it’s a sad and beautiful, human story, but, the supernatural element just becomes an expressionistic extra layer, rather than to just be a thing on its own. This kind of character-driven thing was something that I was interested in. Placing that film amongst these superhero-type movies, it’s just more fun for me. I think it’s the right moment to do a version of that. People are so concerned about bringing it into the discourse. “What can we do with these kinds of tales?”
The one thing I want out of current superhero movies is more tonal variation, and the way you use the natural world in Thelma fascinated me. Were you trying to invoke something primal—like witchcraft and fairy tales—in how you staged the character’s relationships with the natural world?
Trier: That’s exactly it. My previous film, Louder Than Bombs, was shot around New York with international actors. When I was talking about doing Thelma, a lot of people were saying, “well, you should do that in America, because America is the best place for genre movies.” Maybe they were right, but for me, my curiosity laid in the idea of trying to engulf and intertwine reality with genre elements. I wanted to see whether they could actually fit together, almost like an exercise to try something that I hadn’t seen before.
We had a tremendous list of CGI work we had to do on this film. Someone, early on, said to me, “Wow, you’re doing the Christopher Nolan-size amount of VFX but on a Norwegian budget.” We had quite a big Norwegian budget but it’s still nothing like a Hollywood film. It turns out that trying to get CGI to look completely naturalistic—like ice, glass, animals, fire—those are some of the hardest things to do. I really had to get the top Scandinavian post-production houses to work together. That was kind of a fun exercise, because it became sort of a metaphor for what we were trying to do with the whole film, which is do something that’s believable and is set in a reality you can identify, naturalistically, but then see if we can journey off onto a level where the world is larger than life.
It seems pretty obvious that Thelma can be read as a feminist empowerment story. But it also struck me as a tale of tragically misguided parenting. Even, after all was said and done, I felt bad for the parents. I felt bad for the dad. Can you talk about what you wanted to do, thematically, in terms of feminism, parenting and personal history?
Trier: It’s ultimately a tragic father/daughter tale, as well as a love story, as well as a coming of age story. We’re trying to do as many things at once, here. The father/daughter component, the idea of becoming autonomous and growing up, is something that all humans have to go through and very few parents feel that they get it right, you know? It’s tricky. Where we perhaps failed in genre terms but hopefully succeeded in drama terms was that we tried not to just create evil antagonists. We tried to kind of understand, the father figure in the film, to make what really happens ultimately more tragic and more horrific, I think horror stems from seeing something known and familiar made creepy and made alien to us.
So, a lot of the images in the film are about what Norwegians and Americans would perceive as idyllic situations —the family with the little baby, or the father/daughter walking in the woods, hunting—and they turn out very sinister. Growing up, I was a huge fan of what David Lynch does with Americana, and how he inverts those familiar images into a nightmare. We tried in our own Norwegian way to do [something similar] with our culture, that same idea of changing something familiar into the unfamiliar. I perceive it as an empowering story of a young woman coming into her full right of who she needs to be. But, at the same time, it’s also a tragic tale of the impossibility of parenting.
One of the most chilling things about the movie to me was the implication that women in Thelma’s family have been similarly empowered and similarly suppressed, maybe for centuries. Again, you were touching on witchcraft, and the idea that female power is a scary thing to men who can’t control it. I thought that was a really effective, subtle subplot there. The character of Thelma, herself, as a little girl, she seems like someone the audience is supposed to despise and be afraid of. While as a young woman, we’re definitely supposed to be more sympathetic towards her. Can you talk about balancing the character between those two poles?
Trier: I wanted to create a character that encapsulated that space you’re describing between sympathy and identification and hope. And on the other hand, the same character being scary and a creature and an alien to us. That’s kind of the pivot of the conflict in the story. It’s her own ambivalence about herself. And it’s ultimately a story about finding an acceptable way to be with yourself. So it’s an exaggeration of that monster that a human being could be. All the moral dilemmas, they’re taken into much more extreme situations than one would experience in reality. All the dilemmas are similar to what we all have to go through, growing up. Like trying to accept who we are and our passions, even though they may not be the things our parents wanted them to be. But the sympathy, yeah—I have sympathy for the child, as well. I don’t want to say too much to the people who read this who haven’t seen the film, but this was a more interesting monster to create than what we’ve seen in these kinds of films a lot of the time.
You’re using the word “monster”. I know how you mean it, but it could be taken the wrong way...
Trier: Yeah, I don’t mean it like she’s not a human. I mean it polemically. There’s something else at play. I’m very, very worried about repressive elements in our society at the moment. Religion can be misused or any social structure can be misused. I’m a guy who grew up with the disco, hip-hop and punk cultures, where an artistic spirit of trust was the essence of letting people be different. Letting the freaks be celebrated. And out of that came something beautiful. And this is a shout out to anyone who’s felt like a stranger or an outsider. There should be a place for everyone. And I know that sounds maybe trite to say in the context of a genre movie, but actually, that’s at the essence of the film for me. She’s a kind of beautiful freak, in a way.