How Joachim Trier Made This Year's Coolest Queer Supernatural Thriller

In Thelma, a college freshman come to terms with her telekinetic powers—and her sexuality.
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In Thelma, a college freshman come to terms with her telekinetic powers—and her sexuality.
A scene from Thelma.

A scene from Thelma.

A bundled-up man carrying a hunting rifle urges his young daughter across a frozen lake toward a forest. Once they've made it to the other side, the pair stops on a snowbank among white-tipped trees so the man can load his gun. Soon, a small deer crosses their path; the girl is transfixed by the animal, and she waits for her father's bullet to pierce its skin. And, sure enough, her father's gun does point in its direction, at least at first. He quietly rotates the weapon, so the barrel faces the girl's own head. There is silence. The man seems to change his mind and, with the deer having escaped in the stillness, slings the gun once more over his shoulder.

So begins Thelma, the new film from Norwegian director Joachim Trier (Reprise; Oslo, August 31st; Louder Than Bombs). Released last week, Thelma has been selected as Norway's candidate for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars this year. In Thelma, the titular character (Eili Harboe) possesses powers that, even as she's grown later in the film to be a college freshman, she still doesn't fully understand. These powers are suppressed and feared by Thelma's rigidly Christian parents, who keep a close eye on her even during her first year away. Over the course of Thelma, the eponymous protagonist learns both the scope of her supernatural abilities and comes to terms with her sexuality, entering into a relationship with a friend, Anja (Kaya Wilkins), that is forbidden by her religion.

It's hardly groundbreaking for a supernatural thriller to double as a coming-of-age story about a woman coming to terms with her body and its place in the world—Carrie, Rosemary's Baby, and Prevenge all come immediately to mind. And, indeed, Thelma co-writer and director Joachim Trier does draw on some of these traditional "body horror" tropes, showing his protagonist's struggles to abandon her religious principles in favor of forbidden desires and abilities. That struggle leads her on a journey to self-acceptance. Thelma may be horrified by the changes happening within her, but she's modern enough to realize that her body ought to be accepted, rather than feared and repressed.

Thelma is thus a rare body-horror movie where a woman is in control. On Thursday, Pacific Standard spoke with Trier at his hotel in Los Angeles about portraying an empowered woman in horror, Thelma's allegorical elements, and how the LGBT community has reacted to the film so far.

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How did this film get started for you?

It started with Eskil [Vogt, Trier's co-writer] and myself wanting to liberate ourselves when we were writing. We had written three features together before and we come from drama and character, that kind of tradition. We wanted to try to create images of a different nature, something more nightmarish, horrific, and sinister. And then after a while at this point, we realized that we were discovering a character. And that's when the story really happened.

The core themes were very much, in the beginning, loss of control, repression, and self-acceptance. That's kind of doubling or tripling up in the story because [we included] the element of psychogenic epilepsy, the idea that you don't have control of your body; the internalized shame of being gay or lesbian that Thelma [feels]; and then feeling that [Thelma] cannot find a place of self-love and self-acceptance. On top of that, the supernatural element [brings] the idea of, what if our true will, true passions, and even those feelings that we can control are out of control?

Was it always going to be a supernatural thriller?

Yes, that [decision] came early. We wanted that feeling, that mood—we worked very much from that. And then sometimes, during a long period of writing, we realized the thematic focus. It took a while to know what we were doing. And we let a lot of spontaneity and things we couldn't control show up in the process. Ultimately, I think movies are made to show more than tell you something. What I mean by that distinction is to show something that you can interpret or fear rather than for me to try to say something from a distinct polemic viewpoint.

Writer/director Joachim Trier attends the 55th New York Film Festival on October 6th, 2017.

Writer/director Joachim Trier attends the 55th New York Film Festival on October 6th, 2017.

You've called this film "allegorical." Can you explain what you mean by that?

What I mean by that is that it's using supernatural elements and expressionistic images to express something which is hopefully humanly relatable. Allegory is when you show something that has meaning other than itself, so [the film is not about] just the thrills of a supernatural thing, but trying to illuminate a human moral dilemma or experience.

I'm inspired by the "jump-scare" horror film, where you have an antagonistic monster chasing a young, innocent woman around. I wanted Thelma to be an empowerment story, and therefore also be [Thelma's] internal struggle, where I was more riffing off films like Rosemary's Baby, which I think is a beautiful tale of a sense of suppression and patriarchal and parental control in a strange way. And also Season of the Witch by [George] Romero, where the idea of being the "other," being the witch, becomes an empowering position for a lady who doesn't know where she belongs anymore. I come from the punk subculture, and, in all my films, I'm rooting for what seems like the freak, or the outsider, and I think this is a version of that.

Right, there are so many great horror movies about living in the female body—I'm thinking of Carrie, Rosemary's Baby, and Prevenge, among others. Other than Rosemary's Baby, did any other films inspire this one?

I feel like, if you look at the two genre films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris and Stalker, they're both [also] dealing with the internal as a metaphysical concept. But also some of Stephen King's work and a lot of Japanese comic books. Ingmar Bergman [also] made these films that are very much about anxiety and claustrophobia that [were] inspiring, too, even though they're not in the supernatural-thriller genre.

A lot of horror films get their scares from women being stalked. But this film derives its horror from a woman being repressed. Were you intentionally subverting some horror tropes as you were making the film?

I'm a modern guy and grew up in a family of strong, feminist women, also quite politically so [in the case of] my mom. For me, it's so trite to do something that would uphold that kind of female-lead trope, it would just feel boring. I identify equally with men and women. I've done some films with characters who are self-destructive, but I felt that I wanted this [one] to be for young people to have some hope and some optimism at the end of the day. I don't want to give away the ending too much, but there is an ambivalence at the end about what exactly happened, and I think it leaves the audience space to interpret. Hopefully I'm not doing a cheap happy ending.

It didn't seem that way to me. On another note, it seemed that this film didn't seem to either endorse or redeem Christianity. How were you looking to portray religion?

Personally, I think the religious aspect is more a backdrop to the story than the theme, because I don't want to make a polemic against religion per se. But I'm an atheist and [while] I think that personal faith is something that I completely respect and understand, when religion—I'm not only talking about Christianity, but also in Norway several religions—is used as a suppressive mechanism particularly toward women, that's not cool at all. I get very provoked by that. And I went to some charismatic Christian churches, more extreme [in my research]. I spoke to some people and there are still—in modern, quite secular Norway—moments where gay people are being asked to abandon their passions to be "saved," because it's "sinful." I was motivated very strongly to sustain that element in the story, even though it wasn't the original point.

A scene from Thelma.

A scene from Thelma.

When Blue Is the Warmest Color came out in 2013, there was quite a bit of criticism about the way a straight, male director filmed two women in love. How did you approach filming a lesbian romance?

The same as I would with any romance. I try to put myself in their place and enjoy the beauty, the passion, the sensation, the rejection, all the stages that we're going through with these characters.

The idea of "body" in this film is part of the theme. So there's not a lot of erotic moments of nakedness, but there is one moment that was very important to the story, because the same body that has had these cramps and been suppressed is being enjoyed at the point. Without revealing too much to the readers, there is a feeling of fantasy through the whole thing. And it's like Thelma in an almost masochistic way is allowing herself to feel beautiful, to feel almost worshipped by the woman she loved. But I was very aware in shooting that scene that I wanted both actors to work with me on it—a collaboration. Even though I needed to work in a very strict, professional way, it was also important to me to [work with them]. So I felt we had a good collaboration.

I'm glad that I'm allowed to speak out on this, because at the end of that line of thought comes the premise that we are only allowed to do certain stories creatively, or we are restricted to experiences we've had ourselves, so we are not allowed to make stories about another gender or another age group or something. That's terrifying to me, because I want to be allowed to express freely different types of stories that I feel for.

Relatedly, I'm wondering what the reaction of the LGBT community has been so far to your film.

We've only released the film in Norway, and now it's rolling out everywhere else, in 96 countries. In Norway, the LGBTQ+ community has very much embraced the film, also because we had some suicides of some Christian queer people that experienced that kind of shame [that Thelma does] a few years ago. We read a lot about that at the time. So I think it's become a point of discussion, which is healthy and good.

What's really interesting [is that] we have, through Netflix, sold the film to over 90 countries, and some of those are countries that have censorship against these kinds of movies. Because Netflix in many parts of the world has no censorship, we've been able to be distributed in places in the Middle East that would be [otherwise] very conservative about it. We're very happy that this film can travel.

And this morning, I woke up in L.A. and actually had three phoner interviews with Russian press, and it's coming out in cinemas there. For some weird reason, this film has been allowed to show there. Maybe because it's perceived as a supernatural film—this is what's fun. In Russia, I was asking, "How will that be received?" and they were like "Fingers crossed." So this morning was great for me. Because maybe that subject won't matter most to the liberal pool, but for other people it can be more. So I'm curious about the Russian release.

I understand that Reprise, your first film, was distributed by Miramax.

Not that Miramax. I know where you're going—Miramax at that time was being run by a wonderful British man named Daniel Battsek, and by that time the Weinsteins had left the company, so I have no information or knowledge or any need to comment on it.

Has this been a conversation in your film sphere?

Yes, #MeToo has been a conversation in Norway. For me, it's super essential that actors feel safe. On set and in their lives, they should be treated, as everyone else, with complete respect, and everyone who fucks around with that, I would say a complete "fuck you" to them. Some of the people I admire the most in my life are actors that I've worked with–and how hard it is and how vulnerable you have to make yourself [to be an actor]. If somebody messes with that, they're messing with the art we love the most, cinema.

What's your next project?

I don't know! What I do know is that I'm finishing up a documentary with Karl Ove Knausgård, he asked my brother and me to do a documentary about Edvard Munch, the painter. He found some amazing late Munch that no one has ever seen, and I learned a lot of Munch [in the process].

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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