“Thelma”: an Interview with Joachim Trier and Eili Harboe

Joachim Trier’s film “Thelma”, made with his long-term collaborators, writer Eskil Vogt, cinematographer Jakob Ihre and composer Ola Fløttum, marks a new development in the director’s career.

His usual powerful existential themes remain, but “Thelma” represents a departure in other ways, perhaps presaged by Trier’s previous work, “Louder than Bombs” (2015), which had starred Isabelle Huppert.

In “Thelma”, female characters come to the fore in a much stronger way, and existential dilemmas are, to some degree, eventually conquered; importantly, while Trier’s customary aesthetic formalism still reigns, and beautifully so, the playfulness around form has become more discreet. In this film, aesthetics, narrative form, and method, are unambiguously at the service of expressiveness, storytelling, and emotion.

“Thelma” has been called a supernatural horror story. While the film carries elements of both these genres, it is also a love story.

Trier has mentioned that he is more interested in internal struggles and allegory than blood and guts horror. Such struggles have been a recurring theme in all his films, across genres.

The French director Louis Malle has been a strong influence on Trier. Malle’s “Le Feu Follet” had been the inspiration for “Oslo, August 31”, and Trier has also mentioned in past interviews that Malle’s 1975 sci fi fantasy film, “Black Moon”, had some influence on the development of “Thelma”.

I met Joachim Trier and Eili Harboe, who interprets the role of Thelma, at the 2017 London Film Festival, and we discussed their approach to making this film.

NB: Eili, your character is really serene… I felt that whatever happens, she is a radiant icon, in a way. How did the two of you create this person?

EH: Joachim has a unique way of portraying humans with complex layered emotions of grief, and fear, and love. When I read the script, I just immediately fell in love in love with it. I think it is just so exciting, and I never anticipated what would happen on the next page. Thelma as a character is so complex; to me, she’s both vulnerable and strong. That complexity is very interesting and challenging. I had a lot of great conversations with Joachim through the whole process, both during auditions and through pre-production, but also shooting. We talked about the character, the story development. He always came up to me and asked me how I was doing and how I felt about the progress… and what direction we were heading in. And he is very open to suggestions. He is very constructive but also open-minded, empathetic in that sense.

NB: So, there was an evolution of the character throughout the process?

EH: I would say so, yeah.

JT: Eili added a lot to it and it came alive with her. I didn’t want it to be just a formal genre exercise. This counterpoint was always important to us. Also from writing, in our collaboration we were doing something with 200 CGI shots in the film, and Cinemascope lenses, quite a heavy process technically, but we always countered it with trying to keep it loose, with the performance. Like, try things. Also what happens, I get caught up, I have all these ideas that I share with Eili, then I go away, and I start preparing the shoot, and you (speaking to EH) went and did a lot of research. I don’t know if you want to talk about the seizure therapy thing?

EH: I went to seizure therapy, it’s mostly for people who have experienced something traumatic, but also to release tension and nervousness, and to be able to gather energy, for instance to go on stage – opera singers do it. It was very interesting. A lot of breathing and yoga exercises, and then you start this very rapid static shake, almost like when you work out you can feel your muscles’ tension and then it goes over to the psychosomatic system in your body, and those waves of shakes come in, like the ones that people suffering from epilepsy experience, that uncontrollable, very organic type of shake.

JT: Very impressive. As a director, I can’t direct the snakes, you know, someone cannot trick the snakes to do their thing. Some of the physical things you were doing were… I was trying to support you, but I couldn’t give you a word that would trigger a seizure. So I am very impressed with your ability to do these experiments, to try and find an expression, almost in terms of choreography…

NB :…And physical courage.

Trier has described an organic approach to developing his films. “Thelma” changed as a result of the research and collaborative process. Initially there was no lesbian love story – but when Trier and his co-writer Vogt were researching the medical aspects of the seizures, they were asked by a doctor if perhaps their main character was lesbian. Given the protagonist’s repressive home environment, her fitting episodes might have been a psychosomatic working out of family tensions. This provoked a radical change to the story.

Another aspect of the evolution of Trier’s work is the increasing sophistication of the characters’ emotional lives. There is a psychological complexity in “Thelma” which is far more apparent than in Trier’s previous films. This may have, in part, sprung from his work with Isabelle Huppert in “Louder than Bombs”. Trier has said that Huppert was not shy to say ‘Everyone, I need two minutes…’ – and what he learnt was to create a space, to support the actors in their emotional space, to let things happen and foster a sense of emotional availability.

A hallmark of Trier’s work is the set-piece structure of his films. He has very strong views about this – the in-between bits, what he calls ‘transportation scenes’, are wholly unnecessary. He thinks that a film must have as little plot as possible, and as much experience as possible – like Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, for example, or Brian de Palma.

NB: And you bookend those set pieces, by doing the sound equivalent of a jump cut? With the sound very often, there is that abrupt transition…

JT: Yeah (mimics sound effect) yeah, that thing, yeah (laughter). That’s just true. This comes from a different thing. I love formalism. I love Resnais, I love Don’t Look Now by Nicholas Roeg, I love montage, I love Eisenstein. I love the idea that film can be broken in pieces. I grew up with hip hop, the scratch and jump from one song to another. This is a stylistic thing, but it also makes you aware of the momentary quality. When I look at Spielberg, which is all about transparency and flow, I admire it tremendously, but that’s not how I am built. I admire it in others. And I need flow through sequences, but I like shifts. This is like talking about music. Some people like abrupt shifts, some people just like one field.

NB: Is there a significance to the way you use depth of field? When you use mid-shots or close up, it’s really shallow; and then when there are long shots, the purity of that depth of field is amazing. Actually, I even wonder how you do it.

JT: Yes, it’s something I think about a lot. Style develops intuitively, a way of seeing, feeling something. In our previous three films, Jakob Ihre (the DP) and myself, I think we do a lot of focus racking, between close and far away. And we shoot spheric lenses, 1:85.1 (note: aspect ratio) which is a very human framing, because you have hands, and space…
So, this one, we shot it with Cinemascope lenses, and Cinemascope lenses cannot do that close/far thing. It was hell! And it was beautiful at the same time. It forced us to change our language. Very, very tricky lenses. But: what you get is the glass of a 50mm, but the bending effect of a 25mm – you know. So what happens with scope lenses is that you can do these incredible deep focus situations, particularly in wide shots.
But a part of what I still enjoy, is to get the tactility of getting close to characters, so we had to think about how to combine those. I think, in this film, more than anything I’ve done, it’s not necessarily the dynamic within one set-up, but the dynamic between the objective perception of something, and the close intimacy with someone. That dynamic in this film is bigger than anything I’ve done.
Also, when editing – in the past I’ve had more homogeneous shots that match. Here, it’s very dynamic. Huge and small, huge and small.

NB: It’s so striking. Also, I really felt I got into the character, as a result of that approach, really deeply.

JT: I think Eili was very brave about being…(pauses). You know, some actors are very scared of the camera, and (to EH): you don’t seem to be. It’s interesting. I know two actors – I am not going to name them. One, every time on the first day of the shoot he goes and kisses the camera to make it his friend; and the other actor, always goes up the first day and has to do this ritual where he looks into the camera and says, “fuck you“. You got to decide how to approach it. And (to EH): I remember telling you this story and you said…

EH: “No, (I’ll) just ignore it.”

JT: “Ignore it” – it’s so natural for you. Very interesting.

NB: There are strong literacy references – or antecedents – in all your films, including this one, I think: Thelma, Norwegian princess? I could detect some themes… a novel by Marie Corelli… She was very popular, and famous at the end of the 19th Century.

JT: Corelli? I am not aware of her…

NB: Great! Well, she wrote a novel called Thelma, A Norwegian Princess.

JT:What? Here we go! (claps) I am learning something! (Laughter)

NB: Some of the themes in her work parallel the themes in the film, especially around religion, and superstition…

JT: Thank you for making me aware of that. Did you know this? (asks EH)

EH: No, I did not – very interesting.

JT: In which language did she write this?

NB: In English.

JT: In English. Wow… We’ll certainly go on Amazon and buy that… yeah!

You can read Kinoselect’s review of Thelma here, and find more about CinemaScope lenses here.


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