Interview: Joachim Trier, Kaya Wilkins and Eili Harboe on “Thelma”

Imagine there is such a power with which you can make anything possible? When I am saying anything, I mean – absolutely anything. But the question is, how far one with such an ability can go in order to take advantage of something inexplicable? That’s right! That’s what I am talking about…

Thelma (Eili Harboe) collapses in the reading class. The first suspicion was epilepsy. That, however, did not find solid ground to be proven. Then, the doctors continue their research to find the cause of Thelma’s mysterious illness. In the meantime, Thelma meets Anja (Kaya Wilkins) from school with whom she develops a special bond. They not only develop a friendship but even fall for each other. But is it true love or another inexplicable illness which causes such obsession is something Thelma is yet to figure out.

What is interesting though is how Joachim Trier decides to narrate the film with such complex storyline, but in a very simple way. This is why having Joachim Trier and the cast of “Thelma”(Eili Harboe as Thelma and Kaya Wilkins as Anja) joined a roundtable during the Toronto International Film Festival had  significantly helped to shed some light on a process of creating “Thelma” and how the journey itself started in the first place.

MOVIEMOVESME: There are so many ways of telling a story. There are many superpowers, and then there is the power to make whatever you want to happen. I would like to ask you to talk about that choice.

Joachim Trier: Yes. I realized I wanted to do a film that had that supernatural element. And, mind you, it was starting in a place when two guys – Eskil Vogt and myself – were sitting there, and we had done more naturalist dramas before – three movies. So, we were curious to explore something that had access to different type of imagination, a different type of visuality. And we have always been such big fans of horror. Though, horror is such a difficult term right now, because it’s always blood and guts these days, and jumpy. And I love some of those films, but it’s not what I was curious about. So, how can we make a horror story about an internal struggle – a dramatic struggle within someone. And slowly this idea rose about the will – the idea of a will, or a suppressed passion or something deep within that threw the character into a sort of a moral conflict, or an existential conflict – who am I really? in dramatic terms, that’s the inner conflict that I’ve been interested in previous films, but here it was made into a horror nightmare – what if you can’t really be free to meet another, and how that other person will be affected by you – this kind of a narcissistic nightmare. I think, that’s how it arose. And when we make movies we want to achieve some sort of an aesthetic authority to lead the audience – to show specific images, to make them feel things. So people presume that you have a lot of control when you make a movie – you must know why you made everything. And it’s not the case. A lot of the time when we work, we explore something and we discover something else, And in this case I’ve been trying to be quite open to a lot of intuitive choices, particularly, on the fundamental creative level of writing. How some of these scenes were just experiences of nightmarish nature: loss of control of the body, loss of control in a relationship. So, it’s the internal humanist horror story or something. That’s what we ended up trying to explore here.

MOVIEMOVESME: What changed then throughout the filmmaking process? Can you talk about that? And following your instinct. What was there on the paper when you began that you had to remove or what did you add that you discovered?

Joachim Trier: It was a long process of writing, actually. The story… And we haven’t spoken so much about this. We’ve just started to talk about this film’s early days after the film is made. It used to be like a witch story of two elderly ladies in Oslo and Thelma looking for a place to stay, and like the relationships of generations of women. And then, for some reason, the whole thing started changing. And the character Anja arrived in the story, and I realized at the end of the day that the old witches were just substitutes for a parent – child dynamics that I wanted to explore with superpowers – in lack of a better word you shouldn’t  just write superpowers – but whatever mystery thing happens that Thelma goes through. Put that into a relationship of a sad, kind of a tragic love story that takes place between a father and a daughter. And that changed the whole dynamic around but the character stayed the same and then Anja was brought in and it kinda snapped into place.

And the same story – I was doing this strange kind of exploration, going to churches of this charismatic type of Christianity, which is quite rare in Norway. These characters in the film were not like the old witches, obviously neither would  be the case in Canada or America. But you have these groups of people that subscribe to very extreme, almost fundamental Christian values, right? So I was exploring that, and on the other hand, I was reading all these occult books – about witchcraft through Norwegian history and fairytales. And those two things kind of started blending in a strange way.

MOVIEMOVESME: I am curious about the trust. Because your characters have to trust each other immensely, and you have to trust in your director too. How did you find that place off-set as well to be able to trust in each other, to be able to kind of formulate that level of being in a safe space?

Kaya Wilkins: It was created for us for a full month of prep. The three of us were hanging out together and talking about the movie, and talking about things that are emotional.

MOVIEMOVESME: You didn’t actually know each other before this?

Kaya Wilkins: No.

Eili Harboe: I had met Joachim a couple of times briefly.

Joachim Trier: I had seen Eili in a few roles in the films that she had done and thought she was a star already. I didn’t understand why she wasn’t booked in any lead already. So, when we did Thelma, I went through the strange process of meeting hundreds of girls but I kind of knew – now we meet Eili and it was immediately (decided).

Eili Harboe: Yeah. I was a great admirer of Joachim’s work and I got to know that he is a very great and genuine person as well. We had a very nice dialogue throughout the whole process.

MOVIEMOVESME: I am actually very interested about Thelma’s character. She is very open with her father, even during the phone conversation with her he says “you can tell me anything you want to tell.” But there is one thing – one detail she hides, and that’s Anja. So I would like you to talk about the relationship as you were discussing this with Joachim and Kaya. The dynamic of the relationship with the father before Anja and then after.

Eili Harboe: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. We worked a lot on the phone conversation after Thelma comes to her apartment after the scene at the opera.

Joachim Trier: after the kiss, right? It’s that conversation.  

Eili Harboe: That was one of the scenes I did during the audition. So I had some ideas myself but I felt like that scene was very complicated because she is talking about something and being emotional about that but really it’s something else in her mind, occupying her thoughts and that’s the love she feels for Anja and the confusion about that and the disappointment in herself. But also her parents previously being her moral guidance in life and then suddenly she feels like she is disappointing them in a way also. So, it’s very conflicted in her life going on. And we talked a lot about it.

MOVIEMOVESME: You say that there’s a conflict in the relationship with the parents but it’s  understandable as well because she makes her little brother disappear and that’s where the things come from. You are very young and this is a very challenging role, and I wonder what have you done in your mind to explore that further.

Eili Harboe: It’s interesting. Definitely, it’s a great script. I loved it from the beginning. I felt very excited about it and also challenged by it, of course. And I think Thelma as a character and the whole story is very defined in the script. Sometimes it’s a lot of confusion about how to make a script come alive on set, but I felt like this was the best starting point in my experience. So, in my mind, I feel like the parents are also coming from a place of love and concern, but just on a deeper level. And in some ways they use religion as an excuse and up until the point where her parents actually tell her what has happened in her past – the thing about her brother and everything – it’s been suppressed in her, and I think that’s what the whole movie is about. That’s something she goes through life – suppressing, and it comes up in different ways. Then, realizing what she has done when the parents tell her.

Joachim Trier: Just to comment on it. I think that the whole theme here is – i dealt with stories about memories and identity – and this is a new take on it. The horror of the suppressed memories. I think you described it very well. That’s the whole thing. So, we talked about what you know and what you don’t know at a given point and what was important.

MOVIEMOVESME: “Thelma” is not just about superpower, it’s also about love. But it’s also a different way of love here. Anja seems like she likes Thelma but, again, it’s because Thelma makes her do that. I know, it could be mutual. But I’d like you to talk about that part of Anja and what do you think is it her wanting to be with Thelma or is it just the power?

Joachim Trier: These questions are very relevant. But I think these are the questions that we don’t want the audience to have an answer to.

Kaya Wilkkns: It’s like when you mentioned the narcissist nightmare. That is the question being raised. We don’t know if her power is to make people love her. But then, again, is that a power that’s actually real?

Joachim Trier: Exactly! Can we do that or can’t we? Have you ever felt some strange dynamic between yourself, where what’s happening is there’s some transference of a need you have that you draw someone into? Or is it just purely two people meeting. Very clean and resolved – these individuals and just love arrives coincidently. I don’t think so.

MOVIEMOVESME: I was wondering how you approached into getting into Thelma’s interiority in the film. A lot of time in your previous films how you get there is you end up with these big montages, and I feel like that it exists here but it is more in the form of nightmares or her powers. But about what was inside her head – what was your approach on that?

Joachim Trier: It’s a very relevant question about this film. And it’s a mise-en-scene question about how I’m framing her, how I’m cutting around the different emotions. And I guess it’s slightly aligned with my approach in ‘Oslo, August 31st’, than ‘Reprise’ and ‘Louder’ (‘Louder than Bombs’).  Those two are more are more essayistic, in a way they are more montage-driven, where it’s the presence of a character that kind of defines the frames in most of the situations, and have more of a linear plot structure around them. Where the mystery becomes what they are exposed to, an individual space. Those two films are more similar like that. I approached this very much like a character story. Sorry for being too academic about it, but I know you are a film expert, so I know you care about this, so I’m going to be honest. I think how you create your vibe or style as a filmmaker is your relationship and dynamic between the subjective and the objective gaze in the movie. And in this one there’s a lot of objectified gaze in the movie – the kind of all-knowing gaze from above,  kind of angles and situations that are not human eye to eye like I’ve done in the past. I think that element is a new thing for this one. Even though a lot of scenes are very present and close-up driven dynamics, trying to feel and sense of Thelma, and being drawn into the interior through that, but I think a lot of that has to do with Eili. To be very frank – it’s about performance and positioning of camera, and how we structure the cutting. But I also think there is another element here I haven’t done before, which is that kind of a gaze from another place.

I am also thinking about the way of the pacing and the cutting. It gets more intense – there’s a lot more quick flashes, and even the back story that we get in the flash-backs comes in quick.

Joachim Trier: But that’s the musicality, that’s the composition, that’s the most fun about filmmaking. Exactly that – sitting with the writer, being with the cinematographer, working with the editor, trying to structure, then try and test, put music and sounds. It’s like playing with having your hands in there, doing it – the actual creation of the image and sound. That’s the kick for me. That’s like this essence of it. It’s the hardest to talk about but intuitively, the most personal thing you do.


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