A few years ago, no one would have pointed to Norwegian director Joachim Trier as a likely candidate to make a lesbian coming-of-age superhero fairy tale. His previous films, including 2015’s Louder Than Bombs and 2011’s Oslo, August 31st, are serious dramas about people dealing with death and disappointment. They’re naturalistic films about lives gone wrong. But his latest, Thelma, takes similar themes in a different direction. It’s a dreamy, shocking fantasy about a young college student discovering she has mysterious powers. Her ultra-conservative parents want to repress them, and Thelma herself (played by Eili Harboe) doesn’t know what to do with them, especially when they spiral out of control. There’s a strong sense of erotic compulsion to her abilities, which activate when she starts falling for a fellow student, a young woman who both encourages and frightens her. And there’s a powerful sensuality to the film, as Thelma explores her own power. I recently talked to Trier, who co-wrote and directed Thelma, about its genre-hopping take on magic and metaphor, about trying to handle blockbuster special effects on an indie budget, and about why women’s sexuality is so often portrayed as some sort of dangerous superpower.
In America, Thelma has been referred to as a horror story, a fairy tale, and a superhero movie. Do any of those labels particularly fit for you?
Yes and no! I mean, the whole fun of this film is that we are trying to combine our curiosity and my passion from my upbringing, growing up the ‘80s with a lot of synthesizer soundtracks and Stephen King books and films of that nature. I tried to do all that as a modern drama, the liberating story of a young woman who tries to find a way to exist, to accept herself and become autonomous. Which is kind of a classical tale. So we’re trying to do many things at once. And looking from the inside, creating something, you don’t really know how to label your work. I’m just hoping that people will respond to it. So I’m open to any label people bring up! It’s cool with me!
You make a good point about this being a classic tale. Traditionally, a lot of these dark fairy-tale awakening stories revolve around female sexuality being powerful and scary and out of control. Why do you think this genre is so specifically focused on women?
I was speaking to someone earlier today who was doing a feminist podcast on horror films. And I was asking the same question! Because traditionally, a lot of the most interesting psychologically ambiguous pieces of horror cinema have been surrounding female characters. If you look at Roman Polanski’s work, or [Lucio] Fulci and something like A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, these are strange internal journeys. And even if you look at literary traditions, very often the vulnerability of female writers and characters have contributed tremendously to a tradition of storytelling that has dealt with much more complex sides to emotionality and sexuality. But unfortunately, some of the films that we look back on, in the ‘70s for example, were old-fashioned in their approach to the female body. You fall into the trap of them being more exploitative. I’m riffing off some of the best themes. Something like Rosemary’s Baby or George A. Romero’s Season of the Witch are feminist fables. I’m trying to do a modern empowerment tale of a young person while riffing off some of those classical traditional tropes from horror movies.
What about the superhero aspect of the film? I assume Denmark isn’t as obsessed with superheroes as America is right now. What’s the superhero scene like there?
I’m half Danish, half Norwegian, which is confusing, and the film was shot in Norwegian. So Wim Wenders said in the ‘80s that America has colonized our subconscious. I grew up with a lot of superhero stories and comic books, primarily from America, but also from Japan. You know, manga and anime. We’re quite familiar with that tradition in Scandinavia as well. But part of the motivation for this story was to see if instead of being critical of the superhero idea, we could do something modern and relevant, that was relatable to a young audience in a Norwegian reality that they could recognize themselves in. A lot of superhero movies are so stylized, and they’re not very concerned with moral or existential themes at all. At best, they can be, but it’s quite rare. So I thought that was kind of fun. Any creative person can take a form and try to fill it with something of their own.
The same goes for folklore. The Scandinavian countries have such a strong folklore tradition, and this feels like it fits into that while being very modern at the same time.
Yeah, that’s a very relevant question. The thing about Norwegian fairy tales and folklore traditions is that they were word-of-mouth stories that are written down in the 1800s, when Norway was very Protestant and virtuous and in the cities, very bourgeois. So there’s a lot of this sort of Protestant moralizing where supposedly, many of the stories of witches and woods and nature characters are now presented as evil and dangerous, whereas they were actually more heroic in the original verbal renditions of the story. It’s a balancing act in these tales, between accepting otherness, accepting the freak and the outsider, or stigmatizing them. And I’m very certain which side I fall on. I come from punk and disco. I want there to be a great space for humans to exist in, with possibilities of difference. So you’re right, we’re also drawing on that mythology of the animals and the woods, and the ambivalent relationships Scandinavians — and Americans, I presume — have toward the divide between city and nature, and culture and the wild. The id and the superego, having to accept and come to terms with our nature, in a culture of rationality. So this story is very much about loss of control, and the experience of that.
We’re seeing a lot of studies right now that show that women are much more vulnerable to external and internal judgment. They’re more likely to have their right to speak and be heard questioned, they’re more likely to get imposter syndrome. Is that also part of wanting to make this a story about a woman trying to define herself?
Honestly, I think all my characters have been in a place of vulnerability. More than anything, I think that comes from my curiosities about that human space of vulnerability, both in male and female characters. If you look at Oslo, August 31st, some people are comparing that to Thelma, even though that film is the very naturalistic story of an ex-junkie. But it’s also about the space of extreme disconnectedness. The lack of belonging. A journey to find the place to be yourself, when you don’t know how to accept yourself. That goes beyond gender to me. This time, it felt appropriate to do a story of a young woman. I can’t say for Americans, but in Scandinavia, most of the stories about gay love are about men. I was very happy to see this film embraced in Norway because it’s a story of female homosexuality.
This is much more of a tense, suspense-oriented thriller than anything you’ve directed before. How did you approach the filmmaking differently with the genre in mind?
I wanted to use the genre to liberate ourselves from the virtues that it had to be just human interaction. I really wanted it to be filled with setpieces. My previous films have had a lot of conceptual montage scenes, or jumping between time layers to try to express feelings or mental states. But here, we really got to let go and play with ice and fire and water, and all these elements that are so tactile and physical when you experience them in a movie. I got to be very childish, riffing off Hitchcock’s idea of using a landmark to create a suspense scene, for the hell of it. We used the Oslo Opera House, which has become internationally renowned for its architecture, and created a suspense scene there. There’s something liberating about using genre to access more subconscious ideas, more physical, nightmarish situations.
But you did end up with an obligation to go much deeper into special effects than you have before. Was that a challenge for you?
We have something like 200 CGI shots in the film. A lot of the Marvel films have incredibly impressive and expensive VFX work, but a lot of it is more stylized. That’s the style they chose, but that’s more stylized than we wanted. I come from being a fan of [Andrei] Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick, and the idea that the tactile, physical world plays a large role in a movie. The CGI had to match that idea. I hadn’t realized that some of the most difficult things to do are glass and animals and fire, all the stuff we’re actually doing. My VFX supervisor said at some point, “Listen, you’re trying to do a Christopher Nolan film on a Norwegian budget, so we’d better get the best people we can on board.” So we actually went around and pitched all our conceptual effects scenes to the biggest post-production houses in Scandinavia, and made deals with all of them that they could contribute, almost to make show reel pieces, to collectively prove what we could do in the Nordic countries. I’m incredibly grateful for that. So we had, by Norwegian standards, a big budget, but what we wanted to achieve was even more expensive than that. So that was a learning process, of how hard it is to do things that look natural. But these people were good.
Some of the movie’s most harrowing scenes are the underwater sequences, where Thelma is trapped in the pool, or disappears into the darkness of the water. How did you approach those shots?
Well, first of all, we have an amazing actress in the middle of it. Eili Harboe is a great dramatic actor already, at age 22. I find her to be very skilled and incredibly talented. But she was also very brave. She did underwater training because she wanted to do her own stunts. That was hours and hours of water tanks with stunt divers, and all kinds of crazy shit. Lighting the water was damn complicated. But here’s the thing: My principle when I make movies is that in the writing room, I forget that I’m the director. I dream, and I’m naïve, and I find the child in me. And then, stupid person that I am, I have to figure out how to actually put it on the screen afterward. That can be a harrowing process. But I learned so much on this film. It’s always fun to create images that are new for you, that you haven’t done before. That’s one of the most rewarding parts of making movies. There was a lot of that in this one. I hope the audience likes it. I know we’re stretching it between philosophical drama and a B-movie horror film, but that’s liberating. That’s what’s fun about it for me. So I hope people will accept that I tried.