Eili Harboe in "Thelma"

Interview: Joachim Trier & Eskil Vogt on Finding Their Power in “Thelma”

Joachim Trier looked practically giddy when taking the stage at the Toronto Film Festival to present “Thelma.” Granted, on an occasion like this, it’s nearly impossible to find Trier when he isn’t ebullient, eager to engage with an audience after a screening because of his boundless curiosity about what they will ask and delighted to expound on the minutiae of the production, giving credit where it’s due, whether it’s to his tight-knit group of collaborators such as cinematographer Jakob Ihre, composer Ola Flottum, and editor Olivier Bugge Coutté who have worked on all four of his films, or to the many influences he draws on, which in the case of “Thelma,” not only included Dario Argento and Brian DePalma, but Japanese manga and synth music. He was equally excited to introduce Eili Harboe, the star of the film, goading her to do the spiderwalk from “The Exorcist” that helped convince him the relatively unknown actress was right for the part after he found out they were both huge fans of the William Friedkin classic. (Undaunted by doing this publicly, the broad grin that crept across Harboe’s face before flinging her arms over her head as she leaned back to crawl across the stage suggested she was just waiting to be asked.)

While there wasn’t a marked difference in Trier’s demeanor from two years prior when he was at the festival with “Louder Than Bombs,” Trier wasn’t shy about acknowledging that these were happier times. Although he clearly remains proud of the film, the Norwegian filmmaker hadn’t expected in making a drama about the emotional ripples of the death of a war photographer on her family back home that he’d being going to war himself, having financing fall through at the last minute on his English-language debut. The project eventually got back on track, receiving mixed reviews when it premiered at Cannes, but in the time between, he was lured back to Oslo with the promise of doing “something fun” with his longtime co-writer Eskil Vogt.

“We were watching a lot of revenge movies, finding that “John Wick” was quite a good film, and thinking about all the people who stood in our way,” Vogt told me recently, with a laugh. “They didn’t kill our dog, but we felt close to that in the beginning.”

For the writing-directing duo known for their sensitivity in crafting characters plagued with self-doubt, “Death Wish” was likely never in the cards for their next project. (Still, the attraction to the genre isn’t as unexpected as one would think — well after they began collaborating together, Trier and Vogt realized they were once two out of three people in the audience for the same matinee of Beat Takashi’s yakuza flick “Sonatine” when it played at Oslo’s Cinemateket.) Yet “Thelma,” the resulting thriller, is a righteous act in any number of ways, telling of a college freshman (Harboe) exposed to a whole new world on campus after growing up in a strict religious household. Plagued with what seem like epileptic seizures, Thelma only gingerly comes into her own after meeting a fellow student named Anja (Kaya Wilkins, a singer/songwriter in her first film role), and the two have an instant connection that neither can really explain. Also inexplicable are the the strange events that begin to happen when Thelma’s around, particularly when they start appearing to be extensions of her feelings at the time.

As in Trier and Vogt’s previous collaborations, “Thelma” is structured around set-pieces the way other directors build blockbusters, only instead of fiery explosions, they use emotional epiphanies. Although they’ve flirted with the metaphysical before, “Thelma” takes things a step further, with the duo making their heroine’s struggle to gain control over her power as a woman manifesting itself into the ability to make the Oslo Opera House tremble and in witnessing her realization of what she’s capable of, it feels as if Trier and Vogt were invigorated by the opportunity to push their own limits. Now that the film has hit American shores, recently named Norway’s official entry to this year’s foreign language Oscar race, Trier and Vogt were in Los Angeles for “Thelma”’s premiere at AFI Fest and spoke about making a film on their own terms that was a departure from what they had done before, finding locations they could build the story around, and reflecting on the 10th anniversary of their first film together “Reprise.”

Eili Harboe in "Thelma"Eskil, is it true this all started because you were in a mood for revenge?

Eskil Vogt: In the beginning, we had more of a revenge/horror thing in our heads. We watched a lot of Italian giallo films, but what we wanted was to feel the kind of freedom that you could have in a genre film. That if you went in that direction, instead of making more intimate dramas, you get the possibilities to be more stylized, more visual and to play with musical parts of cinema, like building suspense over time and the things that are not literary in cinema. We love that kind of stuff, so we started with that — nightmarish images, thinking that we were going to make a horror movie and it became less and less of a horror movie and a revenge thing and it became more like this hybrid. don’t know what you call it – a supernatural drama – but I hope it has that cinematic visual aspect of it that we wanted to explore.

Joachim Trier: This is the weird [thing] — we’re making a film about liberation and this girl that’s liberating herself, and it was liberating for us because we suddenly were not abiding to the virtual rules of drama. Between you and me, we never did anyway. We [would] do montages and flying off sequences anyway, but even more so this time, we were just allowed to do more visually oriented cinema. It has less dialogue than anything I’ve done. We had a suspense mechanism running throughout it [with] the supernatural story, and we could do set-pieces. We could be underwater, we could do things with snakes and animals and let our imagination just run free – and that felt liberating.

One of the signatures of your work thus far has been what I’ve heard Joachim call “micro-ballad” – these montages of images where you tell of a personal history…

Eskil Vogt: Actually in “Thelma,” we had as a point of departure not to do that as much. We wanted to explore being more present in the now of the film, which is requisite for suspense in a way, to be more in the moment and building more chronologically. At the other end of the spectrum, you have “Reprise” and “Louder Than Bombs,” [where] the now is kind of fragile. It makes for very interesting cinema, exploring the interior thoughts of the characters and it’s also about time, which I think is one of the main themes of cinema. It’s almost impossible to make a movie that’s not about time, so in many of our movies, we’ve invented or explored ways of doing that, of giving insight to characters and we’ve made a lot of movies about passive protagonists — that you’re not supposed to do [laughs] and then we have to find cinematic ways to make that interesting. That’s where [those montages] come in and in “Thelma,” a little bit like “Oslo, August 31st,” even though that has two or three sequences like that, [we wanted] to be with the character in the present much more. When we break up the time of the film — I’m not talking about the flashbacks, but moments like when [Thelma’s] in bed and you feel like she’s thinking about the other girl and then suddenly she appears outside of the apartment, it’s more about her supernatural abilities. It’s another kind of logic to us. So in a perverse way, we were limiting ourselves, but then I feel that we found other stuff that was interesting and by doing that, we were stretching a bit as moviemakers and expanding our grammar a bit.

Joachim Trier: What I admire in film history are directors like Stanley Kubrick, who would do different genres, and every time he would bring his own personal view of the world into it. That’s incredibly inspiring for our generation. If you look at Howard Hawks, he would do a western or screwball and he would do it his way. There’s no thematic continuation going on. So that was important, but having said that, we have an incredibly rich and very cool tradition of jump scare, gory horror going on right now and that’s not what we wanted to do [either]. We were looking back to more to something like “Rosemary’s Baby” [which if] you would screen it today, wouldn’t be considered a horror film anymore, even though it was considered that back then. We’re riffing on more of a classical sense of a slow build up [with] a human story at the core and then on top of that comes that expressionistic layer of the supernatural.

Kaya Wilkins in "Thelma"Joachim mentioned in Toronto how important it was for Thelma’s powers to be ‎both good and evil. How did you figure out what her abilities would be?

Joachim Trier: It’s a witch story in a strange way, even though it’s not about necessarily black cats or flying on broomsticks. But it has this element of identifying with the other, this stigmatized part, the woman with the powers that we so often have seen maltreated both in reality and fiction and trying to be over her shoulder and experience something with her. That was exciting [to us] and [the idea was] if you trust people, they will ultimately be able to do more good than if you distrust them. Some people have taken that as a political allegory at the moment, but…so be it. I don’t think the repressive nature of that family dynamic is very healthy.

Eskil Vogt: The exact nature of her powers didn’t come in the very beginning. [Initially] there was another force in the world that’s evil and she had to struggle with that. But we don’t really believe in that – that there’s an evil force in the world – so it became more internalized and she had something inside of her that could go either way. These dialectics of good and evil are very Christian, and nature is a power [organically]. It’s neither good or evil. You can use it in a bad way or a good way. So it came from our way of seeing the world. It’s not like you’re fighting against the devil. You are actually trying to be a moral and good person.

Joachim and I are both from very atheist families – I wouldn’t say anti-religious, but there’s a line in “Oslo, August 31st” where [the lead character] talks about his parents, saying he felt that believing in God was like a weakness and that’s what I grew up with. [The idea that] people need God to function, how does that compute? It didn’t. But when you’re writing these characters, you have to have some kind of respect for that. You have to find some common humanity that you share with [Thelma’s parents’ perspective] and then you start to apply your own personality.

Joachim and I talked about why we were so interested in this story about suppression and loss of control. One of the earliest images that we had was of this young woman having the seizure in front of everyone at the study hall, [which is] a nightmare, to have this place where you’re supposed to make friends and you’re just completely exposed in front of everyone. That may be one of the nightmarish things that we started with and [asked] why are we so interested in that? And I thought, “Well, we are the kind of people who like to stay in control of everything.” [laughs]

Speaking of which, Joachim has said Eili did the spider-walk during her audition and Kaya was able to draw on a song she wrote to play the emotions during a confrontation‎. When casting, how much do you take into consideration who these people are apart from the roles that you’ll ultimately have them play?

Joachim Trier: That’s very important to me. Casting, to me, is about how can you use your experience as an actor and as a human being in this part? It’s always this process where I meet people several times, and as you just referred to, I could see that Kaya had a mechanism for conveying emotion through music that she could transfer onto the camera. So that was something to work with.

Also in the case of both “Reprise” and in this film, I had a large group of young actors and it was important to me to have a very serious talk with them before we agreed to do it together, that they were aware of what they were getting into, like the big machine of being on set. Eili [actually] wanted to train physically to be underwater and to do a lot of her own stunts and there were specific demands for this role – she wasn’t scared of snakes. It was wonderful and the most positive thing that came out of this for me was really to work with that group of actors.

Eskil, did you have any say on the parents, having worked with them both Ellen Dorrit Petersen and Henrik Rafaelsen on your own directorial effort “Blind”?

Eskil Vogt: I had a hunch that [Ellen] could do that, even though she’s very, very different from that character, but she’s just a great actress, but what really surprised me actually was Henrik. I didn’t think about him for this role, but we really had a problem finding an actor for that role. [At first] we thought about both Ellen and Henrik as too young, but actually they’re exactly the age they should be, especially because of the flashbacks, they can do both [eras].

Joachim Trier: Henrik and Ellen are quite famous Norwegian actors and they’re so warm and charming and they play these kind of creepy and difficult parents and I’m so happy that they allowed themselves to get into those roles.

Eskil Vogt: [Henrik is] so caring in real life and the fact that he could bring that aspect to that character, so you can feel that he loves his daughter, but he’s using that love to manipulate and control her, it becomes this very complex thing. I was very blown away by his work in the film.

Will you often do a rewrite after casting to play to the actors’ strengths?

Eskil Vogt: We often modify the characters to incorporate the best talent that Joachim has seen during the audition and he uses me as sort of a sounding board during the casting. When he has found someone he thinks is interesting, but not exactly the character that we imagined, then we can watch the tape and discuss what implications would it have if we cast this person instead. [Usually, we’ll say] “Oh, that’s not a problem if we change the character just a little bit, that’ll still work.” Often, we also change some dialogue to better suit how they speak. We like to be pragmatic in that way. I’m not the kind of writer who’s in love with my words. If Joachim cuts some lines in editing, I’m glad because that means we can do without and that’s better. It’s cinema after all.

Eili Harboe in "Thelma"At what point did you start thinking about locations? The Opera House scene is an all-timer that seems like you had to have that in mind from the start.

Joachim Trier: All the locations are very specifically chosen for this film. We traveled around many places to find the film. Like in New York [for “Louder Than Bombs”], I shot in all five boroughs. By the time we were [at that point] into the story [in “Thelma” for the Opera House], we knew what the generic mechanisms we wanted of the suspense. We were looking at a lot of great ‘70s and ‘80s horror. We were looking at Hitchcock, the greatest master there is of this kind of psychological suspense, and then we realized really what we were concerned with was visuality and space. Before the character work really started on the script, [we asked] what are the locations we want to film in Oslo? Like Hitchcock [had] Mount Rushmore [in “North by Northwest”]. What would we do? Ah, the Oslo Opera House. No one’s filmed there. it’s brand new and world renowned for the architecture.

Eskil Vogt: We were crossing our fingers that we would get it because we weren’t sure. But we wrote that scene for the Norwegian Opera House.

Joachim Trier:‎ It opened a few years ago and I actually saw Kraftwerk, the synth band from Germany, and I’m sitting there looking around like, “Whoa, the chandelier” – like the whole idea came out. Then we started researching and we realized that ballet and the physicality of that would fit the scene, so we got in touch with Leon & Lightfoot, these internationally renowned ballet choreographers who were touring [through] Oslo and we were allowed to shoot their ensemble on stage with Phillip Glass music.

It was one of these weird perfect fit things. There were several ballets they were doing and this one called “Sleight of Hand” stood out as just perfect. Because the film starts with a girl having this epileptic fit that she keeps hidden from her parents and she doesn’t know what it is, there’s even a moment [in this ballet] when one of the dancers is doing this convulsive dance, lying down on the floor in front of other people, and it’s a million times better than if I had gotten my fingers into the mix. It was a piece of art on its own. We were very respectful of their wishes of how to look at it and it perfectly coincided with how we wanted to shoot. It was just luck. We then shot [the scene] with many extras, and shot an extra day in there, just to shoot closeups and we realized that the whole scene of the Opera House becomes a metaphor for this shame of being the odd one out in the crowd.

Eskil Vogt: We knew also we were going to use the University of Oslo where I studied for many years and some parts of the east of Oslo, but when Joachim goes location scouting, it’s much more detailed, finding exactly the right place to do an interesting angle and being inspired by the spaces he discovers as well.

Where did you shoot the opening scene in the wilderness with the hunt?

Joachim Trier: We found this incredible lake that was almost as difficult as casting. It was ridiculous. We went to the north of Sweden, almost in Lapland, almost, to find this lake landscape with the snow. It’s called Kiruna, a fantastic place, and we were shooting at minus 20° centigrade, so if you spat, it would turn into ice before it hit the ground. [We had limited time because] we had a child on set, wonderful little Grethe [Eltervåg], who played Thelma as a child, and it was this day where the light was only up for four hours, so it made everyone 10 times as focused. It was incredible as an experience. As a director, you have these mornings where you stand with your coffee in hand and it’s minus 20 degrees and you’re looking at the sun, it hasn’t come up yet and everyone’s ready and just waiting for nature to give you the gift of this lake. It was a really, really great moment for me.

The father pivoting with the gun is such an inspired move. Did you have that in mind as a starting point from the very beginning?

Joachim Trier: I realized this recently because the film was released in Norway to great success and I’m very happy about that, but I grew up on David Lynch and what David Lynch did for America — taking classical, known Americana [with] white picket fence family situations and then turning them sinister, I’m very inspired by that, so [subconsciously] I realized [it echoes] the biggest cliche in the winter Norwegian commercials, which is probably a father and the daughter eating that chocolate that [some company is] trying to sell, or the idea of the family with a newborn baby as the goal of life conduct that we should all be engaging in as consumers in the middle class. And those exact images are what I’ve turned really dark in this movie, so on some level, the rebellious kind of punk in me is still at play here. [I realized] I’m still trying to do a horror film with Norwegian iconography.

Eskil Vogt: When we were working on this, we were treating some anxieties and nightmares that we have. I was thinking about my own experience as a father and I remember when my first kid was born, just a few months after his birth, I had this nightmare where we were on a rooftop and in the dream, he ran from me — he couldn’t move in real life — and I ran towards the edge of the building to see how he landed. I could see him, several floors above him on the streets and then a car came and ran over him, so he died like two times in this dream. [laughs] [Spoilers Blurred] And I think the image of the baby under the ice comes from that anxiety of being a father and when something terrible happening to your kids, you’re close, but you can’t do anything about it. It’s like the ultimate parent nightmare I think. So making this kind of movie becomes personal by exploring your own anxieties and sometimes you’re not really aware of doing it.

At a screening in Los Angeles, it was mentioned that Eskil is the one who writes the first pass of the screenplays – do you consult each other from scene to scene or do you go ahead and write a whole draft before Joachim sees it?

Eskil Vogt: The main part of the work we do together is just sitting together and imagining the stories, the characters, the scenes and creating a structure. We do that in the same room. Then I just start to write the screenplay and the idea is that I start on the first scene and write through until the end, but during that process, I send scene by scene to Joachim and he comments, so I go back and incorporate his comments and then work my way through to the end, so Joachim’s changes are already discussed and incorporated. The idea is when you start writing, you don’t stop. [laughs]

Watching “Reprise” again, I realized you’ve kept the same creative team largely intact for all four of these films – I wonder does that mean you can start working on a variety of different elements in tandem? For instance, with your composer Ola Fløttum, can you start talking about ideas for the music before post-production?

Joachim Trier: In the past, [yes], but in this case, something kind of great happened. I was exploring. I thought that for [the music of] “Thelma,” I would go for a bit of a synth Tangerine Dream/John Carpenter-ish kind of a soundtrack, retro early ‘80s because I love that music. I [actually] went to a John Carpenter gig while we were writing. But by the time I got into editing, I realized everyone was doing that and I started writing this several years before I even knew that something like “Stranger Things” would come out. So I got a little tired of that retro ‘80s thing and Ola has done something completely new [with “Thelma”], which is that we have some synthesizer music in the film which was made by other composers, but Ola went in a much more classical, Bernard Herrmann direction, inspired by more romantic, lush sound. I think he’s done his best work with this one and I’m very proud of him joining us ultimately and in a very short amount of time. When we finally decided to do this together again, we had a rapport and could move forward quickly.

Kaya Wilkins and Eili Harboe in "Thelma"Has it been interesting to bring these people back after they’ve had different experiences as well and grow as a team over time?

Joachim Trier: I’m very glad that they go out and work with great people and come back and their craft is more refined. They can teach me new things, come with good suggestions. Olivier, our editor, has done amazing work – he cut “Beginners” for Mike Mills and I became friends with Mike through Olivier and I admire him tremendously. We’re becoming a part of a great community through those collaborations.

It was [also] the same sound designer on all four films too. Gisle Tveito, from Norway, is a very, very good sound designer and just the funniest dude ever. For “Oslo August 31st,” he created the stereo hat, which would create subjective sound with two channels that you’d put on and walk through spaces that the character had been in to add extra sounds. He realized the brain divides our ears, so he made a shark fin on top between the microphones and he would humiliate himself by walking through Oslo with this big hat with microphones on to create subjective sound.

For “Thelma” we had the greatest time. People should try to get [see this] on the big screen [because of] how we use subbase levels in this film in different ways throughout the movie. That whole thing is a conversation on its own that we were experimenting with Gisle Tveito is an amazing sound designer. People in Hollywood should discover this guy. Maybe they shouldn’t. Then I won’t be able to work with him. [laughs]

Recently, there was a 10th anniversary screening of “Reprise.” You’ve said you don’t return to your films that often, but what was that like?

Joachim Trier: No, I never see them. That’s the exception. To be honest, I was at the cinematheque in Oslo, all the actors were there and as we came off our introduction, and were going to return for the Q & A, all the actors sat down and looked at me, like “Where the hell are you going?” And I felt guilty if I’d left, so I thought I had to sit down. And I thought, “Oh no, I have to see my own work. Oh God, this’ll be awful.”

Eskil Vogt: We had a lot of ambitions for that movie and some of them were not as well realized as I would have wished, but watching it with an audience, especially because the people who were there were probably fans of the movie in the first place, it was such a good vibe.

Joachim Trier: I was very proud and I could see how incredibly hard we’d worked on every image, like we’d try to invent every microballad in that film. Every image is fought for. I didn’t sleep for two years doing that film. I put my all in it and I was very moved by it. All these actors now have become quite prominent and have great careers. There they were so young on screen and I really realized what I’ve always been saying, that cinema is the artform of memory. [“Reprise”] is a time capsule of that moment 10 years ago when we were younger and more naive and we captured it somehow in that film. It all came back to me and that was really moving.

Eskil Vogt: I was surprised at how funny the film was. I had forgotten about that, but it has a lot of jokes and they play really well.

Joachim Trier: ‎As the film started, everyone started laughing at the jokes and I was laughing too because it was alien to me in a way. It’s actually a good comedy, at least the first two-thirds, we go for laughs a lot of the time and I want to do comedy again. It’s the hardest, but maybe we’ll return to that in some way.

Eskil Vogt: I’m guessing “Thelma” is the movie we made with the least laughs, so maybe next time we need to go in…

This is a lot of fun in its own creepy way.

Eskil Vogt: I think about that sometimes. You know, “Oslo, August 31st” is a depressing movie in many ways and this one is a dark film…it’s open to interpretation. But I always feel that when I watch a movie that has passion for cinema, that makes it uplifting. If you have the moviemaking and the cinematic experience, that makes it more of a joyous experience, even though the subject matter might be dark‎.

“Thelma” is now in theaters.

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