'Thelma' Director Joachim Trier On Crafting His Incredible Queer Horror Film [Interview]

Thelma is the story of a girl who moves away from home for the first time to attend college. And then she falls in love with another girl. And then she realizes that she has horrifying supernatural powers. And then things really go off the rails.

Norway's submission for Best Foreign Language Film at next year's Academy awards is many things: a gripping horror story, a queer romance, and a personal drama about realizing that your parents aren't always right. Director Joachim Trier balances all of these plates, crafting one of 2017's best movies.

I spoke with Trier over the phone about finding the humanity in a horror story, crafting memorable "bad" parents, and knowing how big is too big with a horror setpiece.

Did you set out to tell a horror story or did you realize during the writing process that the horror genre would best serve these characters?

The genre thing actually came first. I know that's the least virtuous thing to say, but I kind of have to be honest with you. We listened to a lot of synth music and looked at a lot of supernatural films and just felt that there was an opportunity within that genre to do something sort of existential. Whether it was Solaris by Tarkovsky or whether it was Rosemary's Baby or The Dead Zone by David Cronenberg. There were these kinds of allegorical stories where you're dealing with an internal supernatural ambivalence or drama instead of the modern horror jump scare gore thing, which we we weren't so curious about. It started there, but then, of course, the moment you have a character in the middle...we come from drama, we got very intrigued with the dynamics of a young woman trying to become autonomous away from her parents and trying to figure out who she is. So it started with the genre fascination, I think.

There are a lot of horror movies with "bad" parents and they tend to be over-the-top or cartoonish. The classic example of this being done well would probably be Brian De Palma's Carrie, which is an interesting cousin to your film. The parents here are handled with grace and humanity, even though audiences will almost surely side with Thelma.

Thank you. This is the thing, you know? I thought the film was ultimately about the horror of not trusting each other in a family. If the parents were these antagonists...in media stories and narrative fiction these days, everyone is being pressured to do antagonistic stories. Bad people, good people. Because it creates easy conflict and conflict creates clicks and attention and people go to the movies. But we owe the audience more than that. The French director [Jean] Renoir once said the big problem is that everyone has their reason. And that's what's interesting. The fact that the father has a logic to his behavior and we got intrigued with that. The father and the mother have this soft power. In any human experience of having to become who you need to be, how much are you dependent on the acknowledgment or the love of your parents and how much do you dare to break away from that to stand on your own two feet? It's a basic human experience that we're saturating through the genre elements. I really, really appreciate what you just said. We aimed to try to create real characters there. In a way, the world is full of supernatural stories right now and the only thing we could contribute was hopefully our background in more humanist, nuanced drama and see if that could blend in with this. That's what was fun, to try to combine these things.

This is ultimately a coming out tale. An LGBTQ story.


It's about a woman loving another woman. We see coming of age movies in America all the time, but everyone seems afraid to make movies about same sex relationships of any kind.

In Scandinavian cinema, there are few as well. Most movies that are about LGBTQ experiences or situations are about guys. But in genre cinema, there is the complete other side of the spectrum. There is the cliche of the lesbian vampire film from Italy in the '70s, this schlocky kind of thing. We realized we could try to do a more modern empowerment story that was dealing with that subject and that theme that we felt is important in this day and age. In our society, both in American and in Norway, there is...it's easy to live in the city and think that there's no problem coming out and that everyone's a liberal, but that's not the case. There are conservative environments in many kinds of regions right now, using religion as a suppressive power structure. This is not an attack on personal faith, which I completely respect, but it's certainly an attack on structures that inhibit people from being who they need to be. On the side, in my life, I'm also a music lover and I grew up with punk and disco. I DJ. I'm very concerned and very embracing of the disco waves and the punk movements of the early '80s. Scenes where you're allowed to be who you need to be. I've always been rooting for the people who feel like outsiders in all my films. We're happy that's part of the story, although it didn't actually begin there. It developed into it.

Your lead actress, Eili Harboe, is remarkable and you put her through the wringer. This is not an easy performance. Can you talk about finding her for this part?

[Laughs] I have this thing. When I write with my co-writer Eskil Vogt, we have a rule that I'm not allowed to think too practical. In the writing room, we are free. We don't care about budgets or restrictions, we just dream the film we want to make and I go out and fight for it afterwards. We realized that even though we were worried about snakes and fire and 200 CGI shots, the biggest challenge was to find out who the hell was going to pull this off at the age of 20. I'm very, very pleased with Eili Harboe. She was a find. She had done some acting before, but this was her first big role. What can I say? I think she's going to be a star. I know now that I'm here in L.A. that she's getting great attention. People are noticing and that makes me very happy. I found her through meeting a thousand girls and she was obviously the one when we first started rehearsing and trying things with her. She was very brave. She could pull her own stunts. She was very curious to explore this tough, demanding part. But she's also very sophisticated for her age. I think it's going to a case where I'm just happy that I worked with her. There you go. She's on her way!

I'm glad you talked about having a space to dream the biggest without having to worry about budgets. I want to be careful about spoilers here, but Thelma's powers in the movie are never portrayed as big and bombastic. They're subtle and often horrifying. Was there a push and pull between going too big and going too small?

It's hard to talk about with revealing things, but a lot of the great horror films that I grew up loving like Rosemary's Baby or The Exorcist or even something like The Dead Zone, which is a bit of a masterpiece, they are slow-builders. It takes time, you have to get into the human element. You are slowly drawn into the supernatural or exaggerated universe of the thriller or the horror or whatever you want to call it. This balancing act was exciting to us. We come from the Hitchcock school. We love suspense. We love to think from location. A lot of this was built from the set pieces, actually. We wanted there to be this thing underwater, this conceptual idea of turning things upside down. We had this sensuous snake idea that we wanted to smuggle in there. Like we did with our previous films, we worked from the outside in, from visual ideas that we imagined that we created a story around. And then the characters in the story take over later. It's built from that. I think we started thinking we would do something more horrific, but slowly we realized that anything that was touched with her humanity or was relatable was more horrific for the audience then just being explicit all the way through. I'm glad you liked the balance, but that was the art of this, to figure that out. In editing as well, try going a little too far and then pulling back. That was the game.


Thelma is in limited release right now and expands on November 24, 2017.