We speak to director and star of psychological thriller Thelma

Joachim Trier returns to his native Norway with Thelma, a psychological thriller about a teen with telekinetic abilities. The director and his film's star, Eili Harboe, give us the lowdown

Feature by Philip Concannon | 26 Oct 2017

It’s the penultimate day of the London Film Festival and everyone is tired. Cinephiles across the capital have the drawn expressions and thousand-yard stares that come from spending weeks devouring dozens of movies, while Joachim Trier is in the middle of an extensive festival tour, having presented his new film in Toronto and New York before arriving in London. Fortunately, Thelma is the kind of shot-in-the-arm movie that we all need at the end of a long festival.

A gripping psychological horror focused on a troubled teenage girl, Thelma owes more of a debt to directors like De Palma, Polanski and Hitchcock than you might expect from a filmmaker whose previous work was notable for its quiet introspection. RepriseOslo, August 31st and Louder than Bombs displayed Trier’s facility for layering sound and image to create an impressionistic, subjective experience, allowing us to explore his characters’ inner lives, so the outlandish visual spectacle of Thelma, which involved over 200 CGI shots, initially seems like quite a departure.

“I am primarily interested in the interior of the character, and mental images,” Trier tells us, before suggesting that Thelma might not be as different as it seems. “There is still that curiosity about making an intimate film, but in this case it’s an intimate horror film, so I will have the dynamic of the bigger pictures and a cinematic view on the character that goes beyond what they know, which is quite rare for me. Usually I'm very eye-to-eye, but here I'm between the claustrophobic view and a more paranoid gaze on the character.”

This approach makes sense, as Thelma is largely about the protagonist’s internal turmoil having external ramifications. The title character, played by Eili Harboe, is a lonely, introverted student at an Oslo university who begins suffering unexplained seizures; although it quickly becomes apparent that her attacks are connected to her oppressive and strictly religious parents, and her growing attraction to classmate Anja (Kaya Wilkins). The deeper Thelma represses her emotions and memories, the more powerful her impact on her surroundings becomes, which allows Trier to fill his film with extraordinary images. Birds fall from the sky, windows explode, and a theatre full of people is threatened by a chandelier that swings with Hitchcockian menace; in fact, Trier and his regular co-writer Eskil Vogt had most of these images in mind before they had a story.

“With this one, it was a sense of form, a mood, and a wish to fill the form with content, to work from the outside in,” says Trier. “Eskil and I wanted to allow ourselves to access more subliminal, subconscious images, nightmarish things, and we came up with a lot of set-pieces. I think we always start out with moments and images and concepts for scenes. Sometimes it can be a formal idea, like in Reprise and Louder than Bombs particularly, ways of using voiceover, ways of doing montage sequences set up against character dilemmas. We're film geeks and I love to get a vision of a particular sequence and then try to use it.”

He cites one example of this thought process from his last film. “In Louder than Bombs there's a scene where the young son in the family is listening to a girl reading aloud in class, and then that suddenly turns into a stream-of-consciousness sequence where her voice leads it as if it was his thoughts. I hadn't seen anyone do that before, and I thought, couldn't that be done in movies? The boy is in love with the girl and is thinking about his mother, so then you get this strange Oedipal connection through the form. Let's try it! So I tried to convince everyone that it would work, and not really knowing if it would until we were in the edit and crossing fingers that it would fit together. It kind of worked, but you don't know, and I like that kind of risk-taking.”

Although he likes to take formal risks, Trier is also fastidious about his filmmaking choices. His production team held open auditions to find their lead actor, meeting hundreds of young women before settling on Eili Harboe, who is outstanding in the emotionally and physically demanding lead role. For Harboe, the chance to work with Trier was a long time coming. “Actually, it's funny, but because Norway is a very small country, I had met Joachim a couple of times already,” Harboe tells us. “I obviously loved his work and he's a director I had always wanted to work with, so I asked him around three years ago what he was working on next, and he said, ‘Actually, I'm writing a script about a girl who moves to Oslo and starts studying at the university. You should come to the audition.’ I was like, yeah, right, that's never gonna happen. And then three years later I got an email from the casting director who said Joachim had asked for me to come in, and I was so happy.”

Although she had to go through a number of nerve-wracking auditions, the young actress clearly made a big impact on Trier. “Actually, much later on, Joachim and Eskil told me that they thought about me when writing the script,” she says. “But they said that they were very open to change that if the right girl came in at the audition. Joachim is very, very conscious about even casting some of the extras and the parts with very few lines, it's very important for him that it's an ensemble working together.”

Trier has just come off the back of working with a remarkable ensemble – including Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle Huppert and Jesse Eisenberg – in Louder than Bombs, which also marked his English-language debut. So how did the director find his American experience? “I really enjoyed it. I had creative control – we financed it in a smart way to ensure that – I loved the locations, and I had such a thrill working with those actors,” he says. “The tricky thing I would say was to deal with union rules in New York, that was unusual, but you find a way. It's the eternal film school of being a filmmaker, you just learn. The upside is you're forced to have so many people on set because of the union rules and you can get a lot of big things done quickly, you can move big lamps around in seconds.

“The downside is you're spending so much money on a team when you might want to be more fluid and take more time. Just to be one day on set in America, you shoot 12 hours but it's ridiculously expensive, so you end up having too little time to get all the shots you need. But I think we did okay, touch wood. I want to do it again. I want to shoot English-language stuff again, and I want to be allowed to go back and forth. That would be fun.”

One wonders if Trier will eventually bring his unique cinematic vision to the UK – after all, he trained at the National Film & Television School in London – but wherever he makes his films, or whatever budget he has at his disposal, you can be sure that the result will still feel like a Joachim Trier film. “At the end of the day it's still the same. It's my responsibility to create the mood that I want on my set. I will have to do that regardless of the country or the dynamic of unions or whatever. I just think, ‘Am I allowed to show you this? Can I create this moment?’ That’s what drives me, this wish to show you something, an experience or a place. It's very basic, but that to me is cinema.”

Released 3 Nov by Thunderbird