Joachim Trier talks Thelma, horror and rooting for outsiders

We talk to the director of Thelma about his brilliant coming of age chiller

Norwegian director Joachim Trier veers away from his dramatic arthouse roots with a supernatural horror about a young woman struggling with her repressed sexuality. His complex character work seen in his previous films such as Oslo, August 31st and Louder Than Bombs is still apparent and so too is the great care he takes in developing his outsider characters and their evolution. Thelma takes its lead from allegorical horror and the work of Stephen King especially Carrie and The Dead Zone. Over the course of the 2017 London Film Festival where Thelma headed up the Cult section Joachim took the time to explain his influences and thoughts on horror.

Was there a particular moment you decided you wanted to become a filmmaker?

I come from a filmmaking family background. My grandfather on my mother’s side, Erik Løchen, made a few feature films. So I grew up with having cameras around as a child. I had Super 8 cameras and I made animation films with my dad. The turning point was when I was 18 and I remember being a big fan of David Lynch. My parents and siblings were away somewhere so I went to the video store and I rented all the David Lynch films again and spent the weekend watching them. After that I felt the urge to start telling people ‘Of course I want to be a filmmaker!’

Was Stephen King’s Carrie an inspiration for Thelma and did Brian De Palma’s adaptation influence your stylistic approach?

I grew up watching a lot of Kubrick and De Palma and that strong visual style of storytelling. De Palma and his way of dealing with space is quite unique in film history. He started riffing off Hitchcockian themes but furthered them in many ways I think. I’m a big fan of his. I think Stephen King is a great writer and he makes great allegorical stories that have a human heart in the middle at best. Some of the films based upon his work have been marvellous. Some of the greatest examples are Carrie but also David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone. What’s wonderful about it and why it’s relevant in regard to Thelma is that we wanted to do a film that didn’t have a monster or an evil lurking around. We’re not doing jump scares or a slasher horror. What we’re interested in is the horror from within. That human ability that enables someone to be special but that also makes them an outsider. In The Dead Zone, the Christopher Walken character can touch other people and see their destiny which makes him incapable of forming relationships. It’s such a melancholic and existential theme. You know too much so you don’t know how to be with others. That type of heroic alienation is so touching. For Thelma we were looking for that metaphorical supernatural element.

Would you categorise Thelma as a horror film?

If you look at literature or Gothic tradition it was often called ghost stories or supernatural tales, but horror arrived not only depicting monsters but the horror of a situation. In terms of that Thelma is a horror. I think if you look at impressive horror films like The Conjuring or Insidious and that kind of tradition they are so ridiculously scary. They impress me but they are going after a particular set of emotions that they do very well. Just by association they claim the word horror. We are more old school horror in the sense that the film takes time to build up. We wanted to go slow and to seduce people into the verisimilitude of the story. Going into this we wanted to get rid of some of the virtues and good taste that we felt drama films had to have. We wanted to have fun and do something visual and go out on a limb. We wanted to experiment with the moods that we’re exploring.

What draws you to outsider characters?

I am always rooting for people in the margins. If you look at Oslo he’s a seemingly popular guy but there’s something that’s missing. Very often we create stories to explore what’s lacking or a hole in life. In all lives we have those things. I’m drawn to the outsider characters, particularly in Thelma because I think there’s something heroic and brave about her in her experience of loneliness. It’s very hard for many people to achieve self-love and it’s a theme I keep pondering upon. On a personal note I was always very ambitious, and I felt I had to do well to be accepted. There’s a theme there. To bring that in to more existential territory with my characters can be interesting to explore.

There’s a lot of biblical symbolism in Thelma, can you tell me about the research you conducted in terms of approaching that?

To be very honest I try not to overthink what I do with symbolism. When I say symbolism what I mean is that I don’t like to lock down an absolute meaning. I’m aware of the biblical connotations and how they would work with Thelma coming from a very conservative Christian background and of course the whole idea of temptation and will. Hopefully it plays on many levels. The research mainly went into the environment of that very extreme protestant Christian upbringing we have in Norway. Some of the attitudes I met there in regards to people being gay and anti-abortion was very worrying and very sad. It was an upsetting experience seeing that side of Norway.

Thelma is in cinemas today. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.