Q&A: Joachim Trier on Freud, Jung, punk roots and his supernatural thriller Thelma

By Karen Gordon

It’s a Monday morning in early September. The Toronto International Film Festival’s first weekend has just wrapped.  TIFF hurlyburly is at full pitch.

The previous night, Joachim Trier had his first public screening of the movie he co-wrote and directed, Thelma, which included a Q&A. This morning he’s sitting in the restaurant of one of the TIFF host hotels doing a series of interviews. 

Adding to all of this, just a few days before the festival started, Norway announced that Thelma would be the country’s submission to the Oscars.

If it’s a lot of pressure, it doesn’t show. The movie-star-handsome Trier is surprisingly relaxed, receptive and intellectually playful in this festival and interview whirlwind. 

Could he actually be enjoying the whole process? 

Thelma is Trier’s fourth film. It’s the story of a quiet teenager who is away from home for the first time, beginning her studies at University. 

To say she doesn’t really know herself is an understatement. As Thelma starts to navigate the world she finds out that her uncomfortably overprotective parents have been hiding a few things from her. As the story unfolds the secrets the movie becomes a mash up of a European family drama, a coming-of-age story and a 70’s era horror film, by which I mean supernatural elements, not torture porn. 

It’s a slow, steady quiet and clever movie that Original-Cin’s Jim Slotek calls “a thoughtful and engrossing approach to both psychological and real horror. “

 Science can't figure out what's wrong with Thelma

Science can't figure out what's wrong with Thelma

OC: Where did this story start for you? Did you set out to make a supernatural thriller, or were you aiming to make a coming of age story?

Joachim Trier: “Good Question. It started with supernatural. It starts with Eskil Vogt, my co-writer and me, sitting down and talking about a type of movie that we hadn’t seen for a while. We were looking at the Dead Zone by David Cronenberg. We were talking The Hunger by Tony Scott. We’re talking about Rosemary’s Baby. These films that had an allegorical aspect, an existential story about character, but with a kind of horror or supernatural element, an occult element.

“So, we’re dealing with the supernatural elements first, and trying to find more subliminal images, things that go beyond what we usually talk about or see and then trying to access that.

“And then arose slowly this character of Thelma. And then it became a coming-of-age more character-driven story. And I think the combination is what interested me, to be quite frank. I’m not trying to do a horror film with blood and guts and getting people to jump in their seats all the time. I’m interested in suspense and space. 

“I’m also interested in human trouble, of feeling like you’re a freak, you don’t belong. ‘Who am I?’ Those basic questions keep interesting me in all my work.”

 Joachim Trier

Joachim Trier

OC: Why supernatural? You’re exploring characters that are outsiders all the time. But I’m nervous about using the word supernatural for this film because I’m not sure it explains it to people who haven’t seen the film because…

JT: “Mysterious could be. Mysteries that go beyond the natural things that are more liberating in their scope of imagination. As a creative person, very often people are trying to biographically pin down my films, at least in Scandinavia. ‘Where did this come from? Is this your life? Is this your family? Are these your friends?’

“I always identify with my characters. All of them. Even the ones that seem very different from me because you get into their heads. Because it’s about imagination, and we shouldn’t underestimate that. 

“Even with my earlier work, like Reprise, I was writing it with it with one of my best friends. It’s about two young writers trying to be creative and trying to be novelists and having friendships and ambitions. We even joked about it.

“And many years later someone talked to me about the film and I was almost in denial (about how I created) it. 

“As a story-teller I think one should not have to define or justify. Just try to tell, and see what happens. 
“So why did I make a coming-of-age lesbian story with snakes in it? It’s hard for me to explain. That’s what came up.

“And I have this philosophy right now about the way I work. Everyone is encouraging filmmakers to be strategic and think about audience – ‘What’s your platform?’ and all that. Sorry. I’m not strategically skilled. I try to do the film I want to do every time.

“And, touch wood, so far I’ve done it. I haven’t yet had a film that I’ve written that hasn’t been made. I’m childishly fighting for that! That’s it! That’s enough for me. Trying to do a film at a time, just the one I want to do.”

OC: That’s a great to hear because, as a film critic in North America, I worry that the dominance of superhero comic book movies is crowding out filmmakers who want to tell more subtle stories. And Thelma would, I think, appeal to a chunk of the same crowd.

At the same time, I think its appeal is much broader.  I’m reluctant to use the term supernatural to describe this movie because in some ways she’s just externalizing what we all feel at some points in our life. And who doesn’t want to be magical at some points in our lives and change things. Sometimes we are a bit magical. Things happen.

JT: “Things happen. And it doesn’t have to do with religion. It’s just about being human and being aware. We all feel this.

“The film starts with a child wondering about the world, the beauty and the mystery of the world. She’s walking on ice and there’s a fish right under her feet, and for her that’s magical. We will rationalize this immediately as adults, but we know she’s right. There is something strange and magical about a frozen lake and a fish and you can stand on top of it 

We forget. We define things.

OC: You use a lot of water as an image in Thelma. A lot of diving deeply into dark water. And then there are snakes and birds as well. It’s very Freudian and Jungian. 

JT: “Sure. I think Freud and Jung are some of the best interpreters of images without having to define them. I think it’s a wonderful way to open things up. But I don’t use that way of thinking cerebrally to try to come up with ideas and say, ‘Oh! a bird means this, a snake means that.’ Hopefully they’ll have a wider cultural code of interpretation.”

OC:  To me, the supernatural elements in the movie also talk about the process of creativity. Is that notion that there’s a mystical element to creativity part of the point you’re making with Thelma?

JT: “Absolutely. I think you’re making a very good point. The analogy of creativity is exactly what this film is dealing with. And on that note, to me it’s about liberation, because it’s certainly about a young person trying to liberate herself from all the stuff she’s internalized, all the structures, family, and expectations and conventional love.

“She feels that doesn’t fit her, and deep down her real passions are different. 

“And as a creative person I guess I’m trying to explore some and break out of certain expectations as well.

I became very aware around Louder Than Bombs that there were things about my movies that people were starting to subscribe to and wanted me to do.

“I’m always ambivalent about that. On one level, it’s fantastic. It’s a generous thing that people care.

“On the other hand, there’s also the double bind that you’re supposed to do something.  And not this, but that.

My punk roots don’t allow me that! (laughs!)”

OC: But stepping out is risky! Are you afraid of failure?

JT- “Always!  It’s a driving force. I saw a documentary recently about Serena Williams. And before every match, her trainer says, ‘Pressure is privilege.’ People care. Pressure is privilege. There’s something at stake.”

OC: I remember reading a book by the great director SIdney Lumet on making films—

JT: “—a  wonderful one, yeah.”

OC: He said you can have everything in place, great cast, great script, fabulous team, and the movie can still, in the end, be terrible.  You never know how it’s going to turn out when you start working on it.

JT: “You never know! I experience this all the time. Q&As, meeting journalists, people and friends and audiences. People have an idea that if you have a sense of aesthetic authority, for lack of a better term, then that means you are in control of everything. And you’re not and you’re not supposed to be.

“Its like describing a dance with words. You’re doing something and it’s intuitive, it’s controlling, it’s a battle, It’s sneaky.

Along the road, you create something and you fool others and you fool yourself. 

“And at the same time are trying to be truthful to some sort of emotion that you’ll never define anyway.

“Yesterday, at the Q&A, people were asking me to define some of the moral conclusions of the film and that is exactly what I don’t want to answer. Do you understand?

“It’s about being shoulder-to-shoulder with the character who goes through an experience of suppressed will, and suppressed passions that are deeply rooted and human. Of course, I don’t want to define this in good and evil. And that’s also is the sadness of the not-so-interesting horror movies. They are very often conclusive in what the monster is, and you kill the monster and all that. That doesn’t interest me too much.”

OC: I read a quote where you said you feel like you’re part of a new European cinema, that there’s a renaissance in Europe that you want to be part of. 

JT: “I guess that’s happening. I meet fellow filmmakers like Ruben Ostlund from Sweden, who I met yesterday. Wonderful filmmaker. Or Mia Hansen Love from France who I adore. 

“I guess what I was trying to say is that it’s not like European movie is dead, because we’re losing a lot of the old masters. I see that there’s a vibrant generation of filmmakers coming up and that there’s an audience around the world for my peers. And I enjoy that. Because there is a sense of the-death-of-cinema anxiety right now, and I am just not feeling it. 
“I feel like there’s extravagant, beautiful big images being made that need to be watched in the cinema.

“Maybe I have a narrow group of friends around me, But, people I hang out with, we still love movies.  We go to movies and I see a lot of young people there. So, I’m not so worried.”