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“I actually had a great time doing THELMA and trying to get back to my roots of basing it on the visual experience - using a big canon of the theatre” says director Joachim Trier of his Norwegian horror. In conversation with FrightFest, the filmmaker reflected on the inevitability of his creative journey, as well as discussing the idea of the conscious essence of cinema and genre as a gateway to a deeper exploration.
Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I felt that it was the most obvious thing I could do because my grandfather is a filmmaker, and both my parents are making films, but in different ways. My father is a sound designer and musician, and my mom has done a lot of documentaries. I grew up with Super 8 cameras around the house that I was allowed to play with and even before I could write, to try things with. I remember trying to do animation films with my father, who explained to me that it was one image at a time, and my little clay figure would then come to life. As a child it's magical and you never get over that - it's just incredible!
But then I always loved to be in a movie theatre, and I remember making skateboarding videos with all my friends. I was filming and figuring out which angles were the coolest, how to edit to music and just learn how to do something formally that would in a musical way catch someone's attention. It was not just to become popular, it was that kick of when you played it back for people, they wanted to see that little sequence again. Sometimes hits, sometimes misses, but the hits of: “Oh lets watch that again” were so satisfying. Then as I grew older came the realisation that I could look back at them, that they were like memories. Sorry if I'm sounding pretentious here, but in film at play, there is automatically this sense of time passing, and that melancholic theme is cinema. So I am touched by that all of the time and when you watch a film again and again, you see how you change in relation to it, yet in a way, the people in the film stay the same. It's just fascinating, and so yeah, I think it was always there.
Interviewing filmmaker Martin Koolhoven for BRIMSTONE, he spoke of an appeal of the conscious use of music, and the awareness of the camera and the music in THELMA reminded me of his point. Whilst a subtle approach is equally rewarding, we should never shirk away from acknowledging film as something that is designed to touch the senses through image and sound?
This is the difficult thing to talk about, but it’s essence...exactly! It’s what the French call mise-en-scène. It’s how you place the characters so that you feel along with them. It’s the way you can make the film feel claustrophobic or free. It’s the way the camera with a choice of lens, lighting and movement can suddenly bring you along and into an emotion. I had an interesting experience talking to a professor at the Swedish Film Institute. We were at a seminar and she had explored children and the use of cameras in Kindergarten. She was working on an experiment of how kids see, how they feel. She had said to these five year olds: “Here’s the camera, now tell me a story.” And the kids were very confused at the concept of story. But then she asked: “What do you want to show me?” Immediately they showed her their world, their perception, and the actual sense of seeing was something the child could relate to in terms of the camera. So the sandbox or a secret corner where someone had seen a mouse, they were trying to be the mouse with the camera. I think that childish instinct is something to be valued, and I still want to show you something when I make a movie - to show you a place or a point of view that’s specific. And sometimes that’s the most intuitive thing, and so how you place your camera is the most personal thing you will do as a filmmaker – the movements and what kind of style for lack of a better term you have. Part of that style is conscious and part of it is very instinctive. While writing with my co-writer, we'd discuss perception and form. But when you are financing a film, then very often they want you to just pitch the story. They want you to be literal and it’s sometimes very much the opposite of what makes good movies. So it’s trying to find ways to convey it verbally or with images. With THELMA I did lots of mood boards and I had tons of picture references. Not necessarily that any of those pictures frame by frame were in the film at all because they were by other people, but it was important to just get a sense of the mood.
Looking to a filmmaker such as Hitchcock, does your appreciation for his cinema change when you have experienced creating suspense, using the techniques he developed? More broadly, how has genre influenced you and how has your perspective of it evolved through this process?
Yeah, you can look at genre almost like a chess game with expectation, and that liberates you to play up against and invert things. But I would say someone like Hitchcock allows us to see that cinema can play with psychological perversion in a very seductive way. A part of that is not using horror to just show a monster, but to show that the human condition has its dark margins that can be explored through visual insinuation. Hitchcock is not at his best for example in MARNIE when he explains the idea of her childhood trauma. But up until that point and even in a more accomplished film like VERTIGO…
Absolutely! You see this in the post-Hitchcockian cinema of Brian De Palma for example, and even at times with Kubrick. The sense of the use of space in genre cinema is often tremendously exciting because we have time and space to play with, and I have often used montage and jumping in time. But if you want to create suspense you need a sense of continuous time, which can stretch and bend. And you need to be locked into a space very often to experience suspense - it's the sense of real time, and how you play that is your art. I think that's something we learn from a lot of genre filmmakers, this way of using time and space – constellations and the stretch, emotionally making you feel time, and the presence and the danger in the space. So for example, Hitchcock would literally do these great set pieces of famous places, Mount Rushmore in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and we wanted to do the Oslo Opera House, which is brand new and architecturally internationally renowned. No one has made a film there and it’s kind of a childish riff on that Hitchcockian way of thinking about space, the placing of your film in moments, and the fact that the set piece can have a life of its own, like a miniature film inside your film.
The other thing is the allegorical possibility of genre. Allegory means by definition that it’s not the thing itself, so you need to represent it with another angle, and at best something like THE DEAD ZONE in which there are no monsters. It’s just a great story by Stephen King, and the rendition by David Cronenberg is marvellous because it’s about Christopher Walken. The horror is that you touch people and then see their death scene. Therefore he has difficulty sustaining relationships and he becomes a loner because he knows too much about other human beings. It's a beautiful metaphor, an allegory about the difficulties of being close to someone, which all humans to some extent can relate to. It's told specifically through that concept of the supernatural, which becomes a trigger to let us go deeper into the human experience, and that's when I am interested in genre. I am a character driven filmmaker and I want there to be a heart to the story. In this case here, Thelma is obviously suppressing her real self. All the signs of horror are there to draw us to that complicated place of what’s really going on, both in her body, but also in the world that she inhabits. So I try to find a take on that type of story I guess.
Whilst faith can offer comfort and over the centuries was a candle to the darkness of a frightening world, there is inevitably a price to pay for that light. THELMA chimes in on the conversation as to whether religion is a repressive force or a self-inflicted one because so much is inflicted on the character by those around her.
Absolutely! My simple answer would be yes, religion can be, and that's scary. All my films are in some way about longing for something, a connection, a meaning. So being an atheist, when I see that religion, not always, but can be misused for suppressive structures of power in society and in families, personal relationships, communities, then I am very worried. I did some research and I went to a lot of these radical Christian environments, and saw on the one hand a sense of belonging and connectivity that was beautiful, that I could recognise from good places in the world. But I also saw a lack of tolerance towards queer people and also a suppression of women that I found disgusting. So yeah, I wanted to talk about that here as well, to make an empowering film, not a horror film where a woman runs around just being victimised. It’s about empowerment, but it’s also kind of a revenge plot – don’t push people around, it will not end in a good place. Let people be free and who they really need to be. That’s from all walks of life, but I didn't want to make the parents monsters either. I wanted to show a soft power where Thelma needs as we all do, the appreciation and acceptance of our parents to become who we need to be, and the difficulty of them becoming intolerant, which I think is the eternal human struggle of family life. How do parents let go and how do children accept and find self love outside the paradigm of what the mother and father presents.
A story of repression, of a woman who is denied her true nature, if we think of a film as being constructed and shaped, then THELMA represents the nature of storytelling. When it plays for an audience, each individual spectator will connect with the character in their own way. In as much as it is a story about liberation, this interaction with the audience could be contextualised as the liberation of the film from its authors. Not so much art mirroring life, THELMA mirrors the creative or life journey of a film, maybe even self-reflection?
It’s very interesting because there are so many analogue and parallel things going on. In this film we learn through teaching Eili Harboe, seizure therapy, which they use to release trauma in post-traumatic stress disorder, with ex-soldiers for example. Our culture doesn’t let us shake as it’s a sign of weakness and yet children shake when they go through something stressful. But as adults, as men particularly, we shouldn’t show emotion. We should be firm in our handshake, this kind of bullshit, and we learned that we’re making a film about liberation, and it was quite liberating going into the science of epilepsy, and the vast proportion of seizures which people think are epilepsy, is actually the suppressed emotion of trauma. Then on the other side of the spectrum there was a kind of cure in a way that the actor could use, to achieve what she needed to portray in the actual film, physically and concrete, which was an interesting discovery. For me as a filmmaker it has been liberating because genre has allowed me to not think so much about good taste, or the rules of decent drama. It allowed me to try to experiment, nervous as I am [laughs] with new forms and new images that are of a more erotic nature, that have a darker, deeper and more sinister quality to them, but I don't need because of genre to always justify. I can allow myself to show this and so it was also liberating for me.
THELMA is released on Blu-Ray and DVD by Thunderbird Releasing, and is available to own now.
Read our interview with lead actress Eili Harboe HERE.
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