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Joachim Trier interview: 'Thelma is a new take on body horror'

The Norwegian filmmaker is preserving cinema’s originality one film at a time

Jacob Stolworthy
Thursday 02 November 2017 18:01 GMT
‘I knew I shouldn’t make an experimental drama at a time when everyone wanted to watch drama on television,’ the director says
‘I knew I shouldn’t make an experimental drama at a time when everyone wanted to watch drama on television,’ the director says (AFP/Getty)

Joachim Trier is not just a filmmaker – he’s, quite literally, a storyteller.

“I met a lady at the Swedish Film Institute a couple of years ago who’d done a research experiment with young children,” he recounts, just 60 seconds into our 30-minute interview. “She gave them cameras and asked them to tell a story – just to see what kind of film they’d make – but the kids were confused, so she changed her question to: ‘What do you want to show?’”

He clicks his fingers; the kids were off.

Likening Trier to a four-year-old may seem over the top but it’s a comparison that might best convey his enthusiasm for filmmaking. Fortunately, the Norwegian director has bigger toys to play with than ones you’d find in a nursery playground.

New film Thelma – his fourth since 2006 – is Trier’s most ambitious yet, a personal yet ethereal supernatural romance (his words) following the eponymous character – played by rising star Eili Harboe – as she discovers that she has telekinetic powers beyond her control.

Though the plot has drawn understandable comparisons with Brian De Palma horror Carrie (1976), it’s 1983 Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone – from director David Cronenberg – that Trier cites as an inspiration.

Eili Harboe in psychodrama ‘Thelma’

“It’s more allegorical,” he explains, also mentioning Roman Polanski chiller Rosemary’s Baby (1968). “It’s not about running away from monsters or women being victimised.”

If he seems worried Thelma will dupe horror fans expecting jump scares and gore (“I don’t want to disappoint them”), Trier’s film is an unapologetic patchwork of themes that converge to make one searing, rather memorable, viewing experience.

“It’s a human condition story with a supernatural element that puts into play something we can all relate to – we wanted it to be a new take on body horror as well as a love story.” He smiles. “It’s ‘artsy-fartsy director out on a limb’ genre.”

Trier’s film debut, Reprise, was released in 2006. Increased attention arrived five years later after his second feature, Oslo, August 31st, a drama charting one day in the life of a recovering drug addict. In 2015, he released his first and only English-language film to date: Louder Than Bombs, a drama which follows a widower, played by Gabriel Byrne’s, in the wake of the death of his wife (Isabelle Huppert).

“I knew I shouldn’t make an experimental drama at a time when everyone wanted to watch drama on television,” he states with refreshing honesty, “but I still wanted to make Louder Than Bombs, so f*** it – you gotta do what you gotta do.”

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This could be Trier’s mantra. In a time where a filmmaker’s creative control is increasingly more difficult to establish, the 43-year-old has had final cut on each of his films. He is the writer, director, and rule-maker – the fortune of which is not lost on him.

Gabriel Byrne (left), Isabelle Huppert and Joachim Trier at Cannes Film Festival, 2015

“I understood very early that I was interested in making my kind of film. I’ve wanted amateur actors in one film and Isabelle Huppert in another and I’ve been allowed to do both. I’ve been supported by some really good people. I don’t take that lightly.”

Being the son of a documentary-making mother and sound designer father, Trier was no stranger to film sets growing up. His grandfather, too, was a field director tasked with overseeing the direction of a film’s story and he’s “remotely related” to Danish auteur Lars von Trier.

“I’m a one-track mind,” he tells me, ascertaining he has always been destined for filmmaking. His craft was later honed during a tenure at the UK’s National Film and Television School where he was taught by British filmmaker Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena).

Trier’s refusal to pin himself to one style of filmmaking is ironically the trait that’s marking him out as a distinct cinematic presence. In short, he wants to make what he desires while preserving originality and bravery.

“In a way, I understand that we hit a zeitgeist with Thelma in the sense that other people are exploring the supernatural and maybe also countering Hollywood’s enormous outpour of these superhero tales that don’t ask human questions at all. We’ve tried to do something with a little bit more grain to it, with more intimacy and more naturalism but still with 200 CGI shots.”

THELMA- trailer

If Trier’s mention of superhero films inflicts a small dent into his positive exterior, it’s the thought of the artistry achieved by his filmmaking peers that inflates it tenfold.

“Cinema is vibrant and vital,” he exclaims. “There are a lot of exciting filmmakers working today – on one side, you have someone with new energy like Sean Baker [The Florida Project] making a film on his iPhone who is working parallel with the mastery of Martin Scorsese. It fills me with hope.”

Isn’t he forgetting someone? He laughs, enthusiasm paving the way for modesty. In his own eyes, he’s still one of those youngsters with an oversized camera in the playground.

“I just want to show something I’m curious about and then I want to explore it. I try to have integrity but I’m really just a kid.”

‘Thelma’ is released in cinemas on 3 November

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