Joachim Trier on Toronto-Bound ‘Thelma,’ His 1980s Influences, the Threat to Filmmaking in Norway

Having directed Cannes competition contender ‘Louder than Bombs,’ Trier returns to his native Norway for ‘Thelma’

Haugesund: Joachim Trier on Toronto-Bound ‘Thelma,’
Courtesy: SF Studios/MotlysAS

HAUGESUND, Norway — Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s new feature, ”Thelma,” which opened the 45th Norwegian Intl. Film Festival in Haugesund on Sunday Aug. 20, will segue to the Toronto Festival as a Special Presentation, then to the New York Film Festival at the Lincoln Center, which runs Sept. 28-Oct. 15.

His previous film, the English-language ”Louder than Bombs,” starring Jesse Eisenberg, Gabriel Byrne and Isabelle Huppert, was the first Norwegian contender for Cannes’ Palme d’Or in 36 years. It won eight festival awards and the prestigious Nordic Council Film Prize.

“During the last four years I have made two films back-to-back, so it has been a busy time,” Trier said.

One was shot in New York – ”Louder than Bombs” (2015) – and for the second he returned to Oslo and his mother tongue. Made on a NOK 48 million ($6 million) budget, ”Thelma” follows a shy student who has just left her small town religious family to study biology at the University of Oslo. There she falls in love with Anja, a beautiful student, and starts having violent seizures, symptoms of inexplicable supernatural powers.

Norwegian actress Eili Harboe stars as Thelma, with Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen in Trier’s third film co-scripted with Norwegian screenwriter Eskil Vogt, after “Reprise” (2006) and “Oslo, August 31” (2011). It was produced by Thomas Robsahm for Oslo’s Motlys, with a group of European companies – among others Denmark’s Snowglobe, Sweden’s B-Reel and France’s Le Pacte.

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“True, girls with supernatural powers are rare in Oslo, but Eskil and I wanted to make something really fantastic,” Trier recalled from when he first discussed the project  with his co-writer.

Both Trier and Vogt grew up in the 1980s, read Stephen King and Japanese cartoons, and listened to 1970s-1980s synthesizer music, John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream. Their question was whether they combine that sort of material with the story of a Norwegian girl, who realizes something deep in her is making her lose control over her life.

“We wanted something that had a visual potential to venture into nightmares and mystery, leaning on genre – a supernatural story more than an allegorical tale that is still about human beings. And then we tried to figure out how to tell it,” Trier said.

He went on: “For Thelma falling in love with another girl is very problematic, and then things she wishes will start happening – or do they?”

Trier said that it has been difficult to find the lead actress, who had to act with snakes and under water. but then we found Eili [Harboe], who wanted to do her own stunts.

“She really went far.I don’t think I have ever been so worried in my life. She went through trae therapy and breathing exercises, so her epileptic seizures would look real. Her performance is extraordinary. I could well imagine her being the next big thing coming out of Scandinavia.

According to Trier, the special effects were “time-consuming” with 200 CGI-shots in the film. “One of our technicians said: ‘You’re trying to make what looks like a Christopher Nolan or David Finscher film on a Norwegian budget. We saw all the best post-production houses in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. They share the responsibility for the visual style.”

A Danish VFX supervisor, Esben Syberg, led the team to complete this coherent look of the film, which was not finished until two weeks before the Haugesund Festival.

“I met Eskil [Vogt] when I was 18, he 19 – we were film fans and went to the cinema together; I was very clear I wanted to make movies, and he had the same dream,” Trier said.

While Trier attended the National Film School in London, Vogt studied literature and philosophy at the University of Oslo (where Trier filmed some of the horror scenes in “Thelma”) then film at Paris’ La Fémis film school.

For Trier, “I am a filmmaker who comes from the cinema seat having watched movies; many times I am asked about Bergman and Antonioni, but we are more in the tradition of Lynch and Cronenberg, and of course Hitchcock, the way he used human psychological concepts – and how anxiety and trauma, the inner self, was the starting point of a suspense story.

“Thelma” comes after a radical change in interest in Norwegian films. “Some years ago nobody watched Norwegian films – now I believe less in nations than in the collaboration of individuals. I think a few Norwegian filmmakers changed it, fighting for their style and content, with political financial support and incentives.”

Trier said he returned to Oslo from London because he saw “an opportunity to make exactly the films I dig, dream of and fantasize about.”

“Reprise,” my first film supported by the Norwegian Film Institute, was picked up by Miramax and won 15 festival prizes. The ambition and the spirit have not changed – I make the films I and my gang want. I have not done anything out of strategy, I am not smart enough for that.”

But the future for Norwegian cinema is not so bright, Trier argued.

“Unfortunately it looks as if its political backing is about to end – the new Norwegian government has not granted so much finance and even moved some  out of the film industry. It will be sad if the political incentive for filmmakers should disappear and Norwegian cinema return to the old days,” Trier concluded.

He is now focusing on the release and international distribution of “Thelma.” After such a busy time, he wants to take a moment before announcing what he will be doing next.