Thelma’s Joachim Trier on Filming Lesbian Sex Scenes Sans the Male Gaze and Subverting Stereotypes

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Some spoilers for Thelma in the Q&A below.

Joachim Trier’s Thelma, out Friday and already confirmed as Norway’s official Oscars entry, manages to be many things all at once: a psychodrama, a supernatural thriller, a body-horror film, a coming-of-age tale, and a love story. At the center of it all is the title character (played by staggeringly good Norwegian newcomer Eili Harboe), an introverted young woman leaving her overprotective and staunchly religious parents at home for the first time to attend college in Oslo.

The transition isn’t exactly smooth. Almost immediately, the sheltered and sexually repressed Thelma finds herself falling for a fellow student, Anja (Kaya Wilkins), something that both terrifies and thrills her. Oh, and she’s also having grand mal seizures, dreaming about being choked by snakes, and unwittingly summoning flocks of crows to their window-based deaths.

As Thelma tries to figure out both her burgeoning sexuality and her bizarre, potentially paranormal condition, Trier surrounds her with gorgeous, dreamlike imagery: ominously swaying trees, sinister bodies of water, panes of glass that shatters in slow motion, flickering lights, erotically charged visits to the opera. Somewhere between Kubrick and David Lynch, The Dead Zone and Matilda, Thelma is a singularly weird and sexy movie. At a Vulture Insiders event before the film’s premiere, Vulture caught up with Trier about subverting strange-women stereotypes, avoiding Blue Is the Warmest Colour–esque controversy when shooting lesbian sex scenes — and what, exactly, is happening in this movie.

There’s a lot going on in this movie.
Uh-oh! [Laughs] Yes, I’ll try to explain it.

Where did the germ of this idea come from?
It’s embarrassing, it’s the least virtuous place. My previous film, Louder Than Bombs, was supposed to be shot in New York, and it ended up [eventually] being made in New York, but it went on a sort of detour when it collapsed financially. I had cast Isabelle Huppert and Jesse Eisenberg, and some of my favorite actors, and suddenly the financing fell through and I felt humiliated. I was pissed off, I went back to Oslo, and what do you do? You start watching revenge movies [Laughs].

It was terrible. I was with my friend Eskil [Vogt, who co-wrote Thelma] who I always write with, and we were watching Rolling Thunder, and all these politically terribly incorrect films, just to deal with our anger. Then we said, “Fuck it, let’s forget the virtues for a moment of good drama, of understanding people and togetherness, and let’s liberate ourselves completely and make something more kitsch.” We were watching, like, really nasty Italian horror movies from the ’70s — they were cutting up women, and my mom’s a feminist, and I grew up as a modern man … it was awful [Laughs]. Anyway, suddenly, Louder Than Bombs, this grief drama about a family in New York, came about. And I went to New York, and I made that, and I realized I actually like human stories after all.

Returning to all these crazy ideas in [Thelma], I realized that in the middle of that was actually a family drama as well. Kind of a tragic story of a young person trying to become autonomous and trusting herself and trying to deal with a complicated relationship with her father. So we said, “Okay okay, maybe there’s still something there after all, with a human story.” That became Thelma. 

I met you outside briefly, and I mentioned the recurrence in the film of these motifs like snakes and birds and bodies of water, and you said you “actually don’t believe in symbolism.” Can you elaborate?

Uh-oh! This is a tricky one. I don’t mean to be academical about it, but it’s a fair question. I’ll go on a bit of a detour: I was at a Swedish Film Institute seminar, and I was listening to someone who had done some research with children and given them cameras in kindergarten, asking, “What would a film by a child [look like], just a sort of primal-instinct, child-and-a-camera [film]?” She’d ask them, “What story do you want to tell?” and the kids were confused. So then she’d ask them, “What do you want to show me?” And the kids were like, “Yeah, wow, okay.” So they filmed, and she showed us some amazing stuff — around the sandbox in the kindergarten, there was a place where there had been a mouse, and the kids tried to be the mouse with the camera and stuff. I listened to this and realized, Shit, I’m childish.

This is what I’m interested in in cinema: How do you show someone something? The notion of showing something, and not knowing what the intention and meaning of that thing is: How is it to be on ice as a child and look at a fish? How is it to feel that you don’t know how to talk to your parents anymore? And showing it, but not necessarily creating meaning for it. Hopefully it will create meaning when being perceived by someone else. So the snake, yes, it could be temptation or the devil in the Bible, or if you go back to Egyptian times, it can mean something else, or if you read Joan Didion, the snake can mean something beautiful because she grew up in the desert. We had real snakes on set, and I know that it scared me, and at the same time attracted me. That’s exciting, the sensation of a snake. That’s what I’m interested in. It could be a symbolic meaning, but it’s not how I code my films.

I gotta know: When Thelma disappears people, where are they going? Why can some come back from it, but not others?
You mean that the place between the places, before the [baby goes under the] couch — that other place?

Yeah, what’s happening there?
I don’t know! [Laughs] They don’t die, it turns out, because they come back. And this is the moment, ladies and gentlemen, that I just want to make you aware that we have a wonderful actor amongst us this evening. And I promised her not to do it, so obviously I’m going to do it: This is Kaya Wilkins who plays Anja in the film. [Points to woman in the audience] Please stand up, yes, yes, yes, yes. You can see her!

Should we ask Kaya if she came back [from the place], exactly?

How was it, Kaya?
JT: Where were you?

KW, from the audience: It was a long time getting back from there [Laughs].

JT: Good to have you back.

This is a perfect transition, because I want to hear how you cast these two leads. They have this amazing chemistry and it seems very natural. I’m curious about how you went about finding them and creating that.
We did meet a lot of people, several hundred young actors, to try to see what was out there and who could play these parts. First we found Eili Harboe, who plays Thelma, and it was very apparent that she was very talented and she was also very brave, because she came in and kind of demanded immediately to do her own underwater stunts. She wanted to train her lung capacity so she could do difficult shots underwater. So we’ve got Thelma, and how do we find Anja? We met a lot of sort of more experienced actors, and there was no chemistry. And my wonderful casting director — I said, “Get me sessions, get me anyone that’s interesting, let’s meet them all.” So she made me aware of this incredible musician, Kaya Wilkins, who’s a singer-songwriter that lives in Brooklyn, but is also half Norwegian and speaks perfect Norwegian and grew up in Oslo. She showed me an audition that was really interesting, but I wasn’t sure — [addresses Kaya] you hadn’t done any acting before, and there was this moment, I have to share it with them, I hope it’s okay.

There was a scene at the party where they’ve kissed, and Thelma is rejecting Anja and not wanting to talk about the fact that something is going on between them. It’s a scene of rejection, and I remember you did a version of the scene, and I told you, “Let’s explore it more, have you written anything about being rejected?” And you said, “I’ve written a couple of songs about that.” And I said, “Well, think about those, and let’s do it again.” And you did, halfway through the scene you got very emotional, and there were some tears. And when I said cut, you apologized, and said sorry for messing up the scene. I said it was perfect. So you had already in you some sense of how to act.

Your first three movies are all about, I would say, depressive men.
I hate when that happens.

This is your first movie that focuses on women specifically. As a straight man writing about two young women falling in love, was there any part of you that was worried about getting that right?I’m always worried about getting things right, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. I think that every character that I write with Eskil is equally personal, whether they’re old or young or men or women. You get involved in the character and that becomes a part of you for a while, almost like an actor. Possibly it’s a part of you that you’re trying to talk about, and maybe you realize that later.

In Norwegian folklore and also in American horror movies, there’ve been stories of the witch, or a woman with certain powers, being stigmatized, and we wanted to kind of turn that around — and we’re not the only one, thank god, who’s doing that. But we wanted to make a story of empowerment, of liberation, rather than of a woman being a victim or a person being different and being seen as a stigmatized freak.

There are all these stories that I grew up with that were originally told verbally, and by the time they were written down in the 1800s, we were becoming a bourgeois, Protestant, proper society. And people who research this say that the way these stories were told in 1817 were much more [celebratory] of the wonderful characters of the woods, the witches and creatures and the lakes and all these erotic and exciting characters that people were fantasizing about. But by the time it was written down, these characters were all stigmatized as evil. I guess that on some level, it does have a gender dimension to it. We wanted to make an empowering film, not one where Thelma had to die or something because she was different.

Since you and Kaya are both here, I’d love to hear about shooting the scene where Anja explodes through a pane of glass and disappears, save for a strand of her hair.
[Laughs] That was a fun day, I’ll say. Should I talk about that? Yeah. So basically the film was full of CGI, and we were trying to do it in a way where part of the image is real, and part of it is digital, and we have this great Danish VFX team that put up two cannons behind Kaya filled with rubber glass. [Addresses Kaya] You were going to turn around and all this stuff would explode, and later we would fill in the glass and the window and the room around you. You were in kind of a green-screen studio. I remember you were nervous about, Will my reaction be good? And if you look closely, there are two reactions: It’s your acting reaction, which is a great gasp, and then there’s the reaction to a ton of glass being blown through your hair [makes a terrified face]. There’s a second wave of fright that’s remarkable.

You described this film as a “erotic.” It’s very obviously sexually charged —
JT: Have I? [Laughs]

You have. There’s been a lot of conversation over the last few years around the male gaze, and the idea of having a man direct a female sex scene, specifically a lesbian sex scene. How did you avoid the Blue Is the Warmest Colour syndrome when filming this movie? 

Why would anyone avoid that? [Laughs] I think it’s a beautiful film.

Well, the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, was criticized for the way he treated the actresses on set, specifically during the sex scenes.
I don’t know about that. That could be the case. I have no clue.

It was a big scandal. I agree that it’s a great movie.
Yeah, I love that film. I’m aware of the discussion. What can I say? I don’t think you can create an art from a position of shame. You’ve got to be honest about what you find beautiful and at the same time, try to be specific. And hopefully original and brave about complex emotions. I think in all my films, I have sex scenes that are complicated to some extent. In this film, I guess the most explicit scene is the snake scene on the couch, when Thelma thinks she’s been smoking pot. For me, this film is very much about shame and the anxiety of losing control. And in that moment, Thelma is allowing herself to expose herself, to be the beautiful girl, to be the object of desire. And she’s also, at the same time, drawn to the idea of being dominated by the snake and by Anja. Anja is almost not present in the scene towards the end. It’s Thelma being a body. That same body, which has been frightened and in tremors, and now she’s feeling beautiful.

And I don’t know. I think that’s okay. Yes, I’m a man, but I think we collaborated well about that scene [gestures to Kaya], and to go even further, I would say there’s a kind of hetero-normative arrogance in saying that someone can’t make a film about someone else because they’re not that person or something. Aren’t we allowed to fantasize and express ourselves?

Of course.
You’re not the first one to mention it. It’s hard to … Yeah, I guess that’s how I feel. I hope it works. I hope you get involved in how Thelma feels about her body and how the girls feel about each other. I want it to be sensuous and beautiful and I hope that works.

I think it does.
I’m a post-Protestant atheist. Full of shame [Laughs]. So the question makes me nervous. But it’s relevant and thanks for asking it. I should talk about this. I should be on a couch talking about it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Thelma’s Joachim Trier on His Strange Erotic Thriller