Since 2006, director Joachim Trier has made a name for himself in world cinema with his remarkable feature debut Reprise, 2010’s Oslo, August 31st and 2015’s Louder Than Bombs. His latest production, Thelma, is an Oscar contender for Best Foreign Film. Trier’s style is not so simply pinned down. He enjoys intimate filmmaking with intentionally big ideas behind that intimacy. Existential and paternal themes also run through his work. What many viewers take away from Trier’s films, however, is the remarkable skill with which he captures these themes and underlines them with crisp and exciting visuals. I recently talked with the director to discuss his filmmaking career and Thelma.
Patrick: How did growing up in Norway affect the way you make and view films?
Trier: That’s a relevant question. I was born in Denmark, grew up in Norway — grew up in a family of film people. My grandfather was a kind of a man working in the resistance against the Germans and couldn’t really sleep after the war, so he started making movies. Both parents met through making movies, and they took me to see lots of movies from around the world. Norway is a place where you learn to ski and you have a lot of nature; I think the fact that I had a good diet of films from America, and from around the world, really made me fall in love with it. More than just a sort of national experience, cinema gave me a way to look at other stories from different parts of the world.
Patrick: One of the themes I have noted in your work is related to parents. In Oslo, August 31st, the parents are absent. In Louder Than Bombs, one parent is missing and the other is slightly withdrawn. In Thelma, the parents are overly involved in their daughter’s life. Talk about the role parents play in your work.
Trier: That’s a good observation. I guess all of my films have dealt with the theme of identity and how we negotiate who we need to be in close relationships. For example, in these cases, parents. You know, Thelma is very much about liberation, and the parents are obviously over-involved in part of this mysterious plot without saying too much for your readers. But I think this is where we come from; I think parent-child stories are endlessly fascinating. It’s not like I have one opinion or one take, but it is something I seem to keep exploring. It also ties into another theme that is very important in my work, I guess, which is the idea of memory and how memory plays into our sense of self, or in the sense of our identity. That is kind of the same thing — where we come from and where do we go. All of these films are dealing with existential subject matter but they are also about ideas or internal experiences.
Patrick: The role that memories play is rather fascinating, whether it’s remembering a late mother in Louder Than Bombs, or with the memories being repressed in Thelma and how that defines us as humans.
Trier: Absolutely, absolutely. That’s very central, and I think — in Thelma — the trauma is those black holes within Thelma herself that she can’t fill in. A lot of the mystery stems from that fact. I mean, it’s an exaggeration of what we all have to go through; the fact that our narratives are so affected by our shared narratives with our parents. In this coming of age story, Thelma, she has to break away and challenge that narrative, you know, challenge that idea, those stories she’s been told because they turn out to be rather different than the sinister truth.
Patrick: Thelma’s parents are attempting, in their minds, to protect her from these traumatic memories. But they’re also undermining her sense of self.
Trier: Oh, exactly. Another idea, a good point, is the fact that we are… we are dealing with what happens when there is no trust. I think that this is sort of a pivotal issue here — that there is the lack of trust and you kind of get the sense that if you suppress someone, or take away their freedom, then it’ll end in a bad place. I guess that goes for a family but also for society. We have to establish trust.
Patrick: Especially when you are talking about parents — these people who’ve defined your life. When you find out that they are the ones who’ve betrayed you, that’s an even bigger blow.
Trier: Absolutely, and we build a drama around that, in a way. It’s a film — Thelma — that wants to embrace the idea of the need for autonomy and independence in the individual. But even though we are playing around with the supernatural thriller framework, when I say “drama,” I mean in the sense of the great director [Jean] Renoir who says, in The Rules of the Game, “well, the problem is, everyone has their reasons.” I think that idea of being able to understand all characters to some extent — maybe not agree with them, but at least understand the logic of them — is what fascinates me in storytelling. So, in this case, for example, I wouldn’t want to just make a stereotypical evil father. I think it’s ultimately more complex and difficult. Hopefully, the audience can kind of also understand why he’s ended up where he has. You know, there is a logic to these people, that’s been important to me, rather than just making monsters.
Patrick: Let’s talk about film in general. When it comes to building a movie, do you like to think of a character first or a story? Or a mixture of both?
Trier: I think specific scenes, visual ideas, come first. I worked with Eskil Vogt on all of the four feature films that I have directed, and I try to work from the outside in — start out with ideas before I have a story. And then comes character and the character then becomes what takes over the process every time. The character development defines story — I never have story first. For me, it’s the combination or the dialectic of it between scenes of formal nature. It can be a place, it can be a visual concept, it can be an event — and the interaction between that visual concept and character, that’s always what I am most interested in. And then character is endlessly fascinating. We often write many, many, many scenes for characters that never end up in the film or even in the script — just to get to know them. I think that exploration is what makes the foundation to go out and work with the actors. Often, I let the actors read alternative scenes and other moments from the characters’ lives to really get to know who they are playing. Whatever work we do at that stage with character development will ultimately later be very useful to have in your pocket as we move forward.
Patrick: How do you use visuals to underline your stories?
Trier: I think that’s the key question, that’s the art of it. It’s basically the style of what you do. I’m someone who grew up with cameras around me — I did animation and Super 8 films before I could write. When I was four or five, my dad taught me how to use a very simple video camera, a Super 8 camera, so I shot film. It’s so personal, and I think the main inspiration for doing films — for me — is about the visual concept, and I try not to be dogmatic about it. I want my films to be free in their language. I do use tracks and steadi-cams and handheld, but I also do statics. And I try to appropriate my mise-en-scène, or my framing or my way of using the camera, to get through to a character’s emotions — try to get close to the skin, try to let there be a dynamic between the actor and the big machine. It’s so precious to be allowed to be able to shoot with effects and a big team, and I have often even shot in 35 millimeter, up until Louder Than Bombs at least. It’s so precious to have that big machine and then make sure we get close to the characters and make intimate cinema as well and don’t get intimidated by the volume of people on set and distance ourselves, or feel we have to do something correct. I very much am a believer in personal choices and personal style when it comes to shooting.
Patrick: You definitely capture that intimacy in Oslo, August 31st. That film is so, so intimate, and that’s why I think the ending is so powerful. Tell me about the making of that film.
Trier: That was a very intuitive, quick, yet very, very personal film. I knew that there was some money available, and I was waiting for another project to happen. I gathered together a great group of people and we made that film in a year from when we began writing until it was screening at Cannes. And therefore, I think I allowed myself not to second guess my intuitive choices. I had to just trust that my choices were right and not second guess them — that was a very healthy step for me as a director. It was my second feature — there was a lot of pressure to follow up Reprise, which had been my first film which had been distributed by Miramax and had gotten a lot of attention. I based it on an old French novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle called Le Feu Follet (Will O’ the Wisp), which Louis Malle made a version of in the 60s [The Fire Within]. But I also grew up in Oslo having been an old skateboarder; I knew a vast variety of different people — wonderful and special people. Unfortunately, a part of my group from that time had gone on to become addicts, while other people had become lawyers or musicians. But we were a broad, broad specter of kids growing up in the skateboard environment, and I also had friends who had a very, very tough time during their 20s and felt that they were failures. I wanted to ask some questions about the premise of fitting in, and in a very, very hard, post-oil-wealthy Norway of social democracy and seeming success, there were people I’d seen holding on the outside — and in those existential turmoils of not feeling that you’re in this is rather sort of ambitious culture, we were able to succeed. And I feel for those people. I wanted to make a human story about that experience.
Patrick: What was it like then to make an American feature, Louder Than Bombs? What was that change like for you?
Trier: The funny thing is that it felt equally personal. I mean, I had a great team — again, I was working with amazing actors which was maybe the biggest difference — Isabelle Huppert, Gabriel Byrne, Jesse Eisenberg and so forth. But for me, as an experience, it was very, very great. I was finding myself shooting upstate in New York and laughing with my Swedish cinematographer at the fact that it looks like Scandinavia, it looks like Norway. It’s weird — the buildings, the light — it’s not so different after all. I thought I had gone somewhere else to do something completely different, and I still ended up doing this kind of [Henrik] Ibsen-[Ingmar] Bergman inspired film but yet paying homage to the great American tradition of the 70s with Ordinary People and Kramer vs. Kramer; those kinds of drama movies that I always felt had a Scandinavian leaning anyway, with the fascination for the sort of Scandinavian family drama and so forth. So, to me, this was kind of just another me standing on the shoulders of a tradition that I grew up with, which was that kind of American, Northern European ball that has been thrown back and forth between our cultures. If you look at someone like the amazing Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman is very inspired by Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright. And so, family stories can travel, hopefully, and I didn’t ultimately find it so different to shoot in America. But I must say I thought the teams were very, very professional — and really big — so, that was a bit of an unusual thing; how many people I had to actually bring on the set for Union reasons. But they were great. A lot people think I went back to Norway for Thelma because I didn’t want to work in America again, but that’s not the case at all, actually. I just felt that Thelma was a Norwegian story and maybe I’ll try my hand at a more sort of American setting again in the future.
Patrick: I want to get back to Thelma in a moment, but I wanted to ask one more question about Oslo, August 31st and Louder Than Bombs. Do you think that Americans and Europeans watch films differently? I know that when I was watching Oslo, August 31st, something about my training in mainstream, Hollywood features kept me praying for that phone call from Anders’ girlfriend, and that idea of the miraculous last-minute save seems like such an American idea — the need for a happy ending.
Trier: I don’t think that’s only an American thing. I think that we are all being brought up with an enormous commercial pressure on movies to fulfill specific tasks, and I think — in a strange way — that it’s just part of our culture right now. Yeah, you can say that Americans are expecting happy endings, but there are also American films that have complex endings, and there’s always, always, always great American cinema that challenges the norms of how mainstream cinema has to perform to become popular. So, you’re right. The thing about Oslo, even in Norway — a lot of people were shocked, but I think that is also what made it a popular movie. The paradox is that we went a bit hardcore to bring in the old idea of the Greek tragedy that you actually have to have the tragic ending for the right questions to be asked. Aristotle, not to be pretentious here, he says that catharsis lies outside of the tragedy. It’s what it does to you afterwards — it’s your own, what you take away from it — it doesn’t have a resolution within itself. I think movies should be allowed to have that kind of quality of people taking away something and pondering it. I think that is a compliment. It is certainly a stark ending and it’s not for everyone, but I come from a sub-culture; I grew up listening to hip-hop and punk music and not the most popular stuff, so I believe we should take it seriously that audiences are not idiots. They can handle a serious story.
Patrick: For Thelma, there is a theme I think I picked up on — using the supernatural aspect to comment upon her sexual awakening. Was that a conscious decision on your part to use the supernatural as a way to explore that part of Thelma?
Trier: It became a study of repression and shame and liberation, so a part of that became the story of a young woman falling in love with a girl — finding that complication because she’s from a very conservative religious background. And the weird thing is that in the original story, it was her brother who had that issue with the father — it was a revenge story about the big brother, the way he’d been treated by the father and so forth. But as we explored this further, we found it was much more beautiful to create that love story at the center of it, and it is a romantic movie. It’s also important for me to realize that when a lot of people think I made a horror film, I always say I was trying to make a romantic horror film. But I am glad — it just opened in Russia, for example, and other places where people are not so liberal and accepting. It makes me very happy that we’ve smuggled some queer themes, or some LGBTQ+ themes, under the radar, into different countries. That makes me proud.
Patrick: It’s a tremendous film, it is romantic. I need to enter into spoiler territory here [WARNING!] to discuss the father, and the tremendously complex ending. The father puts this idea out there that what if Thelma is so in control of her powers that she doesn’t know that she’s controlling her girlfriend and possibly making her feel these things. I thought that ending is so powerful, that combination of beauty and tragedy was so powerful for me.
Trier: Oh, thank you, thank you very much. I know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s what the co-writer and I called the ultimate narcissistic nightmare — that you don’t know whether you are actually leading another on or whether you are manipulating someone just to like you, which — at the core of any relationship — is always the anxiety. The way to get around spoiling it for the audience is that the third act opens up questions about how we expect or create the situations and the relationships that we enter into. The anxiety that we are not being loved for who we are but that we are somehow creating them synthetically, I think, is a big, anxious place where a lot of us have been at some point in a relationship. How pure is that love I’m connecting with — how much have I done to deserve that or manipulated the other? Is this for real? Especially in love stories about young people, there is that component of anxiety while you’re in the midst of those grand emotions, I think that we’re trying to get that balance right somehow, and that’s what we were hoping for.
Sean Patrick (@criticsean) has been a film critic and member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association for seven years. His movie reviews air on 15 radio stations across the Midwest.