THELMA with writer Eskil Vogt

Considering you and Joachim are known for your rather realistic stories, why the turn to the supernatural genre?

– It wasn’t exactly a single idea; rather it was a feeling that Joachim and I wanted to do something a little different this time. We are big film buffs and there are so many films we love. Furthermore, we have a strong passion for cinema, and we haven’t been able to show that off in our previous films. We started Thelma with these very visual, dreamlike, almost nightmarish images that we thought about expressing in our film. That was the point of departure for Thelma.

We were excited by the idea of using genre in our work, because, in a way, genre films permit you to do so much more than a typical art film. In an art film, you use the cinematic form to relate to various characters and stories. By using genre, we give ourselves a certain freedom. We have a stronger visual idea. Rather than creating a very character driven drama, we let the images tell the story. However, being that Joachim and I are always heavily involved in character-driven plots, we wanted to fit some of that into this story.

It’s interesting that you say genre gave you more freedom because many seem to think that genre is quite restrictive…

– People who think that genre is strict are the same individuals who think that a horror film is about four young people who go into a cabin saying: ‘oh, we are going to have such a great time!’ and the audience knows they won’t! Genre films are so freeing. Of course, you have big innovators in cinema like Hitchcock who felt trapped in the style by the end of his career, but that didn’t prevent him from making radical masterpieces and renewing the cinema form. What would cinema be without innovators like Georges Méliès, Alfred Hitchcock or Brian De Palma? You can see that these are artists who just like to do whatever they want with the film medium. I also think that genre buffs are some of the most open-minded movie-goers. They are inviting to being taken to new places, being shocked, surprised, and have a plot with different twists. Genre fans are open to new things, so genre is a freeing thing.

At the same time, the film relies heavily on the character-driven plot that we are so used to seeing in your other films…

– When you enter into a human drama, you have to have interesting characters. One thing I like about genre is that you can also enjoy a movie that has bad characters with no psychology behind them, and it’s radical. So, I’m not saying that you have to make something interesting, but what’s make cinema so appealing is that you don’t have to follow pre-defined plot elements. When you are dealing with drama, and in particular the forces of evil, not one character is a standard cardboard cut-out of a person. You can understand the logic behind them, even if they are hurting Thelma or limiting her. If you don’t have that supernatural force, you need to have a strong character, and you need to believe them and understand them., and that’s what I feel like Joachim and I can give to this genre.

Your character of Thelma almost benefits from the way in which she uses her supernatural powers as they protect her from her own vulnerability. You also chose an interesting age for Thelma, with her being a university student…

– She starts the film in a very vulnerable place because she doesn’t understand what is happening to her. I feel like that’s a situation we are all in when we are in our twenties. We don’t know what we are going to do in the world or what kind of impact we will have, but we are trying to figure out who we are. That’s an interesting point of departure for the story. When Thelma discovers something is going on with her, she has to try and work out exactly what purpose it has. On top of this, she is trying to suppress the romantic feelings she has for another woman.  So, in a way, it is a supernatural story, but in another way, it’s a relatable story for those caught up in a similar situation.

So, does that mean it’s isn’t really a genre film then?

– We wanted to work with the style in a new way. We didn’t want to make a film that didn’t add to the genre conventions. It had to be a genre film in some way. We didn’t just add a human drama as a way to turn it into one of our typical films. We spent a lot of time writing a story that we were interested in. The film blends many different genres, almost becoming a family drama by the end. We feel that makes it surprising.

In the film, Thelma’s family lives out in nature. Considering a history of Norwegian horror films taking place amongst nature, did you consciously make an  effort to continue that tradition?

– It comes naturally because of where Thelma comes from. But Norwegians, in general, have a fascination with nature. Even Oslo has a fascination with nature. For example, Thelma lives in this huge block of apartments in Oslo, but even then, the forest is just behind her. You can be in a major city but still be reminded that nature is there, just behind you. We had this image in our minds of Thelma having a seizure in the study hall at the University of Oslo, and all these birds start flying into the window. From that image, we knew that nature would be an important part of our story.

You and Joachim have worked together on multiple occasions. How do you bring a story to screen together?

– Joachim and I have been friends for a long time, and started writing shorts at first and made a move to feature films. We always visually approach the story. We focus more on what’s on the screen and what effect it will have on people, and we discuss that in every way possible. I think our scripts are entirely visual. We rarely use long, descriptive passages in our them. It’s very different for other writers who write a script, and then have to have it shopped around to potential directors who want to make it their own. With Joachim, we work on the story together, and it’s a real collaboration. Of course, when Joachim goes off to shoot he changes some of it, but it’s important that the idea is already there.

Would you make another genre piece?

– I’m actually working on something, I’m the director now! It’s something that’s maybe even more in the horror genre than this one.

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.