'Thelma': Eskil Vogt on Why You Should Throw Away Screenwriting Guides to Write Cinematic Movies
Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt began writing 'Thelma' based on set pieces and imagery rather than plot.
Joachim Trier's Thelma, co-written with longtime collaborator Eskil Vogt, is a departure from their previous work. Respite, Oslo, August 31st, and Louder than Bombs were discursive character studies steeped in naturalism. Thelma, although also character-driven, is a spectacle of a film, featuring grandiose imagery and supernatural powers.
When Thelma (Eili Harboe), a demure college freshman, leaves her strict and religious family to study in Oslo, she begins experiencing violent seizures. The seizures worsen as she finds herself intensely drawn to a classmate, Anja (Kaya Wilkins). Complicating things further is the fact that Thelma, much like Stephen King's Carrie, discovers she can manipulate the external world with her mind—but just how she can control this force, and whether or not it is benevolent, remains to be seen. Told with careful attention to detail and a chilling slow burn, Thelma is a supernatural coming-of-age story and a meditation on faith and the ruinous nature of desire.
No Film School sat down with Eskil Vogt to discuss why screenwriters should start with characters, images, and situations rather than formulaic plots; how Thelma is inspired by Giallo films; and why being on set as a writer is like "being a father when the child is being born."
"What if we start with the cinematic stuff—images and feelings and the musical parts of cinema, like rhythm, suspense, and set pieces—and then work towards drama, instead of the opposite?"
No Film School: How did you approach the change in direction, both in terms of scope and style, as a writer?
Eskil Vogt: Joachim and I write together. When we started this, Joachim was about to make Louder Than Bombs and the financing fell through. Suddenly, he had to go back to Norway and lick his wounds. I said, "Let's just start working on something new—something completely different—and see where that leads us."
Joachim and I are film buffs. Even though we've been associated with cinema that is more art house or existential drama, we love all kinds of films. I mean, we had a production company called Don't Look Now, from the Nicholas Roeg movie. We were thinking, we've been making these dramas that are about people and their existential crises and personal relationships. We always strive to make those cinematic. This time, we said, "What if we start on the other side? What if we start with the cinematic stuff—images and feelings and more of the musical parts of cinema, like the rhythm, the suspense, and set pieces—and then work towards drama, instead of the opposite?"
So I guess the point of departure was just to set us free as filmmakers. We wanted to see what we could do if we gave ourselves that kind of freedom.
"The challenge was how to construct a plot where we could include our favorite set pieces."
NFS: Which specific movies influenced you?
Vogt: What we were doing, actually, when we started writing, was that we started listening to a lot of '70s and '80s film scores from John Carpenter or Dario Argento's films or other Italian Giallo films.
What we talked about in the beginning, before we found our story, was DePalma, Argento, and those kinds of films. I think it started at even more of a horror place than what we ended up with. The film is kind of a weird mix of... I don't know what you would call it, but it's not a horror film. It's more of a supernatural thriller or even a supernatural drama. We talked about Rosemary's Baby, which was a horror film when it came out, but I'm guessing if it was released today, it wouldn't be called that because it's not gory enough. It doesn't have enough jump scares.
But what interested us most was that kind of creeping, very cinematic, suspenseful horror film that also has a basis in characters.
NFS: How did you build that ominous cinematic quality into the script?
Vogt: Well, basically, we started with a lot of themes and set pieces. We had the character of Thelma quite early and the setup of her arriving in Oslo and having this seizure while the birds fly into the window in front of everyone—this total loss of control in public. So we had that scene and then we had other more dreamlike scenes that we wanted to work into the script.
The challenge was how to construct a plot where we could include our favorite set pieces. Some of them didn't make the cut because at some point you have to impose a logic to the story and the narrative takes over and tells you what it needs. But we tried to make sure that the plot would contain our favorite scenes.
NFS: Can you take me through the development of the character of Thelma?
Vogt: I'm trying to think back now how it started, but, you know, it started in a weird place. It began almost like a witch film inspired a little bit by Suspiria by Dario Argento. When we [cut] the witch stuff, the relationship with her parents—especially her father—became more important. That gave us sort of a narrative instead of the usual horror thing with the outside evil force that she has to defend herself against. We find that a bit boring—the horror convention that there is some evil force in the world. It's a construct that we don't really believe in.
"We find it much more interesting that there's a force inside of Thelma herself that might be evil."
We find it much more interesting that there's a force inside of Thelma herself that might be evil. Or it might be good. Or maybe it's just neutral. Either way, she has to learn how to master it. So that became the main arc of Thelma: she has suppressed a lot of stuff because of her background, because of her parents, and these things are starting to express themselves and she loses control. Then that becomes a story of coming of age, in a way, where she has to impose herself on the world and accept who she is and that her choices have consequences on other people. She has to manage that and become an adult.
NFS: One thing I found was so interesting about Thelma's character arc was that at first, the audience sees her as some sort of victim of her circumstances. For example, she tells her love interest about when her father held her hand over a fire until it burned. And at the beginning, we see young Thelma's father pointing a gun at her head. But then you realize that her own agency is actually causing these negative circumstances. I found that to be a really interesting shift in the structure.
Vogt: Definitely. What we found working on the script was that this is basically a father/daughter story. We thought that it's even kind of father/daughter love story. Instead of the father being just an evil antagonist, he's someone in a real dilemma, trying to do his best.
The shift you're talking about is something that interests me very much as well. It's a twist where we understand his motivations a lot more in the latter part of the film, which, hopefully, makes it more complex.
"Being on set as a writer is like being a father when the child is being born."
In my experience, being a father, you have a dilemma: how far do you go in protecting your kids? Because at some point, they have to go out in the world and do stupid things and learn what life is all about. If you protect them too much, you might end up harming them. It's a real dilemma for fathers.
NFS: Were you on set for production?
Vogt: This is the fourth film that Joachim and I have made a film together. In the beginning, I was quite a lot on set. I'm a director as well, so I feel the obligation to say a lot of stuff to Joachim when I'm on set. We're so in tune now, though. Nine times out of ten, he's thinking the same thing that I want to say to him, so I'm just an added pressure. Now, I'm present during pre-production and casting and give my opinion, and I'm available for Joachim if there's any need for rewrites. Then I go to set one day and then I leave.
I feel that being on set as a writer is like being a father when the child is being born. You care a lot, but you have no purpose being there. You are just in the way of the doctor trying to get to your girlfriend giving birth and she's doing all of the work. I'm trying to give Joachim the space to do his thing during shoots. I like to get involved again when they start editing first versions.
"Don't look at all those script advice books. You should just create characters and situations."
NFS: I thought the way that you approached portraying religion was really interesting. It wasn't one-sided. You weren't taking a stance or some sort of a judgment on religious faith.
Vogt: Religion imposed itself as one of the themes in the film. Joachim and I, we're not from religious families. Not at all. I mean, they're kind of anti-religious. But we have a lot of friends that are from very, very religious backgrounds. So we talked a lot to them about growing up in these environments and also, we tried to use our imaginations.
I see Thelma as someone that has started to doubt the religion that she has been taught growing up. She's studying biology and she has some ideas, some questions about what she has been taught. Her childhood beliefs are being questioned. But then she meets these born atheists that are cocksure of everything and don't really ask themselves any questions. And their contempt for religion could have been mine when I was in my early 20s. It's very arrogant. They don't see that they are making fun of not only religion, but also of her family and of her entire background, so they have no empathy. I thought it was important for the film to have that kind of empathy. To see, also, that there's a lot of good in growing up in a religious family.
NFS: Do you have any practical advice for somebody who is starting out as a screenwriter and looking to write scripts that are a little bit more morally ambiguous and complex like the ones that you write?
Vogt: Wow, that's a good question. I would say that one of the most important things is to be very open when you start writing. Don't look at all those script advice books. You should just create characters and situations. Use the means you feel are necessary for the story and create cinematic sequences. Don't be too concerned with these kinds of ideas of structure that, I feel, are advice coming from someone on the other end, who watches finished films and finds structures in them and make a recipe. [These people] have no understanding of the creative process.
I think what's important is to create a lot and then try to fit it into a plot. Don't start with a plot—especially not with a conventional plot. Start with your images and your themes and your characters and good ideas for scenes. Things that you want to see yourself. And then try to weave a story out of it. I think you'll have a much better chance of creating something original if you do it that way.