Hot on the heels of the release of his new thriller Emelie, we sat down with director Michael Thelin to talk about his influences, working with child actors and the tribulations of low-budget filmmaking. After reading the interview, check out our review of Emelie.
Nathanael Hood: First off I’d like to congratulate you on Emelie, I thought it was an amazing film and I was very eager to speak with you about it.
Michael Thelin: Well thanks, man.
NH: One of the things that really interests me about this film was the way that it seemed to blend the horror and suspense genres. Would you personally consider Emelie to be a horror film, a suspense thriller, something of both?
MT: I would definitely think it was more thriller, in my opinion. Though I think it will definitely entice horror fans and be very interesting to people who aren’t diehard horror fans who just want to see a movie that will make them feel something.
NH: The reason I bring up horror is because I found Emelie to be kind of an inverse of John Carpenter’s Halloween. Halloween features a babysitter that’s desperately trying to keep a psychopathic killer out of a house and away from her children. Emelie is about a psychopathic babysitter trying to keep the children inside the house so she can hurt them. Was this a conscious homage? Or did that film influence you in any way?
MT: Yeah, it wasn’t an homage. Though I love the film and I definitely watched it before making Emelie. What I did take away from Halloween was that it has a lot of long, observatory-type takes. And that’s exactly what we wanted — to not make the film overtly subjective. But I’m not trying to geek out here from a cinema standpoint.
NH: Oh, please do!
MT: OK! It informed us a lot in terms of how we wanted to tell this type of story and therein lies some similarities because we both had limited funds. We didn’t have a ton of time for a boatload of coverage. But the DP [Luca Del Puppo] and I were so disciplined that even if we had to do a last-minute location or whatever, we stayed to our roles and we tried to keep the cinematic quality and integrity there. That was due in large part to films like Halloween.
NH: Another thing that really struck me as a similarity between Emelie and Halloween is that the violence itself isn’t that gory. Something that I think a lot of people don’t realize is that in the original Halloween film — while there are several kills — there really aren’t many gory moments where blood splatters all over the place or geysers of blood burst out of beds like in A Nightmare on Elm Street. The violence is frequently just suggested. I mean, there is that scene where Emelie attacks Anna, the real babysitter. But in my opinion the most violent moments of the film are shown offscreen, like when Emelie shows Sally and Christopher their parents’ sex tape. We don’t actually see the sex tape, we just see what happens to the kids as they watch it.
MT: I think there’s a lot of thought put into that — it’s a Hitchcockian standpoint, ya know? And even in movies like Jaws and Scarface. I mean, we think that Scarface is so violent but for people like us who’ve watched the film a hundred times, we know that the violence is frequently done from an auditory standpoint and offscreen.
NH: Do you mean the original Howard Hawks’ Scarface or Brian De Palma’s Scarface?
MT: De Palma. There’s definitely a lot of violence there, but there’s less than I think I remember as a young man. It’s so implied—like the shower scene.
NH: The one with the chainsaw death, yeah!
MT: Exactly. That’s the kind of scene I’m talking about. It’s more implied violence than gore. Even though cinema is a visual art form, there’s so much to be said for audio and sound design. To be honest, everyone’s mind is probably a lot more violent than almost any movie. Some people actually asked if I ever considered showing the parents’ sex tape. And it never crossed my mind because I knew that leaving it to the audience’s imagination would be more powerful. It was a goal of ours to do a lot of things off-camera. Obviously from a budget standpoint it was a good idea. But even more importantly, it was a good filmmaking decision.
NH: Now, I mentioned Carpenter and you mentioned Hitchcock. Are there any other films, genres or directors that influence you and influenced this movie?
MT: Yeah, I mean Michael Haneke — how can you not mention Haneke? The DP and I both adore Haneke. I also love David Fincher. And I know these are more current-day directors, but I still think they have such a mastery of this art form. Going back a bit, I like a lot of David Lynch’s stuff. Even if I don’t like one of Lynch’s movies, I still love how he went about doing it. He kinda marched to his own drum.
NH: What inspired the story of Emelie?
MT: Richard Raymond, the film’s screenwriter, showed me a five page short story he had written about a really bad babysitter. And I was like: “Wait a second! There’s something here!” So I started doing some research and found that there really hadn’t been a messed up babysitter storyline. So that got me more excited to pursue it further. And Rich is great — he’s such a mild-mannered guy you would never expect someone like him to be into stuff like this. So we sat down and fleshed everything out: the characters, the story. Then he went away and penned the screenplay. A lot of lesser writers would have been very intimidated by the amount of restraints placed on such a film involving child actors and all of that.
NH: Well, the casting was fantastic. What was it like to work with three young children? Especially considering the film’s dark material?
MT: Well, we actually lost our main two kids 72 hours before we started shooting. So what you’re seeing in the film is me rehearsing with the new child actors. I had to right away get into their good graces so they trusted me. And thankfully we had an amazing support staff who handled the kids when I wasn’t around. So it really gave them a sense of comfort. And I think it shows onscreen because the kids all gave very natural performances.
NH: Now tell me: is Sarah Bolger [the actress who played the titular psycho babysitter] really that scary in real life?
MT: She’s one of the least scary people on earth! It’s so ironic! She’s kinda like an Irish Disney princess walking the earth. She has so much talent and such marvelous range. To be honest, she didn’t really have a lot of time either to prepare for the role while we were shooting. But we ended up calling her “One-Take Sarah” because a lot of the stuff you’re seeing in the film was the first take. Which was great because, as much as I love Fincher, I just don’t have the time with my child actors to do 50 takes.
NH: So I have one last question. Do you have any future film projects lined up?
MT: Yeah, I’m currently in the midst of rewriting an amazing playwright out of London. It’s a thriller about a serial killer. It’s great. We’re working with Oscar-nominated producers! There are two other scripted things that I’m also attached to. There’s nothing that I can say that we’re shooting in two months, but we’re also looking into some longer format stuff.