By Jonathan Monovich.

My favorite kinds of movies are ones that can feel relatable and simultaneously big/cinematic. When I can marry those two aspects in an interesting way, I get creatively excited.”

Have you ever imagined what it would look like if Jason Statham were replaced by a rebellious grandma in The Beekeeper (2024)? Well, Thelma (2024) provides an answer. The film is an absolute blast and one the best comedies in recent years. Writer/director/editor Josh Margolin’s debut feature film had the Music Box Theatre erupting with laughter at the 11th Chicago Critics Film Festival. Paying homage to the great revenge films of the 70s like Shaft (1971), Death Wish (1974) and Rolling Thunder (1977), Thelma takes a comedic spin on the genre in making it geriatric. Thelma follows 93-year-old Thelma Post (June Squibb) and her ferocious journey to reclaim her ten thousand dollars that were stolen from her in a malicious scam. Victim to telephone swindlers pretending to be her grandson, Daniel (Fred Hechinger), the kind-spirited Thelma willingly sends the money to the requestors as they dupe her into believing it is imperative to Daniel’s wellbeing. After marveling at Tom Cruise’s stunt work in Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) on television, Thelma accepts her self-started mission to reclaim what is rightfully hers. With phishing scams on the rise, it is very satisfying to see a feisty old woman initiate her enemies’ comeuppance. Even more rewarding is seeing June Squibb do it with Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree, in his final role as her old companion Ben. In need of transportation, Thelma goes to Ben’s nursing home and forcefully takes his scooter. The two embark on an adrenalin-filled thrill ride together that sets off a simultaneous journey by Thelma’s worried daughter Gail (Parker Posey), son-in-law Alan (Clark Gregg), and grandson Daniel to find her whereabouts.

Thelma does an excellent job of respectfully approaching the subject matter. The film was made by Margolin as a love letter to his grandmother, and Thelma will surely make viewers think about their grandmothers while watching it. I certainly did and am thankful for the wonderful memories I have had with mine. In seeing Thelma struggle to navigate her computer, fumble with her hearing aids, and become frustrated with her family’s questioning of her independence, it is fulfilling to see her prove them wrong. Furthermore, the film serves as a reminder that the elderly should be recognized for their wisdom. This is a sentiment that seems to unfortunately be lacking by many today. Timing is everything in comedy, and Thelma thrives in this regard. Margolin has written a wonderful script and has released it at the perfect moment. The same audience that dug Shaft when it came out over fifty years ago will surely enjoy Thelma as will film fans of all ages. Following the festival, I had the opportunity to speak with Margolin over Zoom about his background, inspirations, and goals for Thelma.

Thelma will be released exclusively in theaters by Magnolia Pictures on June 21st.

When I learned that your background is in improv and theater, I wasn’t all that surprised as Thelma is a movie that really brings out the best in its actors. The cast is terrific and I imagine that your acting experience must have helped you a great deal. Can you speak on writing/directing from an actor’s point of view?

I hope it helped. At the very least, I think it gave me some sense, albeit on a much smaller scale, what it feels like to be on that side of the camera and the vulnerability that comes with it. I also feel very lucky with the cast that we got. Being a first time director, it went a long way to have a cast that brought so much experience/talent and so much of themselves to the fold. The casting was super important to me, and that piece of the puzzle was really vital. This movie to me really lives and dies on tone. Furthermore, it lives and dies on believing this family’s legitimacy, that these people are related to and care about each other, and that they are a living/breathing unit that is closely interwoven. At each step of that process, my producers, Zoë Worth/Chris Kaye, my casting director, Jamie Ember, and I were very cognizant to make sure the building of this family made sense. I think when we were able to get the building blocks together, a lot of those elements started to take care of themselves because we had people who knew how to make those connections and sell the organic nature of it. I know that people say ‘casting is 90%’, and I think that’s true. If you can get the right people for the job, they will bring that thing that they do to it and they will ping off each other. I’m glad to know that it felt like a movie where its actors shined, because I was really thrilled with who we got. I think they all did a really wonderful job.

I think you struck gold with the cast! Speaking of tone, you’re no stranger to comedy, and Thelma is absolutely hilarious. I had the chance to see the film at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, and that was the most I’ve laughed in a long time.

Amazing! I was hoping I would get to go to that screening, but I couldn’t because of my schedule. I hear great things about that festival, though.

Thelma is also very moving and is a movie that I think just about everyone can relate to as it’s really about relationships. We see parent/child relationships, grandparent/grandchild relationships, and friendships. All of these relationships give us mixed emotions throughout the film. The script is also very tightly written. Was it a challenge to switch back and forth in tone and weave these relationships together, or was it mostly drawn from personal experience?

It was a challenge that really excited me! Part of the reason I really wanted to write and direct this one is because it’s obviously personal. It’s also married to this lo-fi/action seed that informs everything in exploring Thelma’s grit and singlemindedness. I tried to shrink those tropes down to an everyday scale. Tone was always top of mind. I wanted to find a way for the anxiety of the family and the tension of the escape to feed off each other with proper weight/treatment. I also wanted to let everyday human emotions ratchet up enough to become a little bit ‘genre.’ You have to calibrate it at every stage. For the script, it’s about making sure nothing feels pushed too far, totally out of the realm of possibility, or like we’re punching down/poking fun. I was always trying to engage with those tropes in a way that’s sincere. Simultaneously, I wanted to lean into the fun of those tropes but still give them stakes. Some of it was making sure we never tipped too far, at least unless we had given ourselves good runaway to get there, and also making sure that it was something my grandma would say. The fact that Thelma’s character is based off of my grandma, Daniel’s character is based on me, and his parents are inspired by my parents, I had some gut check abilities. I would stop and say “is this honest, or does it feel like it’s in the realm of possibility even if it’s a little bit fictionalized in a lot of those circumstances?”

In production we were always making sure we were playing it straight, not winking, and making sure everything is played earnestly. In turn, it’s hopefully funnier and more engaging. As for editing, music goes a long way and is a huge piece of tracing those different tones without feeling ‘gear shifty.’ Nick Chuba, our composer, worked really hard on the score and did a phenomenal job. It’s funny… we knew what it was going to sound like by the end, but the hardest part was the beginning and asking ‘where can we start to set up a world that’s relatively naturalistic with family dramedy vibes but can reasonably escalate into something that has them walking away from an explosion at the end?’ [laughs]. Figuring out where we knew we wanted to get to after finding the right starting pitch took some time and some experimenting, but I think that helped us a lot in terms of preserving tone.

That makes a lot of sense. I think you and your team did a great job with that balance in tone. It’s my understanding that you’re a Wesleyan alum. I’m a big fan of the writing of Jeanine Basinger, and I am excited for Alexander Payne’s upcoming documentary about her. I also think Sam Wasson is among the best contemporary writers on film history. Given that they were both professors at Wesleyan, I’m curious if you ever crossed paths with them and how your college years helped shape your style as a filmmaker?

I actually met with Jeanine at one point when I was looking at the school and had a really wonderful chat with her. She’s obviously brilliant, very accomplished, and has founded an incredible program. Ironically, I was actually a theater major and not a film major at Wesleyan, but I had some interactions with her and was familiar with the department. I worked on a lot of film projects on the side like film majors’ senior thesis projects, but my main focus was theater at the time. I was film department adjacent, but I was always in awe of what Jeanine built and the seriousness/care for which film is treated and studied at Wesleyan. I think it trickles into a lot of the art space at the school. It’s funny, the campus was basically broken into all of the arts on one side and then a lot of the older/more historic buildings on the other side. My one-on-one experience with Jeanine is limited, but I admire what she’s done and always felt like I got a glimpse into it even if I was a little bit to the side of it all. In general, Wesleyan was a great place to work creatively, experiment in trying different things to figure out your voice, and meet people who were trying to do the same things. I am very grateful for that, and I actually got very lucky in having that in high school too in Los Angeles at Harvard-Westlake. The theater and film department also took things very seriously in a way that was great for someone who loved those subjects from an early age. I met a lot of people both there and at Wesleyan that I still collaborate with today. The programs were wonderful, and the people that I met along the way are still very meaningful in my life both on a personal and creative level.

In production we were always making sure we were playing it straight, not winking, and making sure everything is played earnestly. In turn, it’s hopefully funnier and more engaging.”

A particular scene that stuck out to me in the film is when Thelma gets her inspiration to seek revenge against the scammers after watching Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) on her TV. Do you know if Tom Cruise has seen the film yet?

I don’t think he’s seen it yet, but he did give us permission to use that footage. We actually got that early on. We sent him that scene and a little clip of the table read, and we were able to get his sign off from there. We weren’t really sure it was going to happen, but when it did we were like ‘this is amazing,’ because it really is woven into the DNA of the movie. There’s actually a special thanks to him in the credits. I think some people think that’s a joke, but it’s also very real and our genuine way of saying thank you for letting us use this. We’re trying to get the movie in front of him. I think he’s running around filming the next Mission Impossible right now, but we’re hoping we can get his eyes on it at some point.

That’s pretty cool that you got his personal blessing! Going off of the Mission Impossible talk, I was wondering if there were any other references points for action films. To me, it seemed like the revenge films of the 70s were also parodied to a degree. Is that something you thought about while making Thelma?

Totally! I think even musically Lalo Schifrin was such a big inspiration for Nick, which obviously ties into Mission Impossible and also films of a certain era like Bullitt (1968) that had a certain tactile, gritty feeling to them. I wouldn’t call Thelma gritty, but it plays on some of the aesthetics of 70s action movies. Also, there’s the ‘Shaft of it all’. Having Richard Roundtree, who was just the best, paired with June and a little bit of that aesthetic made a lot of sense. In my mind I thought a lot about taking the filmic textured feel of a Noah Baumbach movie and mixing that with Mission Impossible. What’s funny is that when you do that, you kind of get a 70s action movie of sorts [laughs]. When you add these things together, it starts to equal that aesthetic and feeling. It was important to me that it had an organic quality that felt filmic and reminiscent of the action movies that June would have been coming up on. I guess the 70s would have been a little later, but that whole stretch of time in general lent itself nicely to a naturalistic feeling to some of the family aspects of the film. Those kinds of aesthetics were always top of mind and my director of photography, David Bolen, who is an incredibly talented guy, and I were always talking about how to bridge those two things. It’s kind of like what I was talking about with the music by starting in one place and figuring out how to get to the next by using a language that can lend itself to the escalation that it requires. It was always about experimenting, playing around, and trying to take things from those action movies but shrinking them down and doing them as practically as we could.

I love that era in filmmaking, so I very much appreciated that. June Squibb is just great in Thelma. Nebraska (2013)was a tough act to follow, but she really owns this role. Richard Roundtree also knocks it out of the park in the film for what is unfortunately his final role. As both Squibb and Roundtree have had such long-lasting careers with many iconic roles, which roles specifically convinced you they were right for the parts and what was it like when you approached them?

Thelma' Review: Granny Get Your Gun - The New York Times

It’s true! They both have such amazing and interesting careers. For June, I think the two that were top of mind were probably About Schmidt (2002) and Nebraska. I think Thelma is probably somewhere between those characters. In both of those films, June is so funny and affecting. Especially in Nebraska, she’s also so strong. There’s such a power to her that I think is essential for buying that this character is going to go to these lengths. She’s also like that in real life! Not only is she an amazing actor, but she also really has that quality. I thought that was really important. For Richard, I mostly associate him with Shaft, which was hard to shake. He’s only in one scene of Brick (2005), but he’s so good in it! I rewatched that scene a little bit before we talked with him and was reminded of how good of an actor he is. With Richard, the funny thing is that our Zoom call was what really tipped the scale. The second I started talking to him, he was just the warmest, loveliest, and most charming guy. I immediately thought ‘this is the guy!’ I think his desire to do something different, show a little bit of a softer side, and play something representative of his age and the vulnerabilities that come with it made all the sense in the world to me. I knew he was the man for the job, and I’m so glad that it was him.

I figured it was those films. I am a big fan of Nebraska, About Schmidt, and Shaft. It felt like there were elements of the Shaft films present in Thelma. For example, the score felt like it had little nods. Shaft felt like a very obvious reference point. Was it something you consciously were thinking about while making the film?

In a broad sense, yes. I don’t think there was a moment where we thought let’s make an actual nod to Shaft itself, but we were always thinking how do we make our own version of a Shaft theme or something like Bullitt, Dirty Harry (1971), and the films of that era. It was in the DNA of it for sure even if we weren’t trying to consciously nod to it super specifically. Obviously, when you have Richard and that aesthetic/feeling it’s going to hopefully signal that a little bit.

Definitely! While watching Thelma it also made me think a lot about my parents/grandparents and my appreciation for them. I know that this film is personal to you, but was that also a goal of yours to create something that would help bring together grandparents and their children/grandchildren after a long period of separation for many given the pandemic?

Yeah, I think subconsciously it was on my mind. To a point, I was hoping that people would connect to it and contact their grandparents and their family after watching it. When you make a movie, it’s hard to think of a result so to speak when you’re in the weeds. In the process, it almost takes the shape of a thought or a feeling that I really want to express. I hope that people connect to that feeling, are drawn to it, and see themselves and their lives in it. I at least thought that far. Now that it’s actually about to go out into the world, it’s been quite cool to talk to people after screenings and hear them say ‘I need to call my grandma’ or ‘I need to call my parents.’ I can’t say I planned it as such, but its icing on the cake. It’s a really wonderful facet of it actually starting to exist in the world because when I was setting out to get the film started I thought ‘if I could just get this made that alone would be a miracle!’ Then, if people like it, that too is a miracle! For it to make people want to go out and do something, I could not have foreseen that, but it seems to be having a positive effect. By making people feel some warmth towards the people in their lives, I think that is a good thing.

Do you have any projects that you’re working on at the moment, or is there anything that you would like readers to know about your future plans?

I’m working on a couple things right now. They’re all in early stages, so there’s nothing that’s quite taken shape fully as of yet. I’m excited to try to find ways to combine things that feel personal and also hopefully accessible and big in a way. My favorite kinds of movies are ones that can feel relatable and simultaneously big/cinematic. When I can marry those two aspects in an interesting way, I get creatively excited. I’m working on a few projects in that general area, but they’re all pretty early. Hopefully, there will be more on that soon.

Jonathan Monovich is a Chicago-based writer. His writing has been featured in Film International, Film Matters, Bright Lights Film Journal, and PopMatters.

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