A glance at Michael Thelin’s resume shows he is one of the most multi-faceted directors working in the industry today. Since his company’s launch in 2004, his projects have been shown at top film festivals, including SXSW, and aired on broadcast and cable television networks. He has collaborated with entertainment companies and musicians including Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, Stone Temple Pilots, The Flaming Lips, Janelle Monae, Blake Shelton, and Cee Lo Green, and done work for top consumer brands like Amex, Facebook, Heinz, Nike, Procter & Gamble, General Mills and MLB. In 2016, Thelin has tackled one of his most ambitious and creatively satisfying projects to date. His feature film debut, “Emelie,” just hit theaters and is thrilling audiences around the nation.
“Emelie” starts innocently enough, as two parents head out for a date in the city, leaving their three young children with their new babysitter, Anna (Sarah Bolger of “Into the Badlands” and “Once Upon a Time”). She seems like a dream come true: she’s sweet, fun, and lets them break their parents’ rules. However, as Anna’s interactions with them take on a more sinister tone, the kids realize their caretaker may not be who she claims. Soon it’s up to big brother Jacob to protect his siblings from the increasingly nefarious intentions of a very disturbed woman whose weapon is trust and whose target is innocence. Featuring tour-de-force performances from Bolger and its three young leads, “Emelie” is a multidimensional, nail-biting thriller that asks the question: how can you put an end to horror after you’ve already let it in?
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with director Michael Thelin to discuss his unique journey as a filmmaker, how his diverse skill set influenced his first feature, the challenges he faced along the way and what the future holds for him behind the camera!
When it comes to your career, you have a diverse resume. I want to start by going back to the start. What was it about directing that made you want to pursue it as a career? What lit your creative fire?
It kind of goes back to when I was 7 or 8 years old and I would make these SNL-style parody commercials. I did that with my friends and didn’t realize how much I would really enjoy it. It was something that stuck with me throughout the years. I eventually had the opportunity to do a non-profit PSA and it all felt very natural. That is kind of how I got my start in all of this. From there, I ended up having an NBC show for a couple of years, commercials were next, then television specials and music and all of that. The whole time I found myself wanting to do more long form stuff but, at the same time, I wanted to find the right project that would have some money, so it was a skin of my teeth kind of thing. Even though we didn’t have much for “Emelie,” it was still enough to get it done.
Was there anyone behind the scenes, maybe other directors who inspired you, who served as mentors? Did anyone give you insight and help move you along in becoming a director?
What a good question. You know, I started out directing, I didn’t work as a P.A., and had this person mentor me into this, then become an editor and then a D.P. and then a director. I have always gone right for that chair and understood the big picture of things. That is kind of in my nature. I definitely have a showrunner mind where I am always thinking macro. I think any director has to think macro. At the end of the day, a director can be good but they are only as good as all of their department heads. Really knowing that, embracing it and making sure that I really seek out the best talent that can surround me, that do a way better job at their job than I ever could, has been very important. That has stuck with me throughout the years, knowing what I don’t know, embracing it, faking it and not being scared of it. I think other artists can smell that but also they don’t appreciate it. They don’t want to be lied to or faked. That is why I have always tried to shoot it straight to everyone, even if they sometimes don’t want to hear it!
What was it about “Emelie” that made it the right project for your first feature? What spoke to you about it?
I think the babysitter trope seems like it has been played out over the years, which saying that to start off with is ironic. When I looked deeper into what this story was about, it did feel very unique in terms of her being the antagonist and it all taking place over one night, which had me excited logistically. I have always been drawn to the antagonist in a lot of stories, not always the protagonist. For example, Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” or “No Country For Old Men” have the most unbelievable antagonists! For some reason, those characters always intrigued me the most in terms of making sure they were layered. Emelie is very layered in my opinion. I know she does kind of psychotic things but the biggest thing for me was to find an actor who understood that she is not just crazy and, in fact, she is not crazy in her own mind. Sarah [Bolger] really got that! Literally, within 30 seconds of talking to her, I knew she got it. So many people we talked to were like, “Oh yeah, this chick is pretty crazy.” I get it in passing but when you want to do something serious about it, you have to make sure that actor really understands there is a lot of layers to this person.
When you entered into the project, what were your goals and expectations for the film creatively? Did you have anything you were really anxious to try with this film?
Yeah! I come from a strong music background, so playing with music and the lack of any sound, even though it is a visual medium, was something I wasn’t sure how was going to play out until we really started getting into the edit. I knew it would play a huge role, which is why I am bringing it up now in terms of how it would effect the film. We also really wanted to stick to our rules. The D.P. on the project, Luca Del Puppo, brought so much to the table. He is from AFI and he hasn’t done a lot of films and yet he felt very seasoned. I felt very comfortable with him. We made a set of rules that we wouldn’t break at certain parts of the script because we had to jump around so much, sometimes we literally had to steal a location in an instant. We had to make sure that we stuck to the rules and that we knew from a cinematic standpoint how we wanted to shoot these scenes versus being able to storyboard it and block it out weeks ahead of time. Even doing it days ahead of time was something we did not have the luxury of on this one.
Building on that a bit and how things may have evolved during the shoot, what were the biggest challenges? Is there anything you were glad you were able to include that you might not have expected?
Yeah. The kids that we got for this movie, we actually had to cast 48 hours before we started shooting. Logistically, the producers ran into some sort of problem with the main kids but I’m not sure what it was. I have shot with kids before but not to this extent and not with this subject matter. The reason I bring that up is because we literally had to adjust on the fly. We were shooting rehearsals with these kids. To be honest, other than Joshua [Rush] there was not a ton of experience. Kids trying to act is pretty obvious. There is nothing you can do to make it not be super transparent or robotic. I think it is just a level of comfort you have to get with the individual child. Once you reach a certain level, then they trust you and you can make it a game. That is how we were able to get these performances. To answer the question, I don’t think on the written page these kids were as adorable. They had some great lines and some of the lines that didn’t make it were hilarious but they weren’t necessarily on tone and they also didn’t feel natural coming out of these particular actors mouths. I wouldn’t say there was a lot of improv but I would read the situation and then I would talk to Luca about how we wanted to set this up and then we would let it play out. As you have seen, the kids are amazing! It was that behind-the-scenes manipulation, in a very positive way, to get the kind of looks or gestures, whatever it may be, from child actors is a tricky thing.
You are a seasoned professional at what you do but I am sure you still learn something new with each project. What is the biggest lesson you learned in bringing this film to life?
That is a great question! You are right, I have been doing this for a while in terms of all different types of stuff. I would say, don’t let anyone tell you, “Oh, it’s your first film, you don’t get it.” I feel that is something people throw in other people’s faces a lot. I feel like it could lend itself a little bit here and there but I think you need to just really trust your instincts. Even though I have done this for so long, I haven’t done something like this in terms of a marathon type of shoot. I am used to the shorter ones, more episodic I guess. Don’t fall for someone telling you, “You don’t get it because it is your first film.” I’m not saying I got a ton of that on this project but as the whole process was starting, before the producers were on board, there is a lot of that which goes around. I think it’s crap to be honest! If you know what you want as a director, you have to stay steadfast but you have to stay flexible. That is one thing that was really helpful from my past experience. Even though this was my first feature, I know what it is like to have to be flexible. If one day we have to shoot seven pages and another day we have to shoot more or less, whatever it is, you always have to be fluid in terms of what your goals are each day. Those are the two big things I have learned. Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t get it but, at the same time, understand this whole art form is liquid, always moving and flexible. There is nothing very rigid in the filmmaking process, at least in my experience, I can’t speak for everyone. That is my two cents on it!
You were a part of many unique projects. What has been the biggest challenge of your career but, at the same time, the most rewarding?
When it comes to my past work, everyone keeps coming back for this, that or the other, so it is always challenging each time. I kind of equate it to some of the younger people that work with me as each job is like starting your own business. It starts as nothing but an idea in your head and, at the end of the day, you have to deliver a project and then it is done. I find that very rewarding as an entrepreneur too. I feel like the biggest challenge for me was letting go a little bit more from the producing side on a film like this and watching others work for the greater good. I obviously have my hands in a lot of things on my projects and I am a stickler for details! To be honest, there are a lot of people in this business who maybe aren’t as disciplined as I would maybe like. To let that go on a movie like this, being my first foray, and I would definitely like to do more, was a big challenge. I mean, I don’t want to do 100 films but I might like to do a handful that speak to me and totally make sense for me. That was the biggest thing I learned and took away from this: trusting other people. I know that seems very vague but it is hard to do when something feels very precious to you and there are other people in the position to make a big difference and you have to let that go and trust that they will do the job they need to do.
I think that is definitely relatable for anyone in a creative field. When you have your hands in so many different areas, it can be hard to let go sometimes. It is cool to hear that it is not just me! [laughs]
Right, exactly! Writing is very similar!
You mentioned having a desire to do future films. Where do you see yourself headed? Is there something out there you are anxious to tackle?
Yeah! There is this great UK playwright, who I am actually re-writing a feature for and I am attached to direct. It is about a serial killer of all things but it’s definitely something I found interesting tonally. I like things to kind of unwind slowly and for them to be rewarding, in one way or another, for the viewer as well as myself as a director. I am definitely going to stay more in this thriller genre. I think that is definitely up my alley but, as people can see, I can probably do a musical at this point with the extensive music background I have! I do love stuff like that and I do love music. I think my true calling is telling stories that tonally match my taste and that I feel is a story that hasn’t been told a bunch of times before. Obviously, I am going to tell a story my own way. There is no such thing as a brand new story, we all know that. I think if you tell stories that tonally match your taste, it is something everyone buys into in a director. Whether you like Kubrick, Fincher or any of these guys, you like them because, in my opinion, at the end of the day you like their taste. I definitely want to keep evolving my taste and my palette for, hopefully, years to come!
As a fan of your work, I can’t wait to see where you go next! I am sure we will be talking again soon!
Thanks for the great questions. Thank you so much for your time!