‘Thelma’ Director Got the Blessing of June Squibb, Tom Cruise 5

There are multiple ways a director might make an action comedy centered on a nonagenarian. The concept brings to mind gags about medication and pratfalls with walkers and canes. There could also be a saccharine, hit-you-over-the-head message about life being too short.

Then there is Thelma, which avoids potential pitfalls and parody to offer a truly original and funny take on aging, and those who care for the aged.

June Squibb stars as the eponymous hero, who is the victim of a scam when someone pretending to be her grandson (Fred Hechinger) asks for $10,000 to help free him from jail, a common real life phone scam. (On Thursday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the San Diego FBI recovered over $3 million lost by elderly victims of similar scams.) When the cops prove no help, Thelma resolves to get the money back on her own, along the way commandeering a scooter and an accomplice, Ben, played by Richard Roundtree in his final role.

While there wasn’t much in the way of Hollywood comps for a film like Thelma, the filmmakers found some true believers. “June is a very powerful centerpiece,” says the director of his star in her first leading role in a seven decades-long stage and screen career. “It’s like, I don’t want to say ‘no’ to June Squibb. Look at this person!” Buzz was strong coming out of the Sundance Film Festival, where the film premiered and was eventually sold to Magnolia. The indie distributor is now launching Thelma as its largest theatrical release to date.

Ahead of the film hitting theaters on June 21, Margolin talks landing Squibb, stunts and getting the okay from Tom Cruise.

Your real-life grandmother Thelma, who is now 104, was scammed out of money when someone she thought was you called and said they were in jail. At what point did you find Thelma in that story?

A very early version had him actually getting taken in some way, and she had to get him back. It was crazy and it didn’t quite work. But there was something in the idea of her getting duped and having to get revenge. The conceit became she sends the money and decides she needs to get it back. The simplicity of that and that fact that it’s not a major leap from reality made me go: This is exciting. Then I started having a lot of fun just trying to take very real traits and characteristics and behaviors that I see in my grandma and funnel them through the action genre in as low-key way as possible.

When you hang around older adults there is a lot of talk about aging, death, and general mortality that can, at times, be macabre but more often than not is hilarious. You really captured this juxtaposition in Thelma’s humor.

Tone was just always really on my mind. The idea of what excited me about [Thelma], beyond concept, was the idea of trying to really take it seriously. My grandma is naturally so funny. There’s so many things about the matter of fact-ness of the way she moves through the world. There’s something about the way she’s both able to chuckle at things, and also still kind of marvel at things and also kind of called bullshit on other things, which I think comes with being a certain age. I wanted to bring that sensibility to the movie. I was very protective of the tone because it’s very easy to tip into broad and silly and feel like we’re punching down. It’s also very easy to get really sentimental or heavy because these things are serious. It was always my gut check to go: Would my grandma say this? And how would she say this? Or, have I heard her say this?

You didn’t infantilize the experiences of older adult, and you also didn’t shy away from the hard truths of aging. How do you tow that line?  

So much of the movie is about the temptation to do that, wishing you could control somebody’s actions for your own peace of mind. That’s a debate I’ve often had with myself and my family and grandma. So much of her sense of self is drawn from usefulness. She has always been so on top of things, proactive, and sometimes pushing past her limits and getting hurt. But I do think that type of personality is often the type of person who lives that long, despite the bumps and bruises along the way. It’s somebody who’s willing to push themselves 10 percent past what they maybe should be doing. The notion of autonomy and holding on to your sense of self at an age when other things start to slip away from you was just something I’ve been thinking about a lot, and wanted to be respectful of, while also being honest about it. She’s saying, “There are other 104-year-olds who are doing a lot more than me.” And, I’m like, “Who?” But that’s always a conflict for her, so I wanted to be respectful of that.

How did June come on board?

I always wanted it to be June, she just always felt like the only person for the part. It was pretty hard to imagine anybody else.

Why was that?

She has a great mix of grit and vulnerability and humor and can be really funny in an organic way. She also just really reminds me of my grandma; it’s a gumption. I was lucky though in that I had a friend, Beanie Feldstein, and I’ve known her forever. She had just done a movie with June. She was like, “Do you want me to send us to June?” She very generously shared it with her and then June read it, and we got on a call for maybe half an hour, where she just asked me a couple of questions. She was like, “Okay. I’ll do it. I’m in.”

The movie is a send-up of the action genre and directly references Mission: Impossible movies, with clips, and Tom Cruise. Did you have to get his permission?

It came during production. We shot two versions of those scenes, one with Tom on [TVs and newspapers] and then one with like a replaceable green box. It was surprisingly smooth. Nicky Weinstock, who’s a producer on the movie, was at the same agency as him and has some pals in common there. We ended up sending the scene in the script to give him a little context and then a clip of the table read. We got his sign off and then we went to Paramount, which I suspect made things a lot easier there.

Thelma builds so much suspense by just having your lead walk up a set of stairs. How did you go about creating tension through seemingly low-stakes moments?

The notion with all of that stuff was to try to play it as straight as possible and to try to treat it like an action movie. We took the techniques from bigger movies that are in the business of building suspense and shrunk them down to something every day. It was about trying to find ways with my DP, David Bolen, to shrink those tropes down. The joke is never that we cut wide and there she is little and slowly going across the street. We always want to be in it with her, we always want to be on the ride, as opposed to winking at it. We are trying to build suspense and fill them with as much tension as possible but also not to overshoot them, so it feels like we’re doing parody.

What did the stunt coordination look like on this movie?

Stunts in this movie are defined differently than in your average movie. We had a great stunt double, Heidi, for June and our stunt coordinator Ryan Sturs did a wonderful job. But June did a lot. She did a lot more than we thought she was going to do. She did a lot of scooter driving. We were trying to find a way if we could rig the scooter and pull it through the hallways, but she wanted to do it. It was definitely the ethos of the movie and the Mission: Impossible of it all; she’s doing it herself. She is leaping up on beds and rolling over the mattresses. “Bed roll” is something she loves to say, and I don’t know if that was a stunt term, but it is, now. There is a long walking shot, when she is on her way to the post office. That was one of the more nerve wracking things to film. It was our Tom Cruise running shot, her hustling down the sidewalk. In another movie, not a stunt.

What do you want audiences to see in June’s performance?

I hope they’ll appreciate her resilience and her ability to do things we sort of never thought someone her age could do. The way June did this movie and did so many stunts and led the pack and made us all have to match her, I hope people find it inspiring and also relatable. I hope it inspires people not to count people out.

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