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Thelma: The Director’s Journey with Josh Margolin

Backed by a remarkable 98 % Rotten Tomatoes score and a veteran cast, Thelma is the story of a 93 year old retiree who finds herself the victim of a scam and seeks her revenge. We’ll learn about this indie film’s journey with director Josh Margolin.

Josh Margolin

Josh Margolin, Filmmaker, Thelma

Josh Margolin is a writer, director, editor and actor from Los Angeles. He co-wrote, edited and starred in the absurdist horror-comedy DEEP MURDER, which premiered at the LA Film Festival in 2018 and ran theatrically before streaming on Paramount+. Previously, Josh co-created the digital series MY BOYFRIEND IS A ROBOT for Freeform, and has developed projects with TBS, Sony Pictures Television, Olive Bridge and Paul Feig’s Powderkeg. He performed over 100 shows with One Night Stand: An Improvised Musical, which was produced by Marc Platt and had sold-out runs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as well as appearances in the The New York Musical Theater Festival and a limited run in Los Angeles. THELMA is Josh’s feature directorial debut.

Jim 00:00

Welcome to the Inside. After two years of strikes and disruptions in the movie business, Hollywood is gearing up for the all important summer season with a wide variety of films created to get moviegoers back into their local cinemas. Along with new installments of fan favorites including Deadpool, Mad Max, and the Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, are a series of comedies including The Fall Guy, Despicable Me and the most unconventional film of them all, Thelma, a new independent feature from Magnolia Pictures. The result is a summer menu of movies promising something for everyone. I am Jim Chabin in Los Angeles and today you’ll meet the creator behind one of this summer’s most anticipated films. After premiering to stellar reviews at the Sundance Film Festival, the movie Thelma has achieved a remarkable 98 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics calling it hilarious, sweet, and great fun. It’s the first feature film as a director for Josh Margolin, with a veteran ensemble cast led by Academy Award nominee June Squibb, along with Richard Roundtree, Parker Posey, Malcolm McDowell, and White Lotus alum Fred Hechinger. The New York Post raved that Thelma is what a wild Mission: Impossible might look like, starring a 94 year old senior playing the Tom Cruise role. Here to explain what all the buzz is about, we are thrilled to welcome the director of Thelma, Josh Margolin. He joins us from Los Angeles. Hello, Josh. 

Josh 01:28

How you doing, James? Thanks for having me. 

Jim 01:30

Call me Jim. It’s great to have you. I saw this film this week in a special screening, and I see why everyone is talking about this movie. It’s, as I said, it’s unconventional, but it is sweet and heartfelt, and I just want to start by telling our audience, in a nutshell, Thelma’s a story about a grandmother who gets scammed for $10,000 in cash. And along with her grandson and friends from a retirement home, she heads out on a mission of justice to find the scammers and get her money back. She uses tricks that James Bond might envy. She finds a gun and uses a scooter and it is quite a ride. First of all, what was the inspiration for it? 

Josh 02:12

Well, thank you for saying that. The inspiration was something that actually happened to my grandma, which is pretty much what happens in the movie. Basically, she got one of these calls from someone pretending to be me, saying that I had been in a car accident and I needed to be bailed out. My family, you know, naturally went into a state of chaos, but luckily in real life, we were able to sort of stop her before she actually sent the money, but it got my wheels turning because my grandma, Thelma, in real life has been someone who’s always been sort of a towering figure for me. So seeing her taken advantage of that way, got me imagining what it might be like if she had sent the money and she had set out to get it back, which honestly, I think is exactly what she would have done. So, that was the genesis at least. 

Jim 02:57

So this literally is named for your grandmother.

Josh 02:59

Yeah, the name of the movie is just her real name. I was trying to figure out if there was another name. Other characters were originally named after, you know, myself and family members and those since evolved, but the yeah, Thelma just felt like it had to stay Thelma. 

Jim 03:11

How old is your grandmother now?

Josh 03:13

My grandma is 103 years old. 

Jim 03:14

Oh my gosh. 

Josh 03:16

She’s, yeah, she’s living with my parents. She’s living in my old room actually, which is a sort of a funny bit of symmetry now, but she’s she’s hanging in. She’s hanging in. 

Jim 03:24

Has she seen the film? 

Josh 03:25

She has, she has. The first time she saw it. In early days, I wanted to show it to her, you know, as soon as possible, but we didn’t have a mix or anything. And unfortunately she couldn’t really hear it, but she got to sort of take it in. And then luckily we got to show it to her again with the final mix, when everything was sort of, when it had all its, all its bells and whistles. And I think it finally kind of hit her as the ode to her that it is. So I was really grateful to get to share it with her. 

Jim 03:49

From the moment you had the inspiration until you had a working script, what was that period like? How long was that? 

Josh 03:56

You know, I wrote the movie in 2019, I think in earnest. And then there was sort of a pause, obviously, in 2020 for various reasons. And I think it was probably late that year when I teamed up officially with my partners, Zoë Worth and Chris Kaye, who produced the movie. Zoë I had known forever. We’d worked together. We’d been in each other’s things, written together, et cetera. And and she had had a long working relationship with Chris. And we had a weekly writers group, so I brought this in and they really sparked to it. 

Jim 04:25

Well, I think what people are going to be blown away by when they see this movie is, it’s starring a 94 year old June Squibb as Thelma. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska and Fred Hechinger as her grandson. You also brought along Richard Roundtree. This was his final film before his passing. Malcolm McDowell, Parker Posey, Clark Gregg, quite an amazing cast. What were the conversations like when you first approached them and explained your high concept movie? 

Josh 04:57

It was, I felt lucky to have everyone we had. We, pretty early in the process, I, you know, I’d always had June in mind for the movie. And I was lucky that I had a pal, one of my sister’s dearest, oldest friends, Beanie Feldstein, who had just done a movie with her. She’d just done The Humans with June. And she basically said, I hope you’re thinking of June for the movie. And I, I told her like, yeah, that’s, that’s who I’ve always, that’s who I’ve dreamed it would be. And, and she very generously read the script. And then we got on about, maybe a 30 minute phone call and basically by the end of it, she said, look, you can use my name. That’ll matter to some people. It won’t matter to others. But as far as I was concerned, it mattered quite a bit to me. So yeah, I was really excited to get her in early. 

Jim 05:39

If she’s not an inspiration for all of us at 94 to still be making movies and good ones. And this is no small part. It’s, it’s there’s a lot of work in this. You’re an actor. What was it like working with these veterans? What do you absorb from them when you’ve got them together and you’re working with them that impresses you or touches you in some way? 

Josh 06:00

Yeah, I think I felt, I’ll say I felt in really good hands. In that, I think, with that group, everybody took their jobs, even on what is obviously a comedy, took their jobs very seriously, which was part of the ethos of kind of how I wanted to approach the movie anyways, which is to play things straight, to keep the stakes, keep the tension, and also, you know, mine the comedy from playing it earnestly, and I think that whole group of performers were, I was definitely intimidated to work with a lot of them, but that luckily kind of went away once you got into the rhythm of it, because they all brought so much to the roles. They all brought both what was on the page and more in terms of just bringing themselves, bringing their many years of experience to be able to tap in. 

Jim 06:44

There’s a confidence you feel from them emanating in the movie and in the story. It’s that they don’t feel to be acting. It’s how they present themselves that is so persuasive and enjoyable. Entertainment Weekly’s headline called Thelma, “a rollicking good time.” Not a bad headline for Entertainment Weekly’s review. How difficult was it creating an action movie that also has to be at its heart thoughtful gentle, but also comedic film. Is it like the toughest thing you’ve ever done?

Josh 07:16

Probably. I think that’s what excited me about the movie in the first place was that was sort of the tightrope walk of the tone, which was that we never wanted the action stuff to feel like parody or reference. We wanted to use those tropes and shrink them down to explore aging and autonomy and anxiety and sort of explore those really human relatable things, things that I certainly think about quite a bit through the lens of that genre. And so I think what was helpful in a way is that since so much of it was inspired by real people in my life, you know, a real event, a real central character, even though she’s doing things she hasn’t necessarily done in life. That was always kind of a north star for me, of trying to make sure that everything she did felt like something push come to shove, I could imagine my grandma sort of back against the wall needing to do. 

Jim 08:04

When you’re working on a comedy beat where you want something to hit, do you pull someone in and say, here, have a look at this and see if it hits right. 

Josh 08:13

You know, definitely eventually I think at first I enjoy sort of the rhythms of that so much myself and trying to find those little, you know, try to keep it feeling naturalistic, but have some comedic rhythm to it and punctuation and finding that marriage to something I get excited about. So I do a decent amount of it just in my own kind of tinkering. And then I definitely, you know, I show, my partner, Chloe, who has probably seen clips of this more than anyone should ever have to. And then, you know, my producers, I mean, Chris, I would show them little snippets here and there before presenting to some of our other other team and sort of beyond. But it was, I think, oftentimes I would kind of be in the cave for a bit and then come out and show. A little bit of a larger swath. 

Jim 08:54

Early in your career, you were a performer in improv theater. You said in an interview recently about Thelma that making a plan is as important as straying from it. How did your improv background affect your directing style?

Josh 09:08

That’s a great question. I think, you know, probably obliquely in my mind, it’s like, in improv, you have to trust your fellow performers. You’re all out there sort of, you know, without a net, so to speak. So you learn, I think, pretty quickly to have an inherent trust for your collaborators and for the people you’ve chosen to kind of go out on stage with. And I think in finding that with actors as a director, that sort of inherent trust, I think it gave me some amount of confidence to get out of the way sometimes. Because I think it’s also a temptation, I know I have this temptation sometimes to, you know, you want to over explain you want to just drill down on something you want to make sure it’s as specific as it was in your head. And while there’s merit to that, when you’re there on the day and things emerge, I’d like to think that maybe that background of performance and of improv gave me a little extra comfort in. adapting to just changing circumstances. Something’s not working the way you imagined it would be. Great, let’s throw that out. Let’s adjust. Let’s widen out. Let’s try a different angle. Let’s try a different approach. So I think at the very least, even if it’s not a one to one, it probably instilled a certain inherent trust in a fellow performer and knowing sometimes that if something’s not working, we’re going to find it and it just might take a little bit of wiggling around to get there.

Jim 10:23

That ability to land comedic points is you know, it’s the old, you know drama is easy comedy is hard, right? Is that something that you hope to do again? Is it something that you feel like, do you have a sense that you’ve got a knack for it? 

Josh 10:37

Well, you know, it’s something that I’ve always loved. It’s something that I’ve always done in some capacity, be it, you know, coming up doing improv or sort of sketch comedy into writing sort of more narrative but comedically leaning material. I think the way I thought about it on this movie, weirdly enough, was I wanted it to be funny. And obviously the script is conceived of something that is inherently probably a little bit funny in combining the two things we combine. But I also wanted to make sure that the jokes also always felt woven into the, the drama of it, so to speak, or the build. So I think for me, I love comedy. I grew up loving comedy. It’s definitely been a big part of my life. And something I think in terms of what I want to be making, I think it’s definitely something that plays in that sandbox and some things I could see skewing a little bit more dramatic, a little bit more comedic, but I think where those things meet is something that’s particularly exciting to me and trying to find ways to sort of marry them.

Jim 11:29

You edited this film. 

Josh 11:31

I did. 

Jim 11:32

You edited what, on Adobe Premiere? 

Josh 11:34

On Premiere, yes, exactly. 

Jim 11:36

Is the film that you sat down to edit the one you had in your head when you were writing your script? Or did you find that you were editing something that was somewhat different than your original thought?

Josh 11:48

I’d say a good, a good percentage of it felt like what I set out to make, which I was relieved to find but not without exception. There’s definitely scenes, there’s definitely sections that on the page felt really necessary or required a certain amount of length, or sort of real estate in the movie and in the edit, we’d be like, you know what, we don’t, we actually don’t need this. Like, this is kind of felt already, or this feels like we’ve gotten this information by now and now we’re kind of sitting in the scene and we’re chatting about it. Things like that where you, things that aren’t as immediately apparent that you’ve absorbed when you’re reading it on the page versus when it’s on its feet. I’d say that’s where there were some real trims and shaping that I think departed a little bit from maybe how I imagined a certain moment playing out. 

Jim 12:33

At what point during this process, whether it’s editing or otherwise, do you get to a point where you have a sense of confidence or self of presence of saying, I got this I’m liking where this is going, I think we’re gonna get this. Or are you in that constant concern that all is lost? 

Josh 12:49

I’d say it’s two steps forward and one step back. Like, there’s times when you’re like, okay, good. We’re, we’re getting this, we’re making our day. We’re getting what we need. This is feeling good. And then there’s days where you’re suddenly you’re halfway through the day and you’re like, oh my God, we got to get through this. We’re, we’re, we haven’t hit this. We haven’t nailed this. I would say, if you asked me at the end of one day, I might say one thing. If you asked me at the end of another, I might say something else. 

Jim 13:10

And during the editing process, when you start to really see it coming together, what’s that feeling when you have a sense of saying, I have a feel for what this is going to look like. And I think I’m going to be really proud of this. Or do you ever have that confidence during that process or not? 

Josh 13:26

You know, it’s funny. It’s like, you have enough confidence to kind of charge ahead somehow to kind of keep going, like, all right, we’re still charging toward that final destination. But I do think. There’s things that feel exciting as you’re starting to piece them together and you’re like, oh, this is working. This is feeling great, great, great. And then, you know, you can get to a scene where you’re like, okay, this is, this is something like what I imagined, but there’s something, okay, I’m gonna have to come back to that. And so what we do is try to get through kind of a draft of an assembly in a way. And then, you know, each day I would usually kind of spread back through make a few little tweaks and then keep moving forward. Because for me, I can also easily get lost. Just one scene and stay in there forever. So I tried to actively kind of keep charging, but I’d say it’s fits and starts. There’s sections where you’re feeling like, okay, good, this is lining up. And sections where you’re like, okay, I’m going to have to come back to this, but we’re not, we’re not so far gone. 

Jim 14:14

This film, it’s comedy. It’s a comedy action film, I guess. Addresses some pretty great themes. It’s a snapshot, I think, of issues that are a part of our culture right now, including the complexities of aging, the role technology plays in our lives, the family dynamics of trying to care for our parents, and even the sinister role that scammers play on us, on our phones every day. The world’s a complex place. What do you think this film says about what gets us through all of the craziness that life throws at us?

Josh 14:51

You know, I hope on some level, it encourages us not to count people out who you might be quick to, but I also hope sort of on the, you know, the flip side of the coin is that there’s also no shame in needing support systems. I think that’s always kind of the dichotomy of it that I know I struggle with in my own life with my own grandma and my own, you know, family of just trying to figure out those lines between, like, what is caring for someone and what is sort of, taking care of my own anxiety above their own well being. Like, where is the line between those things sometimes, which can get blurred. 

Jim 15:26

 From the very first part of this film until the very last moment, the core, I thought, of the film was the love and friendship between a grandmother and her grandson. They’re the glue that makes you, it hits you in the heart. You, I think, have really captured, I think you referred to it, the anxiety of impending loss of a loved one. What do you conclude after making this film about how to approach the anxiety of the people we love? We know that we’re going to lose eventually. What’s the lesson there? 

Josh 15:59

Honestly, I wish I knew. I think it’s to me, I think a big part of it. And it’s something that, you know, I’m honestly still working through in my own self, I think. But I think a big part of it and a big piece of what I wanted to explore in the movie was, I think there is something to the fact that A, you’ll never really be ready and B, making how you feel about that person known to that person might be a small step in the right direction. At least for me, as someone who’s not always, it takes some reminding sometimes to remember if I’ve expressed how I’m feeling to somebody about them in my life. And I think that’s something I think about quite a bit. 

Jim 16:35

You told an interviewer that aging can be a heroic act in itself. This was the last film Richard Roundtree made before he passed away. How did the actors handle the poignancy of the film? And they had physical challenges to make it. How did all that, what was the vibe around that?

Josh 16:54

I think, or I hope that I, you know, some of those layers were what drew them in as well as the fun was that that was something I think Richard and June had in them in spades, like wanting to explore those struggles and, and those pushes and pulls. Like, I think it’s funny, Richard, who was the loveliest guy and the best to work with, we had the Zoom scheduled early in the process ’cause he wanted to talk about the movie, wanted to meet. I was a huge fan of his. I was trying to picture whether or not like, oh, well, this does this make sense for this part? Like, he could be great. I had a Zoom with him, five minutes into that Zoom. I was like, it needs to be Richard. There’s no one else. And it’s because it’s sort of the way I felt about June and about Fred and about like, as I got to all these people and it started to make sense. I really felt that way about about each and every one of them. But I think with with Richard. I could feel that he really wanted to do it in a way that I was almost taken aback by. He wanted to express these things. He wanted to explore his more vulnerable side. He, I think the fact that he was able to do that, and I think he does so really beautifully in the movie, was something that really drew him to it and was, attracted him to the part. 

Jim 17:56

I would imagine that you, you called together a group of people and filled a a screening room or a theater to show them this film to see what the reactions were. When that happens, where do you like to sit? Are you too nervous to sit? Are you, you want to sit at the back, stand at the back of the room? Where are you when you’re showing this to, saying, here world, here’s my, here’s my work? 

Josh 18:17

I’m incredibly nervous and I’m usually smack in the middle. No, I, I’m probably, You know, for a lot of those early screenings, I’m wherever the volume knob was because we didn’t have our mix. And I was so nervous about things getting too loud or too quiet that I was just riding the dial kind of like a maniac, the entire screening. So I would say I am, I don’t know where I prefer to be, but if we don’t have a mix, it’s wherever I can control the volume. 

Jim 18:42

What’s the moment like when you hear an audience laughing, getting the points in that you wanted to make? 

Josh 18:47

It’s relief. It’s like absolute relief. Cause I think it’s a natural thing and also a terrible feeling. And then when you get one, maybe where you weren’t expecting one or where hopefully you were, you sort of feel like all is right with the world for a moment. It’s powerful, even in moments when you’re not yet, when that wasn’t even top of your mind in the moment, when you were just, you know, trying to get the most honest performance, the most, you know, just trying to get the moment right. I do think in something that is comedic when you’re in a screening, it’s like, the laughs, they tell you a lot. 

Jim 19:18

You go to the movies on the weekend? 

Josh 19:20

I do. And sometimes during the week. 

Jim 19:22

Okay, what do you like to see? 

Josh 19:23

You know, I see such a wide range of things. I’m a big horror fan actually. I do try to check out a lot of horror movies, which you might not necessarily glean from Thelma, but it’s definitely something I’m a fan of. I try to see, I try to support original stuff when I can, stuff that catches my eye, stuff that excites me. And I also see, you know, big studio releases to anywhere from kind of an indie I’ve heard good things about, or that I’m intrigued by to, you know, even big franchise stuff. I really kind of, I’ll go to everything. And I think because of that, I’ve probably seen also a lot more terrible movies than most people, but it’s, it’s still something I love to do. 

Jim 19:58

Cord Jefferson, when he was at the Oscar said, you know, instead of making one movie at $200 million, what if you made 20 movies at $10 million. And that really resonated with a great many of people in our community. Where do you want the future of motion pictures and cinema to be? What’s your hope for the rest of your career and being a part of this community of creating films for people? 

Josh 20:23

I love what he said. I mean, I think, I hope there is more and more opportunity for original movies that people are really passionate about to get made and to get not only made, but supported in ways where they can actually find audiences. Because I think it’s that double edged sword of there being so much where there’s a ton of opportunity, but also the opportunities themselves can get diluted sometimes when there’s just a sea of content without sort of ways of knowing what to engage with. So my hope, in a really top down way, is that there will just be increasing opportunities for people to make original movies that they’re passionate about that can find an audience and find the support to do that, especially theatrical ones. You know, I enjoy watching stuff on streaming as well. There’s obviously perks to that, but I think it is tough to beat that theatrical experience. 

Jim 21:13

So your heart and soul when you’re making something is imagining what it’ll be like for an audience in a theater with the lights down watching it together?

Josh 21:21

I think on some level that’s just kind of baked into how I think about movies, just because I think there is an inherent scope to them. Even if they’re small, you know, it doesn’t have to be a literal scope. There’s just something, when you put something on a screen in front of people, it has a different, it adds something, it adds a power to it. 

Jim 21:38

What’s next for you? 

Josh 21:40

It’s a good question. I’m writing a few new things. I’ve been reading some scripts that have been coming in. I’m sort of trying to figure it out, honestly, trying to find something that I feel a real personal connection to, but that also feels exciting and new and sort of like an evolution from where this started. So, TBD, but it’s been fun to start thinking about that and start working on some new things.

Jim 22:01

Wonderful. Here’s what one critic said about your film. Thelma is a totally pure delight that always knows what to do to make the audience enjoy themselves and these characters. You’ll want to see it with your best friend, your parents, and yes, your grandma. Josh Margolin, good luck with this wonderful film and come back and see us again, please.

Josh 22:24

Thank you so much, Jim. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much for having me. 

Jim 22:28

The Insiders is produced by Barco and the Advanced Imaging Society in Hollywood. Our executive producers are Adam Cassels in New York and Mike Piltzecker in Los Angeles. Brett Harrison produced today’s show and our technical director is Matthew Bach-Lombardo.


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