Interview: Emelie Director Michael Thelin Talks Return to ’70s Horror

We sit down with the director of the new babysitter-gone-bad horror movie Emelie, Michael Thelin, to discuss his horror influences.

When we sat down with Michael Thelin, it was the day after his first feature Emelie enjoyed its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. The filmmaker had attended the festival before with a short, and he’s directed several video documentaries and shorts for musicians such as Stone Temple Pilots, Panic! at the Disco, Cee Lo Green. But Emelie marks his first feature effort with its plunge into darkness and genre subversion.

Set around a young family that invites a babysitter (Sarah Bolger) into their home, she is more than what she appears and she has unsafe designs on the children. It is a storyline that plays with genre elements from a myriad of influences, as well as goes to some dark places with its young cast. We were able to discuss that and more with Thelin during our interview.

So what’s it like the day after your first feature’s premiere?

It’s like giving birth. I haven’t given birth yet, but it’s hard describing it because it was like I just wanted to get it out, you know? There’d been so much work that had been done to it, and it’s just ready for the world to see. “Take a look guys.” And now it’s out there, and people can do what they want with it.

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This movie is somewhat of a horror film and somewhat not. Did you know that you wanted your first film to be genre and did you know that you wanted it to toy with horror?

That’s a good question. I did not know my first film would be. I just knew it needed to be done right. And I’ve been doing this for 10 years actually; I’d just do a lot more commercial brand stuff. But when I found this story, I couldn’t let go of it. So, it became like a borderline obsession, because just the idea of someone showing up who isn’t the right person and being able to manipulate a family so easily, but also so believably, because to me there is nothing that far-fetched.

We wanted to have a little fun with it. A little poke at Goonies and stuff like that, but overall I just felt there was nothing else like it. There’s been babysitters, typically they’re the ones getting killed or being threatened, but there’s very few I felt [that went the other way]. There’s Hand that Rocks the Cradle, and we did other research, but nothing that’s been a self-contained one-night kind of event where the babysitter’s the bad one.

I know you said last night that the film was shot in Buffalo, which is why some of the technology is a little antiquated, but at the same time you had a babysitter in peril, and the film opens with a voyeuristic shot on another babysitter in very real peril. Was it intentionally invoking 1980s horror movies or something earlier?

Yeah, that’s a great question. I think inherently, I watched a lot. I mean, Halloween is such a great film, and I know they didn’t have a whole lot of time to do that movie either. And I just loved the simplicity of the shots. There’s style to it, but it’s kind of underhanded. We didn’t want to do anything overtly “look at this, it’s in your face!” Like genre films, they take risks on their filmmaking. I noticed they did a lot of different things with the camera that other genres typically wouldn’t, and to be honest a lot of times they maybe weren’t necessary, but you can get away with it, and sometimes it’s amazing where it really adds to the suspense of horror.

I felt with this that it’s a slow burn and it’s more like the ‘70s movies than just the genre movies. But yeah, I was inspired by some current ones too like Let the Right One In, Funny Games, stuff like that. But again, I wasn’t like, “Oh it should be this, it should be that.” I would definitely say the ‘80s style inspired us.

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What surprised you the most about making your first feature? I know you’ve worked on documentaries before, and you’ve worked on shorts. But did anything surprise you or was unexpected about the making of this film?

I mentioned yesterday, but it really is like a marathon and doing all these other projects for so long, it’s kind of the equivalent of swimming in the shallow end and then a feature is just like someone pushing you into the deep end. And you just fall in, and you just sink or swim. And that’s exactly what it felt like, it’s just you’re either going to get crushed under the mental weight of you not being able to perform day-in and day-out for 12 hours a day with all these things coming at you, and just not the actors, but decisions, and then kids, and the content.

So, you either can’t handle that because it’s also coming at you so fast—I mean, this was not a big budget film—or you’ve just got to keep those blinders on and don’t get upset over all this other crap that’s happening. Because there’s a lot of stuff that I probably could have nitpicked. But I was just like, “Stay the course. Stay the course, understand your tone, and just keep at it.”

With only 21 days was there anything that you felt that you almost missed or that you had to change, because something happened in the production that you did not expect?

Yeah the [stuffed teddy] bear was kind of playing a bigger role, and then it kind of got lost with this group’s pursuit early on, and I was like, “Screw it. We need it, but it’s not like it’s going to play a main role.” It was something that was a little more impactful.

But no, we shot this in October, so this was like sprinting in a marathon, and in post, we didn’t have a lot of time either. These are not excuses; it’s just that it was go, go, go. And I am very proud of that film. But honestly, I kind of blacked out a lot of the production. I know that sounds weird, but it’s because it was very stressful the whole time. So, I can’t be like, “Oh, remember when we did this?” It’s like “yeah, kind of.” But I just had to be so focused on that day that that’s all I could think about. So now, if there’s stuff we didn’t shoot, nothing comes to mind. There’s certain angles we couldn’t get, like in the backyard, we had to shoot only in this one direction, because there’s a huge tent right behind the camera where all the actors had to stay—not live [Laughs].

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But I was telling people going in, I know the budget: I’m not going to be able to get people falling down stairs, I had to do everything old school, like Hitchcockian, but you know what? It turned out to be great. I loved being in the car when [one character runs over another].

I know you said that you found the right child actors, which for a film like this is crucial. But did you have any pushback from parents or was there any concern about the material that they were handling?

The good thing about that is that it limited the pool massively. Anyone that I met with already knew it, so there wasn’t like a give-and-take. Like, “If we do this, then we have to change this in the script.” So it was all or nothing. We even lost two of the actors 72 hours before [production started]. So again, we went with more instinct. I mean, if you read anything about working with kids, you need long periods of time to really get them in the mood.

But I’m good with kids. I’ve directed them before, so with me, it’s just like, “Let’s hang out, man.” And that’s what’s up on the screen. “Hey, Michael’s there, and I know there’s a camera pointed at us, but he says it’s okay. We just do what we want.” Obviously, I’m guiding them, but they don’t know it. They were awesome.

Now that it has premiered, were you watching the audience’s reaction last night and were you surprised how they responded to certain scenes?

I was surprised when any noise was made, because I’ve seen it over a hundred times. So, I don’t have that same exact visceral response. And to then hear people, even moving in their seats, or somewhere laughing at [Thomas Bair] because he’s so cute jumping off the bed. All that stuff I still smile at. But to hear other people doing it? Yeah, it was pretty amazing.

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I thought it was somewhat interesting in a movie with all this child endangerment and some disturbing imagery that the thing I heard people respond to most viscerally to was a gerbil being placed in peril—and then during the credits that it lived.

[Laughs] It definitely did.

Do you know what you’re going to do for your second feature?

There’s three different options, there’s a dark sci-fi noir, and then maybe even a musical. It’s all over the place.

Emelie could return.

Yes. Or maybe a prequel, because I think a lot of people would like to see how she got where to where she is at.

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