After years acting and making short-form content and collaborating on 2018 LA Film Festival entry Deep Murder, Los Angeles native Josh Margolin’s feature directorial debut Thelma has premiered at Sundance where it received a rousing reception.

June Squibb, Oscar-nominated in Nebraska and now 94, stars in her first lead role as a grandmother who gets scammed and stops at nothing to take back what belongs to her, employing an impressive array of nonagenarian spycraft along the way.

Margolin was inspired to make the Sundance Premieres selection after his own grandmother Thelma nearly fell for a scam. The action comedy shot in 2022 and also stars the late Richard Roundtree, Fred Hechinger, Parker Posey, Clark Gregg, and Malcolm McDowell. CAA Media Finance represents rights and the film screens again on Saturday night and throughout the week.

Take us through the inspiration for Thelma
My grandma basically got bamboozled by a senior scam very much like the one in the movie. Someone called pretending to be me and said there’d been an accident and I was in jail. She panicked, called my family and luckily my mum called my girlfriend who said, ‘No, Josh is here next to me.’

We were able to intervene before she actually sent money [to get whom she believed was her grandson out of jail]. It shook up this long-standing feeling that my grandma was infallible. She’s always been such a tough, sturdy presence in my life and so seeing her tricked and off-kilter that way got me imagining what would have happened if she had actually sent the money and then set out on her own to get it back. The movie was inspired by that seed, and wanting to write something that celebrates and dramatises our relationship. She is 103 and wanted to be here but, you know, the altitude…

What happened next?
I wrote the movie in 2019 and then during lockdown my producers Zoe [Worth], Chris [Kaye] and I started talking about trying to put this together. Then Nicky Weinstock and Ben Simpson came on board, and Karl Spoerri and Viviana Vezzani of Zurich Avenue [in 2022], who financed it.

How did June get involved and what does she mean to you?
She was the person I always imagined for the role. I love her. I’ve been a longtime fan and she reminds me of my grandma. She just felt like Thelma to me and so she was the first person I ended up getting the script to and she signed on in 2021. Once we had her suddenly I felt like the thing was real and we had our heart and soul and we could start to build. She’s worked with Alexander Payne and she’s done a lot on stage and so many of these different shows. This is the first thing that she’s technically been truly at the centre of and you’d ever know it because to her it’s no different: you do the work. 

Was Covid a factor in the production?
I hadn’t wanted to make it in 2021 because Covid was prevalent and we’d have a 90-something lead. That felt daunting. When we shot in late 2022 we were still very cognisant of it on set and were very careful. Everybody was masked, everybody was tested. It still felt nerve-racking but it felt like we were a little further away from the time when it was just not going to be possible.

How did you get Richard Roundtree, who plays Thelma’s friend and famously starred in the blaxploitation classic Shaft?
I’d long been a fan of Richard’s work. We had a Zoom with him and by the end I knew it had to be Richard. He was the loveliest guy and he was excited to show a different side of himself and get to do something a little softer, a little more vulnerable.

There was a great balance between Richard and June. June is like my grandma – she doesn’t want to be told she has limitations. Richard has this steadiness although the character is a little neurotic. They’re just at different frequencies and it felt like the right pairing.

June tells a story where she says when she met Richard she said something like, ‘Well, it’s about time’, and they laughed. She says she didn’t quite know what she meant, but it just made sense. They got along really well. 

When and where did Thelma shoot?
We shot the movie in the fall of 2022 and this past year has been in post. We shot largely in the Valley and shot the condo scenes in my grandma’s place. She wasn’t living there anymore by that time [she moved in with Margolin’s parents at the age of 99]. When she watched it it was very surreal for her to see her home. The photo of Thelma’s late husband is my real grandpa. I just wanted to pull stuff from my life and put it into the movie.

You also filmed at the Motion Picture Television Fund. Why?
That was a huge source of help. It’s a charity that’s been around forever which helps people in the industry who have fallen on hard times and provides a place for seniors who need a place to live and so forth. We shot all the footage of the senior living centre there, and we also used it for the police station, Parker’s office, and Clark’s office. They were so supportive of the movie and it became almost like a mini studio for us. Without their support we would not have been able to make it the way we did.

Some of their residents are featured in little moments; there’s one guy who walks across screen in one shot who I think was the AD on The Godfather. Incredible place. Everyone there is still making work – there’s a film festival, and the residents make shows. It’s just a really beautiful organisation.

Josh Margolin

Part of the movie is a homage to Mission: Impossible and it feels believable. How were you able to find that tone?
I wanted to make sure the elements of genre, the elements of action that we were leaning on to tell the story felt in proportion to the characters feeling human. I never wanted to get into tropes or nods [to genre] which would have become overwhelming. It’s about pushing the humanity of the characters to the fore.

My grandma feels like an action star because she’s just tough: you’ll turn around and she’s climbing a ladder. That is terrifying but there’s just this resilience. You often see the kind of things Thelma does in revenge movies and obviously the Mission: Impossible movies. Those movies, which I love, are built on the fact that Tom Cruise is going to put himself through the wringer and that same ethos was what I wanted to bring to this to explore Thelma’s fight for autonomy.

I like to say that Tom Cruise jumping out of a plane is terrifying, but so is my grandma getting onto a bed; they each have high stakes for the person involved. And so I wanted to just treat everything with sincerity and just do things as they would happen within the scope and scale of the movie.

Did June perform her own stunts?
A few here and there, but I didn’t have her fall in the in the dirt in the middle of the night. She did a lot of her own scooter work, she did some rolling, and she did some hustling down the street. She did a lot more than I thought she was going to do… We just developed a level of trust in terms of where the line was. And we had a great stunt team who worked very closely with her. She got a kick out of it.

Tell us about the rest of the lead cast?
Fred was awesome, so sweet. Malcom [the perpetrator] came on in late 2023. He plays it with such a great mixture of menace but you also feel bad for him. He walked that line really, really well. He came in for a couple of days and he and June got a kick out of each other too. He was always complimentary to her and was so sweet.

Parker Posey and Clark Gregg were wonderful. Parker is so funny and so is Clark. They were very committed and brought their best.

When did your grandma see Thelma ?
She saw an early cut, which she liked but couldn’t hear. I showed her the final cut a few months ago and she really liked it. She was very moved by it and I was glad that it registered for her and she could see it as the ode to her that it is.

Have June and your grandma met yet?
They haven’t yet. I’ve been wanting them to meet and we just weren’t able to make it happen. It’s jumped to Priority Number One after this festival.

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