Josh Margolin's Directorial Debut Also Marks The First Leading Role For Oscar Nominee June Squibb
Josh Margolin (photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
After making a major splash at Sundance, "Thelma" is set for theatrical release later this month

Making one’s directorial debut is a dream come true. And the dream is elevated all the more when it sees its first light of day at the Sundance Film Festival.

That dream turned reality is what Josh Margolin experienced as his feature film Thelma received an ovation at this year’s Sundance premiere where the groundwork was laid for it being acquired by Magnolia Pictures, which has slated it for theatrical release on June 21.

Thelma is a poignant action-comedy that gives veteran actor June Squibb (a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for Nebraska) her first leading role and is further highlighted by the final performance of trailblazing actor Richard Roundtree (Shaft). Squibb portrays Thelma Post, a feisty 93-year-old grandmother who gets conned by a phone scammer pretending to be her grandson (Fred Hechinger of The White Lotus) and sets out on a perilous trek across Los Angeles, accompanied by an aging friend (Roundtree) and his motorized scooter, to reclaim the $10,000 that was taken from her. Rounding out the cast are Parker Posey and Clark Gregg as Thelma’s daughter and son-in-law, respectively--and Malcolm McDowell as the engineer of the phone scam operation.

Inspired by a real-life experience of Margolin’s own grandmother, Thelma turns an elderly grandmother into an unlikely action hero. Margolin employs the familiar tropes of the action movie genre with an infectious humor while touching upon the angst of aging. Still our title character has the resolve and resilience to overcome self-doubt and take care of business.

Margolin wrote, directed and edited Thelma. He’s no stranger to such a hybrid role. He directed, edited and co-wrote the absurdist horror-comedy Deep Murder, which premiered at the L.A. Film Festival in 2018 and ran theatrically before streaming on Paramount+. Previously Margolin 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.

Margolin 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. 

SHOOT caught up with Margolin who discussed Thelma, sharing its backstory and lessons learned from his experience making it. Remarks have been edited for brevity and clarity.

SHOOT: The inspiration for Thelma came from your 103-year-old grandmother. Talk us through her experience and how that proved to be the genesis for your directorial debut.

Margolin: She got a call from someone pretending to be me saying “I’m in jail, I hit a woman [with my car] and she was pregnant.” Pretty much beat for beat about the exact same scan [we depicted in the movie]. I think it’s called the grandparents’ scam. Luckily in real life we were able to intervene before she actually sent the money. But that incident got my wheels turning, imagining what might have happened if she had sent it and then set out on her own to get it back.

I’ve been close to my grandma my whole life. She’s been such a sturdy, unflappable force. Seeing her duped that way felt like we were circling this new era [of her being vulnerable]. That got me thinking about a movie born out of a cocktail of those feelings and wanting to find something that celebrates her grit and autonomy while also exploring anxiety and aging. I’ve always been a big fan of action movies. Trying to tell this story with the trappings of that genre really excited me because I wanted to find a way to dramatize the everyday heroism that she embodies in my life. So the idea of taking those [action film] tropes and shrinking them down to something a little more everyday was an alchemy that got me really excited. I like to say that Tom Cruise jumping out of a plane is terrifying and thrilling, and so is watching my grandmother get onto a bed. Both are major feats for the participants. We’d be zooming in on challenges moving through the world when the body doesn’t want to do the kinds of things you wished it could do.

I wrote the script in 2019. I had this weekly writers’ group with my producers Zoë Worth and Chris Kaye, my pals. I brought the script in, they read it and were really encouraging. Basically from there we ended up partnering on it. They had been looking to make an indie film they were excited about that they could execute on a semi-reasonable scale. Pretty much early in the process June came on board and put a stamp of approval on the project. We ended up shooting it in the fall of 2022, were in post throughout 2023 and premiered it at Sundance in 2024.

SHOOT: Casting June Squibb had to be key in getting the film off the ground so to speak.

Margolin: Having June in early set the tone.  It signaled to other actors we were going to try to do this thing right and treat even the absurdities in it seriously, earnestly and thoughtfully. Once June signed on, we started adding pieces to the puzzle. Each piece helped sweeten the pot for the next--and signaled the kind of movie we were trying to make. 

Making a low-fi action movie with a 93 year old at the helm had its own challenges. It really weeded out the people who weren’t on board. People who were in, were really in. Those who weren’t didn’t get involved. It kind of cut through the middle ground. June surpassed our already high expectations carrying this thing on her shoulders.

SHOOT: Would you reflect a bit on Richard Roundtree?

Margolin: Richard was the loveliest guy, a really warm, wonderful actor. He was such a warm, fun, kind presence on set everyday.

SHOOT: Reflect a bit on the Sundance experience and what it meant to you and the film.

Margolin: It was really meaningful and really surreal. From the get-go, this would be the dream scenario,..If we could pick a place to help send the film out to the world, it would be Sundance. But I was so close to the film for a very long time. I wrote it, directed and edited. Some days you really believe in it. Other days you don’t know if this works. Getting it to Sundance, getting to premiere it there felt like such a wonderful vote of confidence from a place I long admired. It had such a warm reception. I got to have a lot of conversations with people there whose grandparents had similar scam experiences. Even if that element wasn’t the nugget they related to, they felt they saw a relative of theirs or someone they knew in the movie.

SHOOT: When did the deal with Magnolia Pictures come together?

Margolin: We had our Zoom [call] with them from our Airbnb at the festival. Once we talked to them about the movie and heard what they wanted to do with it, it felt kind of like a no-brainer to go with them.

SHOOT: What was your biggest takeaway or lessons learned from your experience on Thelma?

Margolin: The team we worked with. I was surrounded by people who were really thoughtful, really talented and really cared about the movie--cast, crew, my producers Zoë and Chris. I feel like I got really lucky in a lot of ways with a team of people swimming in the same direction who led with kindness and were very collaborative. 

The best way to get there [to the movie you envisioned] is through your support system--the talented people you’re trusting to bring their best to elevate it beyond anything you can do on your own. That feeling of community and teamwork--which I felt lucky to experience--is what I will try to bring forward and to re-create for anything I make.

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