Mission Improbable: Writer/Director Josh Margolin Brings Grandma Action Comedy Ode THELMA to Theaters

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

It’s been a record-breaking June for June Squibb. Inside Out 2, in which Squibb voices the emotion Nostalgia, is the first movie to open over $100M in the domestic market since Barbie, the biggest animated opening for Disney post-Covid, and the highest-grossing opening weekend of the year to date. The 94-year-old Squibb is continuing to trounce milestones, landing the first leading role of her 70-year career in writer/director Josh Margolin’s feature directorial debut Thelma–the widest theatrical release for distributor Magnolia Picture to date, with roughly 1,300 screens in North America.

An ode and tribute to his real-life grandmother, as well as a love letter to Tom Cruise, Mission: Impossible, and the action genre, Thelma puts Squibb into the Brooks Adrenaline Go-To-Support running shoes of 93-year-old grandma Thelma Post as she sets out to track down the phone scammers that conned her out of $10,000. Her mission, whether they choose to accept it or not, is to infiltrate the scammers and get her money back. Zooming in on Thelma’s version of high-stakes situations, Margolin’s humor comes from the very real dangers faced by the elderly, rather than comedy at their expense. Joining her quest in a swan song performance is the late actor Richard Roundtree as Ben—to many, forever known as Shaft. The ensemble cast also includes Fred Hechinger, Clark Gregg, Parker Posey, and Malcolm McDowell.

The story is inspired by the real-life experience of Margolin’s grandmother Thelma, who nearly sent scammers thousands of dollars to ‘bail her grandson out of jail’. Like her onscreen counterpart, the real-life Thelma is an infallible lady. She has survived the Great Depression, WWII, the passing of her husband, a double mastectomy, colon cancer, a valve replacement, a benign brain tumor, and will turn 104 this July. Thelma’s husband, and Margolin’s grandfather, was Ted Post, the noted director behind the Clint Eastwood films Hang ‘Em High and Magnum Force, along with an endless list of television credits. As the action comedy Thelma arrives in theaters this weekend from Magnolia Pictures, Boxoffice Pro caught up with writer/director Josh Margolin about combining the love of film he developed from his grandfather with his grandmother’s singular presence.  

We rarely see the grandparent/grandchild relationship on screen in a meaningful way. I think you tapped into something universal about that dynamic and the bridge between different generations.

It’s always been such a central part of my life; spending time with my grandma and having her be a big, big figure from childhood until now. I think about that dynamic a lot.  

You filmed in your grandmother’s actual condo. How surreal was that experience?

It was really surreal and very weird. We were filming and there were pictures of my actual family in the background peppered in with pictures of a young Fred Hechinger, Clark Gregg, and Parker Posey. It was truly the melding of worlds from my real childhood into the movie version of it. It was really nice to start the shoot there. It felt surreal, but also grounding. I know that space really well. I have a lot of fond memories of spending time there as a kid. There was something really nice about that, but also very trippy. 

You premiered at Sundance and at the Egyptian in LA. What have your theatrical experiences been like in sharing this film with an audience?

It’s been really heartening and exciting to share it with crowds. It’s been fun to see with reactions, because the audiences have been so vocal. It’s funny, there are similar patterns, and then there are also new things that play a little more with this crowd or that crowd. It’s been fun to see the different ways people are plugging into it. People have been along for the ride, which is really wonderful. Sundance was an incredible experience and the Egyptian was a really fun way to kick it off in LA.  

This is also, of course, an homage to the action film. I love that there was a Dolby Atmos mix created for this film. Sound plays an important role on multiple levels, because of the nature of hearing as we age. It was great to be transported as an audience member into Thelma’s hearing experience.

That was definitely important for bringing us into her objective experience and being able to lean into what makes it an action movie–by taking things that are small and everyday, but giving them stakes and suspense. Nathan Ruyle, our sound designer, did a really wonderful job of being very specific and detailed by finding ways to boost moments when they needed boosting, as well as lean into the subjectivity and feeling of moments when they needed to be handled with care and sensitivity. Like when she takes off the hearing aids and we sort of set up that tool and emotional state for her. 

How did you approach the action sequences and break those down in the edit?

We shot listed everything. Sometimes we’d stick with it and sometimes we would adapt on the day. For the scooter chase, we actually even did a previs. My assistant director Justin Hogan, my director of photography David Bolen, and I ran around and got each of the shots on an iPhone and I cut it together just to make sure we had the pieces, knowing that on the day we’d be crunched for time and have to deal with some complicated logistics. It was really helpful to do these little visualizations to ensure we had our bases covered. Then if something occurred to us, if there were adjustments to be made, or icing on the cake, that was great. It felt good knowing that we had our bases covered in that way.

And you had national treasures riding around on that scooter. 

Yes, watching June and Richard on that scooter was really fun. Every time the two of them were there together, it was a real dream.

What a gift that your grandma has gotten to see this ode and tribute to her. What did she think?

She was moved by it. I think she was able to take it in as the ode to her that it’s meant to be. Also, in the way that filming in her condo is weird, it’s surreal for her. It’s her real name. It’s her real condo. Many things from her life were turned into this fictionalized adventure, but with a lot of DNA from her and her life. She’s trying to take it in and process it. 

Do you have any memorable moviegoing moments with your Grandma? Does she like action movies? 

I grew up watching movies with her and my grandpa at their condo quite a bit. My grandfather was a director back in the day. He would get screeners, so there would always be movies to pop in and watch. It was a sea of movies. Anytime I was over there, my grandpa was on the couch watching something, so we’d all sit around and join in. It definitely stoked my love for film and I think it got in [me] early because of it. I wouldn’t say my grandma is an action fan per se, but she’s definitely a movie fan and she doesn’t shy away from thrilling genres. 

Any word from Tom Cruise yet?
[Laughs.] We got permission from him to use the footage, which was amazing. So some word, in that regard. I know we sent the movie over. I’m not sure if he’s seen it yet, but I hope he does, it would be really fun. 

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
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