Here’s how filmmaker Josh Margolin and his crew used Dropbox to keep the production rolling, even through the chaos of an active crime scene.
Sometimes when you’re trying to get work done, distractions come at you out of nowhere. Like, when you’re filming a scene while your nonagenarian hero’s flying down the sidewalk on a mobility scooter, then an active crime scene unfolds right beside you.
What kind of Deep Focus playlist gets you back in the zone after that?
Let’s ask Josh Margolin, writer/director of the new Sundance film Thelma. Because apparently, that was just one of the memorable days on the set with 94-year-old Academy Award nominee June Squibb (doing her own stunts), as well as film icons Parker Posey, Malcolm McDowell, and the late Richard Roundtree in his final film.
We spoke with Margolin and producer Zoë Worth to find out how they came up with the unique premise of this action-comedy, kept the cast safe when real-life drama spilled into the frame, and used Dropbox to stay organized despite all the unexpected obstacles.
I heard this story was inspired by a phone scam that’s so pervasive, it happened to my family, too. How did you manage to turn something so rattling into something entertaining?
Margolin: My grandma got one of these calls, I guess they call it the grandparent scam. Somebody was pretending to be me, saying I'd been in a car accident. She'd gotten a few before, but I guess the guy on the phone sounded enough like me that she just went with it.
“My brain went quickly to: What if she had sent the money, then had to set out on her own to get it back?”—Josh Margolin
She got very panicked and called my parents. Then it just spiraled to the point where my parents were calling my partner Chloe and telling her I was in jail. She was like, “No, he's here next to me, asleep.” So luckily, we solved the case before money exchanged hands, but it definitely was rattling. My grandma's always been a strong, stable, stalwart presence in my life, someone I've been very close to ever since I was young. Seeing her get duped felt unnerving.
Somehow my brain went quickly to: What if she had sent the money, then had to set out on her own to get it back? I've always loved action movies and the Mission: Impossible franchise. The movie’s definitely a comedy and very fun, but I wanted to use the tools of that genre to explore what I love and admire about my grandma—her strength and tenacity.
I'd love to hear about your casting process. Did you have June in mind as you were writing?
Margolin: June was always who I pictured; I just love her. She reminds me of my grandma and just always felt like who it had to be. A friend of ours had done a movie with her recently so we were able to get the script to her in the early days and she jumped in. From that moment on, it felt like, “Okay, now the thing can grow,” because she felt like the beating heart of it.
When you're ready to turn the seed of an idea into a script, who do you share ideas with first?
Margolin: When I first mentioned this idea to my life and frequent writing partner Chloe, she very quickly said, “You need to write that next.” I trust her implicitly, so that gave me a little extra confirmation. We also have this community we’ve been fostering, a writer’s group we do every Thursday called Rock and Roll Universe, with Chloe, my producers Zoë and Chris, and our friend Sam. We bring ideas there—scripts in early stages—and get eyes on them from our trusted pals.
Worth: It's a group of people who’ve known each other for a long time. The idea behind it was to have a safe place to bring work, but also an accountability practice because sometimes you won't finish a draft if it's not for a job. When Josh brought in his first draft of Thelma, it was amazing right out the gate.
Were you working remotely as you were developing the production?
Worth: This was at the height of COVID. We did a lot of our cast read through on Zoom. A lot of prep was done on Dropbox.
Margolin: It was a great tool, especially at the moment we were needing it most. We were very cognizant of COVID throughout the whole thing because our leads are older. We wanted to make sure we kept everybody safe, so we got into a remote flow for as long as we could.
So great to hear that Dropbox helped you keep going.
Worth: It did. We use it all the time, especially for building our production file, whether it was sharing images for approval in the production design process or in collating agreements, keeping track of the legal. It definitely was a home base. A lot of my vital information is stored in our production Dropbox.
What was your most memorable day on the shoot?
Worth: Well, there's one that comes to mind. The crime scene.
Margolin: Yeah, there was definitely one day where it felt like everything was working against us. We were filming late at night on Halloween. I was in a witch's hat that Richard Roundtree did not think was working for me. (laughs) But I still decided to keep it on. We were shooting a scene in front of little P.O. box-type place in the Valley. And there was what turned out to be an active crime scene right beside us.
Worth: Really right beside us!
Margolin: Searchlights, ‘copters...
Worth: We were like, “Are we safe?” Then the cops roll up and tell me and Chris and the assistant director Justin, “You're good. Except if the SWAT team comes, we're gonna have to shut you down.”
Margolin: We're like, “Maybe we'll do the scene without any dialogue?” We went through all these kinds of backups while this thing was getting increasingly chaotic. Fortunately, right at the end of the day, it cleared. We had this very limited window. We decided we're going to try to grab the team. Richard and June both locked in the scene beautifully and nailed it. We only ended up doing one take of that. We've been describing it as sort of a buzzer beater moment for them, which was really a nice cap to an otherwise chaotic day.
“Then the cops roll up and tell me, 'If the SWAT team comes, we're gonna have to shut you down.’”—Zoë Worth
Worth: Was there anything else? I feel like there might be another fun one?
Margolin: June on the scooter is always a trip. She just got more and more confident on the thing and more and more excited about using it. We were very scared at the beginning. Because the thing could go like 30 miles an hour. We had to put a limiter on it. We were like, “This is unwieldy. We need to rethink this. Maybe we lean on the stunt double?”
Before long, with the guidance of our stunt team, June just started doing more and more of that work herself. I do think she was probably happiest on that scooter. Whenever she was driving that thing, she just lit up.
I love how you described staying focused during those unexpected moments of chaos. Do you have any tips for carving out windows of focused time during your workday?
Margolin: There’s this great place called Fancy Film in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. I had this little room and just tried to keep it very minimal. I had some snacks, my monitor, my laptop, and a candle. And that was it. There was something about being in a space where I had a little bit less access to other distractions that I found focusing and calming.
I never usually work out of an office. I'm often working from home, and even in doing that, I've tried to take a similar kind of ethos—creating a space that’s separate from where I am the rest of the day, anything that can give me a little bit of a pocket or a cocoon. And also not being too hard on myself for checking my phone and because I feel like that's just gonna happen. That's okay.
Zoe, as a producer, do you deal with a lot of interruptions in your workday?
Worth: I've noticed that when I'm trying to do a legitimately creative task, it's hard for me to change over between writing and producing. If I'm writing, I need to do that before I do anything else. I wake up early and get some of that done. But same would go for other tasks like reading a draft from Josh or another filmmaker. Deeper, focused, creative work that has to do with story I do first to open the day.
I can't get too amped or have conversations with the outside world while I need to complete a truly deep thinking part of the artistic process. It's another reason why we have this writing group as well. Creating systems that are outside of jobs is another way for me to focus. Otherwise, it's really easy in the creative arts to let the horse drive you.
What would you like the audience to feel after seeing Thelma?
Margolin: I hope that the journey of the movie is warm, inviting, and relatable, and feels like it touches on a lot of parts of life—the highs, the lows, all mixed up into one.
Thelma premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival on January 18 in-person and premieres January 25 online. For details, visit festival.sundance.org
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.