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“June Squibb was game for everything” — Sound Designer Nathan Ruyle Talks Thelma

5 min read
June Squibb in Thelma

As the charming premiere that debuted at this year's Film Festival, all eyes were on 94-year-old June Squibb as she pulled off the heist of her life. Thelma follows 93-year-old Thelma Post, who gets duped by a phone scammer pretending to be her grandson. From there, she sets out on a treacherous quest across the city to reclaim what was taken from her.

Moments before our call, the movie's sound designer Nathan Ruyle found out that Thelma had been picked up for distribution by Magnolia Pictures. FILMHOUNDS spoke to him about Tom Cruise, June Squibb, and why sound really is everything.


Thelma was the first film I saw a Sundance, and it was the perfect opener. Really nicely set the tone for the week. When you were considering being involved, did this project feel like a good fit for you? What drew you to it?


One of the producers had done another movie that I worked on that premiered at SXSW, I Love My Dad. That producer knew my work and then the director knew the producers, and we just immediately hit it off. I got to see some scenes in the movie and it was clear it was a really special, interesting project. It was also clear it was going to be a challenge because it's this kind of hybrid movie. It's a heartfelt family comedy. The family dynamic is something that everybody can really relate to. But also it's this action movie with unlikely characters. It was immediately clear that sound and music were going to be a really big part of transforming the film into this action-adventure. I was immediately excited about that because I think, anytime you're asked as a sound designer to come in and actually take on a really important role, making the movie actually worth it. I enjoy that kind of challenge.


Like you said, It's one of those films where you go in thinking that something is going to happen and it ends up being this completely different thing. When you're trying to incorporate so much — there's very typical action stuff, there's quite a comedic tone, then things turn extremely serious — How do you design something that isn't supposed to be the expected?

In many ways, the energy of the movie and the rhythm of the movie speak to that. Josh [Margolin] had a lot of specific intentions in the scripting phase of the movie. He was very clearly inspired by the Mission: Impossible movies that we all love. In one of the opening scenes, Thelma and her grandson are sitting there watching this Mission: Impossible scene where Tom [Cruise] actually almost falls off a rooftop. Apparently, he actually broke his leg when he did that stunt. But Tom Cruise also gave us that clip for the movie. So then a lot of it is about figuring out like on one hand how we take what I think are arguably some of you know, coolest and most exciting and most effective ideas in action movies ever. Then at the same time, you feel out what are some actually deeply personal, very quiet, very introspective moments that the film is having. Using the hearing aid as a scripted element within the film to show what Thelma's experience is a person who's towards the end of their years and how she's experiencing the world. In a way, you've got these polar opposite ends of a movie that you're dealing with.


With the action, we're utilising the things we know. There's the scooter chase scene, which is a kind of big set-piece moment in the movie. A scooter chase in real life is very quiet. These mobility scooters are just like making a little whine. Immediately what we do is we draw from action ideas that we know — higher squealing or even creating the sounds of the scooters they're almost like cars where they rev up. The chase is heightened but also not far from cartoon sounds put over the top. Those are places where we can heighten, but not feel like it's not part of the real world of the movie.


You've got maybe a first in cinema — the first 93-year-old protagonist ever. Soundtracking that must have been super cool in itself. Could you believe that this was June Squibb's first leading role? I certainly couldn't. 

June is such a wonder. She was so great to work with and she was so game for everything. She was doing some of her own stunts. Originally they were gonna have a stunt double do a lot of that. But she was just so energetic. She's really kind of a very singular and uniquely incredible human. I got to work with Jude in the ADR booth. We brought her in for close to a full day of ADR. If you've seen behind-the-scenes of action movies, there's a famous ADR shot of Tom Cruise doing a running sequence in one of the Mission: Impossible movies. For X-Men, Hugh Jackman is like running and yelling, and grunting and reacting and emoting in his. What we needed June to do was to come in and give us some of that energy in the ADR booth, where we needed her to do reactions and breaths and groans. And she was so game for that and she did such a great job. There's actually a lot of that stuff in the movie. It was a big part of the more intimate moments that are happening throughout the movie with June, her removing her hearing aids, for example, we become very pulled into her world.


I know in many parts of the narrative, there's a real-life influence here. Is there an extra sense of responsibility or pressure knowing that there's genuine truth involved?

I think it's a real asset to the project. Josh was so great about helping us find a place where you're still in a realistic world. You're always grounded in that, even though Thelma is larger than life in certain ways. Because this was such a personal story to Josh, he just had such a keen sense of the movie. With sound, so much of it is about feeling your way through it. We come in — especially in the mixing phase — and we have hundreds of layers of sound and music. A big part of the mixing process is finding the balance and finding the right feel for the movie, finding where music is taking over and where sound is the highlighted element. We're stretching the experience, the movie for the audience. How do we find that place where they can really experience the world and the way that film is experiencing the world both in the action, especially in those introspective or quiet moments? That was really helpful because you push the breath too hard or you push the car chase elements too hard and suddenly it loses its tether to the real world.


Thelma screened as part of Sundance Film Festival 2024.