When you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself. Kristen Ruhlin wanted a great role to play, so she wrote one for herself in Welcome to Mercy.
Welcome to Mercy played at the Screamfest Horror Film Festival and now opens November 2 in theaters from IFC Midnight. Ruhlin plays Madaline,a woman who visits her ailing father in Latvia with her daughter Willow (Sophia Massa).
The visit brings up all sorts of old conflicts until Madaline experiences the stigmata. She goes to a convent to help expel the spirit that may have caused it.
Ruhlin spoke with Monsters and Critics by phone about her screenplay and performance in Welcome to Mercy. She’s also got many upcoming projects so hopefully this will be the first of many interviews with Ruhlin.
Monsters and Critics; It’s one thing to be a writer/director and know how you’re going to direct the material. Is it even more complicated being a writer/actor because you still have to find a director?
Kristen Ruhlin: I didn’t find it that difficult. I really lean in towards more of the writing. That’s really my bread and butter.
I’m working on another script for Cary Granat who also produced Welcome to Mercy. The concept was at Walden Media for a long time that did The Chronicles of Narnia, The Life of Timothy Green, and it’s that same genre.
I love the writing aspect and acting in it is definitely a challenge because when you bring another director in, they’ve got their vision. They’re going to do a director pass on your script. And so that creative process tweaks a bit but I love finding directors that have a strong vision and direction.
I get a little scattered, having someone that has that type of personality that can be a director is so key. I’m definitely more in the writer, I guess actors, scattered world of it. Having that director capability is so important. [Welcome to Mercy director]Tommy [Bertelsen]has that, I don’t.
M&C: When did you start writing Welcome to Mercy? Were you still working on other acting jobs at the time?
KR: I started writing that four and a half, five years ago. I quickly wrote it and then I had a couple studio offers. I was doing other films at the time.
I had just come off a film with Josh Gad and Hilary Duff at the time. I was doing another movie with Madeline Zima and then I did a Hallmarkish type movie, a Christmas movie. So I was doing a lot of other smaller films around that time.
Then I took a two year sabbatical to have my two boys, but I was still developing this film at that time. I just wasn’t able to do anything acting-wise with my kids.
M&C: Was writing a role for yourself both a career move and a way to work through some personal feelings?
KR: Yeah, for sure. I wrote something because I wanted to have the control over the type of role and the content that I wanted to be part of. So I was always just a piece in the puzzle before.
I wasn’t ever really happy with the finished product or the tone of the final projects I was part of. For me, the whole point of being an artist was there was certain art that I wanted to be participating in.
I would see these award films and these stories being told, the cinematography of projects and I was like, “Oh, I wish I had something like that.” So that was really the spur of why I wanted to do my own thing.
And then cathartically writing this piece definitely lets you explore some of your own issues. It was really cathartic and personal.
M&C: You said you have sons. Did Welcome to Mercy have anything to do with your thoughts on motherhood?
KR: Yeah, it does. I think when you’re a mom, like Madeline, and you’re a single mom like she is and like I am and you are faced with things in life that you wouldn’t ever find yourself faced with, you have to dig in and find an internal strength and purpose that’s bigger than yourself.
What is that drive? Is it your child? Is it being the best version of yourself for your child? Then fighting towards that. Madaline does that.
I know I have to do that in my life and it takes sometimes hitting the bottom, metaphorically as Madaline kind of hits the bottom of even going back deep into her psyche and falling into a well and going back to the bottom, you have to go there before you can reach the light and get to the top again.
I believe you can come from a place of your lowest point and degradation and your own personal demons, and you can come out of it stronger and better and more enlightened than you were.
M&C: Did it have to do with your relationship with your parents too?
KR: I was an only child and my mom was a single mom. I was raised by my grandmother and my mom. So I definitely did pull from some of those relationship dynamics.
I’ve always been a very independent, quiet person. So I definitely did pull from some of those relationship dynamics but I wasn’t abandoned or anything like that. I had a very present mom and a present grandmother.
My grandmother was a very strict Catholic. I took her experiences in life and the staunch type of person that my grandmother was definitely influenced some of my character development, the mystery of Catholicism and the guilt that comes along with Catholicism and fighting that guilt and finding the humanity in yourself along with the Christianity. I always found the relationship dynamics of that interesting.
M&C: When you knew you were going to be shooting in Latvia, did you have to adapt the script for Latvia?
KR: We did. I attribute a lot of that to Tommy actually because he was there for a month prior than I was. Once he got there, he noticed a lot of the stuff had to be adapted to Latvian culture. We just embraced it so 100%.
M&C: Where was it set before?
KR: It was nondescript. I had written it to be actually just a rural area. I was kind of envisioning it to be in the United States actually. Then we changed it to Europe.
I kind of I guess envisioned Kansas because initially my idea of the whole story was, the biggest thing that excited me about it was exploring the POV, where a person goes in their minds when they’re being exorcized. It’s a fictional place. It’s a place in their minds.
I always envisioned it as like the Wizard of Oz, the Dorothy of exorcism. It was the whole thing of, “Oh, you were there and you were there. The scarecrow was my uncle and you’re Aunt Em and this is the witch.”
That’s exactly what I initially created for the story and it just kind of shifted. So I always placed it in Kansas actually. It was supposed to be like a Wizard of Oz. That was the initial thing.
M&C: Was the exorcism scene a challenge to perform?
KR: Yeah, it was. It was emotional and it was straining on my voice, but it was fun being on the cables and the levitation with the rig. It was fun.
M&C: When you’re dealing with exorcisms and religious horror, of course The Exorcism is a classic, but did you feel there’s more to add to that conversation?
KR: Yeah, I mean, exorcism movies have always fascinated me. I think the dramatic stories like The Exorcist have always inspired me and I wanted to definitely add that to the mix and be in that kind of category, the Oscar winning Exorcism, those kinds of stories, like a Terrence Malick exorcism or a Lars Von Trier exorcism. Those kinds of storytellers to me are interesting.
M&C: The original title was Beatus. What did that mean?
KR: It means blessed in Latin. That came from I grew up taking Latin. Initially the first draft of the script had a ton of Latin in it. I wanted to be speaking Latin for a large portion of her possession, like in a lot of movies.
That just came from my own intrigue with the dead language and the fact that I studied it and got a minor in it in college. I was like, you never see the movies where they’re actually speaking it and they’re explaining it and where it’s coming from.
It didn’t make it into the final movie, but initially it was when she was studying Latin in the convent and she was learning this dialogue, that’s why people in bed just start speaking in Latin.
You’re wondering they don’t have any experience, how are these people speaking Roman Latin? That’s a dead language, or aramaic. My explanation for it in my movie was that she was learning it in the convent and that’s transpiring through into reality. It’s very twisted and layered, sorry. That’s why it didn’t make it into the movie.
M&C: When did they decide to change it to Welcome to Mercy?
KR: A lot of it came from two years developing it, developing the concept. Bryce McGuire was a director that was attached to it for a long period of time. He and I developed a lot of different concepts and he’s a friend of Tommy, the director we had.
Then we just kept streamlining what we thought was the strongest story and how we can adapt it to our location and also it’s something that’s reflective of what I was personally going through in life at the time. That’s how we came about it.
M&C: Were you a horror fan before writing a horror movie?
KR: Yeah, I was the biggest horror fan. My first favorite scary movie was Poltergeist. I was obsessed with Carol Anne. Then I graduated to The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, Suspiria. I love those ‘70s style horror films.
Then I like the ‘80s stuff too. The Jason movies I always really liked. I guess there’s something nostalgic about them. With the ‘70s ones, there’s something timeless about them.
For me, I wanted to create a timeless horror film so that when you’re watching it, you don’t know if it’s current or if it’s from the’ 70s or the ‘80s. You can watch it at any point in time and not know when it is, just get lost in the story.
M&C: Are you writing more?
KR: Yeah, I’ve been working on a script for the past year almost for Cary Granat who I mentioned. It’s a theological theme of a young girl coming of age.
She goes on a worldwide adventure that unlocks the mystery of all religions and how they’re all connected, and basically discovers the secret that her father, who passed away recently, was on this research journey, discovering how to get the gates of Heaven open and how the gates of Heaven are universal in every religion.
She basically becomes like a modern day prophet. It’s kind of a thematical adventure and it’s Gen Z, like a 17-year-old girl. That’s been really fun to explore.
M&C: Will there be a role for you in it too?
KR: Yeah, when I write projects, I always write something for myself. I’m not so hunky dory on the lead roles anymore, just with my time with my kids and everything, but I always think of myself for things.
M&C: Sounds like you have more to say on the subject of theology.
KR: Yeah, theology is like so inspiring and mysterious to me. I love learning about all religions. When I was 13 I was convinced I needed to become a Hindu. I just find them fascinating because when you start really researching them, from Judaism to Islam to Hinduism to Christianity, Catholicism, there’s key threads from all of them and there’s a universal truth in all of them.
It has to mean something and there has to be something bigger than ourselves that’s driving it, and I believe it. Ultimately there’s good and there’s evil.It’s like the yin and yang in nature and in life and every relationship and dynamic that we have.
I just find it fascinating to explore and how it affects us, and what we take away from it that drives us to make decisions. I love exploring that.
M&C: Are you still writing a television series?
KR: I’ve been developing a comic series that I had been approached to write a spec for a comic company. I did the comic strip to that and then I am now developing it into a series. Urbs is on our slate that we’re trying to develop as well.
I have another horror film Pareidolia that just went through a couple rounds of festival screenplay competitions into the final rounds. That’s being developed too that I did with my friend, my writing partner, another horror exorcism script.
M&C: What’s Pareidolia about?
KR: With this one, this kind of explores another new concept of exorcism. Pareidolia is when you start looking for answers and you start seeing signs. It’s not real. You just are seeing the image of Jesus like in wood.
You hear about people, “Look, Jesus is in my oatmeal” or “I just saw Jesus’s face in a plank of wood.” You’re trying to make an answer for something and seeing signs in something that doesn’t really exist. There’s another phenomenon. There’s another answer scientifically for it.
M&C: You mentioned the time balancing writing and your kids. Do you have a writing schedule you follow?
KR: I’m working on my schedule. I was just meeting with a new manager about trying to work that out because right now I do try to balance just when I can. I do have certain commitments with my writing assignments.
I have deadlines that I have to hit so depending on how close I am to those deadlines, I’ll just work straight for two weeks writing and then work nights catching up on my production stuff, or on the weekends on my production stuff. Or I’ll flip it and work full time during the work on my production job stuff, write on the weekends.
I’m definitely working seven days, 24 hours a day. We’re knee deep in going into production on another film right now that shoots in Malibu, so I’m doing 15 million different things.
M&C: Is that another film you wrote?
KR: No ,this one is actually with the production company I work with. I’m just producing this one. It’s my friend’s production company and do development. It’s an all female production company.
We’ve been making movies together and this is just our next one. It’s fun. It’s like a female American Psycho and she’ll star in it. I’m just trying to get the pieces together to help get it made.
M&C: What’s her name?
KR: The CEO of the company, Louise Linton. She’s a beautiful Scottish actress. She’s my boss and my dear friend. We have another film under our company coming out that’s a romantic comedy. Then we’re going to be going back to Latvia in 2019 for Shadows in the Grass. We just love making movies.