Sometimes in life, when things aren’t quite living up to your expectations, you have to take matters into your own hands. That’s exactly what actor/screenwriter Kristen Ruhlin did when she dove head first into the creation of her first feature film. On a cross-country flight, the seed of an idea grew into her terrifying occult thriller, “Welcome To Mercy.” Involved in every aspect of the process from start to finish, it was the ultimate learning experience for this up-and-coming storyteller. Most importantly, her experiences serve as proof-positive that good things come to those who wait!
“Welcome To Mercy” tells the tale of a young woman struggling against the unholy forces that possess her. After being stricken with stigmata, single mother Madaline (Kristen Ruhlin) is sent to a remote convent where nothing is what it seems and her friend August (Lily Newmark) is seemingly the only person she can trust. Together, they must confront the demons inside Madaline before she becomes the Antichrist.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Kristen Ruhlin to get an inside look at the making of the film and what compelled her pour her blood, sweat, and tears into the project. In the interview, she offers an inside look at the creative process, the obstacles she overcame along the way, and the lessons learned in bringing the project from script to screen.
How did you get involved with the arts early on in life and what made you pursue your passion professionally?
I grew up in West Virginia, where my Mom managed a theater company. I was always involved in theater because she was always toting me a long with her to work! It became like a second family to me. In college, I got into acting a lot more seriously and started doing independent films in New York. Eventually, over the course of my career, I was looking for something with a little more gravitas and integrity. I was looking for a role that I could be proud of. So, at one point, I decided to create that role for myself and that’s how the creation of “Welcome To Mercy” came about.
The road to becoming a successful working actor in Hollywood is not an easy one. Was there someone behind the scenes giving you a push during the times you needed it most?
You know, I’ve been married twice. Cat’s out of the bag! [laughs] My first husband actually passed away. He was my best friend since I was 14 years old. Despite everything, we were best friends our whole lives. He was the kind of person who always believed in me and would say, “You’re going to do this one day. You’re going to do it! I believe in you!” He was that person to me.
He was right! You have definitely blazed your own path and it’s definitely something to be proud of! Let’s talk about “Welcome To Mercy.” Where you always a fan of darker material?
I have always enjoyed the genre. One of my favorite films as a kid was “Poltergeist.” I was super young when I first saw it and I thought it was so scary and awesome! Those kind of films were the ones I was drawn to. I have steered away from horror over the past few years as I have two youngins but I still love seeing a good, scary movie from time to time. I love seeing the ones that come and do something different – films like “It Follows” or Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist.” I just love playing with imagery and creeping people out in different ways visually.
How did the idea for “Welcome To Mercy” originally come about?
I basically knocked out the story on a plane ride when I was in my twenties. I had the basic concept down then. I knew that I wanted to play a certain type of female character arc and a certain protagonist — someone who was kind of internally tortured. I was also really interested in stigmata. I’ve always been interested in religion. To me, there is nothing more terrifying than exorcisms because there is such a realness to it. I think there is also something both beautiful and creepy about churches, specifically Catholicism, although there is something creepy and beautiful about every religion. I flew into those and really started exploring those worlds.
This project was a long time in the making. What were the biggest challenges you faced along the way?
It has been a long journey from the time I wrote it to actually doing it. Along the way, the biggest struggles I’ve had was just living a normal life, becoming a mother, becoming a wife, becoming an ex-wife and a single mother. Those were the biggest challenges and propelled me to get the next steps made. I think every filmmaker can probably relate to that. Life can definitely throw you curveballs and get in the way, but I was always confident and relaxed in the back of my mind that this would come to fruition and everything would happen the way it was intended to. When I was in Latvia, there was definitely was a sense of “These roadblocks had to happen. I had to take a pause at year two and year three to get me to this position I’m in now. All of the people involved in Latvia and all of these elements were meant to be here right now.” I’m really happy with the way it turned out!
As the screenwriter, you are the author of this tale. You have also served as the driving force that ultimately brought it to the screen. As you got closer to this film becoming a reality, did you find it difficult to let go of the reigns and allow others into the process?
It was definitely hard, for sure! The director, Tommy Bertelsen, came on board toward the last leg of it. We started the last leg of it in September of 2018 with Tommy and we were in Latvia by December. That was a new person in the mix in a key role in a very short period of time. There was a lot of trust that had to be built in a very short time. I’m definitely someone who definitely has some walls up when it comes to trusting people and letting the reigns go. Tommy and I had some good heart-to-hearts. I had a conversation with him in Latvia, along with one of our executive producers, Serik Kushenov. It was at that point that I just had to let go of my little baby and trust other people. Once I leaned into that trust, it allowed other people to really excel at the things they are passionate about from production design to directing to cinematography. That’s what everyone is there to do, and you can’t do it all by yourself. It’s a team process and we definitely had those challenges, but I finally let go in Latvia! It was a huge learning experience.
I imagine you did quite a bit of research to bring the level of authenticity the film has to the surface.
Yeah, I definitely did a ton of research. We had 3 weeks of prep there and there was a ton of research going on to get into Latvian culture. Everything was methodical right down to the weight of the material used in the nun’s garments. Every little nook and cranny were highly researched!
What where the biggest challenges you faced on set?
The most challenging thing on this set was 100% the weather and the physical demands of it. It was a struggle period, but while being a single mom with two toddlers under 3 years old was something I totally didn’t anticipate! The physicality and exhaustion were something I totally mismanaged! I was in a strange country where we didn’t speak the language, and no one spoke English, which is always challenging. I had a nanny full-time while I was filming but I totally forgot that I didn’t have one when I was off, so I would shoot for 17 hours, come home at 7 AM, be a Mom for 12 hours and then go straight back to the set! I confided in Tommy about it and I was losing my mind! [laughs] He is very method, so he was like, “Yes! You’re going to use that! Yeah you are! Madaline is also exhausted, and she hasn’t slept for days!” [laughs] We totally went there with that and I think, in hindsight, it definitely played out for the best of the film! Like I said, everything happens for a reason! It was very challenging trying to do it all!
As the author of this tale, you have lived with the character you play for a long time now. How has the role evolved over time?
When I first conceptualized Madaline she was a younger version of myself and that is evident in the first draft. Her motives for doing a lot of things and the story that was there was her seeking attention for herself in a curious and narcissistic way, kind of the way all of us do in our early twenties. As I evolved through having a family, becoming a mother and moving into my thirties, Madaline’s character changed, and motivations became different. She had different reasons for doing things and learning about her past to make herself better not just for herself but someone else. That’s gives you a different reason for getting up in the morning. We all change at different stages in our lives, so she different went on a huge roller coaster of character development.
How do you feel you have evolved over the past decade?
Well, in my twenties, I definitely think I was so eager and desperate to please everybody. I wanted to have everyone like me. I wanted to be famous and do work that people saw and would recognize. I feel like I was willing to do any kind of project to make that happen and I didn’t really know how to get there. I knew the kind of roles I wanted to be acknowledged for and the kind of work I wanted to be involved with, but I wanted it so bad that I was less selective. As you grow, and you learn, you discover that you have to believe in yourself a little bit more. You have faith in yourself and in your work. That pivot point happened for me after I had kids. It comes down to the kind of work that I would want them to see me involved with, the stuff that I put out and the things that I go after to create the kind of resume that I want. Things have changed as I’ve entered my thirties. I’m not interested in being famous or having 12 movies under my belt in a year. I’m happy with having one really solid piece that I’m really proud of and getting good remarks on. I want to tell honest, real stories while producing and being part of the things that I want to put out there and want to see. It’s almost like my audience has changed a little.
You touched on it a little with that answer, but I wanted to dig a bit deeper. What are you looking for in the material you take on at this point in your career? Is there a specific direction you see yourself headed?
I have definitely shifted focus to writing just because it fits so well with my family dynamic right now. Producing is another thing I am focusing on and something I learned a lot about during the process of “Welcome To Mercy.” I love being part of the development! I love being a part of the development meeting and crewing up all the key departments and the way everything comes to fruition. I also love tweaking the script and talking story! I could talk all day about the mythology of stories and coming up with creative ideas. That’s the best part to me. At the same time, I also love acting and I definitely still want to do and pursue that but because I have shifted to such a selective area of it, those roles are very specific. Like I said, I don’t have to have 50 of them a year. The next one I want to do is this Roman one that I’ve been obsessed with since I was twelve. I’m going to put everything into that focus when the time is right and have faith that all the pieces will fall in line as needed.
The journey you are on is an inspiring one. What is the best lesson we can take away from your experience so far?
I have this little video that I took of myself on the last day of filming in Latvia. It was that “If you believe in something, you want something, and you have a dream about it, you should go after it…” kind of moment. Mine started with just a little idea that I wrote down on a napkin while I was on a plane and it manifested. I dreamt about it, wanted it, thought about it and obsessed about it for so long that it finally came true. I worked really hard for it. I think that whether it is 5 days, 5 years or 10 years, if it’s something you want bad enough, it will happen. You just have to give yourself the trajectory and the time to believe that it will!
I don’t know how often you might hear it but congratulations on everything you have achieved. It’s really amazing to see your vision become a reality. The film will be released on November 2nd, 2018. It’s been a long road! What are you doing to celebrate?
Oh my gosh! You know, honestly, the biggest celebration to me is that I get to keep doing what I love doing. I have to pinch myself every day! Right now, I’m in production right now on another film, we are continuing to make movies and I get to wake up every day and write stories and create worlds! That’s all I ever wanted to do since I was a little girl — create worlds and be part of them. That’s how I celebrate by just being able to keep doing it!
I can’t wait to see where this all takes you, Kristen! Keep up the hard work and I know our paths will cross again in the future!
Thanks so much, Jason! I really appreciate it! Talk to you soon!