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Bess Wohl is used to wearing many hats, but nothing could’ve prepared her for the role of motherhood. The former actor who’s now a screenwriter and a celebrated playwright — her Grand Horizons was a 2020 Tony nominee for best play — has three children, and the physical and psychological effects of being a new mom inspired her directorial debut, Baby Ruby. Screening Feb. 9 at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, Ruby explores postpartum depression (PPD) through the lens of the horror-thriller, as lifestyle blogger Jo (Noémie Merlant) struggles to adapt to her fussy new baby. Here, Wohl discusses channeling the less-talked-about side of parenting into a genre film, and landing two consecutive projects with Kit Harington.
What made this the right time for your directorial debut?
I have a 10-year-old, a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old, so I’ve been thinking for a long time about how our culture talks about motherhood and the lack of conversation about some of the scarier, more complicated pieces of the experience. There was an urge to add this story to our conversation, all while making a fun movie that doesn’t feel like an eat-your-vegetables lesson. In terms of timing, it was finding the right producer, in Alex Saks — she was able to make it a go with her own backers and investors.
The aforementioned fun comes in thriller form. What prompted you to tackle PPD through genre storytelling?
Well, to me, it was organic. The new things that happened to my body felt like they were related to the body horror films I’d seen. And there’s the feeling of being psychologically unmoored, not knowing whether it’s day or night, and not knowing what’s real and what’s not. There’s the sense of auditory hallucination: “Is my baby crying or is that just in my head?” The feelings of dislocation and isolation are also so common in horror movies and new motherhood. Being alone in a house is the classic setup of a horror movie, and yet it’s also the experience of new motherhood, often: “I’m alone with this creature, and I don’t know what this creature wants.” So all these interesting parallels started to emerge.
Did you meet your male lead, Kit Harington, while writing on the Apple TV+ series Extrapolations (scheduled to premiere in March)?
No, that was a great coincidence. We sent Ruby to Kit, and when we had coffee in New York, I said, “I think we’re also doing something else together.” So it was a fun point of connection, and I was very lucky to get two Kit Harington projects in such a short amount of time.
Independent film is a high-wire act. What day on set most exemplified that notion?
Oh my gosh, what day wasn’t a high-wire act? (Laughs.) It was exacerbated by the fact that we were shooting with babies. It was a restricted budget, which meant a limited amount of time — you had 15 minutes to shoot with the baby, and if the baby was crying, you just had to adjust the scene around that fact. So you have to be incredibly flexible and spontaneous all the time, but that’s also what made every day really interesting and exciting.
How did your acting and playwriting experience come in handy?
They all build on each other. I haven’t acted in a long time, but I still draw on my acting training. I think about scenes from an actor’s perspective and ask, “Could I play this? Could I not?” And playwriting connects you to an audience in such a deep way because you’re there with the audience every night. So it’s given me a really nice sense of how audiences will respond to things.
With this film, do you want the audience to decode what’s reality and what’s fantasy?
To a degree, that’s beside the point, but if they want to spend time thinking about it, I’m all for it. The experience of watching the film should be the emotional ride of what the characters are going through from scene to scene. And because you’re so deeply in the perspective of Jo, the lead character, it’s impossible to decode. The movie very intentionally doesn’t let you outside her perspective, so it’s probably something that you could only do in retrospect after watching the movie.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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