Bess Wohl on Delivering the Goods in “Baby Ruby”

“Baby Ruby” would require Bess Wohl to express a different side of herself as an artist, though generally speaking, this was nothing new. After making the transition from actress to playwright years ago, she has shown a rare gift for crafting the kind of multidimensional roles you imagine she once craved, wily characters who might be a mystery even to themselves as their true desires would sneak up on them only when they knew who they didn’t want to be. However, when these revelations would happen inside the intimate environment of a live theater, Wohl had to wonder whether she could do the same in a cinema, taking the plunge with her feature debut where she intended to take full advantage of everything that was available to her.

“For anyone who likes to tell stories to audiences, film is really enticing,” said Wohl. “Like most people, I love movies and being able to play with this bigger toolkit that film affords you in terms of perspective and camera and editing and sound and color, so making a film had been a dream of mine since I first started writing and I think I just needed to get to a point where I was ready to do it.”

Going by one of the most accomplished first features in recent memory, Wohl was more than up to the task with the fiendishly clever psychological thriller, starring Noemie Merlant as Jo, a mom-to-be and social media influencer whose plans to excite her legions of followers with pics of her adorable new baby goes horribly awry when motherhood surprises her with horrors she’d never want documented. Jo’s deepest fears and insecurities are amplified amidst the hyper-image conscious set she finds herself in a picturesque nook of upstate New York, immune to the supportive words of her husband Spencer (Kit Harrington), who even in the grisliest profession imaginable projects an air of refinement around him as an artisanal butcher, and too easily gives in to the perceived perfection of the neighborhood moms (led by Meredith Hagner) who travel around the streets with strollers as if they were a pack of hungry wolves, eager to devour the weak.

While Jo is offered little comfort from most beyond the suggestion this is just a phase as she battles the creep of depression during her sleepless nights, “Baby Ruby” dazzles as a subversive satire set in a culture where it’s all too easy to edit out the bad bits of personal experience in curated daily posts, leaving a harsh reality for individuals to muddle through feeling as if they’re all alone. Wohl’s film is one of a kind in only the best ways, brilliantly funny and genuinely unsettling when making the most natural human functions come across as completely alien and on the eve of its release following a celebrated premiere last year at the Toronto Film Festival, the writer/director spoke about how her own pregnancy led to the notion it might make a great comedy full of dread, bringing out the best in her cast regardless of age, and her hopes for a more honest conversation around the needs of new mothers.

Is it true this grew out of a pregnancy you had?

Yeah, I started writing this script when I was pregnant with my child, who’s actually my third, and I started taking notes. Obviously, I took some time off after she was born and then started putting the film together and she turned three while I was shooting the film, so I think I needed a few years of space and distance from the actual visceral experience of new motherhood to be able to get some perspective. It was in a way a sweet spot of being close enough to the experience where it still felt urgent and still alive in me, but far enough away where I could talk about it and other people could relate as well.

Was Jo always a foreigner or specifically French or did that come with the casting of Noemie?

She was not. She was always a fish out of water in that she had just moved from New York City to the Hudson Valley and I was trying to create a feeling of isolation for her. She was American, but when I found out Noemie might be interested in the film, I rewrote it for her and it lent this whole new dimension to the character because now this character was really isolated. It was in a culture that wasn’t her own, [she] was far from family and friends and it also allowed the movie to comment on the particularly American relationship to maternal health care and new motherhood in a very subtle and organic way. There’s the moment in the film where Jo says, “Nobody helps mothers in this country,” like, “What’s going on here?” And I think those words could only be spoken by somebody who’s a little bit of an outsider on the culture, so it ended up making the film much richer in addition to Noemie being a totally magnificent actor.

You likely don’t get as much time with the actors before a production on a film as you would on a play, but was there anything once you brought the cast on that got your excited once they started to make it their own?

It was a small operation, so we didn’t have a lot of prep time, but we got about two or three days of rehearsal time with Kit and Noemie and during that time, we went through the scenes and we did a lot of physical improvisation. Noemie has a movement coach that she works with and [the two of them] did all of these incredible movement exercises together and suddenly we’re like rolling around the floor of our hotel in Poughkeepsie, New York. [laughs] After doing about an hour of that, they were so comfortable with each other and they felt like a real couple and they were able to embody a lot of the scenes physically without even using the language or the dialogue under the guidance of this teacher. I just observed and it was just incredibly helpful in terms of creating a comfort level when we started shooting in a very short period of time.

I was shocked to learn that you didn’t write it for this house specifically because it’s such an evocative location, but what was it like to find this house and work within that space?

It’s so funny because it’s the first house that we looked at. All of these things came together in a very magical way. Kit was the first actor I thought of for Spencer – the universe sent these things our way and one of the first things…the house was the first thing we looked at and then we looked at about ten other houses and I had that first house in my head, but I’m like, “You can’t use the first house you saw. That’s not how it works!” So I kept trying to find some other house, thinking, “This can’t be it. It has to be harder than this.” Ultimately after seeing 10 other houses, it was like, “No, it was that first house. It’s so unusual and beautiful and creepy at the same time.” Even as one location, it offers a lot of different locations within it, so there could be a lot of visual interest as well as storytelling purpose to it.

Two things strike me about what you just said, about Kit and the house, that I’m connecting to something you said at Toronto about why Jo was an Instagram influencer. It seems like you might’ve been pretty conscious of showing off different sides of everything and everyone in the film. Was that a foundational idea?

Yeah, it was really one of those things that emerged during the making of the film and even continued to emerge during the edit — this sense of so much of becoming a mother or really any big life change. I don’t really want to limit it to parenthood because I think this film speaks to anyone who’s going through a huge transition in their life. You have to adopt a new identity. You have to multiply yourself. You’re still the same person that you were, but you’re also somebody else and there becomes a multiplicity of selves and as we all get older, we all learn to juggle our work self and our home self and our self with our parents and all of these different persona, so the fact that Jo is an influencer — and quite literally when you look at her website, you see 12 versions of her — became important to the storytelling. Part of what she has to discover over the course of the movie, without giving anything away, is how to integrate these different pieces of herself and how not to be afraid of them or run from them. As one of the characters says in the film, when you don’t look at these things, they get stronger and scarier. And seeing a different version of Kit than we’re used to seeing — he’s such a lovely person in real life and such a warm and kind presence on screen — it was really interesting to see Kit go to some darker places that I had never seen before.

Since I asked about Jo, did Spenser immediately come to mind as an artisanal butcher?

It’s such a great job. [laughs] That came from a friend who was married to an artisanal butcher who moved to upstate New York. I have a lot of friends who moved out of the city and started lives there with children, so when I was thinking of what his character could be that felt both right for their environment in terms of their milieu, but also had a little bit of a creepy scary undertone to it, artisanal butcher just felt like the right job for him. Also, there’s so much in this film about flesh and blood and such a body horror element to it that a butcher felt in line with some of those thematics.

The sound design is particularly unnerving, utilizing baby-related sounds and things you’d find inside a nursery in a really intriguing way. What was that process like?

Again, this is my first film and I found the process of mixing the sound to be one of the most exciting parts of it, particularly because so much of this film is happening inside her head. The feeling of these auditory hallucinations I remember very well from when I had new babies, being out at a restaurant and hearing crying and not knowing if that crying was actually happening or if the crying was just in my head because I had heard so much crying for such a long period of time. The sense of not quite trusting what you can hear is so rich and such an important part of the character’s journey, that gives you so much latitude when you’re creating the soundscape of the film of what kind of sounds you can put into the film. It doesn’t have to be realistic, which is really fun.

You get great performances out of everyone, the baby included. Was it difficult to facilitate?

Yes, babies are harder to direct than adults, you’ll be shocked to learn. [laughs] We had two babies, they were twins – Lucas and Gabriela — and they were fantastic and their parents were lovely, because it’s a lot for parents to bring their babies to set and to stay there with them. The biggest challenge also wound up being the greatest gift, which is you never know what they’re going to do. These babies, you cannot control them, right? So if a baby’s crying and you have 15 minutes to shoot, you just have to shoot the scene of the baby crying and change what the scene is and how it worked, so it forced me to be very, very flexible and very, very spontaneous and at the same time, very, very prepared because we had a very limited amount of time.

The rules around shooting with babies are rightfully extremely strict and the safety and the comfort of the babies was my absolute priority all the time, so we had to just be incredibly prepared and know, “Okay, we have 15 minutes with this baby. Here’s exactly how we’re going to use it.” [Then when it was like] “Okay, the baby’s not doing exactly what we want it to. We’re going to pivot and do this other thing and the scene’s going to become something else.” It kept everyone on their toes and very alive and flexible all the time, so people say never work with babies, but for me, it actually ended up being one of the most fruitful and interesting parts of this. I just loved seeing babies on screen because they don’t know they’re acting and that’s always really interesting to watch.

The film makes the point that there are all these things that we don’t talk about around motherhood, so what’s it like getting this out into the world?

It’s really been amazing because any time you make anything that’s incredibly personal and a little bit scary to share, there’s this underlying terror of “I feel these things, I feel this story deserves to be told, but will anybody else? How will it be received?” And it’s just so incredibly profound and meaningful when people say, “Oh, I see that. That thing that felt too scary to share or terrifying is something I can relate to too,” That’s been interesting having [it connect with] people of all ages — people considering becoming parents, [or] I had a woman [come up] after a preview screening a few days ago who became a parent 30 years ago, and talk to me about how the movie spoke to her — so it’s interesting to see wherever you are in the trajectory of this experience that the movie can have something to say to you. It’s been very terrifying, but also incredibly rewarding.

“Baby Ruby” opens on February 3rd in New York at the IFC Center and Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center and the Laemmle Glendale and will be available on digital.

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