‘Baby Ruby’ Director Bess Wohl Wants to Expose the Unsettling Side of Motherhood

·9 min read

Bess Wohl doesn’t want to compare the process of crafting a film to birthing a child, but the connection is almost too easy given the subject matter of her directorial debut.

Her movie “Baby Ruby,” an unsettling psychological thriller that premieres on Friday at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, offers the kind of rare, unvarnished look at the good, bad and deeply disturbing aspects of motherhood. The story follows Jo, a lifestyle influencer whose reality begins to unravel as she and her husband bring their newborn home from the hospital.

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“There are strange parallels,” the filmmaker says over iced coffee and pain au chocolat (which goes tragically uneaten) at a cafe near New York City’s Bryant Park. “Not to overwork a metaphor, but it’s putting something into the world that’s going to have a life without you.”

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” actor Noémie Merlant and Kit Harington of “Game of Thrones” fame lead the cast, though the film’s undisputed star is a newborn girl, whose (pointed?) glares and uncontrollable wails plunge her fragile mother deeper and deeper into disarray — not that her mom’s loyal followers would notice. After all, social media is best used as a showcase of Instagrammable baby showers and picture-perfect nurseries rather than spit-up, sleep deprivation and paranoia.

Taking inspiration from her own postpartum experiences, Wohl, the Tony-nominated playwright of “Grand Horizons,” wanted to get to the root of everything that’s not talked about when it comes to parenthood. So, you think your child hates you? Or worse, you think you hate your child? Wohl is willing to admit you’re not alone — even if you’d never admit that kind of dirty little secret out loud. Instead, she laments, women are expected to keep moving through life as if their world hasn’t been entirely upended.

She recalls hearing a quote that resonated with her: “Women are supposed to work like they don’t have children, parent like they don’t work, and look like they don’t do either.”

Wohl continues, “To have a baby and then act like this hugely transformative experience didn’t even happen to you because you have to keep going and [can’t] skip a beat, that’s what the movie is about. These experiences rip you open. How do you reconstruct yourself after?”

Her newest baby, “Baby Ruby,” that is, has been gestating for a while, but she’s still not quite ready to send it into the world. Two days before “Baby Ruby” is set to play to the masses at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, it’s a race to the finish line for Wohl, who was still tweaking the movie’s visual effects. She took a break from the editing bay to talk to Variety about making her first feature film.

You have an extensive theater background. Why did you feel film was the best medium for “Baby Ruby”?

You can’t put a baby on stage for that long. You could put the baby on stage for, like, 30 seconds. But you can’t have a baby as the central character of your play. I knew I wanted the baby to be a really important part of this, and I knew I wanted real babies. I was kind of obsessed with putting a giant baby on screen. Also, the film is so hallucinatory and psychological. Film does that really beautifully in a way that theater is more about community and society.

How did you land on the tone of psychological thriller?

It got stranger as I worked on it. At first, it was a more domestic story about a mom and a baby. There are so many iterations of this script, and I worked on it for years. But I did experience, myself as a mother, these moments that were hallucinatory, and where it felt like I was in a genre film, even though, I just want to be clear, this is not an autobiographical movie, at all. [Laughs]. Elements of psychological thriller felt right to me with the fear that’s inherent in becoming a mom. When you bring your baby home from the hospital, you start spinning out on all these terrible things that could happen. When the baby proofer comes, they walk you through your apartment and show you all the opportunities for terrible things in your own apartment that you thought was this bland domestic area. And then you’re like, “Oh no, this is a house of horrors.” It sparked my imagination, and it felt right to blow it out as far as possible.

In what ways did making the film help you work through your own feelings about motherhood?

It was really cathartic. I was pregnant with my third child when I wrote this script, so [I] was trying to hold onto some of those feelings and push them to the extreme on screen. It did feel really amazing to dive into this nightmare version of the experience. For me, becoming a mother was this complete fracturing of my identity and putting it back together. It’s been really joyful in a lot of ways. I couldn’t have become the person I am without that experience. But to look at the darkest, most twisted version of that good. Because in a way, when you look at it and put it on screen, you don’t have to live it yourself. I hope that [my kids] understand that it’s not about them.

The movie gets into society’s unwillingness to open up about the challenges of being a parent. People can warn you that babies cry a lot, but can anyone actually prepare you for what it’s like to have a newborn?

There is no preparing for the experience. It’s almost sci-fi, and that’s part of why I was interested in making the movie. It’s really weird that a person makes a person inside of themselves. [Laughs.] Even though I’ve done that myself, it’s just weird. Also, the experience is so different for every person. When I became a mother, people would have these well-intentioned conversations with me about what it was like for them. And it was completely different for me. There’s also this real inability to have difficult conversations because it’s scary. There’s a lot of taboos about admitting the difficult sides of it. In the film, the mother-in-law character says, “We don’t talk about it.” And that’s the problem. It would be useful if Jo could say, “Thank you for telling me. That’s how I feel sometimes, too.” But because she rejects that honesty, it sends her down this whole other path and creates this wild trajectory in her mind. The truth was offered to her, and she couldn’t see it. She’s terrified, and she’s not ready to look at her dark side.

How did you cast Noémie Merland and Kit Harington?

It’s cliche, but it happened fast. There wasn’t a long list of actors. I had seen “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” and I thought she was so amazing in that. I really loved the idea of the character being an outsider in her environment and feeling like a fish out of water. She’s trying to adapt to a culture that’s not really her own. Having Noémie in the film allowed her to comment on the American relationship to motherhood. She has that line, “Nobody hears about mothers in this country.”

And then Kit was the only actor for that role I sent the script to. I loved watching him in “Game of Thrones,” and I knew he had done a lot of theater. I felt like he had this ability to be incredibly charming, and you immediately connect with him. And yet there was something else going on with him that’s a little mysterious. He keeps you guessing in this movie in a way that I really love.

Harington and Wohl on the set of “Baby Ruby.”
Harington and Wohl on the set of “Baby Ruby.”

Did you look to any other movies for inspiration?

I come from a theater background, so a lot of my references came from the experience of theater in terms of thinking about sound and how to build a world. But one touchstone film was “Rosemary’s Baby.” The title “Baby Ruby” is very much a conversation with that film, and it riffs on that film in certain ways. I thought a lot about “Black Swan” and “The Babadook,” which is a movie I love for its psychological culture of that mother and her child. “The Shining” was a big part of the conversation. I wasn’t looking to do something naturalistic. I wanted it to be a little off from reality.

Do you feel like “Baby Ruby” has a renewed sense of timeliness after the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade?

Anything you make is always in conversation with the time around when people see it. That’s something, as an artist, you’re not in control of. But I’ve thought a lot, especially in recent months, about how this speaks to our feelings about motherhood in this country, and the intensity of our feelings, and the complicated feelings we have around mothers. We revere them, and we dismiss them. Also, the lack of support for young mothers in this country, which is so different from the rest of the world, is something that’s embedded in the architecture of the film. It’s funny, someone said to me, “If a baby’s crying on a plane, you should give it to the dad to hold. If the other people on the plane see the dad holding the baby, they will be like, ‘Oh, look at that dad. He’s trying so hard.’ But if they see the mom holding the baby on the plane, they’ll be like, ‘Why can’t that mother quiet her child?'” The double standard is endless. It’s a really interesting and difficult and painful time to be part of this conversation, but I’m glad to be in it.

Do you think you’ll want to make another movie?

It’s sort of like the question “Will you have another child?” when you’re still on the delivery table.

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