Interview with Tommy Bertelsen, Director of Welcome to Mercy

Welcome to Mercy is your second feature as a director, what attracted you to it?
I’m still figuring out what sort of filmmaker I am. Telling stories for a living is such a broad and nebulous job — Your work is this delicate combination of deeply personal ideas, natural instincts, collaborative partnerships, and practical opportunities. How you balance and navigate those ends up defining what you put out in the world… and I think in a very real way it also ends up defining who you are.

At this early stage of my career I’m trying discover myself in the work and in the process, to find out what I care about and what I have to offer, because that’s the only way I’ll ever learn to be great at this. So to discover who I am as a storyteller I need stretch myself in every way possible, to try things I’ve never done, things that confuse or scare me. Making Welcome to Mercy was an incredible way to do that and ended up being the most stimulating, challenging, and ultimately gratifying experience I’ve ever had.

Instinctually I was drawn to a lot of things about this project. I loved the emotional elements woven into the script — It felt like a meditation on motherhood wrapped in a horror movie. I was excited by the opportunity of working with Cary Granat who has a track record and intelligence that are inspiring. I was encouraged by the timing (the script came across my desk just one week before I was set to finish post on my first film) and the idea of jumping right back into another process that was already fully financed felt almost meant-to-be.

But what attracted me most is what scared me: I hadn’t really worked or lived outside of the country before, certainly not while helming a movie in a genre I’ve never touched with a crew of foreign collaborators who spoke a different language. I was terrified by the idea of creating something so important to my career while being so far from home — it sounded like free climbing a rock face or something, no ropes. But the challenges and risks are what made it worthwhile

How was it directing a lead actress who also wrote the script?
My first film was written by and starring one of my best friends (Troian Bellisario) so stepping into that writer/actor dynamic again felt pretty natural actually. The biggest gift was that Kristen wrote something for herself, something she understood as a young mother of two. Madeline’s journey in the movie parallels Kristen’s own journey in certain ways and I think we were able to use that to ground her performance. Her children were living with us in Latvia for the shoot which meant that Kristen was halfway around the world during an Eastern European winter juggling being a mother to her children and the star of our movie — an extremely impressive feat that deserves recognition and respect (Hey Kristen 😉 ). The proximity of her children and that unique dynamic also provided fertile ground for me to work with her on some of the more challenging scenes. Emotions were raw. Exhaustion was real. And I think perhaps some of that comes across in the film, at least I hope so.

How much liberty were you given with the script?
Cary, Kristen and the rest of the team were very trusting and gave me a lot of creative rope to make my version of this story (including the script) and I’m grateful for that. Mostly I focused on grounding it emotionally, building out the familial relationships, and taking advantage of production realities out there in Latvia that I discovered while location scouting, casting, etc. One major shift was that the film wasn’t actually supposed to take place in Latvia. Originally, we were slated to film there, but then play the location as an isolated town in the Northeastern US. But it took about five minutes in Eastern Europe before I realized what a wealth of resources we had out there. So instead of fighting against our location and trying to make it be something it wasn’t… we embraced our setting and it became a defining feature of the film that help every other decision along the way.

How was shooting so far from home in the cold of winter?
It was the best experience of my life but it was challenging in every imaginable way.

Many of the scenes were captured outside in temperatures way below freezing. When we shot at the convent many of the cast and crew were actually living inside that massive home which was something I fought for and encouraged. An immersive experience like that can’t help but inform your work. We’d grind all day and then stay awake sitting on the porch watching snow fall on our set while the ground hardened and wind whipped through the forest. I’d wake up in my room to the clanging sounds of pipes or the groans of old wood stretching and shrinking with the weather, then step outside my bedroom door and be standing in the middle of our church set. It was both eerie and comforting at the same time.

But it was dangerous too. We had actors soaked in water running through the snow. We had live animals, farm equipment, children and elderly performers working through the dead of night in remote locations. Grips wired an entire farm house that our team essentially rebuilt from the ground up, and regularly hung from rooftops with a light in one hand to illuminate a scene. We did everything we could to add scope and scale to a limited budget and I’m proud of the risks and sacrifices everybody made… but if I’m honest, there’s no way we would get away with a lot of it back here in the US.

Before I got swept up in the storm of production I felt very isolated and lonely at times actually. I was really homesick during the first few weeks. I was so far from the people I normally depend on… my friends, family, and creative support system. I was having trouble cracking a few script issues, felt time closing in, and was encountering a bunch of other production challenges regarding the shooting schedule and began to deeply doubt myself. I think we all feel like frauds sometimes, like we’re imposters, I know I do at least.

One night in particular I became sure that I didn’t deserve to be the in charge of such a big operation, to be directing a movie, to be making all these decisions, that it was all going to fall apart. I remember not sleeping that night and getting so wound up that I was physically shaking but I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid to talk to anybody about it because I wanted my team to trust me, I wanted my friends to believe in me, and I didn’t want my family to worry. Eventually I called a friend… he helped me solve a couple problems, to gain some perspective, and calm my nerves. The next morning I threw on my jacket, laced my boots, and just kept going. Eventually all that noise turned into another vague memory. Those feelings are temporary, the good and the bad, and I do my best to remember that. I’m just happy to have people in my corner that help me keep moving.

Given the international cast with different levels of experience, what were some of the challenges of getting everyone on the same page? Were communications ever an issue?
There were certainly times when communication was challenging and the language barriers were real. I went over there knowing absolutely zero Latvian or Russian (the two main languages spoken in that region) and that’s not ideal. Most of the team spoke Russian and nearly everybody had that in common (even my friend and insanely talented DP, Igor Kropotov). But there were a number of cast or crew who spoke Russian and not Latvian, or Latvian and not Russian, or both but no English, so there was always a translation game going on.

To further complicate things– basically every actor had at least one scene where they were performing in a language they don’t speak. The incomparable Baltic talent that is Juris Strenga (Old Father Joseph) basically spoke no English, I’m not exaggerating. If you’ve seen the movie, you might be surprised because EVERY SCENE HE HAD WAS IN ENGLISH. The same can be said Madeline’s mother Yelena. And both of these people turn in very powerful performances in my opinion. Imagine trying to convey subtle emotional signals during a dramatic scene in a language you barely comprehend while freezing your ass off in the middle of a rural farmhouse at 4am after twelve hours of shooting — it’s exhausting just to say that! Once you wrap your head around it you begin to appreciate how impressive these actors actually are. And don’t get me going on Marta Timofeeva (Young Madeline)… that girl was up against all these same challenges PLUS she only eight years old. Insane.

So yeah, communication was an issue, but mostly it’s just another way in which I was blown away by the talent of my team.

But directing generally is just one giant communication challenge anyway. That’s literally the job. I can’t call myself a filmmaker just because I have stories or ideas locked in my own head. I have to be able to translate those to my collaborators so that they can understand them, improve them, and then together we can build a world that’s compelling and digestible for an audience. Communicating stories, ideas, and emotions clearly within the form is what’s hard — the language stuff was just a fun bonus.

What did you do to prepare for the shoot?
I listen to music, watch movies, read books, then find a bunch of people who are smarter than me and ask them a bunch of questions until that make me stop.

How do you think having been an actor has influenced you as a director?
I’ll bet somebody could answer this question better about me than I could about myself… but I’ll take a stab. In my opinion it’s made me a more performance-driven director. I used to have a theater company in Los Angeles with a handful of my best friends (that’s when I really made my transition from actor to director) and it was an incredibly empowering time in my life. I think that training with those people taught me what collaboration really was and gave me license to feel comfortable working the way that I do — which is very active, very involved. I don’t like to feel like I’m some person behind the camera making decisions, I don’t sit back in a chair when I direct… I’m usually on the ground with the actors, running around in the scene beside them, I try to be another character to play off of and push them, not some judgmental figure giving notes and moving on. Training in theater taught me to love rehearsal and that important revelations don’t just happen by chance in front of the camera, but through hard work and repetition, it comes from digging into an idea, beating it up. I love to rehearse.

It also taught me how to fail and (on my better days) to feel empowered by that failure and not diminished. Acting is really hard. You have to be vulnerable but thick skinned, fluid but precise, and most of the time it doesn’t work. Because acting was my introduction to directing I appreciate the process of discovery. It helps me view my work and myself as something evolving, something that can and will improve with effort. Acting was the best training possible for what I do and what you have to go through if you want to even stand at chance at really getting good at it. Because directing is hard too. And the failures and pressure along the way, the criticisms and the judgment can be tough to handle. Sometimes I feel like directors are supposed to be immediate geniuses or else the industry feels have nothing to offer and you could never get to do it again. Training as an actor lets me view my directing as a work in process.

Plus I always share a common language with my talent. I think a lot of them appreciate that. Some of them might hate me though; you’ll have to ask them.

How does directing horror differ from directing drama or other genres in your experience?
I’m the best person to be parsing out the differences between directing various genres. I just don’t have the experience to speak articulately or honestly about it… I’d just be waxing philosophical and bit out of my depth.

Traditionally different genres have different visual grammars of course but what’s more important to me, or perhaps what makes more sense to me, is that every project itself has its own visual grammar, it’s attitude, style, pace, tone, which isn’t something that I’m interested in creating or forcing on my own. Sure, it’s principally my job to help discover and shape that, but our movie in the combined sum of all the artists involved. So I try to focus on my collaborators, not necessarily the genre we’re working in, because genre is malleable. I look for the magic — What’s most compelling about each person, each location, each scene, each moment. A momentum and energy is created naturally that way and before we know it the movie has a personality of its own.

Our movie has demons in it; does that make it a horror? Probably. But I’m happy to let other people decide what it is or isn’t.

In what you are allowed to talk about, what do you have coming up next?
I have a really dark, aggressive, and confessional style podcast about my experience in Latvia coming out in a few months with Mama Bear Studios, it’s based on a one man show I’ve been performing in LA — Plus a gritty grounded sci-fi called LUMINOUS written by my collaborator Bryce McGuire that we’re packaging with Votiv Films. If folks have any interest in following my work (or seeing pictures of me and bondage gear) they can find me on all the usual platforms @docdanger.

“Welcome to Mercy” is now in Limited Release and is available on VOD and various Digital Platforms.