PopHorror Interviews Tommy Bertelsen: Director of ‘Welcome to Mercy’

IFC Midnight has been killing it with their horror releases this year including Welcome to Mercy (read our review – here). It’s one that I still keep thinking about, even weeks later, and much of that is due to the brilliant director, Tommy Bertelsen.

I was lucky enough talk with Tommy about his career, what it was like to work with Tim Burton, juicy inside details about Welcome to Mercy, casting decisions, and more. Enjoy!

Welcome to Mercy poster

PopHorror – It’s so great to talk with you Tommy! What made you want to get involved in the movie industry?

Tommy Bertelsen – When I was in kindergarten I had my first crush on a girl named Chelsea Hillis. She was a child actor and our mom’s were PTA friends. During the Summer, Chelsea and her little brother went to LA a few days each week to audition for commercials and TV shows. The idea of sitting next to her, eating Fruit Roll Ups, and talking in the backseat for hours at a time sounded like a dream. So I told my mom I wanted to act. For a few years, our two families were like this road tripping pack of troubadours driving up interstate 5 and dropping into open auditions all Summer long. It was amazing. I had a lot of luck and ended up working quite a bit.

Before I knew it I was a six year old on set with Martin Landau and Johnny Depp doing a scene in Ed Wood, playing a mean trick-or-treater who mouthed off to both of them (I always played a mean little kid for some reason, probably the bright red hair). I remember standing on this porch watching Johnny take direction from Tim Burton while burning cigarettes between takes and trying out different line readings on me. I didn’t know who they were at the time, but I could tell they were important — and when they talked to me, they treated me like I was important — they listened to me, and I made them laugh. I don’t remember everything from that day, but the feeling of being a part of some special club, of collaborating with adults, made me feel so comfortable with who I was. That was my first taste of telling stories with a team… like an art-sport or something. And I’ve been trying to do that in different forms ever since.

PopHorror – That’s so exciting. A dream come true! Has your path been more directing or producing?

Tommy Bertelsen – I’ve mostly been directing, but I produce and write as well. In college, I was in a conservatory program studying acting at USC with this incredibly talented group of performers. Halfway through it became clear to me that I didn’t have the tools or natural talent to do what most of them were doing so I stepped outside the scene and tried a different job, directing. Suddenly all the idiosyncrasies that held me back as a performer were assets as a director. I fell in love with it after one rehearsal and haven’t stopped since. But training as an actor was actually the best accidental path possible for what I do. Wouldn’t trade it for any film degree. I’ve directed a bunch of plays, two shorts, and now Mercy is my second feature.

PopHorror – It seems to be your calling. Speaking of your first film, what was it called?

The first movie I ever made was a short called Exiles in 2013. It starred two of my best friends, Troian Bellisario and Shane Coffey. We started making theater with each other in college and still work together today. That short was shot by Igor Kropotov (who also shot Welcome to Mercy). He’s amazing. Exiles is sort of like an addendum to Romeo and Juliet and reimagines the end of that story so that neither of them dies. Instead their plan to run away together works. The movie explores a darker side of “love at first sight.” Two teenagers fall in love and immediately want to run away to be alone, together, forever… but soon they realize that they don’t know each other, in fact they don’t even like each other. And now… they got exactly what they wanted. They’re alone. Together. Forever. I used to really hate that short but now I like it. The further I get from my work the more I can appreciate it.

PopHorror – Exiles sounds incredible, I love a darker twist! Your newest film, Welcome to Mercy, is a pulse-pounding thriller. Do you enjoy the horror/thriller genre?

I do! As an audience member, I’m addicted to scares — in a movie theater, a haunted house, or around a campfire — I love the thrill of feeling terrified, I’m a glutton for punishment. But for some reason, as a filmmaker, I’m not really drawn to the scares or other genre mechanics. What turns me on creatively about horror is that it has so much to offer audiences visually and through it’s characters. It’s a free pass to travel to the darkest places and shine a light our darkest thoughts — I love how cathartic that feels, to try and demystify our monsters. If we were honest about what we’re thinking all day long, everybody’s inner monologue would be a horror movie, wouldn’t it?

PopHorror – You definitely have a point. How did the casting come about for this film?

 Kristen Ruhlin in Welcome to Mercy
Kristen Ruhlin in Welcome to Mercy

Tommy Bertelsen – Casting this film was one of the best parts. I had so much fun! When I came on board, our star Kristen Ruhlin (who also wrote the original script), was already attached to play Madeline but the majority of our search happened on the ground in Latvia and I loved every second of it. I spent a few weeks locked in a room seeing pretty much every actor in Latvia with our casting director Svetlana (who also played Yelena, Madeline’s mother). The pool of talent out there isn’t massive (it’s a small country) but they are so so good. Many of the serious actors are performing in rep with regional theaters, putting up multiple plays and inhabiting multiple roles at any given time. Their work ethic and craft is really impressive.

I didn’t know what I was stepping into when I first flew out there, but quickly discovered that the Latvians are very open, intelligent, and vulnerable people once you crack the surface. Each audition was surprisingly probing and personal. I would sit back while Svetlana would press each actor to reveal how they were really feeling before the audition started. She’d dig into what personal, familial, or political topics were gnawing at their hearts. Then we’d dive in and tackle a scene or two. And because we all came from a theater background there was this shared theatrical language even though there was NOT a shared spoken language. Most of the auditions were me watching these really impressive monologues while an interpreter was whispering their English translation in my ear. It must have looked so bizarre from the outside even though it felt like it made sense to us. It was awesome. We were also fortunate to get Lily Newmark (August) and Eileen Davies (Mother Superior) out of the UK who were cast remotely. Plus we had help out of the States from Nancy Nayor, who is wonderful.

PopHorror – Wow, what a wonderful experience that connected many people. Where was this film shot?

Tommy Bertelsen – The film was shot in two separate rural Latvian locations outside the capital city of Riga. Latvia actually became a huge part of the film, a defining character really. Initially, we were set to film in Riga but going to play the location as a small town in the Northeastern United States. But quickly after landing it became apparent that we had to take advantage of the locations, people, language, and fully embrace the country. Latvia became important in every aspect of the movie from costumes to production design. We rehabbed a dilapidated classic Latvian farmhouse to look almost exactly as it would have five decades ago and carved local pagan symbols into the walls hidden throughout the film — I even have one tattoo’d on my hand!

PopHorror – That’s so cool! So, there’s a lot of possession films out there. What was your goal for this film to make it stand out from the rest?

Tommy Bertelsen – I didn’t have a specific goal to make it stand out exactly. Of course I’m heavily influenced by all the movies I’ve seen, including the great possession films starting with The Exorcist on down (and everything else I like from Andrea Arnold to GDT). But there’s just so much amazing work out there that if I start playing the comparison game I’m pretty much guaranteed to wind up in the fetal position crying in the corner after lighting my clothes on fire inside a small metallic wastebasket because it will feel absolutely impossible to stand out. So I do my best to not build toward or away from other films or concern myself with how ours overlaps or differs. I’ve already seen those things. They’re already in my head. So I let my brain sorta handle those concerns on autopilot. Rather than worry about the film standing out, I spend more time thinking about where I should be leaning in. My goal is to help my team of collaborators take advantage of our biggest strengths and build a movie with those strengths. We leaned hard into Latvia, atmosphere, simplicity, and emotion on this one and our horror movie sort of naturally became this weird Exorcism Drama… so maybe that was my goal for how it could stick out? Also, I’m pretty sure that my producers are not going to like that I’m calling it an Exorcism Drama 🙂 I think the buzzwords psychological, elevated, and thriller sell more tickets, lol. But you tell me… how did it stand out for you?

PopHorror – I think it was all those terms and more. It stood on its own and delivered a hauntingly beautiful story with intense drama and a frightening claustrophobic atmosphere. Speaking of which, was any scene throughout the film particularly hard to shoot?

Tommy Bertelsen – The movie overall was pretty challenging to capture. Most of those exteriors were shot in weather that was around ten degrees Fahrenheit. The water during the escape scene was barely over freezing and our actors were wet a lot of the time. There were always three or more languages being spoken and interpreted around the set through various intermediaries. We had child actors and elderly veterans, a tight and crazy schedule with quick turn-arounds that you couldn’t get away with in the US, and did it all on the budget of an American fast food commercial. Everything was pretty hard. But the Latvian teams behind the camera are so skilled and committed. I love them. We had a lot of tough days and nights, but very little drama, very few complaints, everybody was down for the cause and I’m so grateful for that. I’d make another movie with that same team any day.

The hardest scene overall to capture was probably the top of the belltower. The building was an old Mill that our brilliant production designer Marijana Gradecak had converted into a belltower, so the top of it was set construction that had to be safe for filming. A lot of the production design was like that… more full on construction that either needed to be safe or last vs more traditional temporary design elements. Anyway, it was way way below freezing that evening and the actors were just wearing thermals beneath nightgowns. The space was tight. Igor (the DP) and myself were both on the roof with them, and we were all strapped to the structure with cables. We were lighting a pitch black field in the middle of nowhere and also had a giant crane that needed to lift Kristin Ruhlin (Madeline) 30 ft in the air straight from the roof. Bad weather conditions, safety concerns, technical challenges, and no angles to shoot from all while trying to capture an intimate and vulnerable scene that leads into our climax… It was gnarly.

PopHorror – You have such a beautiful way with words, just so you know. You captivate me even in this interview. I love how dedicated the whole team was to making this film, it’s inspirational. Although the acting was great, the actress who played young Madaline (Marta Timofeeva) was quite impressive especially for such a young girl. Her scene towards the end of the film, really stood out and gives Regan from The Exorcist a run for her money. Is that the reaction you wanted from the audience?

Still from Welcome to Mercy
Still from Welcome to Mercy

Tommy Bertelsen – Marta is wildly talented and I intend on making it my business to be a part of her career in the future. She’s gonna be a star. Check this… Marta is Russian, but taught herself that dialogue in Latvian (not at all the same language), and then was taking direction from me in English through an interpreter. This kid is eight… eight years old. Her craft is way overdeveloped for her age, she can always hit her mark and repeat performances but also somehow brings new ideas every take. Her stamina is next level, and she spent her time between takes listening, learning, watching her collaborators, and then adding a well timed joke to keep things playful. Total pro.

I take it as a huge compliment that any moment of our film could earn a comparison to a great moment in cinema like Regan’s scene but I honestly wasn’t gaming to beat or imitate anything. The visual concept for that scene came after Igor and I realized we wanted all our possession sequences to be filmed in Snorricam. I wanted those moments to stand out from the other narrative sequences and feel more immersive and less lyrical. The hope was that a locked off shot that tracked the actor would make the audience feel trapped inside the experience. Once that was set, we just threw a giant camera rig on a little girl and let Marta do her thing. I wanted that scene to be terrifying because it was emotional, not because it was grotesque. For the parents we focused on pain vs horror, the emotion of losing your child instead of the horror of them being a demon. And with Marta, I honestly gave her very little direction… I may have marked some delivery timing for her or had notes on how to push or manipulate her mom, but mostly I just remember telling her to be mean and have fun, then she delivered that amazing performance. Again, the kid is 8, she’s so crazy.

PopHorror – It shows – there’s no doubt in my mind that she will do great things. Do you have any other upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?

Tommy Bertelsen – I have a really dark, aggressive, and personal 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 around town. Plus a gritty grounded sci-fi called Luminous that we’re packaging with Votiv Films. If folks have any interest in following my work they can find me on all the usual platforms @docdanger.

PopHorror – Thanks again for talking with PopHorror, Tommy! Welcome to Mercy it will be coming to select theaters, VOD and via digital platforms in the U.S. on November 2! 

About Tori Danielle

Tori has had a passion for Horror and music ever since she was a little girl. She got bit by the writing bug in high school where she was involved in both the school newspaper and the yearbook. While getting her Bachelors degree, she took Journalism and Creative Writing classes where her passion grew even stronger. Now, in between work and family, she spends all of her spare time indulging in music, Horror movies, and nerdy fandoms, all while running/assisting one of the biggest Horror groups on Facebook and writing for various websites.

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