*Editor’s note: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, films like Playland wouldn’t exist.
Emily Ruhl cashed in her college fund to start a production company. Her award-winning directorial debut, Blue Moon, played at 100s of festivals. Ruhl is back on the festival circuit as an executive producer for Georden West’s debut feature film, Playland, and sat down with Film Obsessive to chat about the beginning of her love of filmmaking, the joys of producing, and necessity of safe spaces. (The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)
Film Obsessive: I always like to ask people how they fell in love with movies to begin with. So what was it that made you fall in love with filmmaking?
Emily Ruhl: Well, I loved the movie Grease. I was obsessed with that as a kid. I love a musical, and I loved being able to sing the songs at the same time. I’m from Dallas and there was a video rental store called Video Village. Every Friday, my brother and I would go and we’d get a piece of candy and DVDs. That was the big event. And that’s how we spent a lot of our free time. It’s hot in Texas. So you spend a lot of time indoors and and that’s where it all started.
As a Grease 2 truther, I have to ask your opinion on the sequel.
(laughs) It’s not Grease One. I’m a sucker for the original. But I do love Grease 2, and like, the pageant is pretty spectacular.
Talk me through the moment when you decided to form Public School Pictures. And I love the name, so I’m also very curious where that came from.
The moment that I decided to form Public School Pictures (PSP) was on set for the second short I ever made, which is 13th Stepping, which we’re actually developing into a TV show. I just had this moment where I thought to myself, I want to keep doing this forever and ever and ever. And set is such an incredible place to be. Everything I do is to get back to that. So I came up with the idea in the car. I like alliteration, so it used to be like pictures or studios and then public school kind of thing and feels very DIY and accessible and everybody’s welcomed. I like that connotation and then it became its own thing. We sell Lettermans, backpacks, and lunchboxes. We go on field trips and it’s now it’s turned into a whole shtick. But I just I like this idea that, you know, I didn’t go to film school. I kind of learned by doing and I feel like that’s that’s one of our principles.
What do you think has been the hardest part of joining this industry in a nontraditional way?
I don’t really know if hardest is the right way to put it. I think that the thing that I’m the most proud of that actually had its own challenges is just picking the right team members. I feel like it’s such a perfect ecosystem that we have now. And, you know, last year I went through a handful of people trying to find that balance and create that niche of of people and that dynamic and that community. And so I feel like that’s probably obstacle one. The main obstacle, too, is just finding other creatives that you like to collaborate with, which takes a little bit of trial and error as well. So I think it’s finding those right people and once you do, then you can just keep going and make magic.
What excites you the most as a producer for a project?
Seeing something that’s great. An idea. A book. I think seeing the world the way someone else sees it is really cool. Being able to do that perspective, which is the great thing about art, right? Sometimes we come into things that already are picture locked and we’re just waiting for color and sound. But I just think it’s so exciting. Making movies is so difficult, so when somebody achieves that, it’s the high five moment.
What is your what is your goal for PSP? What kind of stories do you want to be known for telling?
We want to tell very specific stories and we want to tell stories that have soul and heart and our perspectives. I don’t want to just tell stories that, you know, relate to me and my experiences being from Texas. We want to represent every community that we can. I think telling a story that can hopefully touch someone else is really important to us as well. And that also challenges our ideas of cinema and what a movie can be. Playland, which premieres at Outfest tonight, is somewhere between a documentary, a feature, and it’s this really cool amalgamation of different filmmaking styles. And that was really awesome to come across and be a part of.
I was going to say, you made a perfect transition into talking about Playland. How did you meet director Georden West? Where did you come into Playland?
I found Georden, the writer director, and then Russell (Shafer), who’s the producer, on Kickstarter. I have a habit of scrolling Kickstarter looking for projects and funding and found Playland, which is like a needle in a haystack. So we kind of cold email then, and now we’re here. When we came into Playland, there was footage that I could see and it was really spectacular. It wasn’t completely done. They still needed help with post, but the idea and the medium, it was there and it was awesome. I just knew that it was special and I wanted to join that team.
The archival footage is like one of the most striking parts of the part of the movie. Is there something that you saw that they pulled, like a picture or a clip of audio that was really striking to you?
Oh my God, I don’t know the gentleman’s name, but when you see him testifying and he has the bandages on its face, I mean, your heart just breaks, you know, And to understand the brutality that existed and still exists, unfortunately, it’s heartbreaking. I think also what I found spectacular that Georden did was layering the archival audio on top of the narrative reenactment.
The film is about the importance of spaces to a community and it was shot during COVID where the ability to congregate and be together was taken away from everyone. Did the pandemic have an inadvertent effect on the production or how you felt after watching it?
I think if anything, it was another obstacle that everybody had to overcome, which is like filmmaking in general. I mean, yeah, the irony of filming a movie about a safe space and having to test every once in a while and get sick, I was actually just talking to rest on the producer today about about that. I think if anything, it just added another level of resilience. I don’t watch it and think, Oh, this is a COVID movie, which I kind of I think is a feat to them. It doesn’t feel like anything was left or forgotten or skimped on because part of the budget needed to go to COVID protocols. I think Russell told me a story today about how the the crew or the previous production in that soundstage.
All of the set was built on a soundstage. That’s not a real location. They brought in all of that, which is crazy, but that the production that had used the soundstage before had actually flooded it. That was a fun obstacle that they had to overcome. Luckily, none of their art pieces were there yet, but they had to either had to move the production back or just kind of deal with the warped floors that were left behind.
You’ve done so many different jobs in this industry. Is there some part of it that you’re like, Oh, I’d love to try that out?
Distribution, which is kind of the most profitable sector of the industry at the moment. It’s just something that I’m still learning about, but eventually I’d love to be able to dabble in that as well.
My last question: what do you hope that people take away from Playland? Not just people who identify as, but also people who don’t identify as that community. What do you hope is like what everyone comes out of Playland feeling?
The significance of being accepted, the significance of a chosen family, and the beginnings of a safe space. That we all deserve. No matter what community we’re a part of, these spaces exist and we should protect them all.