War is Kind’: Ursula Ellis brings the story of war close to home

Jacqueline Andriakos

Last winter, current Communications senior Ursula Ellis was just beginning to write the script for her newest film project. Now, almost a year later, with locations approved, actors rehearsed, and a U-Haul rented and packed with equipment, the cast and crew of War Is Kind have begun the filming process, paving the long journey ahead to the RTVF Senior Directing Premiere this spring.

War Is Kind tells the story of Ella, a 15-year-old girl struggling with the tensions of growing up in a military family and the dramas of adolescence. Ellis, who grew up in a military family, wrote the piece to convey the emotional difficulty of having a parent in Afghanistan, a perspective not touched upon often.

“Personally, I’ve never seen a film about what it’s like for family members, specifically when a parent or loved one is at war, so I really wanted to depict that in a way that was honest, sometimes even brutally honest,” said Ellis. “Drawing from my own experiences and experiences of others that I knew, I hope people will empathize with the character and maybe gain some understanding of the specific world of an army brat.”

With three large film productions under her belt during her time at Northwestern, Ellis anticipated the costs of making War Is Kind, applied for and was awarded the 2011 NUWFA grant (Northwestern University Women Filmmaker’s Alliance).

“Filmmaking is a very expensive process. We do have a lot of equipment provided by the school but you always end up needing more,” said Ellis. “You have to consider costume design, location fees, snacks and meals, transportation­ – sometimes you wonder how it will even be possible to make it happen but somehow it comes together if you push hard enough.”

Financing was only one hurdle to the film’s production, according to Communications junior and producer of War Is Kind Allison Siladi. The dramatic nature of the film was a second challenge for both the cast and crew.

“The film is about how war affects the people involved, during their everyday lives,” Siladi said. “Ursula focused on the people who aren’t actually fighting, the people who essentially are left behind.”

Ellis worked hard to find a cast that could convey the intensity of the film’s subject matter, starting with her lead, Communications sophomore Lauren Guiteras. Despite Guiteras’ lack of acting training, Ellis praised for her performance and dedication thus far, mentioning summer Skype sessions and her rehearsals twice a week throughout the fall to perfect the emotional foundation for the character of Ella.

“Lauren is incredible. She has been in front of the camera before but she isn’t a trained actress, which I really valued,” said Ellis. “When I auditioned others this fall, I casted all of the other characters to fit her persona. I knew I needed to use her.”

The cast has worked on physical and emotional exercises together, both in character and away from the camera. Ellis prefers using a more proactive approach when directing and values on-and-off screen connection between her cast members. With visits to military bases, rock music in the background of rehearsals and group dinners out, Ellis encourages the cast to embody their personas and relate to each other.

“Ursula has been very hands-on. She gave me exercises to get me inside the character’s head,” said Guiteras. “She sent me playlists with specific music, movies that feature non-actors in lead roles – things to help me feel more comfortable even though I felt less experienced.”

The team continues to film War Is Kind for the next three weekends before entering post-production, in preparation for the Senior Directing Premiere and Studio 22 premiere this coming spring, where the public will be able to see the opening of the film.

“A lot of people don’t know the intensity of production and how much effort goes into student film,” said Ellis. “Everyone has worked so hard so far and I can’t wait for the final product. Despite the long road it’s been and the work we have left, I’m feeling pretty blessed.”

– Jacqueline Andriakos