Just two films into his filmmaking career and Josh Ruben has fashioned his own brand of indie horror-comedy, with a little help from his friends. His debut “Scare Me” largely featured Aya Cash (“The Boys”) and the filmmaker himself play-acting through made-up horror stories, throwing in wild impressions and physical flourishes around a fireplace. The Sundance favorite is now playing on Shudder, and it’s a loving tribute to many of the horror movies that Ruben calls a “warm blanket,” all with the minimalist premise of telling a story. It’s also a great display of Ruben’s unique eye for performance, whether it’s directing Cash or his own skills for contorting his face and toying with his voice, something he honed during his days as an online sketch video star.
Ruben follows up “Scare Me” this week with “Werewolves Within,” a werewolf whodunnit based on the Ubisoft VR game (Ruben notes influences of “Clue” and “Hot Fuzz,” describes it as “‘Fargo’ as an Amblin film). For screenwriter Mishna Wolff, the game is a jumping off point, and Ruben expands his playful horror interests here with an ensemble in which one of them could be the real beast terrorizing a snowy New England town: Sam Richardson, Milana Vayntrub, George Basil, Sarah Burns, Catherine Curtin, Michael Chernus, Harvey Guillén, Michaela Watkins, Cheyenne Jackson, and Wayne Duvall. Like “Scare Me,” “Werewolves Within” also contains horror about nice people and douchebags, including some neighborly wisdom from none other than Mister Rogers.
In a recent discussion, Ruben spoke with us about the making of “Werewolves Within,” the way that horror has always been his warm blanket, his aspirations as a director with a sketch background, and more.
Given your skills as an actor and a storyteller, does that mean you are especially good at the Ubisoft virtual reality game “Werewolves Within?”
Absolutely not. The creators of “Werewolves Within,” who were able to play with me at the Ubisoft offices, were so sweet. But I am so bad at video games. I played “Fallout 3” like 150 times on my old Xbox, but I wasn’t great at it. It’s a lot to kind of navigate, VR games. But luckily they held my hand through it. And it was really fun too, I loved the social dedication aspect of it. But I was definitely intimidated playing it. And then to be like, “Ok great, well I’m going to make the movie version of what I didn’t do well at, talk to you later.”
How do you like to direct actors with the actor part of your brain still in the same head?
I think it’s about being as communicative with them as I have always wanted directors to be with me. One of the things that always put a knot in my stomach—when I was popping in on like “Royal Pains” or something with a small part, and not to quite know the director’s lingo or be walked through, with blocking thrown out into the ether. I do like my hand held a little bit, so I’ll at least go through and talk to all of my actors. I’ll ask, “How do you like to be directed? How do you like to be talked to?” And to at least let them know that I will take care of them, and I think that as insecure as I can be on some occasions, especially in the company of people who have worked with every director at HBO to the Coen brothers and Spielberg, I just let them know they are going to be taken care of and that I did prep. I’m not going to roll in there with a Club Monaco jacket and a coffee and just sit in a chair and guess all day. I’m going to roll up my sleeves and sit with you, and have good ideas, God willing.
When you’re talking about actualizing this script’s many different modes and tones, what influences are you thinking about?
I think I’m thinking about pacing more than anything. I realized this morning that I think Barry Sonnenfeld’s “The Addams Family” had style and emotionality that is underestimated. I think I’ve watched that movie into the ground, let alone movies of course like “The Goonies” and stuff, where the pacing and the style leapt off the page. They were playing more caricatures than we are in “Werewolves Within,” but I think that’s also just another influential film of mine that lives in me from a pacing standpoint.
But “The Addams Family” is a film that lives in me, in the way that Stephen King’s “Cat’s Eye” does. Weird moments and dreadful beats and pacing that have become part of my blood as an avid horror watcher. I think that’s just what happens. Especially for every filmmaker who grows up on Spielberg, and are wanting to do this epic bike shot, or keep up this sort of pacing. I think that was one. But surely the work of Edgar Wright, and early Amblin, and wanting for there to be emotionality.
With pacing and tone, I imagine that’s got to be tricky with a movie like this. Did you have a lot of different cuts or versions?
There were different cuts and versions, but it’s all communication. My actors were kind of on their heels already that they might consider coming aboard a movie called “Werewolves Within.” “Are you sure? A werewolf movie, and you only made a movie called ‘Scare Me’? Not to be confused with the one with the campfire and the boobs, the other one.” And it’s again communication. I would tell them, “Look, I want to make ‘Fargo’ as if it were an Amblin film. I’ll be there to make sure no one gets caught trying to be funny, I’ll be there to make sure you’re all—to my eye—playing the emotional stakes for real.”
With “Scare Me” and now this, there’s a serious sentiment at the core. “Scare Me” is in a way, “don’t be a douchebag,” and this one is “being a nice guy is OK.” Sharing your cancer energy, I really felt that.
Especially the anger, that good people can also be ANGRY about the fact that you’re not going to be fucking nice! I’m just trying to be nice!
Do you feel the need to get that out there? Or defend being a good person?
Not with all of the stuff I do, but it was really impactful to look at, especially a specific scene at the end with Finn where he’s talking about that. It became specific to the movie and connected on an emotional level. Sam Richardson is that kind of good person, and I’m that kind of good person who also has a temper, thinking, “If I’m going to exert and drain myself to be pleasant, and you’re going to push my buttons or go out of your way to torture me, then I will release the werewolf within!” People all have tempers, despite how good we are, or how good we are brought up to be.
I’m really curious about how you would describe your relationship with horror. What does horror give back to you? Do you see yourself looking at other genres and so forth?
I guess again, cancer energy vibes, being an underdog kid, being a kid who didn’t have very many friends and was super duper shy. Then to go home and put on “A Nightmare of Elm Street 4: The Dream Master” and watch the shy, differently abled kids take on the entity, and to shoot lightning from their hands. And the sixth “Friday the 13th.” And “Monster Squad,” and “Goonies.” Watching kids who were like overweight take on a werewolf, are you fucking kidding me? That was major for a kid like me who loved his Ho-Hos and Twinkies and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup and really wanted to kiss a girl and also really wanted to be fast on his bike, but wasn’t great on his bike. Stuff like that. It’s always been a warm blanket for me, and I think it’s just kind of grown. Freddy Krueger has always been a cartoon character to me. I got in trouble in kindergarten for doing a Freddy impression.
How did you do it?
I think I did the laugh and flicked out my tongue, “HA HA HA”! And my kindergarten teacher was like, “We need to call your mom and dad.” So, my relationship to [horror] is strong. I want to expand in a way, like Taika Waititi, with big films that have heart but have an unquestionable irreverence to them. For instance, if Frances McDormand in all of her work in “Fargo” could take on something as the “A Quiet Place” creatures, but with all of the human quirk and ideally a more diverse world. That’d be the dream. And maybe someday a musical, because I was a kid at the Woodstock Youth Theater.
What kind of musical comes to mind when you think of a dream Josh Ruben musical?
I have this sequence in my head set to a song from a band called Yacht. I love “Little Shop of Horrors” SO much as kid, and “Rocky Horror” then. To have watched that as young as I did, that impacted me on a sexual level. “What are these feelings I’m getting? That’s Tim Curry, not Samantha Curry, that’s interesting. And also Susan Sarandon, holy macaroni!”
Which part of the brain at this moment speaks louder, the actor-brain or the director-brain?
Right now, the director-brain, mainly because I’ve been able to put food on the table. I still haven’t compensated for “Scare Me.” I put money in, we deferred payment on that, a kind of “let’s invest in ourselves” kind of thing. But the landscape for film and acquisition, it can be bleak unless you have Leonardo DiCaprio financing it. I’m very fortunate that they trusted me [with “Werewolves Within”], but I haven’t gotten work since we wrapped. So here’s hoping that after the premiere people are like, “Maybe we can have him do a thing!”
Would you want to use that for acting visibility?
I think I’d want to act as much as Taika or Mark Duplass pop up. I like raising up other people’s voices, but if I can have a cameo with a rubber nose, that’d be groovy. But I love that we live in a world with Leigh Whannell and Taika and Jordan Peele, where you can go, “Here are performers who came up understanding genre and testing boundaries of sketch and testing the rules, and they’re real players. They came up in sketch, and now they’re becoming icons.” It would be wonderful to just be considered remotely close to that. Or, look, if they can do it, that’s something I aspire to be.
“Werewolves Within” hits select theaters on June 25 and VOD on July 2.