An interview with the director of the new indie horror comedy
The new werewolf dark comedy from director Josh Ruben, Werewolves Within, opens today. A week later, July 2, the film arrives on VOD platforms for rental.
Ruben’s debut feature film Scare Me premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is currently available on major streaming platforms. Ruben, a veteran comedy writer and actor whose credits include dozens of short films, television episodes and podcasts, wore multiple hats for his debut: writing, directing and starring.
In Werewolves Within (written by Mishna Wolff), Ruben sticks to the director’s chair and stays behind the camera, leaving the performances to an outstanding troupe of actors led by Sam Richardson (Veep, The Tomorrow War) and Milana Vayntrub (who you would immediately recognize as the popular television spokesperson for AT&T). The cast also includes Harvey Guillen (What We Do in the Shadows) and Glenn Fleshler (Barry).
It’s worth noting that the giant video game company Ubisoft produced Werewolves Within, loosely developing the IP based on one or their minor properties of the same name.
Werewolves Within does an excellent job of riding that slippery line between humor and horror, delivering genuine laugh-out-loud moments and jump-worthy scares. Ruben deftly handles the theme of the film, that sometimes evil comes from within ourselves, in several chilling, and more than a few too-close-to-reality moments.
We talked with the director about the new film, his debut indie smash, and what’s next on the horizon.
BFG: You worked in short films over the last decade as a writer, actor, and director. What were some highlights, and what are some lessons you took from those experiences?
JR: The shorts were keystone in getting remotely close to where I am now in my career, and there’s a reason why virtually all of us filmmakers started in short form—cut your teeth, play, test your limitations, fudge around with the technology. And if the thing stinks, it’s not too much of a hit to chop it the hell up or just use your favorite beat or two to build the ‘ol reel! So… three highlights, with lessons along the way.
Highlight number one was starting a sketch group in my early 20s with Sam Reich. We called ourselves a sketch group but what we really were was a self-producing production entity. We’d all direct. We’d all write. Cast friends from acting school and off Craigslist. That was truly my first venture into filmmaking, soup to nuts.
I learned every skill through the back door, and did just about everything wrong, but it was all done in our voice. The thrilling payoff was that “the industry” took notice and we were one of the first sketch groups not only to make vids for the Internet but get commissioned by everyone from (the original) Superdeluxe to Budweiser, and Tribeca Productions to make vids in our voice for other people. With Dutch West (that was the name of our crew) I learned lessons like not to do 15 takes of anything and how to pick your battles as a writer.
Highlight number two was making my first short film as a director–truly solo. It was called Ollie, and I just followed the “psychic flash” to write the thing, get buddies together, and shoot it. It cost two-grand, all favors, and folks to this day still reference it as an old favorite. That was the first time I truly felt like my voice–in all of its imperfect weirdness–translated to screen. Big lesson was learning to relinquish power to my actors, to the process, especially the edit. I’ll never forget my editor Michael Schaubach taking a big swing with the edit and the result was so revelatory, so creative, it blew my socks off and pretty much engined my remaining years at College Humor.
Highlight three was banding together years later with Brendan Banks, Sean Dermond, and Charlie McWade. Together we made a series of shorts, rotating responsibilities in various capacities. The lesson here is what I tell all filmmakers–life advice for the ages: Find your tribe. These guys have the brains, wit, talent and respect to make quality projects, and I’ll be damned if we don’t collaborate to the grave.
BFG: One of your short films, Cabin, which you wrote and acted in, was an eerie thematic precursor to your features. As a writer, what pulls you toward the idea of psychological horror versus a more visual evil, such as a monstrous Leprechaun or a flesh-eating blob?
JR: I’m a sucker for creature features, monstrous Leprechauns, Poltergeist-haunted skyscrapers… I love The Blob (1988) and I’d jump to make anything resembling it. But the psychological element is fascinating to me because it’s personal. I live life in my head. I know what it’s like to hyperbolize and be my own worst enemy. I’ve spent my entire life creating narratives that make obstacles harder and in some cases more haunting than they really are. I’m like Walter Mitty but every fantasy begs the question “Did I do something wrong?” Psychological horror hits me hardest because it feels so unfortunately personal.
The wonderful success is if you can combine genres. It’s why I love Evil Dead 2. That is a psychological horror creature feature. You get the cellar hags, Ash’s psychological deterioration, and somehow it’s a re-watchable genre thrill ride.
BFG: In Scare Me, the idea of two people in a cabin trying to scare each other with stories almost feels like it could be an improv exercise, and in Werewolves Within, the actors feel like a comedy troupe stuck in a horror movie. How much of that comedy / improv background influences your current work?
Though I was an Upright Citizens Brigade guy, and I’ll admit, born “funny”–I was a Strasberg student first. I loved films, and grew up idolizing Robin Williams specifically, who not only did heavily improvised one-man shows but also went to Juilliard (for a beat) and performed Godot. He had an incredible impact on me. Here’s a comedic genius who effortlessly jumped genres later in his career, and so effectively. Combine that with my wanting to live in Spielberg’s earlier movies, who loved Freddy Krueger, who loved Clue and Elliot and E.T.’s goodbye…
That’s all to say, the comedy and the improv influences my work to a degree, but I’m more influenced by hiring funny people who can play drama, and tasking them to play horrendous scenarios for real. Inherently, the comedic DNA will come to the surface and you’ll end up with something rad.
BFG: When I first watched scare Me, one of the thoughts I had was that it would make a great stage play. Any plans or inclinations to attempt a live version of that script?
JR: Oh, hell yeah. Once I get the next gig set up, I’d like to lock myself in a snowy cabin and, unlike Fred, actually do the work. I have a sense of how to make it just enough like the film to lure folks in but execute something new, different, bigger, in a way… Insane shadow work, killer New York talent, a cool soundtrack, maybe a run at St. Ann’s Warehouse…!? A kid can dream!
BFG: Werewolves Within is at turns laugh-out-loud funny and scream-out-loud scary. As a director, how do you balance the two to create that perfect melting pot of a horror-comedy?
JR: Thank you for saying so! It’s funny, I don’t look at it so much as a balancing tightrope and keeping my troupe in check to play the emotional stakes for real. There are moments when I feel like an emotional barometer—and I can “feel” the movie, if it’s tipping too far in one direction or not, does it need X, Y, etc…
This is gonna sound super pretentious and unbelievable but I’m gonna tell you guys anyway ‘cuz it’s true! I used to go to school at a two year acting program in New York City called The New Actor’s Workshop. It was co-founded by Paul Sills, George Morrison, and Mike Nichols, who was one of our weekly instructors (weekly if he wasn’t on a gig, which, at the time, was Angels in America. My class lucked out and got to put on scenes for Mike all year, and audit for another). Mike’s thing was always: “What would really happen if—“ and also “Don’t get caught trying to be funny” (which, alternatively, he’d phrase as “Don’t get caught doing cute shit.”).
Though I was 18 at the time and partially absorbing this brilliant, impactful advice, it latched on, subliminally. How would I really react if I was trapped in this house…If you play the emotional stakes for real, the panic attacks, the finger-pointing, the snickering low-blows—you can be as funny as you fucking want.
BFG: One of the unique things about Werewolves Within is all the quick-spoken, back-and-forth dialogue between the cast. There are hilarious lines I caught on my second viewing, for example, that I missed the first time around. How much of that was scripted and how much was on-the-day riffing?
Mishna brought so damn much to the table with her script. I did a pass–mostly comedic punch-ups and re-writing to infuse direction notes, that sort of thing–but a good deal of it was encouraging everyone to riff, when appropriate. Someone like Cheyenne Jackson is more inclined to nail the dialogue word for word, where as Harvey Guillen or George Basil will sneak in a one-liner that sends everyone in stitches but has to stay.
BFG: What can you tell us about upcoming projects?
JR: Well, I want to stay in the genre. I’m excited, hot off of Werewolves, being spoiled working with Ubisoft’s incredible team, to take a swing at the kind of sweeping summer movie that bowled me over as a kid. I’ve been prepping to take out something wild for a pitch, but can’t say much. I’m also working with one of my favorite genre novelists on a TV series. Producing a couple of things, trying to share what knowledge I can to lift artists up, take projects out, see if anyone bites… All the while, continuing to read as much as I can, keep these brains sharp!
BFG: Lastly, I know you’ve watched and loved hundreds of horror films. Hypothetically, if you could pick just one horror movie to remake in your own unique vision, what would it be?
JR: Darkman. I’ve got the angle. I’m thrilled about it. Now if only they’d let me take a swing…