Like many filmmakers, Josh Ruben began his career as an actor, toiling on the circuit for many years before finally realizing that being able to write and direct were pretty useful skills if you want to make sure to always have acting work. Maybe that’s not how the actual transition happened, but Ruben has been writing and directing quite regularly since 2012, mainly making short films and comedy videos for College Humor.
Last year, Ruben’s feature debut, Scare Me, ended up coming out at an incredibly opportune time, as he starred in it himself with Aya Cash, basically as two horror writers trapped in a single place together (sound familiar?) trying to scare each other with the scariest idea they could come up with. The movie played on streamer Shudder, but that was months after it premiered at Sundance, finding many fans.
Ruben’s newest movie, Werewolves Within, has a much bigger cast, as well as a bigger budget, thanks to video game company Ubisoft, because it’s actually based on a VR game by the company that was adapted into a hilarious horror-comedy by writer Mishna Wolff. (Yes, that’s her real name.) It stars Sam Richardson from Veep as Finn Wheeler, who has arrived at a sleepy remote town in the middle of nowhere as the new park ranger, quickly befriending the bubbly local mailperson Cecily (Milana Vayntrub). As Finn navigates the odd quirks of the locals, they suddenly realize there’s something or someone out there killing people and small dogs, so the entire town holes up in the local Beaverfield Inn, not realizing that the presumed werewolf of the title is actually … within!
Below the Line got on Zoom earlier this week to talk to Ruben about his experience making his second film and shooting mostly around his own hometown.
Below the Line: It was really interesting seeing an Ubisoft logo right after the IFC Films one, because it’s just not a combination we ever expect to see.
Josh Ruben: Yeah, they have the women’s film and television fellowship program, that’s where they developed the script, and Vanishing Angle came aboard as producing partners with Ubisoft and asked me to pitch on the film, and I did. I found myself having quite a good amount of personal connections to the story just in terms of that small town, living, knowing characters like the folks in the film, and here we are.
BTL: It must have been a great script, so did it just find its way to you, or did you know the game beforehand?
Ruben: The script came to me via Vanishing Angle, Ubisoft’s producing partners, I’ve known those guys for some time, and they asked me if I’d be interested in pitching on this video game movie, and I thought, “Oh, gosh, they don’t have the best track record, these video game films.” As soon as I read it, I opened Mishna [Wolff]‘s script and felt like Fargo, it felt like Clue, and I had to throw my hat in the ring.
BTL: This might be one of the movies that change opinions about video game movies. I’ve never played the video game, actually, I didn’t even know it existed. I do want to ask about casting Sam Richardson and Milana Vayntraub. Sam’s got another great movie coming up with The Tomorrow War, but it’s great seeing him in a lead role. What made you think of them?
Ruben: Sam was always one of my top choices for Finn. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I wanted someone who didn’t look like he lived in the town of Beaverfield, which is a predominantly white Hamlet in the middle of nowhere. And B, this is a town about newcomers, and Sam can play that kind of vulnerable but friendly, neighborly sort of character. And it’s just about time that we see Sam Richardson play the hero, so that was getting Sam aboard, that was getting our Finn. Milana I’ve known for years. She’s a comedic genius. She’s multi-talented. She’s a humanitarian. She’s an incredible conversationalist, and I was stoked to provide the opportunity or at least present her as an option for Cecily, and the team went for it and fell for her a little bit, and she’s great.
BTL: I think I read somewhere that the location where you filmed this was actually your hometown or somewhere near there? How did you find that place?
Ruben: Yeah, so the Beaverfield Inn is the location near my hometown. I grew up in a little mountain hamlet above Woodstock, New York. We shot the Beaverfield Inn at a sort of event space, bed and breakfast called Spillian, which is located in the town of Fleischmanns, New York, near where Jim Jarmusch shot, The Dead Don’t Die. There are folks who actually have since booked their wedding at the “Werewolves Within Lodge,” as they call it. We also shot in and around Phoenicia, New York, which is a small town around here where Larry Fessenden shot parts of his movie, Wendigo, and where I gorged myself on Sweet Sue’s pancakes as a kid. I would go to bang at the Too Big Rental Place on Main Street, so it’s a hometown movie that means a lot to me. It’s a lot of childhood haunts.
BTL: Was that where Scare Me was shot, too, in upstate New York, or was that shot somewhere else?
Ruben: Yeah, Scare Me was shot at a house in Woodstock.
BTL: I’m sure you’ve heard how strange it is to have two movies back to back where it has people trapped in a house together, although this one has a lot more characters, although you’re not one of them. How did you work with the casting director to get all of these odd characters cast? It must have been a little daunting.
Ruben: It kind of was. I mean, Gayle Keller is a brilliant casting director. I knew I wanted to work with her on her team from the get-go. It was kind of a smattering of approaches. I mean, Gayle would offer great ideas, great casting choices, inspired ones like Glen Flescher and Harvey Guillen, just as two examples, and then I kind of made my dream list of people I wanted to work with. Buddies like George Basil and Milana Vayntraub, who I’ve known forever, and Rebecca Henderson, who I had just met and fell in love with on Russian Doll and Broadway, and that sort of thing. And then asking folks like George and Ike Harvey who they wanted to play their spouse. “Who would YOU like to come aboard?” Harvey said Cheyenne Jackson, who I love, and I wouldn’t have thought of it otherwise. George suggested Sarah Burns, who’s a wonderful human being and so funny and brilliant on Barry and one of many projects.
BTL: I was already a fan of Sam’s but when I saw that Michaela Watkins and Michael Chernus were part of the cast, I was sold, because I love seeing them in anything. So that was great casting. How did you prepare them? Did you do some rehearsals before you went out there into your cold, snow-covered location?
Ruben: We did a table read in Los Angeles, just to kind of hear the thing and make notes. But then rehearsals, yeah, we did a table read with the cast once we got to Fleischmanns, to the cast lodge where they all stayed. And then we did one day of big group rehearsals for the bigger scenes, and then I sort of took the cast on a tour of Spillian and walked them through the rooms and showed them where various terrorizing would happen.
BTL: I have a feeling Spillian is going to be even busier once this movie comes out, which I guess is a good thing.
Ruben: I hope so. Mark and Lee, who run the place, they’re wonderful. I actually saw them last night, because we didn’t advance screening of Werewolves at the Greenville Drive-In out here in the Hudson Valley in Greenville, New York, and they were there, and they were so thriller, and it was just wonderful to see them. They’re very excited. They said , “Great! Come on down! Book a wedding. Come stay for the weekend, take pictures.”
BTL: I was pretty bummed when they closed movie theaters due to COVID, but one of the nice things that might come out of it is the revival of the drive-in. Although I don’t drive a car, so it might not help me, but it’s always a fun environment to see a movie like this. Were you able to get some of the same crew from Scare Me, as far as heads of department? I know you have a different composer, but what about the rest of the team?
Ruben: Just as an example, my makeup artist Erica Pearce and Doria [Riker] and Susie Bua, they came aboard. They’re local Hudson Valley makeup artists who were brilliant. Erica worked on a short film I shot up here years ago called Freddy Derryl, and then she did my first film, Scare Me, and Susie did as well. They were, thankfully, free to come aboard and work with us. My colorist Jaime O’Bradovich, who has done pretty much everything, at Company 3 , and then to be able to work with local crew that I hadn’t worked with before was wonderful. Grips and gaffers and the like, folks that I’d heard of, but didn’t have the ability to afford, or [they] weren’t available for previous projects. It was really, really heartening to be able to work in accordance with the Hudson Valley Film Commission.
BTL: How was Ubisoft as a partner and/or producer? I assume they have very specific ideas about how their IPs should look.
Ruben: I don’t think they do. The mandate for me from [Producers] Jason Altman and Margaret [Boykin] and the team at Ubisoft was to just make a good movie. I immediately felt the film was reminiscent of Hot Fuzz and Jaws, Fargo, and Arachnophobia, those sort of comps, that we all wanted something that looked good, that was smart, and that people would want to go see with their friends. They were wonderful partners, because they were very, very supportive and very trusting.
BTL: Did you end up doing any building? I know that the giant phallic thing representing the gas line was built, but was there a lot of building involved, or did you just find locations and worked with what was there?
Ruben: We built that with Bret Tanzer, my production designer, and [Art Director] Matt Hyland, and their team, we built the entire bar. We built Axe Den entirely in Kingston at Woodstock Film Studios, which is right here on Route 28, and that is the same studio [where] we shot the musical sequence in Scare Me. We had no money more than to put up a black curtain to create a Stranger Things-esque void. Of course, we could build the whole bar, but otherwise, you walk into a place like Spillian, or you go to downtown Phoenicia, Main Street, these places have so much character as is, there’s very little to do to kind of build it out. Luckily, everyone was just so accommodating and welcoming to us and just down to have us take over and shoot.
BTL: Did you actually up there shooting in winter?
Ruben: We sure were. We shot in February right up until March 9, right before the pandemic hit, and the snow is so volatile in that part of the Hudson Valley further out that sometimes it would be very mild weather and entirely melt, the lawn of the Beaverfield Inn, and would be entirely green. And then suddenly it would snow over — there’d be a very sudden blizzard.
BTL: A kind of random question, but were all of the Mr. Rogers references in the original script?
Ruben: I can’t remember if it was in the original one that I had read, but by the time we were sort of honing in leaning more into the theme of it all, I think we landed on there being a fun Mr. Rogers-esque throughline.
BTL: That was a fun callback, especially because it opens in such a random way with that quote. What was that strange song that opened the movie? Where did that come from?
Ruben: Our music supervisor, his name is Dan Wilcox, was the one to find it. There was another one I fell in love with, and then, we found something equally kind of playful from that Halloween kitschy, 60s sort of era that we all loved.
BTL: This is obviously a werewolf movie, and I don’t want to spoil any of the big twists, because there’s a few of them. I do want to ask about the werewolf transformation and figuring out the right way to handle it. When you do a werewolf movie and you save it for the end, you have to have a really good werewolf. What did you use for inspiration and who did you work with for it?
Ruben: Our creature designer is Constantine Sekeris, who had a beautiful look for the creature and kind of worked within the confines of my own mandate, which was only one: I just wanted to be able to have the actor emote through any makeup, through any prosthetics, that we put them in, and that there was very minimal CGI, that it felt very real and sort of classic to a degree, but also, chilling, to be sure. As far as the transformation itself, you can’t get any better than [An American] Werewolf in London. Even Monster Squad I loved as a kid, and there was something very chilling about the werewolf in that film and the actor who played the role and his transformation and the pain. And so with this one, you know what you’re kind of getting, you know the moments that you want to milk and those kinds of chilling beats you want to lean into. But ultimately, I was like, “Let’s do a quick one. Let’s do one that doesn’t show the sweat and the skin crackling and all that sort of stuff, but make it an almost a fast transformation,” because technically, this werewolf has to be able to quickly turn and then turn back. So what would that feel like? It should be pretty quick. So that was a fun thing to kind of work into the performance and everything. So much of it was practical.
BTL: Where do you go from here? You’ve made a movie where you had to do the entire post during a pandemic, so do you have other things you’ve been writing? Do you want to continue making horror-comedies or do something different for the next one?
Ruben: I’d like to continue with horror-comedy. I’d like to lean in a bit more to the horror and the heart, I think, on the next one, and maybe touch on something sci-fi.
Werewolves Within will be released in select theaters (maybe even a few drive-ins) this Friday, June 25, and then will be on Digital and On Demand July 2.