Director Interview: Josh Ruben

Hugh has a chat with the writer, director and actor of Scare Me, Josh Ruben

 

Hi Josh, thanks for chatting with us. I’m a huge fan of Scare Me, I just watched it over the weekend for the second time, and it really is one of those films that gives a lot more the second time around.

Wonderful man, I’m glad you dug it!

You directed the film as well as writing and starring in it; was this always something that you were looking to do? Do you enjoy the complete creative control?

It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and with my time at College Humour is was something that I did a lot with lots of internet videos. The nature of living in that kind of low budget world is that you have to wear a bunch of hats. I started off as someone who just wanted to be an actor, and I realised that nobody was gonna spoon-feed me or give me the golden ticket to become a famous wealthy person, which I’m still not (laughs). So that really helped me learn how to create my own stuff, and I had the tools in my toolkit to make this happen.

 

How did the idea of the film come about?

Because I had created the goal of making my first film no matter what, even if it only cost like $10, I was gonna make it. It was a pact that I had with my cinematographer, Brendan Banks. I knew my bullet points, which were that I wasn’t going to have a lot of money, I would have to write to my resources, my resources were having a family in a small mountain town where I’d have some housing. I knew I really wanted to ‘act’ beside another actor and Aya Cash was at the top of that list. I’ve known Aya for years through her husband Josh, and I think the idea of an anthology with two people just telling stories came a little later.

I had a lot of story ideas and characters that I’d used before, like the troll who kind of makes his way into the film. I decided to try and make the film a showcase for the two of us without sexualising the characters or the relationship between the two. It became an anthology film that never leaves the campfire, and the real engine for it came with all the #MeToo stuff happening at the time with Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and others being outed in the world. That really became a part of the DNA of the film, and that’s where I found the story.

 

Your description of the film as an anthology that never leaves the campfire is terrific, as a viewer I had no idea that this was how the film would play out. I assumed it would be a regular anthology film! I was wonderfully surprised at the originality on show, and the strength of the two central performances really holds your attention.

Thank you so much!

It’s a really polarising thing; people in the horror community have really embraced it, on the other hand some people who just aren’t accustomed to just watching people in a house talking are left waiting for the gore and blood and guts to show up. That is sort of the feel and pacing of my next film, but this one was really playing to the high concept and low budget that we had, and some people are really gonna dig it and others won’t.

 

The film showed at Sundance, that must have been amazing?

Yeah, that was the first and only time I’ve seen it with an audience. It was midnight, Friday and Sundance! The first and last super-spreader even I’ve been to (laughs).

 

Its such a shame. Scare Me really feels like the sort of film that should be seen with other people, it feels like a cult film that is eminently quotable and very crowd pleasing.

Totally man!

 

So after Sundance, Shudder picked up the film to distribute it. They’ve been doing a lot of great work with horror in the last few months in particular, how were they to work with?

Honestly, they were great man, they just get it. Emily Gatto was the head of acquisitions and was great, and Sam Zimmerman who curates the channel is a horror encyclopedia and just knows everything. They are wonderful people who are so ‘artist-forwarded’ which is a huge key to success. They are so open and community orientated, which is a testament to how successful they are now.

 

I spoke with Rob Savage who directed Host earlier last year and he said that Shudder were unbelievably supportive about getting the film out there.

Yeah, they are wonderful.

The film feels like a play at times, and you get so much mileage out of the spoken word, out of simple storytelling. Was that something that you thought about when filming?

I was nervous about us having just that one location, the living room, for the duration of the piece. So, they way we approached that was that each of the four or five stories we sort of moved to different parts of the room and utilised the staircase and the loft area for the werewolf story, Grandpa had the fireplace and so on.

It became about finding a way to shoot stuff in a way that looked cool but also made sense in terms of the story that feels fresh to the viewer.

You know everything should look interesting to the viewer, and I didn’t know that Aya was gonna show up in that amazing handprint jumper! As soon as I saw it, it was like a total no-brainer that we would use that in the film because it was just so much fun to look at! Her read hair contrasting with the dark sweater and white hands, and then the striped t-shirt underneath for the Venus segment really helps to engage your ‘lizard brain’ by presenting you something different and fresh to look at.

And when Chris shows up, he has that really distinct jacket, which again contrasts the colours we had been using. It was all about making the room interesting to look at with wardrobe choices and blocking.

 

That’s amazing that Aya just showed up in that jumper!

Yeah, and it has become such a huge hit! Everybody wants to know where they can get it!

 

Aya Cash is astounding in the film, her range is unreal. Did you have her in mind when you were writing?

I didn’t have anyone in particular in mind. I just wanted something that would give an actor a lot of things to do, that would give them an opportunity to really do some stuff they had never really done before.

Aya was such a perfect choice for the role due to her background in theatre. She is not someone to not take risks, or not be afraid to make an ass of yourself and make bold choices. She just trusted me.

She was just coming off a TV role that she had been in for years so she was really looking to do something different and not needing to worry about financial rewards or the size of budget in a film. She was looking for something challenging, and thankfully this movie was one of her first stops!

 

The Grandpa segment in particular was brilliant, alternating between utterly horrifying and absolutely hysterical! Getting the tone right for films like this must’ve been difficult? I know you have an extensive background in comedy, but walking that line between horror and comedy is not easy. Were you a big horror fan growing up?

Yeah, I was a huge horror fan before I was into comedy. My sister Rachel introduced me to horror early on, Freddy Kruger was more of a cartoon character for me (laughs).

So, this was fun to tell. There are elements in there of lots of horror films I watched growing up, from Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye and Misery, but there are a lot of things in there as homages, almost by osmosis! From the delivery of lines and editing and musical choices, there are so many little beats.

 

Are there any films that you took inspiration from?

As far as Scare Me specifically, Cat’s Eye has this outlandish / surreal quality to it that really influenced me. As a kid, I had a cat and was really freaked out by that film.

But there are just so many films I admire that cross-pollinate horror and comedy. Beetlejuice, Ghostbusters, I just watched Scrooged last night that becomes more impactful with each passing day. Bill Murray’s performance in that film is incredible, and you look at Richard Donner from Lethal Weapon, Superman and The Goonies just going off to make this wonderful Christmas movie with horror influences, with an incredibly funny lead and horrible props and scary moments. And then it ends with this beautiful message, I honestly think it’s pretty much a perfect film.

 

I agree entirely with Scrooged, it’s a great film. When it wants to be scary, it does so effectively within the context of the rest of the film.

Aw man, Carol Kane and Buster Poindexter are just amazing in that film. It’s impeccable.

With regards to the script of Scare Me, was there much room for improvisation or did you have everything locked down tight?

It was very scripted. While I encouraged the actors to improvise and keep that sort of fluidity that you need, it’s not a very improvised film. Some of the love, as well as criticism that we’ve gotten is that people say it’s an improv movie, that it’s a creative actor’s showcase.

But it was fully scripted. There are a few moments where Aya or Chris or Becky would go off script a pinch just to make the line there own, but anything that went too far off the script was left out of the edit. I mean, we didn’t have a lot of time to improvise. We shot this film in thirteen days and were snowed out on some of those days too. So, some of those days were cut down due to the weather.

And I only had Aya for nine of those days, Chris Redd for two days and Becky for a day and a half. We really didn’t have a lot of room to do it, it was a pretty punchy ninety-pager.

 

I think it’s to the films credit that some of it feels improvised. The interaction between the characters feels very natural and conversational. You mentioned Chris Redd there, how was working with him? He runs the risk of almost stealing the film from both of you! (laughs)

He totally does! (laughs) He comes at the perfect point in the movie too, right at the Act Two mid-point, and really puts the film over the edge.

He’s wonderful. I think the majority of SNL cast-members are great collaborators, something about working in that group just really makes you suited to that. A sort of willingness to be bold and take risks, a collaborative level of skill that is unparalleled. His day to day, his week to week is so different all the time that I think he just needs to be that way.

And he is a major horror fan, maybe a bit of a horror snob almost! It was wonderful to sit down with him and talk about the script and listen to him talk about what he loves in the genre.

 

You can see the love of horror all through the making of this film, and I think it’s one of the things that the community really responds to.

Yeah, I mean we all had a real love for this stuff.

 

I wanted to ask you about the final act of the film. It goes from being quite a light-hearted film to something very dark and serious in its final moments. Watching the film for the second time, I was really impressed by how well threaded that final turn is sewn throughout the rest of the film. How did you find that as an actor, in terms of completely switching up your performance?

That’s a great question.

I think if you step back and look at it like the way a graph of a party would go, its sort of starts off conversational and gradually goes up and up, and then when people start to leave and you’re left with just these two characters, it starts to dip and change. As an actor, I’m holding onto this sort of sad-sack / ostracised / entitled character energy throughout the film. And then you introduce alcohol and drugs, and you have him sitting there watching the others act out Venus, and you can see his whole demeanour drop.

Fred was always sort of ‘on the line’ in the whole film, so I grounded him in that entitled and sour place. I think it justifies the way that conversation goes in the kitchen at the end.

And secondly, in the initial version of the script, he was kind of light-switch psycho! But after talking with some folk, it was recommended to make it more of a grey-area, where he isn’t trying to kill her he was just rough-housing. But he can’t help but take it as far as he needs to, as far as he can to scare her. But he’s just trying to impress her, to prove that he can do what she can.

Mike Nicholls had told me this story about doing improv. He was doing an improvised argument on stage, and it escalated until there was pushing and shoving and eventually, they were scratching at each other and got really physical and the audience bought into the gravity of the performance. As the curtains came down and the audience were applauding, backstage they just collapsed into each others arms crying.

I always think about that; the way that some of us can take an argument or a fight too far, and you kind of lean into it because you’ve already gone so far already? And I kinda think that’s what Fred was doing at the end there, like he couldn’t help himself and couldn’t turn back.

 

It’s really fascinating to hear that. A friend and I had been discussing the ending of the film recently and loved that sort of ambiguity around it. It’s hard to tell if Fred really had murder in his heart, or if it was something that just got out of hand? It’s an ending that works so well because it sticks in your head after the movie finishes.

Thank you man!

In terms of the character of Fred, is he based on an amalgam of people you’ve met or was that character born more from taking aspects of the #MeToo movement that was blowing up at the time?

Every character is a part of you, so there are pieces of Fred like the laziness, the entitlement, the competition, that I totally identify with. I’ve worked with a lot of men in this industry, thirty-something American white dudes who feel entitled and toxically-intimidated by other peoples success. People who love the accolade but aren’t very good at the work.

I mean, I have that quality at times, and fight against that. There is something fascinating about that, and ickily-relatable about that feeling of being entitled to success without sitting down and doing the work.

I mean, that is a societal issue. Men in America are brought up being told that we are meant to be successful, that we should aspire to that. I mean, My mom told me every day that I was going to be the next Jim Carrey! But also, that you are going to support your family and that your family and spouse are in ‘service’ to you. These societal expectations that privileged men have are dangerous, and I have worked with a lot of guys like that.

And it needs to be reconfigured and uprooted, and I hope that as a society we are getting there.

This isn’t specifically a #MeToo-movie and it isn’t an anti-Incel movie, although those guys suck! Aya was the first person to introduce me to that word, and we used that take in the film where she says “What are you, an Incel? I just ordered you some ‘zza!” which we left in the film. I didn’t know what that meant! I thought it was a soldier or something (laughs). I don’t consider Fred to be that specifically, but it’s interesting that she saw him as being lumped in with those sorts of people.

 

We always ask people we speak to what their favourite horror film is. So, what scares Josh Ruben?

The one that scares me is A Nightmare on Elm Street. The imagery in the original is amazing, specifically Nancy’s classmate being dragged by the invisible force in the school hallway. The music is so wonderful and dreadful in that film too.

For thrills sake, I love The Thing. It really disturbed me as a kid, I think as an adult it isn’t so scary. But boy is it so wonderful to watch.

 

Absolutely. When you have seen The Thing once, it never leaves your brain.

(laughs) Yeah, correct.

 

Do you have any projects coming up?

Well, Scare Me can be watched on iTunes and has a terrific extra’s package, it’s really awesome. Loads of extra footage and stuff.

My next project is called Werewolves Within, and I can’t say much about it other than Ubisoft are the studio producing and our cast is incredible. Kind of a supernatural whodunnit, inspired by everything from Arachnophobia to Hot Fuzz and Jaws. I packed in as much as I loved about those punchy ensemble films of the eighties and early nineties.

 

Josh, thank you so much for giving us some of your time. It’s been great chatting to you!

You too, man!

 

By Hugh McStay

Scare Me is available to watch now on Shudder

 

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