I recently spoke with Josh Ruben, the rising filmmaker who directed the video game adaptation and comedy/horror hit Werewolves Within. Our conversation has been edited for length.
Ryan Bordow: I had a great time watching the movie last night. How did you go about getting the best out of such a varied ensemble? There were a lot of different comedy styles bouncing off of each other.
Josh Ruben: Yeah! I mean, so much of the director’s job is casting. I just want to make sure everybody is a good person, first of all. Second of all, I know I want to have actors that I know personally as friends, folks like Milana Vayntrub and George Basil, who play Cecily and Marcus, respectively. And then, once you get someone like Sam Richardson aboard to be your number one—who’s such a wonderful person as is but is also such a comedic superhero and a wonderful dramatic actor, too, as it turns out—then you have something really special. So ultimately, you’re creating this theater troupe in the middle of winter—winter camp, [as] opposed to summer camp—and people love and respect each other and want to read lines with each other and the like. I think it was finding that happy medium between actors that were not only just great people, but also folks that had a lot of performance experience, improv experience, or come from the theater world, and you end up with sort of a buoyancy to it. And I think it comes across on screen.
Ryan Bordow: I would agree. I like the theatrical comparison—if you were ever so inclined, you could do a stage adaptation of Werewolves Within. I don’t know how Ubisoft would feel about that, but you can always keep the idea in the back of your mind.
Josh Ruben: Hey, I’m all about it. It’s just like my other film, Scare Me. If I can turn everything I do into a black box show at some point—something that feels like a theater production, I come from that world—I’d be happy to. I’m down if Ubisoft is.
Ryan Bordow: And speaking of coming from that world: I grew up on [YouTube comedy channel] CollegeHumor—
Josh Ruben: No way!
Ryan Bordow: —so I’ve been watching you perform for a very long time. What skills from your CollegeHumor days most inform your career as a filmmaker now? Is there anything that you learned or indulged in back then that has really served you well?
Josh Ruben: Oh, absolutely. Everything was thinking on my toes back then. We didn’t have budgets, so we’d wander onto a location and do the five-second scout to go, “this is where this sort of comedic sequence can occur”, and that sort of thing. It was film school; it was garage band filmmaking in that way. Having to conceive a plan on the fly was really exciting, just being thrust into a situation where at twenty-five years old you’re in command of a ten-person crew and learning how to think on your feet and make a decision pretty fast. That’s inordinately helpful. Basically just falling down and effing up again and again and again to mold my voice.
Ryan Bordow: How did you go about directing a feature script that wasn’t yours this time around?
Josh Ruben: Well, this wonderful script came through Ubisoft’s Women’s Film and Television Fellowship. Mishna Wolff had been developing it with Margaret Boykin and the team at Ubisoft for some time. There’s this cool thing that you do when you’re in the union and you pitch on films at this level and the like: you get to do what’s called a director’s rewrite or a director’s polish. There were a certain amount of production adjustments we needed to make. But I also got to do a pass to make it my own, punch up the jokes and selfishly reformat to a degree to make this script very digestibly filmic. So there was a lot of myself I put into it, certainly, but Mishna’s script was so tight and wonderful. Everything I did beyond that was just for the sculpting.
Ryan Bordow: That’s a good way to put it. Were there any specific jokes that were yours?
Josh Ruben: Oh man. Well, you know, it’s so funny: I was talking to the cinematographer of my other feature, of Scare Me, last night, and I said, “did you notice the Scare Me moment with that visual joke where we cut to a profile and see a character in the background?” I think the dialogue was something that we sculpted together as a team, where Cheyenne Jackson’s character said, “I can only think of one thing that’s covered in hair and could’ve done these terrible things”, and you cut to this very specific profile [shot] of Marcus, soft focus in the background, and he goes, “a werewolf!” And you just hold in this awkward profile shot. That is so my kind of joke visually that I love to do that people might not quite understand, I definitely had to convince my poor producers, “I promise you this is gonna hit in a special way.” So, visual jokes like that, and encouraging my actors to do their thing. I think one of my favorite contributions, though, was telling Rebecca Henderson to say, “if you knock on the door again, I’ll shoot—again.”
Ryan Bordow: That was great.
Josh Ruben: Very Austin Powers joke.
Ryan Bordow: Can you tell us anything about what might be next for you?
Josh Ruben: It’s between two different things. I’ve been writing so much during the pandemic, but I do have an idea that—without giving too much away—may be something that occurs in the Scare Me universe, which would be really exciting. Just expanding on the world of my first feature, which would be really fun. And I think I’d like to tackle sci-fi. I’d say Super 8 but with that Coen brothers-type humor; I’d really love to play in that world, create something as fun and sweeping as Twister was. Or even 10 Cloverfield Lane, as awkward and human as the characters can possibly be. Make folks laugh, but certainly level up: more action, more dread. Who knows, maybe someone will give me a shot at remaking Darkman, which I absolutely adore.
Ryan Bordow: That would be interesting. That would definitely be interesting.
Josh Ruben: I love that movie.
Ryan Bordow: You’d be working with a bigger budget at that point.
Josh Ruben: Although, the wonderful thing is that you can almost shoot it for what it was shot for originally and make it quite fun. That’s one of the many dreams, but you just never know with our [business]. I’d also like to stay behind the camera for a beat and let folks who don’t look like me have a shot. Raise up other people, differently abled actors, marginalized actors and the like, diverse voices; give them an opportunity, ideally, to play opposite people like Sam Richardson and Harvey Guillén and the like. Discover people and put them in front of the camera—that would be really, really exciting. Folks who have that kind of special talent. I think in another world, I would’ve been a casting director. I love actors so much.
Ryan Bordow: We probably have time for one more question: have you ever played Werewolf?
Josh Ruben: I haven’t actually played [the video game] Werewolves Within, but I’ve played the parlor game; I’ve played Werewolf, I’ve played Mafia, I’ve played other social deduction games. I love it. I love pretending that I’m not the killer, or even leaning into the fact that I might be and throwing people off my trail. That’s always the best part: pretending to carry resentments for your friends. Overtly acting suspicious with others in good fun is so fun.
Ryan Bordow: I used to play it with my family a ton; it’s a good way to find out how many layers of lies people that you know well can stack on top of each other.
Josh Ruben: Yeah, that’s the best part.