The creative process eventually becomes an art through those who condition their craft to produce something original. When it comes to making something considerably fresh in film industry, nailing the right idea with the right people in the right setting is half the battle. Director, writer, and star Josh Ruben (Green Beret’s Guide To Surviving The Apocalypse) proves those few basics are all the components you need to tell a really scary story in his Shudder Original, Scare Me.
Without any makeup or digital applications, Ruben is able to morph himself into a werewolf, a goblin, and a “nice guy” at the drop of a hat. Supplemented by the talents of Aya Cash (You’re The Worst) and Chris Redd (SNL), the trio manifest an extremely creative and effective horror flick that delivers on the scare factor. Combining his personal process of incorporating past experience with a current mindset, Ruben shares how Scare Me came to be a story he is proud to tell.
“I knew that I wanted to make my first movie […] an anthology film that sort of never leaves the campfire, so to speak.”
Jessica Rose for Nightmare On Film Street: I love that Scare Me is so unique. To start with, what made you even think of it? What made you think to use this specific format without the special effects? The physicality of it all is really brilliant.
Josh Ruben: Well, thank you. We didn’t have any money. I love making sounds and doing voices. I had an improv group when I went to a two-year program in New York City called The New Actor’s Workshop. It doesn’t exist anymore, but I did a lot of Theater Games with Viola Spolin and a ton of improv theater and so on. My background is kind of in improvisation and space works, not so much the UCB background, even though I did some UCB in my day, but even before that it was a lot of Paul Sills-Viola Spolin technique of truly creating space, Theater Games work type stuff.
Before all that, I’m a former friendless chubby kid who lived in the suburbs who just talked to himself and played with action figures and was constantly creating worlds. I knew that I wanted to make my first movie, I didn’t want to direct commercials anymore. I thought, right now I want to try and make my first film and wouldn’t it be interesting if it was a sound designer’s movie? Wouldn’t it be interesting if it was a composer’s movie? A performance-based talkie where I would get to spar with an actress who wasn’t playing some over-sexualized character with a romantic dynamic, but a more competitive creative process dynamic? That’s essentially how we ended up making an anthology film that sort of never leaves the campfire, so to speak.
NOFS: I am so glad that you call it an anthology. It has a tremendous wraparound and there’s all these stories in between. I thought it was such a brilliant way to tell an anthology this way, where it’s not directly an anthology. I was blown away and loved that. What made you want to do it anthology- style rather than more along the lines of linear narrative?
JR: I think because I had read Mark and Jay Duplass’ book Like Brothers where they are constantly preaching the value of just getting up and making something that I knew I wanted to get a script written. From a business standpoint, from a producer standpoint, especially if somebody is going to cash out their 401K to pay to help make sure this thing saw the light of day, then I wanted to make it a horror film, a genre film, that felt like the escapist movie I’d put on as a kid to help me forget the horrors of the world like Tales From The Dark Side or John Carpenter’s Body Bags or Tales From The Crypt or Cat’s Eye. I wanted to make a movie that gave you those similar feelings and is truly a film for horror fans, but also addressing the nature of the writing process. I was excited and motivated to get something done and to make something quickly. It all came together quickly because I was writing angry. I was writing motivated by what was happening in the world.
I started writing it in April of 2018 and shortly after Aziz Ansari was outed for taking advantage of a young woman and it was during the #MeToo movement. I was so angry, especially because he’s sort of considered a “nice guy”, which isn’t a nice term anymore, but he was a nice guy comedian. I thought, “How dare someone take advantage of anyone?” but certainly there are these guys in these positions of power who obviously are fractured, who are abusing that power, and I wanted to make something about gender dynamics. I think that’s ultimately why this thing got off the ground as quickly as it did on the heels of Get Out, which is saying something far more far more global than what our movie explores, but certainly just as vital as fractured men who self soothe, especially in the face of a woman’s greatness and competition as far as that gender dynamic is concerned.
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NOFS: Did you find that it was hard to get that yourself into that space? It’s pretty delicate subject matter, there’s definitely more discussion around it now, but did you find that it was hard to go there yourself?
JR: It’s delicate, but I knew I didn’t want to make a ham-fisted movie or a pre-teen movie. We were very careful about that. I love preaching. I love preaching a better world and I love getting in people’s faces, so to speak, about issues that should be brought to light that are sometimes uncomfortable to talk about, especially today. As a white dude in a position of privilege who is able to use their voice, I feel like I should be using my voice to help marginalized people who are in dire positions that I am not in. But by the same token, I still knew I wanted to make something that I could re-watch and that I could stomach and that felt fun and that felt escapist.
It wasn’t quite hard to get there just by nature of the type of character I knew I wanted to play, that is loosely based on an amalgamation of men that I know and that are fractured that value and accolades more than they value celebrating someone’s success, especially a woman’s success, when it deserves to be celebrated in lieu of their own ego. I knew I was going to start someplace place technically by playing this sad sack and then go out from there. Part of it that made it easy for me was that Aya Cash is so incredibly funny and talented and acerbic in this film, that and her chemistry with Chris Redd and the ostracizing third-wheel feeling is what really puts fractured men over the edge of not being included and not being heard. If you want to get really existential, when people aren’t heard that’s when the result to violence unfortunately. They pound their fists on their chest to be heard and to shrink those around them.
NOFS: And that applies to so many different dynamics. Now as far as that and the horror genre goes, what made you want to tell this story using horror as the outlet? It does have a lot of humor in it, they usually go hand-in-hand with, but what made you want to go down the horror road over any other kind of genre?
JR: I loved horror before I loved comedy. I grew up watching both in conjunction. Honestly, I wanted to explore that genre first and foremost because, from a business perspective, investing in myself and investing in a first film, I know that horror sells and that we have arguably the best genre as far as loyalty is concerned. Even if movies are “bad” horror movies, they will be checked out by a wide spectrum of demographics because we are so loyal to the genre. I love it.
If I was loyal to the genre of romantic comedies or to sci-fi and I had all those references in my blood the way that I do with cheesy horror films, I probably would have done a very different movie. A piece of it was from a horror-lover standpoint, but also just a business standpoint to go ‘If I’m going to take this financial risk, if I’m going to ask everyone to come aboard, then this is the type of film that I personally want to see. I’m going to write the movie that I want to watch’.
NOFS: Well said. Did you have a hand in choosing your co-stars? I thought Aya Cash was tremendous and I can’t imagine there are so many people out there that can make a part work like that the way she does it. Was She someone that you knew before or someone that you came across in the process?
JR: I’m actually buddies with her husband and have been for years. I’d run into her on occasion. She was always so lovely and I’ve seen her work. I actually did an episode of You’re The Worst and worked with her there. She was just fantastic. I did a deep-dive into her filmography and everything she did was so funny and so different. I just thought she’d be incredible and then too, serendipitously, she’s a local to my hometown where we shot Scare Me. So I was able to say “I know you want to do different stuff now, you’re done doing the same sort of character, which lets you go all kinds of places. Would you like to come do something different?” She just had an article that had come out, I think it was in The Cut, about how she wanted to do challenging stuff, especially with roles that didn’t over sexualize her. She jokes “Josh, when I said I wanted a challenge I meant like a period piece, not a challenge where I bark like a dog and do a Cryptkeeper impression!” I’m so happy that she did it. It was an easy ask.
NOFS: Since you mentioned that it was filmed in your hometown and all that it takes place in the one setting of the cabin, how did you elaborate on that space? There’s so much movement, even though it pretty much takes place in one room. Knowing your background with improv, it makes more sense but how did you approach working within a limited space?
JR: That’s an awesome question! Going into this process I knew I had to learn my lines and I knew that I was going in as a multi-hyphenate. I had multiple roles not just to be a good actor and a good partner to Chris and Aya and Becky Drysdale, but also to be a leader and to be a good director and to make sure that the days, which were limited, and the time, which was limited, was used efficiently. Part of that was mapping out the chapters of the movie in pieces; compartmentalizing it to the floor plan and to every corner of our location. So it was important that we found a location that was a character in and of itself and that photographed well, but also that we had blueprints for this film.
My cinematographer, Brendan Banks, and I would go, “Okay, I want to get to set and never have any question about what’s next. I never want to wait for lighting. I know that the Troll story is going to be on this side of the room, the Grandpa story is going to be on this side of the room through this trajectory, and the werewolf stuff is going to happen up there and down here.” In breaking out the space per the chapters and beats of the film, that really helped my director brain and really helped my producer brain. It helped my crew’s brains as I walked them through it saying, “When we’re on this side of the house we’re going to be taking care of this, that, and the other thing” and that was how we got the thing done in 14 days. It was a bit of a Tetris, but we did it.
“I wanted to make it a horror film, a genre film, that felt like the escapist movie I’d put on as a kid to help me forget the horrors of the world like Tales From The Dark Side…”
NOFS: You shot Scare Me in 14 days?!
JR: It was shot in 14 days. In fact, probably less than that because we had a couple of blizzards that stopped the days short. It was January in upstate New York. We had Aya nine days. She was on Fosse/Verdon at the time, so she was back and forth between the city doing press. Chris Redd was on SNL and I had him for two and a half days. When you don’t see Aya, my fiancé is reading her lines off camera with me. Whenever you don’t see us on screen at the same time, certainly for the werewolf stuff, she was probably not there because it’s just how we had to do it. That’s the nature of a tiny movie.
NOFS: That’s incredible. I know you’re not supposed to know as the viewer, but I never would have guessed that in a million years. That’s the magic you guys worked.
JR: I was in college humor for seven years. I made thousands of sketches, a lot of them are bad, I’ve done commercials and music videos and you learn by process. If I made this movie, which was my dream my whole life to make a movie, if I made it ten years or even five years earlier, it wouldn’t have this, dare I say, success or buzz around it. It wouldn’t have been done as efficiently because now I have the life experience to get it done in a certain way and also in a way where I didn’t put my ego before everyone else.
Josh Ruben’s Scare Me is now streaming on Shudder. Be sure to catch it and keep an eye out for Ruben’s upcoming real life werewolf movie, Werewolves Within. Have you seen Josh Ruben’s Scare Me? Are you a fan of the improv style? What do you think of this director-writer-actor’s breakout film? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!