'Werewolves Within' Director Josh Ruben Explains Why 'Arachnophobia' Is His Touchstone Film [Interview]

Some might say it's positively scary how many talented comedic actors make up the ensemble cast of the new horror-comedy Werewolves Within, directed by Josh Ruben (who wrote, directed and co-starred in 2020's Sundance favorite Scare Me) and written by Mishna Wolff (based on the virtual reality game of the same name, similar in structure to the card game Mafia). After a proposed gas pipeline creates divisions within the small town of Beaverfield, and a snowstorm traps its residents together inside the local inn, newly arrived forest ranger Finn (Sam Richardson, Veep) and postal worker Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) must try to keep the peace and uncover the truth behind a mysterious creature that has begun terrorizing the community. The film features such luminaries as Michaela Watkins, Wayne Duvall, Michael Chernus, Cheyenne Jackson, Harvey Guillen, Catherine Curtain, and many more.

Although Ruben's career as a feature director is still in its infancy, he cut his teeth for years, directing episodic TV for such series as Adam Ruins Everything, sketches for The Late Late Show with James Corden, and dozens of video shorts for CollegeHumor's Originals department. This is on top of the hundreds of comedic shorts and series Ruben has starred in over the past 10 years (and if you don't blink, you can spot him currently in the new Hulu film Plan B).

/Film talked with Ruben recently to discuss his influences for Werewolves Within, the impact filming in a frigid, snow-covered town has on comedy, and guiding a scene featuring so many great comedic actor and improv veterans.

I've never played the game Werewolves Within is based upon, but I'm guessing there aren't a lot of jokes. So what was the potential you say when you got Mishna's screenplay? Were the jokes already there, or was that something you and cast added later?

Mishna Wolff's script was very funny, and as the director, I had to look at it and ask "How can I heighten it and bring my irreverent sense of humor to it.? It has a very clear Coen Brothers/Fargo vibe—it's a small town, small town attitudes, quirky characters—and I wanted to lean into that and bring more nuance to it. I lit up at the prospect of bringing in a cast that you might see in a Coen Brothers' work, someone like Wayne Duvall is part of that world. It was a no-brainer and felt very personal to me in that way. I'm a small-town kid but also loving that sense of humor.

So often in horror comedies, things can get tricky because you have to get the balance right. You can't have too much of one and not enough of another. With both of your films, you've nailed that idea of getting both of them in there, not holding back on being gory or scary, but also being very funny. What do you think is the key to striking that balance?

That's such a good question. I'm such a barometer for the movie, which you have to be as director. A buddy of mine once said "You feel the movie." You feel how it plays out in your mind. Comedically, I can feel every nuance—it's my super-power, I was born with it in my bones. Tonally, it never felt tricky to pull people back if a jokes went too far or people were pushing too hard. It's the horror and scares that are a pinch trickier for me. I can do dread quite well; I know what that discomfort is and how to relay that on camera, but I would love to get scarier and see if I can pull my John Carpenter and turn that up a bit further.

I don't often look a press notes but for some reason, I did a couple days ago for this film, and I don't think I've ever seen a filmmaker namecheck Arachnophobia as much as you do as an inspiration for this movie. What is it about that film specifically that inspires you?

It's trodden to say, but I was a Steven Spielberg [who was executive producer on Arachnophobia] kid. I love that sweeping style, and part of my communication to the actors was that I wanted to make Fargo by way of an Amblin film. Part of my initial comps for how I wanted to approach this film stylistically, from he swelling Jerry Goldsmith score to the anamorphic lensing—which encompasses not just Spielberg but Carpenter as well. You have a small town where shit hits the fan, and that rolls into Jaws as well, a film that I love dearly, but also Silver Bullet—they always seem to be set in these small, bucolic, blue-collar towns that have to take on this other-worldly thing or some creature or monster. There's something about Arachnophobia, there's a buoyancy to it but also the terror was quite real.

[Director] Frank Marshall rally nailed the town. Jeff Daniels scooting back on this ass in the cellar while a giant spider is readying to strike at him, arguing with himself about what year Bordeaux he should or shouldn't throw at it, and he's fully committed to it. I remember as an eight year old, I snorted with laughter when John Goodman showed up. I remember acting out that scene on the porch at my house in Maryland, spraying a hose trying to be him because there was just something about that character But that tone really drove it home. I was such a fan of films like that and The 'Burbs, as ridiculous as it is, it plays the dread and horror quite well, although both feel like a cartoon in parts.

Like many great horror movies, we discover the true monster is ourselves, and it becomes more about these people turning on each other. And these people living in isolation seems to only fuel their mistrust of others; you've almost weaponized isolation to a degree. What are your feelings about the dangers of living in a small town like this one?

Oh, man. The boiling point comes when the isolated and those who grew up with tunnel vision are forced to look at themselves and question their own ideologies, philosophies, and existential state. And you become either someone who gives themselves over to new ideas or you're suddenly an animal in a cage, swinging and breaking out and adhering violently to those ideals. You see what has happened in our country and how relevant this idea is—without nailing the nail too hard on the head, it's so relevant unfortunately. This is a movie less about isolation and more about the small-minded folk react to or how violently they react when being faced with the mirror.

You've got this front-loaded, very funny ensemble cast with many great improv masters. How do you air-traffic control all of these funny people to make sure they aren't stepping on each others' moments? Do you make sure everyone gets a moment or two to really shine?

Everyone inherently has a moment or five in this movie, which is so great, even if some folks are a bit backseat. It's all communication. We have a read-through, I do phone calls with all of my actors where I ask "How do you like to be directed? Tell me what you like and how you like to be spoken to. Do you want me to fuck off? Do you want me to be up in your grill? Do you want me to move your arm?" So someone like Milana is going to be different than someone like Wayne or Cheyenne, let's say. The great majority of them want to improvize and have an undeniably hysterical line that you'll have to use in the edit because it kills all of us. You have to communicate from the beginning that we have limited takes because we have limited time to make this movie, so this is about all of us working together on these takes—it's going to start on a close-up and end in a wide shot, in that old-movie fashion, in that Spielbergian way. So we can't talk over each other, but in some cases we can, so we had to build some of that in post with ADR. But we made it clear that this had to be clippy, clean interaction, and when there were moments for cacophony, that was great, and I could say "Everybody get cacophonous," and you could tweak the radio from there.

You open your film with a quote from Fred Rogers, and there's a moment near the end where Sam Richardson's Finn is put down by someone for being a kind person. It's made to seem like a weakness, something other than masculine. And I love the way he pushes back really hard against that, after spending most of the film being fairly affable and agreeable. But on that, he pushes back. That moment feels very important to you—you basically bookend your movie with that message. Tell me about that.

It's so funny, that scene and that monologue, we were tweaking it almost until the last minute. We knew it was a keystone to the climax, that we were constantly changing it. Sam and I would work on it with Margaret Boykin, our producer, and it does mean a lot to me because I so feel that way, and I know it means a lot to Sam, because we talked pretty explicitly about it. Sam is someone who is so gracious but has that fire in his guts, and I know he has that anger and that's the wonderful thing about him as a performer. And he wants that, for him, his love ones, people he works with. For me, it was cool and I knew he knew what it meant, and in my impassioned directing, I allowed him the space to go big, like Tom Hanks short circuiting or something like that [laughs]. Hopefully it resonates.

A lot of people aren't going to know Milana outside of her AT&T commercials, but I've thought she's a phenomenal comedic voice for years. How did you land on her for one of her only big movie roles?

Milana and I have been friends for the better part of a decade, since the early CollegeHumor days. She's always been so insanely, geniusly funny, but also stands for such good. It was important to me that shooting in the middle on nowhere in Hudson Valley [in upstate New York] that all of us had someone in our personal lives also acting opposite us. And I had the freedom to give my actors skin in the game to request casting actors to be their spouses or lovers. Also, if I could work with my friends, I will do it. She was on a shortlist, and I would have it no other way than to give Milana this opportunity if she'll take it and to see her channel her life experience through her character, who has a lot to say.

You shot this in the dead of winter, so you didn't have to fake any of the snow or seeing your breath. How did that impact things? Did it feel like a bonding experience to have everybody going through that misery together?

Yeah, whether folks liked it or not. Our only lodging option that was acceptable was a lodge that had previously been a summer camp and was just renovated and barely ready to receive guests. We were shooting, it was an option to put everybody up there, it was nicer than some of the other stuff in the area, and we'd see each other in the lobby, take a van home together, and you're building chemistry. Luckily, for the most part, everybody took well to the weather. Sam came up in Detroit, some great up on the east coast, we all dig that vibe, so it helped with the atmosphere.

And it sounds like you just missed the pandemic too, but a couple of days.

We wrapped on March 9, and I was in lockdown in L.A. on March 13. I could not believe what a close call it was. I was wiping down my seat on the plane home. Luckily, I got to edit this in lockdown and do press for Scare Me, so the last year or so went by in a blur to some degree.

Best of luck with this, Josh. Take care.

Thank, man. I appreciate it.


Werewolves Within is currently in theaters. It hits VOD on July 2, 2021.