Filmmaker Josh Ruben made his directorial feature-film debut with last year's Scare Me, which earned immense praise at the Sundance Film Festival before earning more acclaim when it landed on the streaming service Shudder. Audiences were drawn to the film thanks to its blend of humor and horror, in addition to the premise focusing on two characters in an isolated setting, allowing their chemistry to keep the audience engaged in the narrative. With his latest film, Werewolves Within, he was able to use his previous experiences to find all-new ways of blending genres while expanding the cast to feature a larger ensemble of hilarious performers. Werewolves Within hits theaters on June 25th and VOD on July 2nd.
"I think the biggest challenge from a filmmaking standpoint was we only had one camera, with the exception of two days of filming, maybe three, and I had to get very specific. It was part of my pitch as a filmmaker, in taking on a movie, 'How are we going to get this thing done in 23 some-odd days?" Ruben shared with ComicBook.com of his last film experiences impacting his approach to this latest effort. "So having one camera made it quite tricky, but it was also part of my aesthetic. It was like, 'Hey, just in a Spielberg-ian way,' for lack of a better comparison, 'this is about tableau filmmaking, tableau shots, all about the ensemble working together, wide [shots] become close-ups and close-ups becoming two-shots and the like. So making that work, planning for that [was the challenge]."
He continued, "Scare Me was as stressful as it was because we were a strapped shoot, for my crew, certainly for my producers, trying to stretch every penny. It was a cathartic, wonderful experience, but I think just going through the edit process and learning that a film is an organism, that it needs time and space to be tweaked and to become what it is, that it can't be rushed or forced, I think that prepped me, if anything, best for post, best for timing and language. And it was a good boot camp. It was amazing that it happened right before Werewolves and we were at Sundance when we were essentially in prep."
In Werewolves Within, 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) 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.
While Scare Me was an intimate experience, Werewolves features a larger cast, with each performer more hilarious than the last. Despite those talents, Ruben pointed out that the expedited pace of the production didn't allow room for much improvisation, though establishing a specific dynamic between the characters was an important component of the film.
"There are those unexpected things that happen when you see what each actor brings to each role, when they're in the costume, when they've got the wig, when you see their heightened presence compared to the other actors, and when the thing comes to life," Ruben expressed. "Though there was room for a bit of improvisation, we hustled ass on this movie. I mean, we were moving, so I didn't have a whole lot of time, just like with Scare Me. Even though we had more days, we have more people, we didn't have a lot of time to improvise. And, in some cases, that really sucked because where I wanted to go, I wished I could've gone further, having XYZ actor improvise. You only have so much time and really had to commit to certain angles and the like. 'Sorry, just got to do this. I just need this one beat just for the cut. And then we're out of here.'"
He added, "Inherently, there are always going to be surprises. There's always going to be blocking, some interesting choices an actor makes that inspires a shot. Little things. Like, I didn't know Michaela [Watkins] was going to, I don't know, bring this sort of hysterical buoyancy the way that she did to Trish, the way that she did. So that informed certain scene work. Like, 'Make that funny sound when they call your name in the circle, because that would actually fit what you've been doing.' But also, at the same time, I was watching ... this is so random, but on the weekends, I would drive to Woodstock, because we were about 40 minutes from there, and I was binge-watching [HBO's Stephen King series] The Outsider at the same time we were shooting Werewolves Within. And so, there were weird things, little techniques from that show, that I would see and go, 'Oh, it'd be interesting to do this slow, rack to focus,' in the dream state. I haven't done that before, and pulling in one of my experiences I was having on my parents' couch on the weekends to work on Monday."
Given that this film features both horror and comedy, with such a hilarious cast, the director detailed the process of ensuring that the humor didn't outweigh the terror.
"There was a bit of it in the edit. The edit's wonderful, because the music, just like [John] Carpenter's working to bring so much to it, and it's integral for these types of stylized films and whodunnits and the sweeping vibe I was going for. But my directorial superpower, dare I say, is that I can feel the comedy. I can feel the barometer of the humor in every given sort of setup and scenario," Ruben expressed. "The scares are another story. That's something that I'm still learning the chemistry of. And that's something I definitely relied on Brett Bachman, my editor, to help me make that possible, the best it could be. And choreographing that on set was always, I wouldn't say an insecurity, but something that required a bit more effort on my behalf, as I'm still finding my feet in the genre."
Ruben detailed, "There are times when you got to pull people back and say, 'That's a bit too big here,' or, 'That's a bit too small,' or, 'That's not enough.' And it's a tricky tone, because I wanted that [Coen brothers]-like irreverence, but I also needed folks to play the stakes for real. And I think this cast just really, really brought it. They all understood it, and we had conversations from the get-go. I frankly said, 'This is the quickest way I can explain what we're doing. We're making Fargo by way of an Amblin movie, if Fargo were an Amblin movie.' And they're like, 'Oh, okay. I think I get what you're going for. Not cartoony. It's going to look like this, but we're going to play it like this,' and that locked it in, I think, for the most part."
On multiple occasions, Ruben has expressed his love for the works of John Carpenter, so were the opportunity to come along for him to continue to explore any of the worlds Carpenter brought to life, he'd like to see a way to merge many of those mythologies together in more of an homage than through a direct continuation.
"I think a series in his spirit would be really awesome," Ruben admitted when asked of which Carpenter world he'd like to explore personally. "The way that [Hulu's] Castle Rock is in [Stephen] King's world, I wonder if there's some kind of a Carpenter-y Halloween III, but Halloween mythology-town-world dread to be explored, where maybe all of these things exist in one place. That's something I'd love to do in anthology format, but as an homage to Masters of Horror that way."
Ruben pointed out, "I don't know if I can really touch ... would want to expound too much on his work, because everything he did was so wonderfully singular. I look at his stuff, and I'm like, 'I want to shoot with your lenses. I want to do your Rob Bottin practical effects and light like you, because it's so killer.'"
Werewolves Within hits theaters on June 25th and VOD on July 2nd.