Interview: Josh Ruben on Making a Horror Comedy With Bite in “Werewolves Within”

“You’re going to fit right in in Beaverfield — everything here is a little questionable,” Cecily (Milana Vayntraub) tells Finn (Sam Richardson) in “Werewolves Within” as she shows the new U.S. Forest Service ranger around town. She may be underselling the place, which would seem to hide more than its storefronts under the snow that blankets the town and while Finn is there to protect the forest, he may not be capable of seeing the trees, thrust into action almost immediately upon his arrival as the only one to have a badge of any kind during a power outage in which a dead body surfaces at the inn he’s staying at, making all those who are huddled there for warmth a suspect.

While Finn may not know what to do when there’s downed power lines, director Josh Ruben knows how to lighten the mood, making his second horror comedy set during a blackout in as many years, following his equal parts spooky and silly Sundance sensation “Scare Me” in which he starred with Aya Cash. Working from a wickedly funny script from Mishna Wolff, he recruits an ensemble with killer instincts to keep the guessing game going right until the very end, surrounding the already estimable Richardson and Vayntraub with Sarah Burns, Michaela Watkins, Michael Chernus, Harvey Guillén, Cheyenne Jackson and Rebecca Henderson, each of whom has got a great motive when the prospect of a gas pipeline built in town inflames passions.

Impressively, Ruben gives the room to all to burn brightly, generously allowing the space to his actors to create memorable characters no matter how much screen time they have and works in an ultra wide frame where your eye is invited to wander around to see what everyone is up to. Placing easter eggs throughout from the Ubi Soft video game that the film was inspired by, the filmmaker is attuned to details big and small, keeping the stakes high when it is not only the other guests at the Beaverfield Inn that one has to worry about but their own inner demons when they can let either greed or fear get the best of them. Consistently clever and full of jolts, “Werewolves Within” arrives in theaters this week and Ruben kindly spoke about how creating such a friendly atmosphere on set could yield such a mean little whodunit, as well as the advantage of knowing the area he filmed in like the back of his hand and having a crowdpleaser ready just in time for the world to open back up as COVID subsides.

What got you excited about “Werewolves Within”?

Mischna Wolff’s script from the get-go – the fact that her last name Wolff definitely terrified me. But the script felt very Coen Brothers, very Spielberg, very Edgar Wright to a degree, and it reminded me of one of my favorite films “Arachnaphobia” and I just knew I had to play in that world and be a part of it. I actually thought I might have something to offer, especially as someone who grew up as part of Beaverfield, a small town in the Hudson Valley.

And you actually shot this around there. Was the geography in your head as you were reading this?

To a degree, but we didn’t always know from the get-go that we’d shoot in the Hudson Valley. it became very clear when we weren’t going to end up going to Canada or Budapest, I was like, “Well, we’ve got to go near mom and dad’s house. We’ve got to go near Woodstock.” And based out of the Spillian home, this bed and breakfast and event space in Fleischmann’s New York, which is where we shot the majority of the film. It was such a thrill to go on the tech scout to downtown Phoenicia where I’d get pancakes at Sweet Sue’s as a little kid and go into the drugstore and also shoot in the same area that Larry Fessenden shot “Wendigo.” Once we zeroed in on the Hudson Valley.

You’re working with a much larger ensemble this time around. Was it exciting or a little intimidating when you give everyone their due?

It was definitely intimidating, and certainly a reason why I don’t appear in the film. I didn’t need to add any stress. But I don’t think the intimidation came from so much the quantity of actors because I’ve been there, done that. It’s more the quality of the actors, the fact that you’re working with Sam Richardson and Harvey Guillen and Cheyenne Jackson and Glenn Fleshler, people who worked with Cary Fukunaga and the Coen Brothers and Spielberg. This cast has worked with the best of them and that was spooky initially. But my mandate working on anything is to talk to the actors in advance and say, “How do you like to work?” All of them were explicit with me and I think that’s why it ended up working so well. That and the “no asshole” policy. Everybody who came aboard were so nice, some of whom have been buddies for some time like George Basil and Milana Vayntraub. That definitely helped my heart.

Because it is a murderer’s row cast…

Yeah, pun intended.

Could you tailor the characters to an actor’s sensibilities or were they actually strongly defined on the page?

It was a little bit of everything. Once they were cast, the actors brought a new texture to every character, whether it was improv, wardrobe choice or everything else and then in reading [it myself], we thought I’m going to diversify this cast as much as possible. Sam should be a hero for once, Rebecca Henderson should be a scientist for once — let’s task it to the actors to choose who their spouses are, so George Basil was able to offer up Sarah Burns as a suggestion for who we should cast and play opposite him, and it was the same thing with Cheyenne Jackson, who was Harvey Guillen’s choice when I said, “Who do you want to play your husband?” Then everybody who came aboard, they had kind of a buddy, a sparring partner to work off of immediately and then filled in the blanks.

It was like winter camp for a lot of people and it’s also a reason why I encouraged and UbiSoft allowed, as we all vetted my actors to put skin in the game as to who they wanted to work with, so at least at the very end of the day they had a buddy that they could hang out with. Ultimately, what happened was everybody ended up being friends and that’s the best kind of thing you can ask for in these circumstances as a director. You’re watching your cast and crew get along and it was a delight to watch, and it informed the movie. It informed the buoyancy of it all. There’s no drama. It’s just “Hey, we’re all in this together.”

I loved those tableau shots where you see all the characters in the frame all at the same time, and those must be difficult to choreograph. What was it like figuring those out?

You get everybody together and you say, “Look, this is what this scene is all about. It’s about this long and you’ve been waiting here for about this amount of time. And let’s just try one, knowing that you’re passing the time in whatever way you want to pass the time and just make a choice.” [For instance] let’s have Finn enter the house, and then when you guys all react, just fall in and then you sculpt from there. It was kind of Wes Anderson in its style and that was by nature of the fact that we only had one camera a majority of the time we were shooting. But everything just comes down to communication. You can’t be afraid of putting your foot down and saying, “This is what this is about, this is what we need to see and let’s just try one and mess it up and then we’ll mold and then we’ll shape.” Every actor is so savvy and works at the top of their game on way bigger projects than this one was, so they all knew where to find a camera and where their best angle was and everything else, so they made it easy. So much of great directing is great casting.

Was there a particularly crazy day of filming on this?

There were a few. It was hard to make our way through the scene when Finn and Cecily meet everybody in town. That walk and talk was a big day, it was making our way from storefront to street sign to the opposite side of the street and [filming it was like] a gatling gun — shot, shot, shot, shot, shot — and any time when we’re chasing the sun, having one camera, that can be tricky. But we got it all in the can pretty well. There was some hustling for sure and any time there are stunts involved, we wanted to make sure everyone’s safe but we only have so much time. I like that kind of pressure. I do well working on my toes, and sometimes it’s frustrating not to understand why the rest of your crew doesn’t want to work as fast as you want to, so you have to be kind through all of it and just be a good cheerleader for everyone to keep up the pace.

It’s very well-calibrated in terms of both its horror and its humor, but was it difficult to pull off when I imagine during the pandemic, you might not be getting the feedback you might’ve been used to?

As a comedian and as a filmmaker who’s been watching genre films, but certainly comedies since he was a little kid – from cartoons to Robin Williams movies, I feel like a pretty good barometer for it. Your editors are a good barometer for it and your producers are a good barometer for it as a fresh audience, but the tricky thing is that movies are a living, breathing organism that need time and one thing you might think is really funny, you might come back in a week and you adjust it a pinch. Overall, you need to be a barometer for that and some people are more a barometer for drama than they are for horror or they are for comedy. I feel I’m a pretty good one for comedy, but the tricky thing was when we would beat an idea into submission. We all get to a point of having worked on something for so long where you don’t know the answer, and that’s where test audiences were fairly helpful. To see this kind of reaction has been awesome and to know that it’s hitting with a wide demographic of folks just means the world.

I understand this wrapped just as the pandemic was taking hold and the world is starting to open up again, does it feel like an epoch?

Yeah, my gosh, we wrapped by March 9th and by Friday the 13th, we were in lockdown, so we made it just under the gun. Brett [Bachman, my editor] and I were able to edit entirely remotely and it was nightmarish to a degree because it was hard, there was a delay here and there, but then we finally see it on the big screen for the first time and you catch all the small idiosycratic details and flaws of it, but I was really thankful that we not only didn’t have to halt production of it to a physical degree, but that I had a routine inherent in my year. I [hesitate] to say I had a reason to get up in the morning [laughs], but I did. I had a 9-to-5 and an edit routine that helped the first six months of quarantine go by and it’s bittersweet to celebrate.

We were done with a big question mark, like are people going to be able to see this in the theaters or are we looking at a digital-only run? Now coming out at the end of this thing, it does feel like an epoch. We began in another era and we crossed oceans to get to the place where now we’re looking at our theater sheet, going, “Holy crap. We’re going to play the Alamo Drafthouse and Laemmle and the Greenville Drive-in in upstate New York?” All of these wonderful places. Coming out at the other end of that, you go, “Look at the serendipity of the fact that this is the kind of film we all need right now. Something that’ll make you laugh, something that isn’t too bleak, something that isn’t too hamfisted, it’s just a great ride and I’m stoked to be a part of it.

“Werewolves Within” opens in select theaters on June 25th and will be available on demand on July 2nd.