Trying to spook Scare Me’s director and star, Josh Ruben
Scare Me is the story of two horror novelists who wind up trapped in a snowstorm. To kill the time, they engage in a night of telling each other spooky tales, in an effort to scare the other. The competition over campire stories escalates until the line between storyteller and nightmare begin to blend.
It’s really fucking funny.
Released on Shudder for their 61 Days Of Halloween programming in 2020, the movie follows Fred (Josh Ruben) and Fanny (Aya Cash) in a cabin in the woods telling each other tall tales. We sat down with star/writer/director Josh Ruben to talk about his big debut, getting a terrifying performance from Aya Cash, and how to keep your calves from burning out when you’re pretending to be a troll for hours on end.
I’ve been waiting to see Scare Me for what feels like a year now, everyone I know that’s seen it at festivals is like, “Brock, this is going to be your favorite movie,” and I got to see it finally the night before it came to streaming services. Right under the wire, but what a triumph. Congrats, sir.
Josh Ruben: Thank you so much. It’s been a long time coming, we’re coming up on two years since I conceived of it and we got the thing going, so it’s kind of wild to be here.
My first question is probably the most important question, which is: how did you make a horror tribute film and wind up getting a producer with the last name of fucking Voorhees on it?
Isn’t that amazing? That’s my manager, Tucker Voorhees. I’ve made a reference to Jason on more than one occasion. He’s one of the initial folks who was like, “We’ll find money for you. You want to get this done, we’ll find a way to make it happen.” The thing came about because I was sick of doing commercials and I was ready to try and make the thing with a camera phone, if that’s what it took. We shot the way that we did to our resources, with as little money as we had.
Did you write the parts with Aya (Cash) and Chris (Redd) in mind or did you write the two characters and match them up later?
I didn’t have Chris in mind from the inception but closer to the end and especially once it became real, that’s when I knew I had to ask Aya. She comes from the theater world and Chris does live performance—he was a suggestion from one of my managers. We’re repped by the same folks. You have two performers who are down to do live stuff, that come from theater, (it) was really just serendipity. I had known Aya for years, through her husband who I share a voiceover agent with. It just worked out that she was down and interested to come on the journey.
You guys made this wonderful trifecta—I just want to know how much onset, between you, became improv class vs. how much of it was tightly scripted.
The whole thing, believe it or not, was tightly scripted. We were almost worded perfect for just about all of it. I’m not much of a stickler for “ums” and “ahs” when I’m a director, but we had fourteen days to shoot this movie. We had Aya for nine, and Chris for two and a half. We got snowed out twice and still managed to wrap half a day early. The environment you’ve got to create for your actors when you’re a director and you want to get something bold out of them is to create space for them to put their stamp on it and feel comfortable them exhibiting their stamp and doing their thing. So, it’s a testament to their trusting me but from a director’s standpoint, you’ve really got to create a space for them to feel comfortable doing weird shit.
Was it hard to do your first feature while directing yourself from a script written by yourself? Feels like a lot to juggle.
It’s a lot to juggle, but a lot of the success in that is building out your network. This whole thing starts with—what friends do you want to go to battle with and make shit with? I had Brendan Banks from the get-go, I had Dan Powell from the get-go, who trust me and who I trust. I was able to relinquish a lot of—not necessarily creative control but relinquish a power to Brendan and a trust to Brendan to keep an eye on my performance. We planned the hell out of this movie, we shot every corner of the house, we storyboarded just about everything we could. We made a four or five-page shot list. We got super prepared so that by the time I got to set, we could talk about what we’re going to do today and go downstairs and get my makeup done, and I’d just have to worry about being a good acting partner for Aya. That was the acting process.
How do you write a movie about a movie fan and not have it come out as obvious and cloying? How did you write a movie about the guy that’s always speaking in film quotes, and have people along for the ride?
I think I know these types of odious dudes. I’m writing a specific type of white male dude that’s a bit of a sad sack and wants to do the work, wants to put pen to paper and wants those accolades and that end game, but can’t quite get there. He meets people who help him get out of his skin but ultimately it’s not happening entirely in his favor because of his inability to self-soothe in the face of Fanny’s greatness. I don’t know, man, I’m not a comedic actor. I didn’t set out to make a preachy movie by any means, I sought to make a midnight movie I’d watch as a kid to escape and have a piece of pizza and enjoy. I wanted to play to the comedy, but also the realness; I know this guy, I know this type and it was fun to play because it’s such a specific type of person. It’s great praise coming from you, thank you.
It seems like from the start, you set out to make a movie that, at some level, wants to talk about masculinity and all of its pitfalls. Do you feel like you accomplished what you wanted to say with that? Do you wish you could’ve done other things with it?
I certainly wouldn’t have pushed it any further than we did, because I didn’t want to make anything too preachy. If someone’s going to make any criticism of the movie, I think that’s what I would be most furrowed by is if someone thought it was a bit ham-fisted about gender dynamics and stuff like that. I wouldn’t have leaned in any more than we already did. I think we did have the right amount.
As a horror movie fan, what is the horror movie you go to bat for that no one else does?
Ooh, that’s a great question! I love Silver Bullet, but I think I love Bad Moon just as much, maybe a bit more except for the beginning, it’s exploitative but they do that a lot in horror. I think in Bad Moon the practical effects are out of control and the anamorphic lenses are out of control. I took references from Bad Moon and showed them to my DP for my upcoming film Werewolves Within, which obviously about werewolves. That’s one I definitely go to bat for.
With telling me that your next movie is about werewolves, with your character in the film being stuck with werewolves, I want to ask: how much of this film is borne of frustrations on your own creative process vs.—it reminded me of John August’s The Nines, where either this could be happening in reality or all of this is a metaphor for what’s going on inside of a writer. All of these characters are parts of a process and that’s why no one gets along and everyone seems to hate each other. Is this a movie about your process?
I think it is. Fred is so many different pieces of me, down to the insecurities and the laziness and also the desperation for accolades and even the entitlement. The short answer is yes, I’m definitely pulling from my own frustrations. What’s so cathartic about it was to be able to embody it with Chris and Aya. Bringing that to life—the playing part of it and the riffing part of it– beyond the criticism part of it, that’s easy to play on someone having an idea and have a character shoot them down, but it’s another thing to show the riffing and show the transportive aspect of that. Once you do get there, what it means to stay there and remain in the flow.
What was the hardest shot to get in the movie?
Great question. Technically, the shot wasn’t super hard to get but maybe because I was brain-farting on how to keep rhythm… when I was dancing on the musical number, I could not keep my rhythm correct next to Chris. Chris was so sweet about it but I stepped outside of myself and lost confidence for the first time in the entire shoot. I realized that Chris Redd does the digital shorts every week, and I’m literally dancing next to one of their greatest performers, especially one who does most all of the musical numbers on their show. I just sort of short-circuited a little bit, and he was so sweet. I knew we needed to get this shot, which was a complicated set-up and it was very simple, but boy could I not find it right away.
I was going to ask if you were intimidated across from Cash but it sounds like you guys had a decade-long friendship here so it’s not as threatening as that, but she certainly seems like a powerhouse on set. Was that your experience?
She’s a powerhouse and I said, “How do you want to be directed? How do you like to be directed?” That’s an important question I like to ask my actors. She was like, “I don’t need to go into a dark corner and work myself to get to someplace as an actor. You’re going to see me having a great time and jumping around and being flirty and making jokes.” She’s a powerhouse but she’s good at what she does and she can kind of plug-in. She’s not some egotistical diva by any means. We all have hard days on set, but she was such a pro and so fun and jokey with everyone. I just wanted to make sure they were all taken care of.
Would you tell me how a little film called TK630 happened?
Oh, hell yeah! Well, Brendan Banks, the cinematographer for Scare Me, shot TK630 and a horror short we shot previous to that called Cabin with a young actress named Francesca Reale, who is now on Stranger Things in Season 3 (she plays the lifeguard). Brendan and I wanted to make a Star Wars film and I don’t know too much about that universe, but we conceived of a cool story about a stranded trooper on a forest planet. It was really fun to do, I had just done a comedy pilot that didn’t get picked up and I wanted to have fun and go 50/50 with Brendan on something where I got to play action for the first time.
It’s also nice to make something that releases especially in LA where you can make stuff for years and nobody ever sees it.
That’s totally right! That’s why, when I’ve made short films in the past, I don’t do the film festival run.I make them and I put them up. I just want to get them out there for the world. Film festivals are great, if I’ve got a shot, I’ll go for it.
My final question, there is a segment in the film where you play a troll and you are very low to the ground the whole time, crawling around on things. I saw it twenty-four hours ago and I swear to God, my calf muscles are still pulsing. I physically worried about you, what was it like to shoot that? How did you pull that off?
Well, the first trick is—that’s a cheap party trick I’ve done for many years, a little squat troll walk. I’m a flexible guy and so I can just do that thing, but the first trick is getting your wardrobe guy to give you comfortable pants. I felt like I was doing it in pajamas, which is comfortable. I’m pretty sure my right knee is starting to act up a bit in my tender old age. It’s not as easy as it was two years ago, that’s for sure.
Scare Me is out now on Shudder.