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Before he set out to shoot Werewolves Within, the follow-up to his acclaimed horror-comedy Scare Me, Josh Ruben met with Ubisoft to play the virtual reality video game that serves as the basis for the film. It was, as he recalled it, a "nerve-rattling" experience, getting the hang of the VR format while the very people who created it were right next to him, but he wanted to experience it before setting off to bring something similar to the big screen. Then, he asked the all-important question.
"So my question to Ubisoft was, 'What do I owe of the game? What do I owe you, Easter-eggs-wise?' They said, 'You don't owe us anything. You just owe us a good movie,'" Ruben told SYFY WIRE last week ahead of the film's Tribeca premiere. "So I was like, 'OK. Well, I will do my best.'"
By all accounts so far, Ruben definitely kept his promise. Since its Tribeca Film Festival premiere last week, the film has enjoyed near-universal critical acclaim, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 92 percent as of this writing and loads of buzz ahead of its theatrical and on-demand releases in the weeks to come. For Ruben, it feels like the payoff to a saga that began even before he agreed to direct the film.
Scare Me, an intimate horror-comedy which he wrote and co-starred in alongside Aya Cash, arrived at the Sundance Film Festival last year, just months before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down its chances of a wider theatrical release. Though it eventually found an audience on streaming, Ruben's second feature ended up emerging not through Scare Me's wide reach, but through a smaller screening with producers Matt Miller and Natalie Metzger, who offered him Werewolves Within as a potential follow-up.
"As reluctant as I was about potentially directing a video game adaptation, because they don't always have a great track record, I opened Mishna [Wolff's] script and was totally floored," Ruben said. "It just felt like everything I loved about horror movies growing up, from Arachnophobia to Jaws."
Like Scare Me, Werewolves Within is an intimate affair, with just a handful of key characters who move the plot forward largely through conversations as the horror slowly but surely creeps in around them. Though Ruben eventually went to great pains with his production design team to throw in nods to the original game, the film replaces the medieval village of the VR experience with an isolated, snowbound town named Beaverfield, where a proposed gas pipeline has divided a community made up of everyone from tech millionaires tired of the city grind to maple syrup farmers.
"That's a huge piece of why it's personal to me, because I grew up in a town like that. I grew up in a predominantly white town in its own ecosystem that wasn't unfriendly to newcomers, but in some towns, you certainly get a double-take," Ruben explained. "I was in one of the more progressive towns, like Beaverfield, as a kid, where people from the city were coming up and sort of colliding with small-town artists. I grew up in Woodstock and I remember the kind of Venn diagram time in my life when my sister was saying, 'I can't believe I just went down to town and someone didn't say thank you for me holding the door. They must not be from around here.' That was a bit of myself I saw in the script and had to come forward, or at least pitch on it, and luckily I got the gig."
With Wolff's script in place, Ruben then set about finding a cast that could convey the wide array of personalities present in Beaverfield when a secret werewolf begins ravaging the town, including everyone from the local mail carrier (Milana Vayntrub) to the innkeeper (Catherine Curtin) to the park ranger (Sam Richardson) who arrives just as the town's powder keg of tension seems primed to explode.
"I knew I wanted to enact a no-a**holes policy, because sometimes you never know. We were literally going to the middle of the woods and I wanted to make sure that everybody had a great reputation, which they all did, and that they were going to be wonderful people. That is just as important to me as your talent," Ruben said of his casting process. "Honestly, I think I started with George Basil, he plays Marcus, because he and I have known each other for 10 years. I knew not only from a comedy perspective that he's a slam-dunk actor, but that he's also beloved by everyone, extremely charming, magnetic, and just a good leader. So once I said, 'I know I have to have George in this movie. There are a couple of roles he could choose from,' and landed on Marcus, I felt a little bit better. I felt like at least at the end of the day if sh*t hit the fan, I'd have a friend to hug. Then, I think, right after that was Sam. Sam was the momentum we needed to really get other actors on board."
He added, "So it just turned out to be this kind of serendipitous, wonderful troupe, and they all got along. They all wanted to read lines with each other when they were off-camera. They made each other laugh. They hung out at the hotel. They sang songs. They stayed up all night. They'd hike on the weekends. It really turned into kind of a magical thing, like...a winter camp."
Making sure his cast would all get along was a priority for Ruben, as was making sure everyone had the comedic chops to carry the laughs throughout Werewolves Within, but he was also very conscious of the film's more horrific elements. Though much of the film takes the form of a whodunit, it's also a whodunit with a werewolf at the center, which meant pulling from a diverse array of influences ranging from Clue to The Beast Must Die to one of the great 1980s horror-comedies, Shane Black and Fred Dekker's The Monster Squad.
"There is a shade of green... Really, the whole color palette in that movie is genius. I said, 'Not only do I love the color palette, but there's a specific green that I love that is specific to Dracula, especially when he's underlit.' I said, 'I want that.' So there's a moment in the film when Wayne Duvall's character is sort of underlit by a similar hue the way that Dracula was in Monster Squad. We called it Monster Squad green. My cinematographer [Matt Wise] was like, 'There's your Monster Squad green, man. There's your Monster Squad green.' So that, I feel, my 12,000 horror fans will be watching and will actually appreciate it."
That "Monster Squad green" and other key techniques used throughout the film — including some thrilling werewolf design work and plenty of creepy atmosphere — ensures that Werewolves Within has the spooky tone horror fans are looking for, but Ruben and his cast also had to leave plenty of room for laughter. Whether it's an uncomfortable conversation on a tense winter's night or a meet-cute in a small town, the film is packed with moments of lightness, and it was up to Ruben to always balance them with the scares, something that's perhaps easier said than done.
"The biggest thing is never get caught trying to be funny, which is a huge lesson I learned," Ruben said. "I was one of the lucky generations of acting students who got to learn under Mike Nichols. He was one of my master class instructors at a school that no longer exists called The New Actors Workshop. That was a kind of mantra that he would repeat on the regular along with 'Happiness and Equilibrium,' 'Shift your weight,' and 'Just say the words.' In his, 'Just say the words,' he also would say, 'What would really happen? What would really happen if X happened?' was a big thing.
"That's a huge lesson. There's a huge lesson there when it comes to horror-comedy, because for working with these inherently funny actors, you also have to go, 'How far is too far of a reaction or too campy of a reaction if this really happened? If you were really getting hysterical because there might really be something terrorizing you?' That was what was so brilliant to watch all these actors do because they can all play emotional stakes for real, but there are also varying levels of humor. So, for me, it's just a matter of asking them to give me more or pull back on the humor level, you know, most of the time."
By the time Werewolves Within is over, audiences will have been treated to a cozy whodunit, a small-town comedy, and a werewolf movie all at once, and the hope is that those three subgenres will intertwine and paint a larger picture. If every werewolf film packs some kind of central metaphor built around the beast and the notion of transformation, then Ruben's is about what happens when a good neighbor is pushed a little too far, and the value of not letting yourself and your community get to that place.
"I think why it hits me so hard is, yes, I love creature features, and giant spiders, and the like, and sharks, but nothing scares me more than people," Ruben said. "People are complex and people do have a dark side and a light side. Ultimately, what really hits and what I really identify with and I think [Sam] really identified with on an emotional level is the ironic monster that can be conjured up when good people are not met with good. When expectations aren't met. Is there a turning point when a good neighbor is met with bad, and turns themselves?
He added, "So, I think, ultimately it is about that, yes, there is certainly a monster within us all, but also it's about the value of being a good person. The reason I think this film is stirring an extra special response is that it's fun and people are laughing and they're maybe getting a little bit of chill out of it. I think that's the kind of movie we need. I think people are going to get what they get out of A Quiet Place, but if you want to laugh, you want to go for a bit of ride... I think we all need that after this past 17-months and change."
Catch Werewolves Within in theaters on June 25 and on-demand on July 2.