INTERVIEW: ‘Werewolves Within’ Director Josh Ruben and Writer Mishna Wolff
Director Josh Ruben
What attracted to you to the project – were you aware of the game first or did you read the script first?
I wasn’t aware of the game, but the script came to me via the producers Natalie Metzger and Matt Miller, who helped Ubisoft make the movie. I fell in love with the script right away.
I have to ask about gathering that fantastic ensemble cast – what was the casting process like?
I fell in love with Gayle Keller, who is the casting director, who worked on What We Do In The Shadows, she did a panel at the Woodstock Film Festival. I was thrilled to see her talk about cross-pollinating talent, unknown talent, mixing and matching actors who you wouldn’t often see, in roles they wouldn’t often do, opposite other actors in the same sort of content. And that is the kind of casting that I’m in love with and want to continue doing. So I wrote Gayle and her team a board and they were so wonderful and full of fantastic ideas. They had fantastic insight into the actors, and knew who were great human beings, which is always my priority – I have a no assholes policy (laughs). From a personal standpoint, I made my dream list of folks I’ve always wanted to work with, from Sam Richardson to my friends – George Basil and Milana Vayntrub – who I’ve known for years and years and just sort of branched out from there.
How did you find the location – I’m guessing that was real snow, because it certainly looked like it!
It was real snow, indeed! We shot in February of 2020 and wrapped on March 9, 2020, which was the week before quarantine, which was crazy. We had a real winter in Fleischmanns, New York. The location is actually an event space and Bed & Breakfast called Spillian, it was actually recommended by my fiancee who stayed there for a New Year’s party years ago. The moment we walked in, the place had so much character. The script said that the location felt like a character, in and of itself, like the mansion in Clue or Knives Out, we needed a place that had character. We were thrilled to find that in the Hudson Valley because I would love to keep shooting in the Hudson Valley, it’s where I’m from and where I draw most inspiration.
As someone who was a teenager in the 90s, I appreciated the use of Ace of Base and Savage Garden – why did you choose those tracks in particular?
That’s a great question – so, Ace of Base was a song that played on a very important day to me, when my sister, who was also a teenager in the 90s walked into my room on one summer week day, I think our parents were out of town and she said; “do you want to go see Jason Goes to Hell?” I was a huge horror fan and my big sister was asking her little brother to go see a horror movie and we got in her Volkswagen Rabbit and I remember listening to the radio and Ace of Base’s “I Saw the Sign” played when we were on our way to see it. And it was a total Inside Out forever memory for me, so it actually has quite a significance for me. Rachel, my sister was sort of the gatekeeper to horror, to the kinds of films I watched as a kid. Savage Garden was just the kind of stuff that played at Prom and I thought “you’ve gotta have a killer 90s tune like that,” if we can’t get the Spice Girls, we might be able to get Savage Garden.
You made Scare Me (2020) and Werewolves Within quite close together. You’ve mentioned that you just managed to get Werewolves Within filmed before the pandemic hit, but it must have affected post-production?
It sure did. We wrapped the film on March 9 and I got back to California, I went to go see Invisible Man at Alamo Drafthouse and got a massage with my fiancee – we were so excited to have downtime in California, our first day back together. And then that Friday we were in quarantine. So, the whole thing became a scary question mark. The editor Brett Bachman and I, we decided it would be best, with this questioning dread to proceed with editing the movie over a program called Evercast, which is all remote, it’s all digital. We began with a Share Screen program over Skype, which was a total nightmare and then upgraded to Evercast, which was more seamless but still had delays and such. So, we edited the whole film remotely, then we did the sound design in person, but distanced with masks, then we did the colour sessions remotely, but then the final QC in person…it was really wild.
Writer Mishna Wolff
What made you think that the game would make a good film?
First of all, the lack of narrative was appealing to me because it meant I could fill in all the blanks, so that was definitely appealing. I really liked, when I played and when I watched game-play was that without it being logical, the people playing it would be vindictive and totally illogical and judgmental and they would base their judgment on how the avatars looked, which is crazy. But it felt very real and I liked the private justice element of it, it felt like a great way to get into a bigger conversation about the things that make us feel that we can’t connect with each other and conflict. This film is about identity and conflict and all that good stuff, so it felt like fertile ground when I played the game, I was like “oh I know what this is.” I really tried to bring the feel of the characters sitting around the crystal ball in a Romany caravan into the fireside scenes in the movie, where they’re sorta having the same kinds of conversations as you would in game-play. Sam Richardson even says “werewolves within” at some point in the movie, so…
How do you balance a large ensemble cast at the writing stage, do you literally have tallies of how many lines each character gets?
I card them, so I know that you’re following their arc through the movie and remind myself that you do have to service them all. So, it does get to be kind of a lot, but I have a little bit of ADD and I think that makes me better suited to this kind of a task. My brain naturally wants to keep a lot of plates spinning. To me, it was just great fun and once I figured out what each of their worldview’s were, which was really important for writing the characters, to know where they’re coming from, what’s their philosophy of life, what the credo that they live by. It was then really easy to decide who was doing what and when, in reaction to what Finn was discovering throughout the story.
It’s a horror comedy, but there is some environmental and social commentary going on at times eg. the pipeline, the fracking, gentrification, gun laws – how do you balance those subject matters and tones while writing?
It was really important to me to write characters who had modern-day, topical issues, but at the same time, not take a side. As the writer, I don’t think it’s really my place to take a side and either way, this movie is about connection. Finn is someone who comes into this town and he wants to connect people, he wants them to be able to talk to each other – he hates conflict, he’s a really nice guy. So, the fact that there are all these hot-button, topical issues going on just sort of makes his life torture. I was much more interested in torturing Finn Wheeler than taking a position on say oil pipelines through national forests or gun policy.
What was the collaboration with Josh Ruben like – how did the process start and how did it develop?
Well, Josh is delightful, first of all. That’s the first thing you need to know about Josh Ruben! Once we got the script to where we wanted it to be, Ubisoft sent it out to a bunch of directors and he really leapt out at us, I was part of that process too because I’d been living with the script for about a year at that point and I was really invested in who it was going to be. Josh really sprung off the page because he had the same sort of reference points as we were thinking of all this time, which was Clue, Hot Fuzz, The Thing, Alien, The Howling Silver Bullet and Gremlins – all these really fun, older creature features that we loved watching growing up and learning about even after we were grown ups. So the sensibilities were really a good match and then on top of that, he’s a really great collaborative director and he had really great ideas for the script, for casting, he had great relationships with cast members – there was just so much to recommend him as a director for this.
This is your first produced screenplay – what have you learned from the experience?
It’s fun! It’s really fun when things get made!
Did you get to be on-set at all?
I did! I actually got to be on-set for the scene that almost everyone is in, except for Dr Ellis and Emerson Flint. The scene in the lounge area of the B&B, where it’s all going back and forth and everyone is getting crazy – that was so much fun!
I feel like every time I pick up my keyboard and start writing, I learn something about the craft of writing. I learned a lot through this about how movies are shot and what you do and don’t need to include. I always think that the next thing I write is going to be better, that’s just my internal optimism. So all the mistakes and things I had trouble with will be easier the next time, but it’s always an uphill battle.
You’re best known for your memoir “I’m Down” (published in 2009) – do you have any advice for writers who might be considering transitioning from one form of writing to another?
I think it should be easier than it is, there are a lot of gatekeepers in both realms and it doesn’t make sense to me. A storyteller is a storyteller is a storyteller and for me, it actually all stems from standing on stage telling stories in front of live audiences and taking risks in front of crowds. I feel the experience of losing a crowd, when you’re standing in front of them, is something that has stuck with me so viscerally and affected my writing more than any particular medium. So I just feel like they should make it easier for playwrights to become screenwriters and book writers to become playwrights. I know that there’s conventions to all these things, but conventions don’t take as long to learn as how to make someone cry.
WEREWOLVES WITHIN IS IN THEATRES FROM JUNE 25 & AVAILABLE TO RENT EVERYWHERE JULY 2, 2021