Werewolves Within director Josh Ruben came a long way since his College Humor days. In fact, going behind the camera was the last thing on his mind as a comedic actor. Now, he's glad to turn this venture into something more, adapting the Ubisoft video game to the big screen. I spoke to Ruben about the upcoming IFC Films' supernaturally-themed murder-mystery, the creative autonomy involved in casting, and reminiscing his favorite College Humor series and skits.
Werewolves Within: From Script to Screen
When Ruben picked up the script, it evoked warm feelings about his childhood and some of his favorite films growing up. "Mishna Wolff's script was great," he said. "It had kind of a Fargo, Jaws, sort of a world vibe that I really responded to, and I saw an opportunity to exercise. [It was an opportunity to] play in the world of the films that I loved watching as a kid, from Monster Squad to Arachnophobia. These kinds of small towns were the worst [shit] kind of hits the fan. I can't believe they gave me the opportunity to pitch on it, let alone trust me to make it, but here we are."
The director was fortunate to complete filming prior to the pandemic and doing post-production remotely. "I think I saw my hometown and that kind of Coen Brothers-esque sort of irreverence in [Wolff's] writing," Ruben continued. "I saw an opportunity to lean into that a bit. The characters, the setup, and the sequences…I love the way she writes to the way she writes descriptions and action. It was such a great read, but the characters leapt off the page in the circumstances as they surmounted the stakes and everything. It was sort of was an addictive read, and I found myself sort of going like, 'OK, I want in.'"
Casting was about as painless a process as it got, especially since Ruben was able to lean on word-of-mouth on recommendations. "Gayle Keller, amazing casting director," he said. "I tasked her with sort of…first of all, 'No assholes policy.' I was like, 'No bullies.' Let's just have all good people. We're going to be in the middle of nowhere. It's going to be snowing. Also, I gave the opportunity for my actors to have skin in the game to make suggestions on who to play. George Basil suggested Sarah Burns come play Gwen. Harvey [Guillén] suggested Cheyenne Jackson, who I loved to play Devon. It's also is just kind of me sort of listing. 'Oh, my gosh! I have an opportunity to hire actors who I love in Rebecca Henderson, Michaela Watkins, Michael Chernus, obviously Sam Richardson, and having conversations with him from the get-go to learn what he was excited about to explore casting perspective. He's very open and giving that way. It felt quite easy. It was my favorite part of the process, at least in prep."
It wasn't always easy for Ruben with his more humble beginnings at College Humor; even as a struggling actor, directing wasn't his first choice. "I fell into it," he said. "Years ago, I couldn't get an agent. I moved to the city, a teenager in New York City, and could not get an agent for the life of me and my friend Sam [Reich], who now owns College Humor and Drop Out; he and I started making videos. We formed the sketch group and I sort of learned production through the back door, and that was how I kind of got bitten by the directing bug. Once you got hired by College Humor to start their originals department, I was one of his first hires to come help build out the team, and I was resistant to that. I was like, 'Well, I'm an actor, and yeah, we made some videos together, but are you sure you want me? I didn't go to film school or anything.' He was like, 'I didn't either.' We just kind of figured it out. We seem to have hit a nerve with these silly little videos that we're doing. That began my career as a director. I still love acting for sure. I love performing. I love working with different directors and different actors. The directing bug took me by surprise."
As with most troupes, College Humor's sketches leaned heavily on improv and pop culture. "We did a series," Ruben recalled. "Sam gave me so much rope to sort of doing whatever I wanted. We had a series called 'Hello. My Name Is', which was an improvised talk show. So there was a make-up artist who put me in prosthetics. I would have no idea what those prosthetics would be or what I would look like. They filmed me reacting to the makeup and then tossed me into a Charlie Rose-style interview with Pat Cassells, one of the College Humor cast members, and that was so fun. I played some ridiculous characters, and that's when I look back fondly on it. There was another opportunity to basically play Beetlejuice in a sketch called 'Tweetlejuice' very cleverly. They put me in a harness, and I got to float like fly out of a grave like Beetlejuice. and that was one of the most fun days I think in my life, a forever memory as it were." Werewolves Within comes to theaters on June 25 and digital, rental, and VOD on July 2.