At face value, Josh Ruben’s Shudder Original Scare Me is about storytelling, how hard it can be, writer’s block, and what makes a good story. Ruben, who wrote and directed, plays Fred, a struggling writer who hasn’t made it yet. He aspires to be better but is confronted by the unfortunate fact that maybe he isn’t good when he meets Aya Cash’s Fanny.
Ruben crafts a film that follows Fred and Fanny (and eventually Chris Redd’s Carlo) as they tell each other scary stories. Through the course of the film it becomes more evident that Fanny has the kind of imaginative mind that Fred lacks. Through various techniques Ruben captures the fun and excitement of creating stories, and the skills needed that make a story entertaining. The film also delves into some deeper issues such as toxic masculinity, as the story unfolds we become more and more aware of how deep and dark Fred’s insecurities can go. It’s a delicate balancing act and ultimately Ruben succeeds in crafting a story that is resonant with the current era of ‘MeToo’ films and being a genuinely fun reminder of how much fun telling scary stories can be.
Josh Ruben was kind enough to speak with Screen Queens’ Ferdosa Abdi about Scare Me. Talking about what inspired the film, his chemistry with Cash and Redd, the technical aspects needed to make it all work, and why Shudder is the perfect place for his feature debut.
Ferdosa Abdi: What inspired this film and how much of it was inspired by your own experiences as a writer?
Josh Ruben: A confluence of things. I was feeling creatively frustrated making (and chasing) commercials. I read Mark & Jay Duplass’s Like Brothers and decided it was time to make a damn movie, no matter the size; to cross it off my bucket list. Congruently, I started writing Scare Me in April 2018 at the height of the MeToo movement, and was having lots of impassioned conversations with women in my circle about gender dynamics; about how they’d been taken advantage of by men in positions of power, or were forced to diminish their light in the face of a man’s behaviour. And frankly I was pissed at the lack of ‘male allyship’ from the men around me (Really? You’re afraid to denounce Louis C.K.’s behaviour? What are you afraid of?).
So, I decided the engine for the movie was going after the types of guys who can’t self soothe in the shadow of a woman’s greatness. I’ve worked with so many of these dudes. I recognise the qualities in myself — competition, jealousy, entitlement — and knew it’d give the movie an edge; that I’d be saying something, rather than “writing cool.” As for my own experiences as a writer, there’s so much of me in Fred, and so much of my experiences in the riffing dynamic between Fanny and Carlo. Like Fred, I’m insecure and desiring of praise and attention, anxious to do and write well, and have a discipline that’s, uh, spotty at best.
More than half of the film depends on you and Aya Cash’s dynamic and both of your incredible comedic impressions. How did the two of you come to create this dynamic?
The first piece of that answer is Aya’s trust in me as a director and an acting partner. And she’s a pro. Reading through the script, seeing her commitment, but also recognising Aya’s love for the play aspect of it all is why it works. She’s also effortlessly funny. Aya could read the phonebook and I’d LOL. Also, maybe because we’re both Cancers?
Chris Redd joins the party about an hour in. Can you talk about the process of including him in this story? (Great casting choice cause his creepy baby bit had me crying)
“WE DON’T WANT BOTTLES, WE WANT BLOOD!“
Chris and I share reps. They suggested him for Carlo, and that lightbulb moment was a blinding no-brainer. Like Aya, Chris comes from the world of live performance. Making bold choices, improv genius, collaboration — it’s in his DNA. Part of why he’s so damn great is, beyond his being a hysterical scene-stealing master, he and Aya got along like gangbusters. Their chemistry made Fred’s compounding third-wheel jealousy all the more effective.
As I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but feel that I was the third person in the room, and that Fred and Fanny were constantly breaking the fourth wall. As the director, what was your thought process in how to film this story? What were the visual and technical aspects that were most vital to you?
That’s a huge compliment, thank you! I hope it didn’t take you (or anyone else) out of the experience. From a directing standpoint, I knew the more committed these guys were to their stories, the more “in flow” they became, the more each story would manifest. Like in real life: when it works, a great storyteller — be it at a campfire or stage — is all you need to feel transported. As far as breaking the fourth wall goes, I just love that device — and as the film progressed — as stakes heightened and the game became more meta, I felt it’d be a fun beat here and there to wink at the watcher.
I love Yorgos Lanthimos (specifically Dogtooth and Killing of a Sacred Deer); same with what James Wan did in Insidious. Tempered, minimalist movement. Long takes. Empty corners. That, coupled with the right score and sound design? Scary. As far as visual and technical aspects, most crucial to me was breaking down the location — each corner of the cabin represented a different story to my director brain (i.e. Grandpa is all about the fireplace and staircase; Troll is all about low and high angles around the couch; Werewolf is all about the landing, etc.). This helped me wrap my head around how we’d manageably, efficiently get this thing in the can. Beyond that, it was crucial to go in having learned my lines so I could be a good acting partner for Aya & Chris. Within these “corners” I’d mapped out with Brendan, the cinematographer, we could easily support Chris, Aya, and Becky to make bold choices within our visual parameters.
Can you talk about the work you did with crafting the sound design, score and that original song? It added that extra element that brings everything together.
I credit Ian Stynes, our mixer at Great City post, and John Moros, our sound designer — they’re genius. I knew Scare Me would be a sound designer’s movie and a composer’s movie, that it’d separate us from other anthology films (if that’s what you’d call ours). Most crucial to me was keeping the sounds as grounded as possible, so to not distract the ear.
As far as the score (and single) goes, I have the brilliant duo of Chris Maxwell and Phil Hernandez to thank. They’ve been composing gold on Bob’s Burgers since the beginning and were eager to take a swing at a feature. They’re songwriters first, and have SUCH great senses of humor. I knew I wanted to create a track that felt reminiscent of Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Orchestrally, I felt bad, because the editor (Patrick Lawrence) and I temp scored with a lot of Jerry Goldsmith’s Poltergeist and Joseph Bishara’s Insidious soundtracks which I fell in love with. I felt myself saying to Chris & Phil, “more Bishara-esque!” – but they added such phenomenal depth to the movie. It was cathartic to sit in Chris’s studio in my hometown and give notes, then drive home and eat my mom’s lasagna.
Writing is no easy task and Fred is certainly going through a tough writer’s block. How do you personally work through that uncertainty and self-doubt? What are some lessons you would share with others?
I don’t often have a lot of self doubt (which comes with its own set of problems) but I will say, making a habit of reading and writing every day, if even for a half hour, makes all the difference. That, and getting the blood flowing. Great ideas come with movement or meditative activity — taking a walk, talking a shower… When I get writer’s block, I get up, get moving, and get outta my head. That shakes up the brain-gunk and makes room for the good stuff.
The film takes a turn at the very end. As the writer and director, how do you get a tonal shift like that to work?
The key from the jump is emotional realism and playing it grounded, which might sound funny given how wild we get in the movie. But, if all characters started at “11” we wouldn’t have earned that act three shift. Directorially, my job was A) to make sure we didn’t get caught trying to be funny and B) keep the passive aggressive jabs, nuances, needling and riffing accurate to how we as writers do it in real life.
I love, love, love the crewneck sweater that Fanny wears. Where does one find those?
Asking for a friend. I LOVE IT TOO. It’s vintage and it’s Aya’s! She got it at a store called “Meg” in NYC (www.megshops.com)
Why is Shudder the best home for your film?
They’re all about creators. This is a unique movie, and Shudder has become the cool kid clubhouse for those of us that march to the beat of their own drum. Sam Zimmerman has curated such awesome diversity, such a spectrum of films, I wouldn’t want Scare Me to have started it’s journey anywhere else.
Finally, during this time of quarantining many have taken to reading and watching things that are new to us. Have you watched or read anything that was new to you and left an impression?
I read Paul Tremblay’s Head Full of Ghosts and it blew my socks off. I’m also re-reading Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters and it has, once again, blown my socks off. I think about their prose once a week.
My fiancé and I are, of course, devouring The Boys. Aya Cash is out of this world… and so delightfully terrifying.
Scare Me is available to stream exclusively on Shudder now
by Ferdosa Abdi