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Interview: ‘Scare Me’s Josh Ruben on Horror, Comedy, and Toxic Masculinity



Interview: 'Scare Me's Josh Ruben on Horror, Comedy, and Toxic Masculinity

Scare Me (reviewed here) is a horror-comedy about two horror writers who spend the night telling each other scary stories. It’s a funny film with a genuine scare that I didn’t see coming. Josh Ruben (College Humor), who wrote, directed, and performed a leading role in Scare Me, spoke with Dark Universe about his first feature, which premiered on Shudder.

Tiffany Aleman: What inspired you to write Scare Me?

Josh Ruben: It was a confluence of things. I was getting a bit tired of making commercials and realized that no one was going to spoon-feed me the opportunity to make my first movie. I’d read Mark and Jay’s book, The Duplass Brothers’ Like Brothers. And their initiative was to make movies instead of taking meetings. So then I just had an idea.

Early 2018 was the beginning of the #MeTwo movement. I got angered and inspired by the ‘Nice Guy’ comedians like Anzi Ansari being outed. I wanted to explore specifically white male fragility and toxic masculinity and—playing a character—who simply can’t self-soothe in the face of a woman’s greatness. And so that’s what the anger drive was.

But ultimately, I know that despite the grave sounding DNA, I wanted to make the kind of movie that provided a bit of escape from the horrors of today and felt like the fun horror anthologies that I’d watch as a kid: Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye and Tales from The Crypt and Tales from the Darkside and the like.

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Tiffany Aleman: I love how you just said ‘how a man who simply can’t self-soothe in the face of a woman’s greatness.’ Wow, that was great.

Josh Ruben: Hah, yeah. It’s true.

Tiffany Aleman: Your next project is a werewolf horror-comedy; a lot of comedians are attracted to the horror genre. Can you speak about the intersection of horror and comedy?

Josh Ruben: I think it speaks to that old adage of you know—horror and comedy elicit a visceral reaction, either a chump or a guffaw, so it’s probably releasing the same dopamine hit that you get from a carnival ride or a haunted house. It feels like a shrill, like you’re living a bit in its own right. We were saying the other day when people sit around a campfire, they either want to hear scary stories or they want to hear jokes. And I think that’s because it provides no-money fun—the visceral reaction of a laugh or a scare.

Tiffany Aleman: Yeah, in Scare Me, the mediocre white man—(laughs) I just wanted to say ‘white man’—but the white man’s biggest fear is a woman being a better storyteller than him. Can you speak about why this is a fear? I mean, I don’t feel he’d be as afraid if it were a man who was better than him?

Josh Ruben: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I think that’s the global issue right— us as men. Specifically, the white average American males are raised to be successful and praised from the get-go, if not, for every little thing they do. Like I was, wonderfully by my parents, specifically my mom: “Oh my God, you’re the next Jim Carrey. You’re going to be the biggest movie star ever!” You know, when I would, just sort of make a fart noise. Well, you know I was a big fish in a small pond doing theater in a small town.

But to the other side of that coin, they’re raising men to be masculine, to mask their feelings, and to not wince in the face of anything dubious. And that’s all very male charged problems. So it’s an alien thing when we’re upending the gender expectations to that men are brought up expecting that they are to be great, when women are expected to settle down and have children and stay at home and support that man.

A woman’s greatness and a woman’s success, specifically when it comes to a similar field—that’s intimidating, that’s alien, it’s unknown. And it makes such a truly fun and unfortunately relatable, squirmy topic. And motivations for me in playing Fred.

And also, I think it’s a big piece of why Scare Me got made as fast as it did. You know that #MeTwo stuff got me charged up was in the beginning of 2018. I had the script in May, and we were prepping in October, and we shot in January.

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Tiffany Aleman: Both lead characters have moments of likeability and “unlikeability” though Fred far more so, far more so than Fanny. Can you speak about writing multidimensional characters and why that may be important?

Josh Ruben: Well, I’ll say that I guess that selfishly and otherwise, I set out to make a movie that not only was an actor’s showcase for myself but an opportunity to play opposite an actress in a part that wasn’t sexualized, in any way in that duo. But more of an acting challenge and sort of highlight reel for the both of us. So the multidimensional piece of it is my wanting to create something different sure, but also to have the opportunity to do something more nuanced and left of center from anything that I’ve ever seen. I think we are a bit inundated and oversaturated by similar kinds of stuff. People are yearning for esoteric or more intelligent sensibility.

And it’s just important to me as a filmmaker to want to write characters that aren’t in any way linear because nothing in life is linear. Granted, we don’t see many werewolf shadows in life, but that just makes the truth of it all that much more fun to experience.

Tiffany Aleman: I love the name Fanny. Fred and Fanny have a great sound to it. Was it your intention to name her how Fred may see her?

Josh Ruben: That’s so funny. I made that kind of brief, that brief, butt joke, so it may have been subconscious. But I think I honestly fell in love with the alliteration more than anything. It’s a fun combo thing to say: Fanny, Fred, and Carlo, and Bettina, it’s like you know the law firm—that we would never go to; no, I wish I had a more intelligent response or motivation. I think it’s an important piece that is relatable to the spirit of the movie that ultimately, despite the undercurrent stuff, I wanted to make stuff that people would just pop on and not think too much about.

Tiffany Aleman: In the film, your character says he doesn’t need to read; he can just watch films and write. I watch a lot of films. I watch a lot of films, so I thought about it, it’s interesting to me. And I wondered if that’s why he may not be as good as Fanny, was it your intention to show that in that line?

Josh Ruben: Absolutely, writing is a practice. That’s not quite verbatim, but something that a former colleague (more or less a version of something) that a former colleague said to me, a white fragile male—

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Tiffany Aleman: Hahahhaha! I love how you said that.

Josh Ruben: —yeah, the WFM radio, the kind of guy who was convinced he didn’t have to put in the work to achieve the end game of it all, which was for him accolades, which was for him the article, and the praise. And that’s what was so fun about playing Fred—was playing that bit of seething resentment. But also that desperation and that seeking of praise, and the endorphin buzz that comes from the accolade, yeah, there you go, buddy. My god, did no one ever give you praise as a kid? And not a lot of young dudes do, regardless of our color. Not a lot of us are given praise easily and we’re told to take what we want…that being a hard road in some cases, it’s not spoon-fed to us.

Tiffany Aleman: I liked that because it made me feel sorry for Fred.

Josh Ruben: Yeah.

Tiffany Aleman: In Scare Me, the actors, everyone, is equally brilliant at comedy and drama. They say comedy is harder than drama. It’s harder to make someone laugh. So I wondered, do you think it’s harder to scare someone or harder to make them laugh?

Josh Ruben: It’s way harder for me to scare someone. This is something that I’ve been working on. If you’re talking about jumping out behind a door, it’s easier. But as far as filmmaking goes, I think with writing I can muster up a bit of a tone. But I think the craft of Carpenter level scares and executing them or Rob Savage level or Jed Shepherd level Host adjacent scares—it is so, is so brilliant, and I’m so in awe. I’m still studying it. I’m not quite sure; there are all the technical sides to it. You got to have a quiet moment before a big one, or a psych-out that sort of thing. But I think crafting that, crafting scares is far harder. But for me, I’m biased, I’m saying that as someone who was funny from the moment they were born, that doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s harder to do the other stuff for me.

Tiffany Aleman: I don’t remember where I read it, I remember reading somewhere that someone said that horror and comedy—it’s kind of the same. A joke is a surprise. It’s a surprise that delights you, but in horror, it terrifies you. But they come from the same place. I don’t know…these are just things I’ve been thinking about that are in my head.

Josh Ruben: Yeah, it’s fascinating.

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Tiffany Aleman: Yes, it’s fun to think about. Okay, one last question, in the film, when Fred talks to the deer’s head or I don’t know, it could be a moose’s head (laughs) — was that an homage—

Josh Ruben: Yeah, the caribou. (laughs)

Tiffany Aleman: Was that an homage to Evil Dead 2? Because he’s in a cabin?

Josh Ruben: I just was saying this in one written interview, in one conversation I had before that was: “What are these references, how many references could you probably count? There seem to be a lot of references to horror movies.” And there are, there are also (inherently in this movie) feelings or my executing a film to elicit the same feelings I had watching movies, like, I mean specifically Dead by Dawn and certainly elements of The Shining and even newer films like Insidious.

And I think I’m such a horror fan that there’s likely an equal amount of not-so-on-the-nose references just in the DNA of it all because I’m a horror fan. Yeah, I’m sure that there are and sure that there was (without necessarily thinking of it) and I liked the way the caribou looked. And I obviously knew that in Dead at Dawn and Evil Dead there was a deer’s head on the wall, and that was a big piece of it. Yeah, we got to have that nod.

Tiffany Aleman: Well, thank you so much because when I saw it, I was like yes, now I know what I am getting into—yes! Because it was right in the beginning of the film. So, thank you so much. Congratulations on your success, and I’m looking forward to seeing your werewolf horror-comedy.

Josh Ruben’s Scare Me is streaming on Shudder, and you don’t want to miss this one. It’s a funny horror film with a scary twist, filled with jokes and meaningful dialogue. If you don’t have a Shudder account yet, you can sign up for one in time for the Halloween season.

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