Josh Ruben didn’t set out to make a film about being a white dude working through his shit post-#MeToo. It just so happened that in 2018, the horror movie fanatic and alt-comic was looking to leave his seven-year job at CollegeHumor and start directing his first feature film, and comedy titans like Louis C.K., Dustin Hoffman and Al Franken were accused of sexual misconduct in quick succession. It occurred to Ruben that the most contemporary villain was himself: the privileged, well-meaning white guy.
His journey of finding footing as a white guy in comedy during the Time’s Up era led him to Scare Me, which he directed, wrote and stars in. Its plot couldn’t be more timely: Reluctant marketer and half-hearted aspiring writer Fred (Ruben) holes up in a Catskills cabin with acclaimed horror novelist Fanny (The Boys’ Aya Cash). They tell scary stories to pass the time in a blackout. Over the course of the night, Fred is emasculated by Fanny with the help of a cheery pizza delivery guy Carlo (SNL’s Chris Redd). It becomes a thriller about male insecurities, complacency and resentment that hits close to home.
Ruben hopped on a Zoom with MEL from his sunny Los Angeles deck to chat about seeing his comedy idol Aziz Ansari fall from grace in 2018, creating an unintentional quarantine thriller and never trusting a white guy from Brooklyn.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Also, there’s hella spoilers.
I’m curious why you chose the Catskills to tell your spooky cabin story. There seems to be a little bit of that Brooklyn-white-artist vibe to Fanny and Fred.
Yeah, just by nature of the fact that I’m a white male privileged filmmaker who lived there. Aya lives in Brooklyn, and we’re thirtysomethings. [Laughs]
There is an Escape Brooklyn reference. I wanted to kind of jab at that culture, but I feel like I can do that because I’m a small-town boy from the area that’s now turning into the East Coast’s alt-Hamptons. It’s really just a treat for me. It’s an artisan inside joke for no one.
So tell me a little bit about how this script came to be.
CollegeHumor is obviously a very male-oriented site, where I worked for seven years. It’s probably why I’m so interested in gender dynamic-based comedy. [And] at the beginning of 2018, all my heroes were being accused of sexual assault. When Aziz Ansari specifically was outed, I got very angry and was signal-boosting my disappointment. I started to, first of all, conceive of an idea because I wanted to not direct commercials. While I was sharing these ideas and having these conversations with fans, [I was] being called an ally. I’d never been called an ally before in my life. All I was doing was hitting the share button because not many men were sharing these women’s stories or disappointments in what was going on in their lives and being taken advantage of.
I wanted to make a horror-comedy anthology that never quite leaves the campfire. I realized, this is a perfect opportunity to explore a very specific type of gender dynamic, which is when men are overshadowed by a woman’s greatness. That very specific, icky feeling. I just knew it would be really fun and squirmy.
You said that when the #MeToo movement was happening in 2018, you were very angry. Who were you angry at?
I was angry at the frequency. People I revered taking advantage of women. Kevin Spacey I used to love. Dustin Hoffman even got — that might have been more of a slap on the hand. Louis C.K. — who I never was, like, fully on board with — just the fact that you’d hear these stories about [how] he’d corner some women that I knew and pull his dick out. They didn’t ask for that. You don’t do that when you’re in a position of power.
I knew that the feeling of the movie or the drive of this relationship was this sort of gender-dynamic spar. This wanting to impress. Wanting to be more creative and wanting to be at the bar that Fanny’s at. Ultimately, I think that the darkest point of all is when [Fred] is ostracized. He’s the third wheel. There’s nothing more dangerous, especially if you’re a white male and you can’t self-soothe when you can’t puncture the dynamic of a twosome or to be heard.
As an up-and-coming comic in a very — correct me if I’m wrong here — white space, how did that change how you approached your own career and what your aspirations were?
To really blow this conversation, it didn’t change a whole lot. I certainly became more aware of when I was crass for the sake of being crass. If anything, I wanted to be smarter when I had the opportunity to be more intelligent with my humor. I definitely did a tweet search because I would toss out some ill term for someone who looks like me to toss out, just for the sake of, like, “Maybe this tweet will get traction.”
There’s the trope that the white guy is going to cause the issue and then they’re going to want praise for fixing it. Were you concerned at all about doing this type of story — you’d be another white guy who wants to solve the problem?
Not at all, because I think for a good portion of the film it’s actually kind of a hopeful story. This is a sad sack who actually gets inspired and motivated and has new life breathed into him. He’s trying to keep up with her. He’s encouraged by her, and he sheds his skin. But ultimately, he falls into a majority of dudes who, I keep saying, self-soothe, I think that’s what it is. He doesn’t have the installation to deal with, frankly, innocuous stuff. Fanny made an observation and wrote it down in [her] observation book. [Fred thinks,] How fucking dare you take my idea? She didn’t take anything. She’s just writing notes. You know, this is what writers do.
It’s interesting. At some points, Fred is very much the sad sack. Other times you can see where Fanny is taking from him. The roles do switch in who’s hurting the other.
Yeah, that’s the lovely thing. None of them are perfect. Carlo is probably the closest to perfect in the movie. About white-savior stuff, I never wanted to make a preachy movie of any kind. The goal ultimately is just to make something that felt as fun to watch as Drew Barrymore in Cat’s Eye when I was a kid. You know what I mean? Like those anthology, bright horror movies that I’d watch when I was younger that sort of provided an escape. Beyond messages and anything else, I just want this to be something people can pop on in the background on Halloween month. Or rewind the one part they love.
It’s kind of perfect for quarantine. This isolation narrative.
Dude, it’s so true. We were thinking, is there anything we need to rebrand here given the state of the world? Oh, no, they’re trapped. And they’re just like, how do we pass the time during this darkness? I just wrapped my second movie, Werewolves Within. Several million dollars bigger with 10 to 15 more people cast. It’s not a similar idea, but there’s a blizzard, and a house and being held up. [Laughs] Might very well be relevant in 2021.
Tell me a little bit about how you came up with the actual stories told over the course of the night.
Going in order: “Werewolves.” This is probably truly appropriate. It’s totally lifted and stolen from a kid in seventh grade. [Laughs] He wrote a story about a little girl. It was a great idea, and it always stuck with me. A little girl who watched her parents getting mauled and then became a bounty hunter to go after werewolves. So, you know, my guilt. I wouldn’t lift that directly, but it’s very inspired by that idea.
The grandpa story: I didn’t quite know who was going to do which story when I was writing. I think at one point, I did some ridiculous and probably at least ableist impression of a very old man. So I was sort of preparing to write to my strengths to be able to play very, very elderly that way, so I’m glad Aya [actually] did it.
The dog story is a ghost story I made up when I was a kid. I heard footsteps upstairs, walked around to the side of the staircase and it was a ghost dog essentially walking down the stairs and out the back door.
“Troll” is entirely original. I just was like, I need to write something that I can play in kind of a rainy light, where I can get down in a squat and play a creature looking for spotlighting.
“Venus” was an old script idea. I never made it past 33 pages about a young mother and her son and a zombie outbreak that only affected women.
Then the American Idol stuff, we just kind of made up. A great movie like this has to have a musical number. I’d have one in every movie if I could, even if it’s this scrappy.
Now are you worried that someone’s gonna see this and cop loglines for their own movie?
Is Fanny’s hand sweater a metaphor?
Not at all. Aya brought that as an option, and we all immediately said, “Holy shit, this is great.” I wish there were a deeper meaning. It’s so rad.
I was thinking it’s a hand all over a popular author, trying to steal her ideas.
I love that. I’m gonna steal that idea. I’m going to tell everyone. [Laughs]
Switching gears, Fred’s backstory is not just a broken relationship but a possibly abusive one. Why’d you write it this way? [Warning: Spoilers here.]
I’m so glad you’re asking about that. Originally, I did write him to be a lightswitch psycho. He’s gonna go to the cabin, and you’re gonna find out he’s a killer. I actually had a great conversation with one of the early investors in Get Out who we were going to for money early on. He gave great advice on reading an earlier version of the draft, which was that it’s going to be more true to life for there to be a gray area with this character. And he’s completely right. This is the situation that Fanny finds herself in at the end of the night that a lot of women find themselves in or in most situations in their life where they don’t know if a guy’s going to make a move, or kiss, or take a swing or god knows what. I didn’t want it to be ultimately explicit that Fred was really anything. In fact, Fred, I think, is impulsive. Probably a bit bipolar.
This Meredith, on the other end, is someone who he probably just violently reacted to and hit a wall or trashed a place but never even laid a hand on her — at least is my own kind of backstory. But I wanted there to be an ambiguity. You didn’t quite know who that was, but she’s alive. He’s talking to her on the phone. She’s calling. She’s texting him and saying he’s a monster. A monster could be constituted by a lot of things. You know, he could have sent her a computer virus.
I didn’t expect it to end up as an actual thriller. [Warning: Spoilers here.]
Yeah, I think I always knew I wanted there to be some version of the horror coming to life. To live a real horror by the end. In retrospect, I think some of the more negative reviews were probably expecting, like, a real werewolf to come out of the closet in the end and for both of them to attack it together. To be the Relic, like Natalie Erika James. To make a Relic reference. She’s so awesome.
Ultimately, it’s important we ended up where we did. I hope people will come away at least having a conversation that he was probably roughhousing. Maybe he wasn’t seeking to kill her. He says, “I’m not going to hurt you.” He’s just embodying “This is the most creative I can be.” Embodying some Michael Shannon-esque serial killer by the end. The first words out of his mouth when he’s staked like a pig, truly, is “Look what you did.” Which is so male. Entitled.
What I love about that is how you see Fanny has to switch. Now she’s a little bit more sympathetic. It’s that manipulation again, where women have to be the consoler after having been attacked. [Warning: Spoilers here.]
I’m so glad you’re saying that, because here she is in her voice and so empowered for this movie. Empowered with Carlo, empowered in herself, empowered instructing him and helping shed his skin. The moment he essentially bangs his fist on his chest, she diminishes. She lowers her voice. She shrinks in the shadow of that because it’s all he has. All I have is my shouting or my threatening, and she would rather leave her golden book of ideas behind then deal with a man fractured. That’s a tale as old as time, man. I mean, that’s what’s so tragic about it. I didn’t seek to make anything ham-fisted or preachy, but I’m very, very happy with our work in the end.
Photos via Brigade