Josh Ruben doesn’t want you to be scared. Well, maybe just a little.
The writer, director, producer, and star of Scare Me harnesses the horror genre to challenge gender roles and deepen the dialogue surrounding #MeToo. It’s no wonder why the Sundance Film Festival breakout hit feels so relevant in a time where even the Vice Presidential candidate as to remind her opponent that she is, in fact, still speaking.
Ruben’s feature directorial debut was released on October 1st on Shudder. Co-starring the great Aya Cash (The Boys, You’re the Worst), the film centers on struggling actor and writer Fred (Ruben) who balks in the company of successful horror novelist Fanny (Cash). While Fred tries to pen his next werewolf drama in a remote cabin, neighbor Fanny suggests a game of spinning scary stories that seemingly come to life. A pizza delivery man, played by Saturday Night Live scene-stealer Chris Redd, later becomes the duo’s audience. The spooky elements of Scare Me are coupled with the eerie realization that Fred’s egotistical fear of emasculation reflects the everyday horrors that women face.
Ruben’s thoughtful script, peppered with sarcastic quips, was inspired by his passionate response to the #MeToo movement and allegations against comic Aziz Ansari in April 2018. “[Writing] had been kind of an engine for my anger,” Ruben explained. “Even though I wanted to make Scare Me feel like a midnight movie I’d pop on as a kid, everything from Tales From the Dark Side to Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye, I wanted to explore gender dynamics and dudes who can’t self-soothe in the face of a woman’s greatness.”
After almost a decade of working at sketch site CollegeHumor, Ruben wanted to tell his own stories instead. “I didn’t have a choice in what I was directing. A lot of [the videos] were about boobs, beer and videogames,” Ruben said. He explained that CollegeHumor was not as “woke” as it is now, and that he was inspired to instead spotlight the actresses who were typically typecast for the sake of male-centric comedy bits.
“I had this sort of growing eagerness as I grew to know this rotation of actors and knew how talented they were, thinking ‘wouldn’t it be awesome not to see her play Porky’s mom all the time, and get to see her do physical comedy or crazy voices or play ugly?’ That seed grew in me for a long time,” Ruben continued. “I knew when I wanted to make Scare Me that I wanted it to be a vehicle not just for myself but also that I wanted to spare with an actress who was going to make bold choices and have the opportunity to do something that maybe she hadn’t done before.”
Ruben found all that and more in the electric Cash. “Aya loves to work and she loves the work,” Ruben enthused. “She’s worked on massive stuff and smaller stuff, and supported independent filmmakers and folks from the live performance world.”
Cash was the ideal embodiment of Fanny due to her collaborative “bold swings” that are oft-required in the theater world. “No one from the cosmopolitan world could do what she did if they weren’t afraid to make an ass of themselves. Aya did that and came out absolutely sensational…I can’t say enough good things about Aya Cash. I’m excited to see her get in the director’s chair later as well.”
Ruben brought his own experiences to writing the role of Fred, explaining that he knows and has worked with a lot of men who resemble Fred’s particular breed of frustrated entitlement. “I also, candidly, know the feeling in myself as a white privileged thirty-something-year-old man in America,” Ruben admitted. His screenwriting process led him to explore that “icky tinge” to make the film realistic within the horror genre.
“I wasn’t seeking out to make a movie about gender politics or a #MeToo movie by any means, but I just know what these guys do. It’s inter-gender as well. I’ve seen women do it to women, men have done it to me,” Ruben explained. “The competition, the needling, the undercutting…I just sort of went for it and embodied it, and it’s on the page.”
According to Ruben, costar Cash immediately understood what he was going for in the onscreen power dynamics. “Aya got right away that Fanny is a bit of a narcissisist getting a kick out of this guy [Fred], but it’s also about bringing this dude out of his comfort zone, shedding his skin and enjoying himself in the process,” he said. Of course the addition of drugs and alcohol heighten the underlying jealousy and resentment between the pair, eventually releasing its own toxic– and deadly–repercussions.
The spooky elements of Scare Me are coupled with the eerie realization that Fred’s egotistical fear of emasculation to reflect the everyday horrors that women face. From thinly-veiled “mansplaining” to a rejection of the fact that a woman may be better at something than a man, Scare Me begs viewers to see the realness in the fantastical film.
Ruben’s passion for social change extends beyond Scare Me into his other projects. Ruben’s comedic situational character videos on YouTube further add to the conversation around gender dynamics; one of his latest parodies involved a man talking over female coworkers on Zoom. Of course, a few weeks later, and audiences were watching a parallel scene play out during the debates between Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic California Senator Kamala Harris.
Looking ahead, Ruben is directing the upcoming film Werewolves Within, and he swears it was just a coincidence that Fred’s novel parallels his next project. Starring Sam Richardson (Veep), the film is based on the virtual reality game by Ubisoft, and screenwriter and bestselling author Mishna Wolff secured a deal for the adaptation through the brand’s inaugural Women’s Film and Television Fellowship.
However, Ruben’s heart understandably remains in writing and directing his own work. “I’m answering to myself. When you get into the world of gig directing, which is a world where many of us are in, it gets a little nerve-racking to me to think of not being able to deliver on someone else’s work, someone else’s baby,” Ruben confessed. “I’m still at the behest of someone else’s vision and can misinterpret something regardless of how many conversations we have. I think the dream for me is to write, direct and love my voice as much as I can.”
His ideal collaborations include comedic hero John Leguizamo, Thomas Middleditch, Matt McGorry, and a slew of “killer, versatile, sharply funny women” like Natasha Rothwell, Kylie Brakeman, and Rosa Salazar. “I want to [work with] folks who raise me up and who I can raise up,” Ruben said.
Ruben’s anger at the current state of the world, and determination to change a part of it through film, makes his Scare Me alter ego Fred just the beginning of his cultural criticism stories. “I was just really getting pissed off having conversations in my circle who were victims of mens’ power trips and being taken advantage of, not only sexually too,” Ruben said. “I think I just kind of have lived on all sides of it. I felt a responsibility to go after that nuance.”
“Scare Me” is available now on Shudder.