For nearly 15 years, Josh Ruben had been working in the industry making a name for himself on a variety of projects, but despite finding success in the world of comedy and a steady stream of commercial work, he still felt like something was missing. Eventually, Josh arrived at a crossroads, both personally and professionally, and decided it was time to get out there and start telling stories on his terms.
“This was a three-part journey for me,” explained Ruben. “I had this wonderfully privileged position of building up a brand and a name and a following for myself as a comedian and as a sketch comic writer personality as a cast member in the CollegeHumor world. But when I left CollegeHumor, I left to pursue a commercial directing career with a directing partner I had at the time, as that offered me the safety of a livable wage.”
“And in my partnership with that director, I lost my voice. Not that I wasn't doing a host of independent projects, especially acting, at the time that I was directing commercials, but I wasn't doing stuff solo. So it was this interesting time where, when my partner and I parted ways, I was really anxious, nervous, like knots in my stomach terrified about helming even commercials on my own again. But I started to build up my own voice on set, holding my own, and not relying on another directorial voice to volley with. Then, that turned into me getting more frustrated by, for lack of a better term, the soul-sucking inevitability of the branded world. That's when I realized I needed to dust cobwebs off these old projects that I had, and get them over the hill so that I could break out of this world.”
“And so it was a combination of reading Mark and Jay Duplass' book, Like Brothers, my frustration with the commercial world, and the hilt of the Me Too movement right around when Aziz Ansari was accused, where I really was like, ‘I'm going to make a thing,’ and I started writing angrily in reaction to all of that,” Josh added.
Ruben wasn’t traversing along in this journey alone, though, as he had another friend willing to get into the trenches with him as he embarked on making his first feature film. “Brendan Banks, my cinematographer who I made the short films with, he and I basically made a vow to make a movie together, no matter what the cost—even if it was a $100 budget—and I was holding the boom mic while I was also acting in it. We were talking about Kickstarter. We were talking about asking all the favors in the world. We were talking about a crew being as absolutely stripped and understaffed as possible, but we were still determined to shoot a movie.”
During our conversation, Ruben acknowledged that he was in a much different position than a lot of first-time feature filmmakers venturing out on their own, and he discussed how his experiences and the connections he made in the comedy world got the ball rolling towards making Scare Me a reality.
“Essentially, you're looking at seven years of my being on staff at CollegeHumor, where I was able to grow this following,” said Ruben. “It was a modest following, but there were people out there following my work. And in that process, having directed technically thousands of sketches ranging in genres from horror to music videos to cartoons, I would also do branded stuff, or I'd also go off and act, and always point the producers or the people I was starring opposite or the writers back to my work at CollegeHumor. Over the course of that seven years, I met several producers, several actors, several different writers from all over the industry, and one of them was Dan Powell. Dan Powell is the showrunner/co-creator of Inside Amy Schumer, who, years before Scare Me, got into the indie film business with Clara's Ghost, a supernatural genre film directed and written by Bridey Elliott that basically starred her whole family, including Chris Elliott. Very shortly after that, he did an independent film with Elizabeth Rohrbaugh called Becks that was also co-written by Rebecca Drysdale, who plays Bettina in Scare Me.”
“So by the time I hit my emotional end with frustration, where I felt like I was never going to make a movie, I took $26,000 of the 401k that I'd amassed over years, which is a big financial no-no. But I went to Dan, and I said, ‘Not only do I have this tiny idea that's super budget-friendly that we could do in a house that you barely even need a prop master for because we're creating objects out of the space, but I already have this money,’ and then things just snowballed from there.”
“Then we got Aya involved. Once Aya was involved, Chris got involved, and then it became very real. But we still had to find the money. I'd had agents for many years who knew that I was serious about making films, and so Dan and I went to them, and Dan went to them. We were like, ‘We have some more money. Can you help us find us a little bit more?’ They found a partner in a company called Last Rodeo Studios, who had been in the film business some time ago under the same name, but different management. They ultimately came aboard to give us a big chunk of money to put the film over the top and make this thing real. That was the process of it all,” added Josh.
While just being able to finally get out there and make a film project on his own terms was already a dream come true for an already grateful Ruben, the universe had even more surprises in store for him after he wrapped production on Scare Me. “Just making a movie, let alone acting in a movie that I had directed with my friends, was already a bucket list item crossed off my list. And so, when I congruently asked my managers and agents, ‘Hey, I just made this thing and it's in the can. In the meantime, I'd love to direct on this new version of Creepshow at Shudder. Is there any chance you can get me at least an interview to talk to them about directing on Creepshow?’ They were like, ‘Well, no, they're already staffed up on Creepshow, but we sent them Scare Me.’ So they didn't even really ask me if I wanted to pass this cut of Scare Me on to Shudder, but they did.”
“And Shudder immediately responded to it. They were so wonderfully ecstatic; it was so flattering. Emily Gotto and Sam Zimmerman were like, ‘We have to have this,’ and so, here's this other bucket list item that I never could've even imagined, where this platform took an interest in my work. They had been to Sundance with Revenge previously, so the first thing they said was, ‘Not only do we need this movie, but we're going to let Sundance know that we have this movie.’ So they were the ones to take the initiative to bring it to their contacts, of which I never had any at Sundance, and certainly, I didn't consider for even one second that we would actually get in.”
“Charlie Sextro was the one to call me and change my whole day, my whole week, and my whole month when he said, ‘You got into the Sundance Midnighters.’ I'm crazy grateful, but it's an incredibly privileged position to have gotten the attention of Shudder, who could approach a festival like Sundance and say, ‘We have this movie.’ I think I inappropriately said this to Charlie Sextro or some Sundance person when I had a couple drinks in me. But I was like, ‘Yeah, we came in with Shudder, and that's probably why you guys wanted me.’ Whoever it was, and I think it was Charlie, they said, ‘It's your film. You need to trust that this is an interesting, fresh, different movie. It's not like your grandpa is Robert Redford. You made something really different, and that's a big reason why you’re here.’”
“And so, for that, I'm forever and ever grateful because I never thought in a million years I'd go to Sundance with a film I directed, let alone my very first one,” Ruben added.
Be sure to check back for the second part of our interview with Josh Ruben tomorrow, right here on Daily Dead!