One of the most devilishly delightful Midnight movies to play the 2020 Sundance Film Festival was Scare Me, from writer/director/producer Josh Ruben, who also co-stars in the project alongside Aya Cash. The film is centered around two horror writers who spend an evening telling each other stories in an effort to try and scare the pants off the other, only to have the night take a twisted turn when things go too far.
While in Park City, Daily Dead had the opportunity to chat with both Ruben and Cash about Scare Me, and the duo discussed the inherent challenges that come with making a movie about the art of storytelling, their collaborative process, and how Scare Me delves into the issues of gender politics as well.
Congrats to you both on Scare Me. I just thought the way that you guys explored the idea of the power of storytelling was really interesting. The fact that we all lose our imaginations the older that we get, and it just was really easy to immerse myself in everything along with your characters. Josh, let’s start off by digging into this concept and this back-and-forth. Because when you hear a movie is just two people in a cabin, it seems so easy, and yet this isn't an easy movie. There are a lot of challenges I think that comes with doing this kind of back-and-forth.
Josh Ruben: There definitely are and were. I knew that I wanted to make a movie. It's a strange thing to say, but I did work in college humor for years. We would always be like, "We have to make this video viral, and clickable, and watchable, and re-watchable." And there are the movies that you grew up watching and re-watching. So I did go into the script writing process wanting to write something that I can just do for me, that's quite a vehicle for my odd strengths, as well as an incredible actress. And have it be a movie that you'd want to pop on during the Halloween month, or just on a random evening when you just want something on as a background, like a re-watchable film.
So I don't know if that answers your question, but I just knew that setting out to do it within the confines of our limited budget and limited time, that I wanted to capture the same feeling and spirit of this movies that I saw as a kid, from Silver Bullet to Monster Squad to Beetlejuice to Creepshow.
When you're doing something like this, where you're pretty much on screen most of the time, plus you're directing, writing, and producing, too, how do you manage juggling all those aspects at the same time?
Josh Ruben: Just prep like crazy. My cinematographer Brendan [Banks], he and I are essentially creative collaborators when we get into a project together. We shot this well ahead of time. We shot this two months in advance of the shoot. Once we had the location, I knew more or less every corner, how we wanted to break up every story, and where we wanted to shoot each area. We talked about color tones. And then beyond that, too, just what I need to do for myself to be the boss of this crew, was being super prepped. So if I was buttoned up, then people would hopefully respect and appreciate that, and want to go along for the ride. So it's just prep through and through, and not just going, "We'll figure it out when we get there." I just didn't have that luxury.
Aya, for you, can you discuss your approach to Fanny and peeling back those layers to her character? I do feel like we get a sense of Fanny's more human aspects the further we go into this movie.
Aya Cash: Josh said he read some interview where I was like, “I just want to be challenged, and I want to do new things.” And then he told me about this and said, "Well, this feels like this could be it. I've written all these things and you can do all this physical stuff, and all this stuff that we've never seen you do." And I was like, "That wasn't what I was talking about [laughs]." But it was really exciting to take on that challenge, because I come from a totally different world than Josh. I'm totally intimidated at first by these kinds of characters and the physical work. But Josh trusted me and let me just play. So that was exciting to get to do that. Normally, you have to be really good at something to get to do it, unless you're working with people who just believe in you and will say, "Yeah, you can do it, and you can fail and don't worry, I'll edit around it."
When you're watching a movie, like if you're watching an action movie, you can use the razzle-dazzle of the action sequences to hide things here and there. But there's no hiding in this movie. It's pretty much both of you guys front and center, right there. There's always pressure when you’re making a movie, but was it heightened because of the fact that there was no hiding in this?
Aya Cash: Yeah, I think it's really scary to do something like that. There's always editing, right? I think that's what actors don't realize, and we like to take credit for when we have a great performance. And editing does wonders. So you can craft a performance in an edit. You can cut out a missed moment to the other person, and then you can come back to a reaction that wasn't even to what was happening in the scene. It's not theater. That's the magic of filmmaking. So I always think of editing as the last catchall. But it's super scary to just show up and be like, "We're just going to tell each other stories and hope that people will watch two people–"
Josh Ruben: Let's do nine monologues [laughs].
Aya Cash: Yeah, it’s just people talking. That's not normally what you think is going to be a hit. Because people are coming to movies to see something visual. That's part of what it is. But I think what Josh does so brilliantly in the film, is it's just ever so slightly accentuated, and you never quite know what's real, what's imagination, when is it going to turn. And that's what keeps you excited.
Because this is so dialogue driven, did you guys look at other talkie films, or things like that, to figure out, okay, if we want to keep that momentum going, this is the kind of stuff that we have to do?
Josh Ruben: That's a great question. I don't think we were ever like, "We should watch these four movies for vibe." But there's definitely a musicality, and I was reminded of watching it again last night. I definitely recall prompting Aya to say something maybe a little more monotone, or with a little less emotion, because it would sound a certain way. Or taking a pronounced beat before some moment, has much more of an impact than running through something and vice versa. I touched on this last night at the Q&A, I think [what's] just inherent in my own sensibility, are movies like Clue or more fantastical talkies that were more based in practical effects. Scare Me is a smaller version of one of those types of films, I guess you could say, that you might've grown up watching in the '80s. There were no specific references, I just knew we wanted to have it be a movie of play, where there was just an opportunity to be versatile vessels to do unexpected, fun, weird things.
There's also an interesting back-and-forth in terms of gender, and while Fred hasn't necessarily done anything bad, in some ways he seems as a lessor to Fanny, who's achieved all this success, which sets him off. And I'm curious, when you were diving into this stuff, Josh, did you lean on Aya a little bit for her perspective into the female aspects of her character?
Aya Cash: I'm going to answer it for him, because I think he's going to try to somehow give me credit for something I don't deserve. It was totally him, and in the script. I think Josh has been very engaged in the movement of what's been happening in our culture, and had been very interested in that, and informed himself enough to be able to speak about it, or speak through the character Fanny about it. But I think he would somehow give me credit if he answered that question.
Josh Ruben: I'm giving you credit for everything. This movie wouldn't exist without Aya Cash. I'm a man who grew up watching the movies that we all did, where female characters were often second fiddle to male characters. And conversely I grew up in a family of lionesses—independent, irreverent sensible women—so I was very used to, at a young age, to being taken care of by the women in my life, while also admiring them, while also being given autonomy as an individual, and watching the women in my life be looked up to. They were such inspirational pillars for me from a humor standpoint.
I'm also, as a male, I was once a shitty 20-something-year-old who figured himself out in dating experiences, and what I really wanted to dive into, because you can always make a movie about a shitty male, or someone who might be well-intentioned, but might be a little bit thick, or a little bit dense-headed. There is something to be said about the emasculation that a man who has grown up his whole life feeling empowered and privileged in his gender, when he feels diminished by a stronger woman. That is a really, really sore topic for a lot of guys. One of my most favorite things about this whole process has been telling the men in my life about what this movie is really about, because it makes their shoulders go up a little bit.
In case you missed it, visit our online hub for more live coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
[Photo Credit: Above photo courtesy of Brendan Banks and Sundance Institute.]