After a proposed pipeline creates divisions within the small town of Beaverfield, and a snowstorm traps its residents together inside the local inn, newly arrived forest ranger FINN (Sam Richardson) and postal worker CECILY (Milana Vayntrub) must try to keep the peace and uncover the truth behind a mysterious creature that has begun terrorizing the community.
In this double-header, I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with both screenwriter Mishna Wolff and director Josh Ruben, the creative duo behind the pleasantly hilarious, coolly stylized jump-scare, whodunit horror film Werewolves Within. We dive into their respective filmmaking journeys, their shared excitement behind the casting in their film, and adapting a video game IP from popular video game developer Ubisoft.
These interviews have been edited for content and clarity.
Interview with 'Werewolves Within' Screenwriter Mishna Wolff
Sadie Dean: How did this project come across your desk from Ubisoft?
Mishna Wolff: I went to Ubisoft on a general and I had a good time there. I kind of walked in not sure. I was like, ‘Is this gonna be a Sausage Party?’ [laughs] And I met this awesome executive there named Margaret Boykin and she and I just really clicked, and she called my agent and said, “Look, it doesn't exist yet, but this year will be the first year of a fellowship that we're doing. Does Mishna want to apply?” There's like a holding period, non-exclusive and I had access to all the Ubisoft IP. And they gave me a bunch of titles to go through and play, and see what I thought, see if it sparked any ideas. And I landed on this Werewolves Within title, it kept me up at night. It’s basically people sitting around a fire trying to find out the werewolf, but it felt like a jumping off for so many relevant current things, like private jobs and community defense, and gentrification, all kinds of really fun stuff that just makes a really kind of fun 80s horror movie, but a little more current and about something.
Sadie: That's great that you were able to take the essence of that video game, and then expand on it as a narrative. Can you talk me through that process of adapting that and creating that narrative world? Because the way you did it, is really well done.
Mishna: Thank you, I really appreciate that, especially as a writer. I think the essence of the video game was people sitting around the fire, and that space. I like the idea of justice and people taking justice into their own hands. And it was fertile for a great ensemble. So, I created an archetype I wanted to see based on very different points of view that occupies a town. Basically, I knew who the players were in it. Once I had that, let's make the main character really nice as his conflict and movie device controlling him for the next 90 minutes.
Sadie: Yeah, I love that. His downfall is that he's too nice.
Mishna: Too nice! [laughs]
Sadie: What was that collaborative process like with Josh Ruben?
Mishna: Josh came pretty late into the process. He was hired right into production, he did a pass and a polish on the script. We talked, I visited set, we talked after. I actually collaborated with him more on the edit, and then on the front end, and that's only because he chose to include me. You know, he didn't have to. But he’s just a really collaborative person. And he's someone who can keep his own idea in his mind and also take in a lot of other points of view. And that's a real skill that not everyone has, it makes him a real delight to work with.
Sadie: It’s so rare that writers even get asked to be on set or even be part of the editing process. But was that like for you?
Mishna: I mean, I didn't really get to see much of the editing process, he asked for some feedback and some ideas and I gave my two cents. I really wanted to be in the room for the edit, just as a learning exercise, and unfortunately, COVID made that pretty impossible. It just wasn't feasible to be on Zoom. But I learned a lot about how things are put together after the fact. It’s all one huge learning process. And then hopefully, you take that into the next one. But then that one's completely different. And you're lost again. [laughs]
I feel like generally speaking, though, I got really lucky. I did get to visit set, that was the end of February, so it was like a really crazy thing that I got to visit and that the movie got finished. And it was in the editing room during COVID. That was a really lucky break for us, that we even got to shoot at all.
Sadie: It’s a great movie. It's funny, it's got the scares and the casting is just so stellar. Was that like to see your characters come to life by these comedic pros?
Mishna: It was so wonderful. It's such a fun ensemble and everyone's just kind of perfect. A lot of that is Josh, he just had a really good sense of it. He had good relationships with actors and, and Sam brought Milana on and I think that that was an excellent choice. Harvey Guillén brought Cheyenne Jackson, and George Basil brought Sarah Burn who's amazing. Michaela Watkins, I've loved her for so long. And so, just being on set with all those improvisers and great actors just doing their thing, it makes your heart explode. It’s fantastic.
Sadie: I like that each of them got to bring l their own comedy partner with them. Your background is as a comedian - going into that, what was your writing journey from starting out as a comedian, and what sparked your initial interest in becoming a storyteller to getting to this point now?
Mishna: There was a show in Hollywood, a live storytelling series called Sit and Spin, with Joey Soloway and Maggie Row, from Arrested Development. The longest thing I had written was a joke. And they included me and said, “tell some stories.” And it was a show that I did a lot and I found myself really proficient at cobbling together a story the night before, and I had to get on stage and tell a story. And really that was the training ground for a lot of storytelling. And there's something about taking risks in front of an audience and telling stories in front of an audience and bombing. That's really, really helpful if you can find a way to do it as a storyteller, because you know, when you're losing them, and you can feel it and you have to be there for it, you have to suffer through losing an audience. And I feel like once you've suffered through losing an audience, you really have a sense of storytelling. Because you’re never as funny as you think, you're never as smart as you think, and the thing you think is funny about you, you find out through other people's eyes what's actually funny about you. So that's a lot of how I got it. And then from there, I did the Sundance Labs and got into screenwriting.
Sadie: That’s incredible. Going back into the video game and the story aspect, knowing what captivates an audience, especially for a video game, there are so many different layers, we could go on and on for hours about this, but for finding that one thing that you're just going to follow through, like making Sam too nice. Was that kind of like your anchor, other than obviously the werewolf and campfire?
Mishna: Yeah, I think Sam's arc developed and changed over the process of drafts, and sort of became crystallized a little more and there were drafts where he went like full Woody Harrelson [laughs], but the seminal truth about him that the fact that he's too nice is not something that needs to change, it was always there. And it was. And I feel like that's an important theme today. I feel like that is a story that needs to be told and deserves to be heard. And so even in this horror, blood everywhere, and a whodunit and lots of comedy, the beating heart of this movie is about a guy who wants people to get along and wants everyone's voice to be heard in a conversation. And that's an important character.
Sadie: Any advice to screenwriters who have an interest in adapting a video game, assuming that they've gone through the right channels to secure rights, or they've been hired to take on that job?
Mishna: First of all, apply for the Ubisoft fellowship, it's a great fellowship, and they're looking for you. But beyond that, I would say, nobody likes to pitch but it's a really great opportunity to find out what the parameters of your storytelling are. And if you are adapting a sacred cow, you need to know, before you go in that these are the parameters. And I think any parameters that are tough are an opportunity for creativity, I think working with parameters, whether they're budgetary, or location-based, I think they always make people more creative, not less creative. But you need to know what they are because video games do have huge followings. And someone's always going to be pissed about your adaptation. And then once you know your parameters, go in guns blazing, no holds barred.
Sadie: And as a writer having parameters, you definitely need to have that. I think that just helps you grow as a writer and understanding those constraints as well shows what you can do creatively.
Mishna: Yeah, and Ubisoft did not put any constraints with me around this project or the fellowship. But you know, if it was another one of their titles, there would have been huge constraints. So just knowing the difference.
Sadie: This movie is awesome. You did a great job. I am interested in playing the game, but I get motion sick from VR.
Mishna: I get motion sickness! [laughs] I can't wait to try the new Oculus, because I heard it's not as bad, but I get super sick from VR, too.
Sadie: I'll just keep watching your movie over and over again. [laughs]
Mishna: [laughs] Yeah! And tell your friends to watch it.
Sadie: Absolutely! Mishna, thank you so much for your time, and congrats on the movie. I look forward to what you're going to do next.
Mishna: Thank you so much!
Interview with 'Werewolves Within' Director Josh Ruben
Sadie Dean: I love that Mr. Rogers quote right off the bat with the eerie music layered in the background. I will never think of Mr. Rogers the same way again. But I love how you're able to carry that spirit of Mr. Rogers through Finn and through the whole movie. How did you get attached to this project? Did Ubisoft approach you directly or was this something you were circling before because you played the VR game?
Josh Ruben: I haven’t played the VR game, but I had just made my first movie Scare Me. Before we went to Sundance, I had a test screening, it was the first of many. So the very first test screening, was a fat cut two hours and 10 minutes or whatever, and I thought it was genius. And everyone was like, “You need to cut at least 40 minutes,” we didn't, but I invited, among the lucky folks to come slog through it, were Matt Miller and Natalie Metzger who are the producers not only of Thunder Road, but of the Wolf of Snow Hollow. They were actually working on a werewolf movie when they were coming to kind of give me notes on this first cut. And once they saw the movie, as my first film, they were like, “Oh, OK, this guy can handle a feature film.” And then a few months later, they came back around and said, “Hey, you know, we might have an opportunity to produce a werewolf film, they're looking for a director, he wants to throw your hat in the ring, and it was part of Ubisoft's Women's Film and Television Fellowship.” And I thought I'd love to take a look, this would be the biggest project I’ve ever helmed, certainly, solo. And Mishna Wolff’s script, the characters and the world all leapt off the page. I dove into a pitch deck to go in and pitch myself on the film. I feel a very personal connection to the film. And luckily, it resonated with the team at Ubisoft and at Vanishing Angle.
Sadie: Did you have any part of the development process with Mishna? Or was it, here's a script and have at it?
Josh: Here's the script and have at it. They had gone through a major writing process with Mishna. Once the job was awarded, part of my pitch was I would punch up certain scenes comedically, and what I felt perhaps might be redundant that we could sort of consolidate. Part of my process was doing a director's pass, like going through and just sort of imbuing my vision. I got to open up the Final Draft document and list actions or re-list actions or re-articulate certain actions but in a way that more digestible for me as a filmmaker.
Sadie: With this being adapted from a video game, was there anything that you've lifted from that aesthetic that you were looking to carry through into the film or were you going full speed ahead with your vision?
Josh: This is the wonderful thing about Ubisoft - I was like, “OK, the video game movie is based on IP, what do I owe you? Should we add Easter eggs from the game?” And they're like, “No, no, the only thing you owe us is a good movie.” And I was like, OK, but you know, this is a cult hit with 100 fans, they're gonna want some kind of spirit of the game. And so, I had the head at Ubisoft get the designers of Werewolves Within to send basically all the prop elements and set pieces of the world that I could show my production designer Bret Tanzer who's brilliant, and I said, “let's see if we can at least bring in the book.’ There's this utility book that serves as a utility in the game. And so, if you're a fan, I can at least say, “well, that book does exist in the Beaverfield Inn and you can look for it.’ And then, of course, the social deduction element, everyone's sitting around in a circle, finger-pointing. And that's the scene in the movie. I don't want to say matching that lighting, but certainly, at least, you can't have a movie like this and not have everyone sit down in a circle and go, “She did! No, you!” Yeah, so it was fun.
Sadie: From a filmmaker's perspective, give an insider's look at dealing with a video game company that is now going into producing actual TV and film content. What was that like?
Josh: It was incredible. I was so scared because my concept of or my perception of the studio film was that there'd be so many cooks in the kitchen kind of poking and prodding and pushing me in directions that felt uncomfortable, but the team from Vanishing Angle especially to Margaret Boykin who I can't say enough good stuff about, they come from the studio world anyway. And really this is Ubisoft writing the check-in a kind of Blumhouse fashion going, “we have control over this” and they trusted me. And so, I was able to have a lot of freedom. We ended up with something really special. I had an amazing time. I can't say enough good stuff about Ubisoft and I hope that there's a script as good as Mishna’s that I could maybe pitch on again someday.
Sadie: Crossing fingers. You two definitely did a great job on misleading and misdirections, especially with the editing. I have to give a shout-out to your editor and my old schoolmate from AFI, Brett Bachman. He’s an editing genius. What was that like working with Brett and what goes on in his head?
Josh: Oh my god. He's so amazing. He's a little bit like Data [laughs] from Star Trek, like, very calculated. But then he has this gigantic laugh. He has a Tim and Eric almost sort of sensibility about him, which is so wonderful. And he was an absolute delight to work with. I found myself sort of straightening up to listen and learn from him. He became, in my mind, just as valuable and just as integral as a producer, because he had such brilliant points about story. He would push me, he challenged me like, “I think we could pull back on this exposition. I think we can push here. I think we should do a little bit of ADR here.” He was the one pushing me honestly, to make it a better movie. And now, I'll be chasing him and begging him to work on everything I possibly can.
Sadie: Yeah, I hope so. Were you guys editing this through quarantine and using every kind of technology at your disposal to get this done?
Josh: We actually started the edit on Skype, which was a nightmare. And then Ubisoft set us up with an Evercast account, which is just a bit of a cleaner connection to see the video and communicate with Brett. And that's how we finished the film. And then we went for the sound design and a couple of color sessions with company three and had no problem. Luckily, I want to say it was seamless.
Sadie: You had a stellar cast. What was that casting process like?
Josh: It was incredible. Obviously, you don't get any better than Sam Richardson as a person, as a leader, as a producer, and as an actor. And once we got Sam and using that sort of momentum to lure folks in, that was certainly useful, especially because I was sort of a new kid, we were sending around this rough cut of my first film to these actors who'd never quite heard of me before, and some I'd worked with. Because we're shooting kind of in the middle of nowhere in Hudson Valley, I would ask my actors who they wanted to play their spouse. With Harvey Guillén I asked, “Who do you want to play your husband?” And he said, “Oh, how about Cheyenne Jackson?” and I’m like, “Oh my god, I love Cheyenne Jackson” I wouldn't have otherwise thought of that actor. Gayle Keller, by the way, was sending all these incredible options. I did want my actors to feel like they had skin in the game. And that also like the worst-case scenario, the end of a 12-hour day in the cold, you have your buddy, you have your friend. It was an incredible process.
Sadie: With your filmmaking journey to this point, you started out with improv and acting and making College Humor humorous, what from that background and especially the improv world, serves your directing?
Josh: Well, I feel like humor both disarms and arms to support actors. I was a bullied kid, who only had my humor. I looked up to Robin Williams, I thought he was my hero. And here were short and stout characters who were having these incredible and imaginative careers that would take me to all these wonderful places - why I got into improv and acting. And so I armed myself with humor in high school and in elementary school. And that was my armor. And now as someone who's grown into himself as an extrovert in my late 30s, what that is in acting, or for actors as a director is using my humor to disarm situations and disarm discomfort and also support folks who might feel insecure about X direction. I'll read opposite you and truly commit, I don't care about everybody else in this room, it's just you and me. And I will support you and I'll take care of you really just like being there for my actors in a way that I wanted directors to be there for me when I had worked instead of being in some sort of dark faceless tower. So, it was integral to me.
Sadie Dean: Thank you so much for speaking with me. I hope you do more of this. It's a really fun movie and I hope you get to have that dream cast again.
Josh: Oh, thank you, Sadie. Me too.
IFC Films will release the horror-comedy whodunit WEREWOLVES WITHIN in theaters on June 25, 2021 and on Digital Rental & VOD on July 2, 2021.