Although he left the Hudson Valley to pursue the performer’s life almost two decades ago, actor-writer-director Josh Ruben, Onteora Class of 2001, is realizing hard-won dreams back on home turf. He spent 14 days last winter in a Cooper Lake cabin, directing and starring in his self-penned horror comedy Scare Me, his feature debut. AMC’s streaming horror platform, Shudder, acquired the work, which screened at Sundance in January (one reviewer called it “exceptionally funny”).
Within days, Ruben was back in the Catskills to direct horror whodunit Werewolves Within, once again using local terrain and talent, this time with a bigger budget. The ensemble cast features Sam Richardson (HBO’s Veep), Milana Vayntrub (This Is Us), Sarah Burns (Barry), Catherine Curtin (Orange is the New Black), and Rebecca Henderson (Russian Doll).
“My Werewolves Within producers had been looking into both Toronto and Upstate New York as locations,” Ruben says, his voice gravelly after a Phoenicia shoot that went until 6:30 a.m. “I jumped at the chance to do it here. Selfishly, I’d be home in the community I love, and I could employ some crew from Scare Me, who’d previously worked under really tough conditions for me. For Werewolves Within, my parents housed the cinematographer and some actors, and threw a party for us the night before we began shooting. It’s very cool to come back, very inspiring.”
Ruben is quick to give props to Hudson Valley Film Commission director Laurent Rejto, whom he’s known for 14 years. “Laurent is wonderfully supportive of young filmmakers,” he says. “Through him I was able to get a local script supervisor and makeup artist.”
Ruben and his producers’ decision to work in the Hudson Valley and avail themselves of HVFC puts them in the company of an increasing number of filmmakers, such as Martin Scorcese, Mark Ruffalo and Vera Farmiga, who are taking advantage of the 30 percent tax credit New York State offers productions. In 2019 alone, the Hudson Valley-based film industry generated $50 million in direct spending in local communities, the best year yet since the commission’s founding in 2000.
Woodstock wild child
Ruben is thrilled to return at precisely this moment and give back to a community he says was integral to his success. He cites his parents in particular, stating unequivocally: “They’re the reason I am where I am.”
As a boy, Ruben was very active in the Woodstock Youth Theater, a bit of a wild child. “I wanted to be a comedic actor like Robin Williams or John Leguizamo,” he says. “I applied to Julliard, Boston University, SUNY Purchase and NYU, and didn’t get in to any of them. I was not a good student.”
Ruben was undeterred, especially after the September 11 attacks. “I was working at the Mobil in Woodstock on 9/11,” he says. “My boss’s sister lost her partner. I auditioned for the two-year program at Mike Nichols’ New Actors Workshop in Manhattan. I got in. My parents believed in me, gave me a little money they’d saved for my college, and at age 18 I moved to New York.”
Ruben’s mother, whom he calls “a lioness,” is Barbara Ruben, onetime principal of Onteora High School and author of the roman a clef The Principal’s Office. His sister is singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata. “I grew up around incredibly strong women,” he says. They’ve influenced his work, particularly Scare Me, which, among other things, tackles notions of gender.
Through the back door
Ruben’s trajectory has been fitful, but ultimately upward. “I couldn’t get an agent for years,” he says of his early New York City days. He paid bills by working at Best Buy and doing film extra work. Inspired by Upright Citizens Brigade performances on West 22nd Street (UCB alums include SNL’s Kate McKinnon and Amy Poehler, and Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino), Ruben co-formed sketch troupe Dutch West with five friends. They made films, mostly for fun, and posted them to the internet in the pre-YouTube days.
“It was round-robin-style, so I learned a lot,” he says. “Sometimes one of us would direct and the others would write, or perform, then we’d switch roles. We really got each other, and bonded. I learned how to self-generate. I grew to love it. You get a taste for control. It took a long time to learn how not to be a dickhead. But it sculpted my voice.”
Ruben’s first break was a Wendy’s voiceover gig previously held by Zach Braff. “I had a cold,” he says. “I was the last to audition. I almost left.” He was 23. Soon after, rising website CollegeHumor saw some Dutch West videos and came calling. From 2010 to 2019, Ruben would star in and/or direct hundreds of shorts for CollegeHumor’s “Originals ” department, resulting in billions of views. “I sort of went through the back door with my buddies,” he says.
He has subsequently directed sketches for The Late Late Show with James Corden, and episodes of TruTV’s Adam Ruins Everything. He recently directed ten episodes of Funny or Die and Spotify’s narrative podcast, The Last Degree of Kevin Bacon. And the medium that gave him his first big paycheck – commercials – has become a steady source of work. He’s directed hundreds of spots, including a DiGiorno pizza campaign starring SNL’s Jay Pharoah. He also maintains a hilarious YouTube channel.
In 2016, Ruben moved to L.A. Taking inspiration from the book Like Brothers by acclaimed DIY indie filmmaking siblings Mark and Jay Duplass (Safety Not Guaranteed, The Skeleton Twins), Ruben liquidated the 401k he’d amassed working at CollegeHumor and invested it in Scare Me. He freely admits it was a “reckless” move, which still didn’t provide anything close to cushy.
“That shoot was really cold,” he says. “Lots of exterior shots. The crew van slid into a ditch. And it was the most wonderful experience of my life.” Werewolves Within is several steps up, and allows Ruben to stretch out with more actors, more time and more resources.
Going forward, Ruben has several potential projects circulating among producers. Regardless of what does or doesn’t get the green light, he knows he’ll return to shoot in the Hudson Valley again. “But maybe not in the winter,” he says.