Author of the best-selling memoir I’m Down, Mishna Wolff may not be the first person you’d think of to adapt a video game titled Werewolves Within for the big screen, particularly as she had never written a feature before. Perhaps that’s what made her the perfect choice, however, as the new film is indeed a rare exception to the dreaded “video game movie curse”, bringing vital new energy to stale genre conventions.
The sophomore feature from director Josh Ruben (Scare Me), the film tells the story of a small-town Sheriff (Sam Richardson) who arrives at his new post just in time to take on the deadly lycanthropic attack that is putting this community at risk. At the same time, a proposed gas pipeline has raised political tensions to the surface, creating an ensemble of characters who have no love for each other, and even less trust. Alongside Richardson, the film stars Milana Vayntrub, Michael Chernus, Michaela Watkins, Sarah Burns, Wayne Duvall, and plenty more fantastic comedic actors to play out this macabre mystery as they hope to discover the identity of the werewolf in their midst before it’s too late.
A riotously entertaining mixture of comedy and horror, Wolff’s script takes genre elements and imbues them with a story that taps into topical themes while also subverting plenty of antiquated tropes. I had the chance to speak with Wolff about what motivated her decision to write her first feature, and how her background helped to inform the effective structure of this exciting film.
Read my interview with Mishna Wolff below:
Mitchell Beaupre: You’re a renowned author with a history as a stage comedian. What was it for you that made you want to write your first feature?
Mishna Wolff: Very good research! The long and short answer is that I’m dyslexic. I grew up watching a lot of movies and TV. They were kind of my babysitter. When I couldn’t read a book for school, because I didn’t want anyone to know I was dyslexic, I would watch the movie. That was my primary source of how I took the world in. I was always so captivated with film and the three-act structure, which is so precise and concise and tight. I have this kind of math brain that likes jokes because they’re so efficient. When I was a joke writer and a joke teller, I would spend a lot of time trying to remove words from my jokes so that I could get it across in the smallest amount of words, and so I really like that structure of three-act movies. I love how you can give very visual arcs for characters and see this change in a physical kind of way.
While I love books and read books, it wasn’t my first medium. The fact that I wrote a book that was as successful as it was is, I think, a testament to the fact that I’m a good talker, not necessarily that I’m a good writer. For a movie, though, it’s putting yourself into a lot of different character’s voices. When I was a comedian, I also used to play a game called “Who is this joke actually for?”, because I would write a lot of jokes for myself and then I’d think that like, “That’s a Kevin Hart joke” or “That’s a Whitney Cummings joke”. They weren’t my delivery, and it was always really fun to think about who those jokes would be for. Getting to actually put my hands in the puppets – not to talk about actors that way, because they all brought so much to their characters – and get into the skin of other people is something I really enjoy.
MB: Josh Ruben comes from the world of improv and has a deep comedy background, which I imagine made the two of you such a good fit. What was the collaboration like between you?
MW: I didn’t get to speak with him until after he was hired, and he was already doing a polish on the script so he reached out to me and we started chatting. When they were looking for directors they reached out to me with some of his work, and I could tell by his stuff that he was someone who loved movies the same way that I love movies. I feel like I’m a very populist person. I tend to like things that are fun. Josh really got some of the same references that I was laying down when I was rewatching movies to start writing Werewolves. He was into all the same movies that I was watching while writing this, and he just seemed like someone I could host a movie night together with. Execution is important, but I also think sensibilities are important, and having the same vision is a really great place to start.
MB: The movie feels like it’s paying reverence to the genre and some of the influences that have come before it, calling to mind something like The Thing or An American Werewolf in London, while also subverting a lot of the old tropes. Could you speak about finding that balance of playing within the genre while also wanting to update some of those kinds of stereotypes and subvert them for the modern era?
MW: Those movies that you mentioned were all influences, and those are movies that are really fun, but they’re not necessarily about anything. I loved them growing up. I was a video store kid. I had a very strong relationship with my video store clerk. I feel like you can almost tell how good a writer is by how late their single mom got home from work. My mom was a public bus driver for the city doing split shifts, so I got very tight with my video store clerk. What I wanted to do was honor those movies and the fun they bring, but also write a movie that was about something and had real themes that were relevant today.
I feel like that’s where you get the upending of the archetypes of the guy you’ve seen in a million movies, and to go heavier and deeper. Finn was the jumping off point as someone who in a divided America is a real connector and wants people to get along, wants there to be a dialogue between people. He’s someone who is sad and irritated by conflict. That’s the jumping off point for the whole movie, really, is this central character who doesn’t like the acrimony that he’s seeing between people.
MB: Something that resonated for me was this idea that Finn is constantly being told that he needs to “grow some balls” to really “be a man” and save the day, and it feels as if that’s where the story is ultimately going. Instead though, he discovers that he can still be himself, to be the nice guy, and also be the hero at the same time. Was that something that really spoke to you when figuring out this character and what he represented?
MW: Right, the idea that he needs to transform himself is kind of a MacGuffin in this movie. That was always supposed to be a MacGuffin. There were versions of things where he would throw an ax in someone, and really take the violence further. We played around with what level of toxic masculinity he could embody before he became irredeemable. I think we found a sweet spot. That’s a huge part of the character and coincidentally, or not coincidentally, Josh Ruben is the nicest guy. It was a dream team for this kind of theme in a movie. I think everybody knew what kind of movie we were making, what it was about, how it pertained to America today, and why it was important to honor the themes of the movie.
MB: The story certainly does speak to how America exists today, and how easily division is brought to the surface in this country. You wrote this well before the events of the last year and a half, but seeing how the country has behaved has really reinforced the themes in the film. Could you talk about how you wanted to tackle that idea of division, and perhaps use this small community as a microcosm for the country at large?
MW: I’m not supposed to talk about politics, but I will say that I think what the movie is actually about, because it is a werewolf movie, is this man versus nature element. It’s about humanity. Anytime you put in an animal or a creature or anything like that front and center in a movie, it’s about humanity. This pandemic and everything that’s gone on in this country has sort of demanded that we ask ourselves what we owe each other. That answer is very different for everyone. We get resentful and petty over these things, and hold these grudges that we can’t let go of, and I think it’s an important theme to explore what the cost of that is. Finn every step of the way is just trying to get people to stop fighting.
MB: Going back to that idea of subverting dated tropes, along with your approach to toxic masculinity here I think one of the other elements that I appreciated the most was how you deconstructed the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in a really surprising and effective way.
MW: Yeah, that was there from the beginning, and that was something really important to me. I get so tired of seeing these “Cool Girls” in movies who have no place in the story except to support the male’s arc. I really wanted that to serve as another kind of MacGuffin. The entire act of writing a joke is to fake left and then go right, and I think that works really well. I’ve heard it works well. I’ve heard people like to be surprised.
MB: While Werewolves Within is technically a video game movie, it certainly doesn’t have the kind of “video game movie” stamp that something like a Halo or a Warcraft would have, where people are going to go into it expecting a very specific thing. Did that give you a lot of freedom to create your own thing and not be beholden to something else?
MW: Tons. Honestly though, even if it was a sacred cow type of property I don’t think that Ubisoft would have made it feel like a sacred cow. That’s just the kind of studio they are to work with. I think the worry gets moved up a little bit as the fanbase increases for sure, and that influenced how much freedom we had. Also the budget fell into a sweet spot where stuff wasn’t beholden to anything like it would have been at a bigger studio. All of these things came together to generate a lot of creative freedom for me, the executive team, and for Josh and the actors. It was always a safe place to explore over at Ubisoft. I never felt like I wasn’t allowed to spitball and throw something out there, to make mistakes or throw turds into the room. It was always a very kind room to work in.
Werewolves Within releases in theaters on June 25th and on VOD July 2nd.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]