Aya Cash’s career didn’t start with Gretchen. Before starring as You’re the Worst’s foul-mouthed, hard-living, hard-loving, haunted, strong, fragile female lead, she’d acted in films like The Wolf of Wall Street and Sleepwalk with Me, and in numerous television shows, including The Newsroom. During her You’re the Worst run, she appeared in Social Animals, in series like The Good Wife and Fosse/Verdon, and had a memorable run on Easy. But it’s okay if the first thing that comes to mind when you see Cash is Gretchen—that character is truly one of the great television creations of the past decade.
But once you start diving into Cash’s other work, you realize just how far her talent extends beyond that one unforgettable role. She’s a true force. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, she stars with Josh Ruben in Scare Me, a film Rubin also wrote and directed. (They had known each other socially, and Ruben had played a role in You’re the Worst’s final season.) In the virtual two-hander, two horror authors are snowed in a cabin for a night and tell each other scary stories to pass the time. As they do, the film adds the appropriate sound design and sound effects to the stories, bringing the viewer into the head of each listening author. It’ a nifty trick, and a fun as hell movie.
Cash and Ruben joined Paste in Park City to discuss the film.
Paste: I love the premise of this movie. I think that as filmmakers sometimes we forget that it’s about telling stories. We’re all telling stories to each other. And that’s kind of the premise of this movie. Can you unpack that a little bit—describe what it meant for you as storytellers to play storytellers?
Ruben: I loved horror as a kid. Horror anthologies from Tales from the Crypt to Tales from the Dark Side—really anything with tales. I started writing the script at the early [stages] of the MeToo movement. I noticed when I would just share someone’s story, women or female buddies would write and say, “Oh my god, thank you so much.” And I would just say, “All I did was click share.” And they would reply, “Yeah, but for a guy to do it. For a guy to go out on a ledge and share.” And then also getting kind of internal about the collaborative process as a creator, and competition, and laying that into gender hostilities. At its heart, [Scare Me] does have to do with a man’s creative competition with a woman who is more adept. She’s far better at storytelling. She’s far more creative. She doesn’t go out of her way to hang it over his head, but it weighs on him, that kind of emasculation—(to Cash) I’m curious about what and how you felt about it—but that was what really drove me, that swirl of different parts.
Cash: What drove me is my love of Josh Ruben. Josh and I have known each other socially for awhile, and he did come do You’re the Worst. I knew how insanely talented he was, and sort of trusted him. I read this script and thought, ‘This will either be amazing or terrible’—and that’s the kind of project I’m into these days. I like things that mix genres. I think the Brits often do it more than the Americans, especially in television, so I was interested in that. I think it’ll work and if it doesn’t, at least we tried to do something really different. At this point in my life, I want to do things that have risk to them, and this felt very risky. It worked out—obviously his vision came to life because we are at Sundance.
Paste: Speaking of mixing the tones, what’s the word that y’all have coined?
Ruben: Well there was scary and funny…
Cash: Scary and funny, so “scunny.”
Ruben: (in British accent) It’s quite a scunny film.
Cash: You have to say it British.
Paste: That’s great. So, this film is largely a two-hander. It’s a lot of pressure to be in a room with, at least in the frame with one other person, for most of the shoot, right? How did that work out?
Ruben: Well, there are two parts of the conversation. First, in Aya as an actor, I have someone who I’ve known socially and who I respect. I knew going into a professional situation, as mad-dash as it was, that I had to really be quite buttoned up. I knew that theoretically I could put Aya—who’s a theater, television, film actress—through the ringer, but also that I needed to protect myself as an actor. So it was sort of interesting figuring out the dynamic of how to execute when we’re in the scene together, but also try not to be intimidated. But that intimidation sort of dissolved in 60 hours, and then would sort of come and go with technical issues that we would have. We got snowed out maybe twice in our very, very brief shoot. But sharing the screen together felt quite effortless. It was really cool to just kind of let things flow, and also know that we had to work within a certain formula, shoot this thing out in as few days as we did have.
Paste: Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by John Cassavetes: “The absence of limitations is the enemy of art.”
Cash: I believe that. Josh was so well prepared. I’d never actually, I think, been on a shoot of any budget that was like this—and sometimes mo’ money, mo’ problems. It’s really crazy how much money people can waste. Josh had blocked out and come up with every shot and alternatives and ways to shoot. [At one point,] I was very sick and he shot part of his coverage without me because he sort of has monologues. (We both have monologues.) And then we shot, I think, 15 pages one day, which you can only do if you know exactly what you want. He has a great DP [Brendan Banks] who is so talented, and they have such a great shorthand, but you really need to be ready to do something like that. With indie films, you know that you’re up for a little bit of chaos because that’s what it is, but he basically had a contingency plan for everything, and that was amazing. I don’t know how he remembered this, but Josh found out that Skor bars are my favorite candy, and he bought me a 36 pack of Skor bars on day one. He thinks of everything.
Paste: I always say the analogy of directors to actors as trainers to thoroughbreds is almost perfect. Including the need to feed them sugar cubes.
Cash: Oh yeah, absolutely. Otherwise we’re just living on water and raw vegetables. Right?
Ruben: And positive affirmations. Well, it helps to be a horse yourself, too.
Because you understand.
Ruben: Absolutely. I think that’s kind of why I love doing this so much and why it’s worthwhile doing the mad-dash shoots so to speak, is —
Paste: “What would I want in this moment?” “How would I want someone to treat me?”
Ruben: Exactly. How would I want to be spoken to or helped?
Paste: Sound design seems like it would be a relatively crucial part of this film.
Ruben: I always said that this was a sound designer’s movie. It helps you see better, and this movie is all about sort of manifesting within the space without necessarily seeing what’s there. So while we tease something up, whether by our mouths or just by narration that there are footsteps or someone in the attic, cueing that and feeling that is such a big part of this movie, and it’s why there are scares of any kind. I worked with Great City Post, the production company that helped make this happen, and they set me up with a sound designer named John Moros, and with Ian Stynes. The two of them just absolutely had a ball. I was able to sort of bring them on board and say look, this is your movie. I want you to build this out and really make this yours.
Paste: It was so important casting what became Aya’s part, because I feel like you have to have somebody in that part who is really strong, really smart, a little bit of a ballbuster, but not unlikable. Somebody who’s also magnetic and charismatic. Right?
Ruben: I’ll just add to that—Aya’s willingness to take risks and trust me, to play ugly, scary, chilling … to bark and growl and throw a tantrum and everything that she was down to do. When I wrote this, I wanted to give a risky, fun, challenging, non-sexualized role to an actress who wouldn’t necessarily have done two of those eight things in another role. So let’s do a two-hander where an actor can really be an actor, an artist can really be an artist and actually take that risk.
Cash: (pause) I’m just listening for pull quotes to try to get jobs. (all laugh) You just reminded me—I don’t think you know that when you sent me the script, I only read the first half before I said yes. And all I said to my agents was: I love this. I love Josh. I want to do anything with him. The script is great. As long as there’s not, you know, some crazy sexy scene in the end, we’re pretty good shape. Because it is true, you rarely get these roles for women where she is not the object of desire in some way. It’s the intellect and not the romance that was exciting to me.
Paste: Um, spoilers…
Cash: I mean there’s a crazy sex scene near the end. But it’s not really sexual.
Paste: It’s mind sex.
Cash: It is mind sex.
Michael Dunaway is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, photographer, and general troublemaker. He is Paste’s Editor at Large and the host of the Paste podcast The Work. You can follow him on Patreon.