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“A whodunnit with teeth” is the tagline for Werewolves Within.
The horror-comedy, an adaptation of Ubisoft’s multiplayer virtual reality video game of the same name, hails from first-time screenwriter Mishna Wolff and director Josh Ruben. Wolff, a humorist who is known for her 2009 memoir I’m Down, secured the script deal through the Ubisoft Women’s Film and Television Fellowship, an annual program designed to highlight female and non-binary voices in the entertainment industry and give participants access to the studio’s IP for development opportunities.
Werewolves Within sees a werewolf attack a small town while a forest ranger (Sam Richardson) and postal worker (Milana Vayntrub) try to keep the peace. Michaela Watkins also stars, along with Wayne Duvall and George Basil.
As someone who appreciates “little laugh breaks” and “over-the-top horror movies” such as Drag Me to Hell and Evil Dead 2, Wolff entered the Ubisoft Women’s Film and Television Fellowship with a genre sample that wasn’t a comedy, yet it had comedic moments. “It was like a very dusty Mexican road movie, with a lot of guns,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I like to laugh, but I don’t feel like a comedy movie alone is enough to hold my attention anymore.”
When Ubisoft, the studio known for Assassin’s Creed and Watch Dogs, granted Wolff access to its vault, she was told: “Here are our games.” She was not swayed in any particular direction or encouraged to pursue games driven by female characters, all of which allowed Wolff to “be in a really creative space” and simply see where inspiration fell.
And it fell on Werewolves Within. “It was just literally about my little brain latching onto this video game and keeping me up with ‘what ifs?'” says Wolff, a longtime gamer, of the whodunnit romp.
Ahead of the movie’s limited theatrical release on June 25 by IFC Films (it will go on-demand July 2), Wolff spoke with THR about the decision to adapt this particular IP and how she studied its gameplay: “What spoke to me about the video game was the arguing.”
What interested you about the VR video game Werewolves Within, enough to adapt it into a movie?
What spoke to me about the video game was the arguing. That’s an odd thing, but I walked into gameplay that was essentially full of conflict, and it was really exciting for me as a storyteller. You don’t get that in a lot of video games. If you play Counter Strike, and you guys aren’t getting along, you’re in trouble. So it was really awesome to walk into a video game space where fighting was part of the gameplay experience. I don’t know if every group argues; my group did, and the gameplay I watched online argued a ton and they would talk over each other, just like in the movie. And it would make really bad decisions based on what avatars looked like. There was tons of lying.
So, a little chaotic?
It felt very human, in the most flawed possible way. The “what if” I started with was like, what if you brought someone who’s a real connector, and wanted everyone to get along, into this situation? And I feel like that’s really the spark of Werewolves Within. You have this character Finn who’s a nice person, who really wants to create community wherever he goes and form connections and connect people, and he walks into the most fraught, acrimonious group of people in the most disastrously angry situation where everyone suspects each other. It perfectly pushes him through his arc — not to get too technical — it perfectly pushes him to his limits as a nice person.
How much of a narrative element existed in the game, or did you have a lot of freedom to run with the material?
That was really thrilling about the game, because there was no narrative element. There are really strongly formed characters, but they didn’t work in a modern-day setting. One of the things I love about the game is all the characters have these very dour, Eastern European scowls — they look like life has been very hard to them. But they were really strong archetypes; they reminded me of the archetypes in a movie like Clue or Murder on the Orient Express. So the fact that you have these village people that are dressed like the washerwoman or the butcher; they’re really broadly drawn characters that reminded me of the broadly drawn characters in Agatha Christie novels and in classic whodunnits.
How did you pull from the whodunnit elements to form the narrative?
I think the thing that I pulled from the game is just the spirit of that social deduction experience. You really see it in the movie when you’re in the scenes around the fireplace, where it’s a very unsafe time and the accusations are really flying around and it gets really personal in ways that it shouldn’t if you’re logically trying to ferret out a werewolf. That’s something that you will see in the gameplay: “Wait, is this suddenly personal? I thought we were looking for a werewolf.”
Can you talk about how your script was secured through the Ubisoft Fellowship and what that program did for you as a writer in this genre space?
It was amazing, really amazing. I came into Ubisoft on a general meeting, just like one does, and the fellowship was a twinkle in Margaret Boykin’s [head of film development at Ubisoft and a producer on Werewolves Within] eye. She called my agent and said, “look, we’re doing this thing, does Mishna want to apply?” I applied just like everybody else, that year. I don’t know what the competition was like, but I do know that when I got it, they opened the vault for me, and they were like “here are our games.” And they didn’t say, “here are our female games.” That alone was super exciting for me, not that I wouldn’t want to write games for female characters or anything like that, but I was very interested in life-or-death stakes. There were a lot of really good choices to choose from, and I get the feeling that good IP is the hardest thing to come by, for emerging writers. I thought they really offered me plum IP from their catalogue.
And then on top of that it was a super supportive environment, creatively. I had never been all the way through the development process, so just having that demystified in a really nurturing way was something I didn’t know I needed, but now looking back, I will never forget it. It was a super positive watershed in my career as a writer to have development people that were encouraging me to take risks in front of them and go down cul-de-sacs and spitball, and all the things you’re scared to do when you’re dealing with really powerful producers in a high-stakes, competitive space.
It’s also paid, which is another thing that a lot of fellowships are not. That makes a huge difference time-wise for someone who might be mid-career, beginning-career; there’s just a lot of space for different types of writers to participate.
Just thinking of the vault of video games, do you go way back with games in your own life?
Yeah, I wrote on a Konami game way back in the day and I was an in-game character model for the Max Payne series. I’ve always loved to be in and around video games ever since I can remember. They’re kind of an obsession and an addiction, and something I look forward to spending literally all my time doing.
Are there any you’re particularly obsessed with now?
This is going to sound really crazy, but I got really obsessed with all the permutations of Slither.io, there’s Wormate and Wormax and Little Big Snake, and I can just play one of those really quickly in-between writing sessions. But I also really love Far Cry. That’s been one of my favorite series, Ubisoft or otherwise, that have come in a while. I’m looking forward to Far Cry 6. There’s [also] this delightful game called Cuphead.
Yes, I know it!
I love this game. I’ve had a lot of fun with it.
It’s so hard.
So hard, right? (Laughs.) I just love playing games. If it wasn’t a video game, it was a board game, or role-playing game.
So, [back to Werewolves Within ]I know the movie has a lot of humor in it and you’re a humorist also and have written a memoir and done stand-up but was it challenging to balance the eeriness and scares with lightness and jokes?
Yeah, as soon as you make a joke, you break the tension. So it is a tricky thing to balance. I think the jokes have to be secondary, but I also can’t help writing them. It’s how I write. There’s always a lot of humor. It can be just visual; I can see doing scripts with no jokes in the dialogue, just physical things in the environment. There’s a lot of ways to be humorous. This movie is, I guess, my attempt at a Clue or a [The] Thing — at the end of the day, you write the movie you want to be watching. So that’s really all I can do. Taking yourself seriously in a werewolf movie did not appeal to me. There’s a lot of self-serious movies I can see myself writing, but not a self-serious werewolf movie. That set a bar for the tone.
Can you share any other influences you drew upon for the movie?
I always love the tone of [John] Carpenter movies, even though some of them are very scary, there’s always fun. Music is always very important in them, there’s these great syncopated quarter notes in Halloween that keep the tension building. The whodunnit of Silver Bullet, that was a really fun early werewolf movie, because it was really about the town.
I’m not familiar with that one.
It’s an old ’80s movie — it was sort of about when there is a werewolf in a town, and it’s the person everyone trusts. So that was a huge part of it, the trust element of that. I always really like all the Coen Brothers movies — none of them are about werewolves, but I like [for example] The Hateful Eight; being in a room and having people that hate each other so much, and would kill each other if they could, but it’s also a whodunnit. It was very contained. It was like if you had the fireplace scene [in Werewolves Within] for the whole movie, which I didn’t really think we could do, nor would we want to. But just some of the feel of being in that cabin in The Hateful Eight, I was thinking about a lot.
Video game adaptations into films have historically been a tough sell, although there have been some recent successful ones with Sonic the Hedgehog and Detective Pikachu. Did you have conversations with Ubisoft early on in development about the specific hurdles there?
They were very frank about the challenges. They’d had some failures and I think they’d really learned from them. So that was really a great place for both of us to start. I think we were coming from the same page as far as, this was a fresh start for them. They were very interested in comedy, and that was helpful for me, it made sense to make video game movies that were fun and didn’t take themselves too, too seriously, because we’d seen a lot of video games that took themselves really seriously, turn into movies that took themselves way too seriously. It was just the level of self-seriousness was a huge conversation.
And part of the thing of picking a video game like Werewolves Within to adapt is there’s also not a ton of reverence with regards to what I need to honor from the game. It was an opportunity to really be a little bit irreverent with a video game which, I’m sure you know, is very hard to do. They have so many fans, and the fans are rabid. Let me rephrase that, the fans are wonderful, but they’re very opinionated. This was a game where I didn’t think I was going to get huge objections from the fans if I tweaked things. But honoring the feel of it, that’s what I felt like I was looking to do with any of the video games I looked at: Is there a movie here that would honor the feel of playing this game.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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