The insider

Ruben Pla on moving from acting to directing with The Horror Crowd

by Jennie Kermode

Ruben Pla, Shaked Berenson and friends in The Horror Crowd
Ruben Pla, Shaked Berenson and friends in The Horror Crowd

Film criticism is generally focused on the work of individual directors or creative teams, which is odd when you think about it because film, like most creative endeavours, ultimately emerges from community. People talk, share ideas, watch one another’s work, help each other out. There are few more accessible examples of how this works than the horror community, especially that part of it concentrated in and around Hollywood, and it’s this community that actor-turned-director Ruben Pla has sought to capture in his documentary The Horror Crowd. Screening at Frightfest and Grimmfest, the UK’s biggest genre festivals, it has proved a hit with fans. Between the two events, Ruben and I sat down for a chat about the film and the stories it tells.

Ruben Pla directing The Horror Crowd
Ruben Pla directing The Horror Crowd

The film is made very much from an insider’s perspective. Though Pla retains a strong New York City sensibility, he now sees himself as bicoastal and definitely a part of the horror crowd. “That’s the reason why they opened up to me, because I knew them all,” he says of his interviewees. “And hung out with them all. I’ve known most of them for ten years. I met with my co-producer Hank Braxtan and said ‘I got this idea to just kind of like, go out and maybe talk to our friends, people in the circles that we travel in. And see what it looks like.’ And he goes, ‘I love the idea. Why don't I throw in a couple of cameras?’ Okay, this is changing already and becoming something else. ’And I'll throw in some lighting kits and sound equipment.’ And I go ‘Great!’ Now we approached his wife, Arielle Brachfeld became my producing partner. She came on board and I start asking people to join me in this and they go, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ They just want it to be in it. They wanted to talk about their lives or their past history, the scariest moment, the first horror movie, things like that. They just opened right up.’

It’s interesting, I suggest, partly because it’s so much at odds with what outsiders think about people who make horror films.

‘We talk about that in the documentary. I actually end the movie – spoilers – saying that I hope I've been able to shed shed some light into the dark cloud of the horror crowd and show them behind the scenes. I wanted to show that they weren't just these crazy people. I mean, there are different kinds of people to show that they're just regular people. They’ve got families, they’ve got to pay the bills. They like different things. Sure...”

And one of the other things about the horror genre is the big overlap between filmmakers and fans...

Ruben Pla and Adam Robitel
Ruben Pla and Adam Robitel

”Yeah,” he says. “And thank you so much to Grimmfest – coming up October 7 – for accepting The Horror Crowd. They were so into it when they saw it, they really wanted this film. Because they’re probably familiar with a lot of the people that are in it, and so forth. They love the film, and I love them. So that being said, yeah, I think that the love of the genre in all these filmmakers, actors, directors, writers, producers, is what makes the film tick, you know? They're not just like, ‘Oh, I make movies, I love movies.’ This is the way they are. And I am, and that comes through. It's not like, ‘Hey, I do it for the money.’ you know?

“I mean, some of them are making really good money. The obvious ones are like James Wan, people like that. But as Andrew Kasch says, from the smallest D Lister to the A listers, we're all together. We help each other on each other's film sets. There’s no social barriers in the horror crowd. He says that very clearly. And it's true. I find that to be true. I've worked with James Wan, on Insidious, and I work with smaller productions. So, yeah, the love of the genre, the genre binds us together.

There are probably also going to be filmmakers – or would-be filmmakers – watching it at Grimmfest, I note.

“Oh, no question about it. I mean, I want to reach a worldwide audience And this hopefully will inspire people to say, ‘Hey, I can do that. Get my friends together, and they help me out and then I put them in a movie, and we use equipment and share equipment...’ and you know, but it all comes down to a good script. You've got to have a great, tight script. Without that, no amount of money or special effects or even stars in it can help.

Ruben Pla and Russell Mulcahy
Ruben Pla and Russell Mulcahy

“I write. I also have a lot of scripts written and ready to go, and I don't care if it's like, you know, horror or a supernatural thriller, adventure or fantasy. I've written all those. If it's tight and the script is good, I'll work on all act in it, or direct or whatever the case may be. So to me, it's all about the script. If someone can get a tight script, a great script, a unique script, they're more than halfway there.”

He had 40 hours of footage when he’d finished shooting this film, so where did he start with the editing?

“Once I got all the interviews done I just sat down and said ‘Okay, how can I connect these? How do they flow into each other? You know, you got the costumes, the Halloween thing and then ‘Well, my parents supported me.’ Okay, parents, now becoming a parent and, you know, losing a parent. So I've tried to do it, you know, women in horror leading into scream queens. That kind of thing. I wanted to have nice smooth segues.”

He’s pleased by a comment I made in my review about the fact that it feels like one long conversation. What does he think made that work? Were the locations a factor?

“There were various locations we had,” he says. We went to their homes, like Lin Shaye's home and Jeffrey Reddick’s. We had some stuff in the studio, so various locations, so you try to edit it together, but I don't know if the locations themselves flow into each other. I think it's more of the conversation and the topics and the way they speak.”

Lin Shaye and Ruben Pla
Lin Shaye and Ruben Pla

Some of the homes have a similar aesthetic though, don’t they? And we see their collections of horror memorabilia.

“I think you're probably talking specifically about Mike Mendez and Darren Lynn Bousman. Both who have a lot of you know, collections of things. I've known Mike for ten years. I've known Darren, I think as long also. And so I went to their homes, which I've been to before, to interview them. And you know, Mike, it's his dolls. Oh, Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman. And then same thing with the books. I had them since I was in grade school, you know? So that was pretty built into the conversation.”

Ruben has done a lot of acting in the past and how he’s taking the plunge into directing. What inspired that?

So what about your niche you've done a lot of acting in the past and you notice and moving into these new areas what inspired that?

“It's terrifying!” he says. “I’ve done a lot of series and all those kind of movies, you know, horror things. I've done things like 24, TV shows, you know, The Practice, CSI Miami, so many things over the years. America's Most Wanted. But anyway, I've done all those and like I said, I go across the board, and to further address that, I'm transitioning. I started writing a couple of horror shorts, but then, for a feature, I wanted to use what I’ve got. You should always use what you have. Write the story to suit what you have. And then the people you have can help. You can't do it alone. No man or a woman is an island. So write what you know and write for who you know, and then put it together.”

Greg Grunberg, Clare Kramer and Ruben Pla
Greg Grunberg, Clare Kramer and Ruben Pla

So what are his ambitions now?

To keep acting. As soon as New York and LA open up again, I'm going to be auditioning for projects, whatever they may be. But I want to help set up a bunch of scripts ready to go and I want to keep directing. And whether the next film is another documentary or a narrative doesn't matter to me, I just like doing it all. While I was in quarantine, I didn’t just stay home twiddling my thumbs, I shot a short, just went outside into the woods right behind my place here and shot a nice little short that I wrote. A horror short. I got all the footage back, I looked at it, it looks great. I'm going to start editing soon and get that out there too.”

Is he happy about The Horror Crowd coming out under these unusual circumstances are screening at virtual festivals?

“It's what it is,” he says. “It's the way the world is right now. I always believe in being positive and making the best out of any situation. And I think it opens up a lot of things. Some people couldn't go to Manchester to Grimmfest and some people can't go down to London or wherever. They can watch the festivals from all over. Of course you like the whole live audience and interaction thing and watching their reaction as they're watching your movie. That's all great. But on the bright side, I've got it entered into several festivals next year, 2021.” .

So finally, what did the people who are in the film think of it when it was finished? Did it work for them? Did it tell the story of their community?

The Horror Crowd poster
The Horror Crowd poster

Most of them haven’t seen it yet, he says, as obviously it wouldn’t have been safe for them to watch it at a screening together. “I showed it to a select few when I needed their opinions or they worked on it behind the scenes or whatever. They’ve seen the reviews that come out and the articles have positive views. So they’ve got a pretty good idea of where and when, and I didn't try to make anybody look bad, it was not my intent. I just wanted to show them as they are, whatever they volunteered, whatever came out was what they wanted to say. You know, like when Mike Mendez spills the beans, that the first horror movie he saw, when he was three, was The Hills Have Eyes. I mean, my reaction was real. I didn't know that. Whoa! And then when Lin Shaye – I'm talking about the dark side – I said ‘Do you have a dark side?’ she goes ‘That's a really good question.’ You could tell she was never asked that question before - we saw it in her eyes. And she goes, ‘You know, I can be kind of like not very nice.’ This wonderful little lady.”

I've interviewed her a few times, I say. She's always lovely.

“Excellent way of putting it. I like that, Jennie. She said ‘Yeah, I can be a little jealous sometimes,’ a little revelation that I didn't have to pry out there”

I tell him that I think it’s a very friendly film and that’s probably what people are looking for at the moment, if they’re stuck at home and feeling down. .

‘I want it to be uplifting,’ he says – but makes it clear that that doesn’t mean we can’t have the darkness.

The Horror Crowd screens as part of the virtual edition of Grimmfest on 7 October.

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