JOSH RUBEN Delivers DARLA - A Plunge into Phantasmagoric Americana
Comic Book Yeti contributor Andrew Irvin welcomes Josh Ruben into the Yeti Cave to discuss DARLA! Andrew has been crushing these interviews, and this is no exception, especially with how open, intelligent, and insightful Josh is discussing DARLA, collaborating with Brianna Tippetts, his film work, and the interplay of horror and comedy. Plus HYIC Matt Ligeti will appreciate the Bright Eyes reference.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Josh, thanks for making some time to chat today. It’s a distinct pleasure to get a chance to learn more about your perspective. How’s everything going in Los Angeles?
JOSH RUBEN: My pleasure! Today, LA is rainy, foggy, and cold. I’m in heaven.
CBY: DARLA is your first outing as a comic writer, following a decade of writing and directing for film & television media. What conventions of screenwriting were you able to draw upon when laying out the story for this graphic novel? What did you leave behind in the world of motion picture, and what were you able to explore on the page in a different way?
JR: I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t hip to Scott McCloud or traditional comic writing before DARLA… I was simply a comic fan, having devoured more than enough X-Men, X-Force, X-Factor, Venom: Lethal Protector and Batman to sink a tugboat. I got hip to my artist Briana Tippetts because she’d tag me in her awesome fan art for stuff I’d directed (Scare Me and Werewolves Within). We started talking about a collaboration and I sent her a screenplay called Darla Demon, essentially the film for what would become the book, DARLA…
What I left behind in terms of movie making was the fear, stress and traditional prep. I dove head first into a medium very new to me, yet movie making - like comic creation - is crafting a series of images to elicit an emotional response. Not unlike editing a film, I’d give Bri direction and guide what she brought back to the table. Lots of “yes, and” – the pillars of making art. I’d look at Bri’s interpretation of a scene or sequence and go “Yes! AND, let’s add a top shot of a blood-smeared driveway. Yes, AND! Let’s add a close-up of Darla’s eyes, because her anxiety is coming to a boil…”
CBY: So can you tell me how you and Brianna Tippetts ended up working together on this, and at what stage you were in the development of DARLA when the collaboration began? She delivered the lines, colors, and lettering in their entirety - how much character description (or sketches, if any) did you deliver when you initially approached her with the story? What did the visual evolution look like over the course of assembling this title, and how long was DARLA in the making from start to finish?
JR: Bri sent me her book, RICTUS, and it was all over. I knew I had to work with her. I had several references for the world of Derryl (a direct nod to Stephen King’s “Derry”). For Darla specifically, my references ranged from Melissa Leo in Prisoners to Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream. Bleak and disturbing as these characters are, there’s something darkly funny about them. That’s the brilliant thing about Bri’s work – it’s at once disturbing and charming; grotesque and sweet.
CBY: Ah, you'd mentioned Stephen King in the promotional material, so I was wondering if "Derryl" was a "Derry" nod! I really don’t want to spoil anything for readers yet to get their hands on this book - and I highly recommend people grab this as soon as they can - but I have to say, it is one of the most distinctly American approaches to horror I’ve encountered. I’ve been out of the States for over a decade, and as I read, I reflected on all the different cultural components that were integral to the story, and simply would have been impossible to deliver with similar efficacy outside of the layered context provided by the range of challenges present in contemporary American life. Jacques Derrida's concept of hauntology comes to mind - what aspects of the national landscape and your own personal experience fed into the construction of Darla and the ensemble of deranged characters within?
JR: Wow, thank you for saying that! I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t heard of hauntology before, but Derrida's definition creeps me out: “...there is no temporal point of origin but only an ‘always ready absent present.” It feels eerily accurate. Perhaps when we die we stay right where we are… maybe that phenomenon replicates like rings on a tree… I love that hauntology came up for you reading DARLA!
This story emerged out of my fear and anger I know many of us felt after Tr*mp got elected. It felt like a toxic Dead Zone crop dusting of dread right into our homes and eyes and mouths. Some of us got anxiety (will women have a right to choose ever again??), and others got emboldened to bring out their darker selves. I remember reading this article titled “Finally, Someone Who Thinks Like Me” about a small-town woman who finally felt seen when (he) got elected. DARLA is a blackly comic take on a character who is tragically isolated, and in her isolation so angry and so desperate to be loved and to be seen that she gives herself over to the monster in herself, this thing that empowers her.
I grew up in a fairly liberal town in upstate New York, and the areas surrounding it were populated with a lot of isolated folks like Darla who developed some terrifying, narrow minded perceptions about the world outside their bubble. I think that experience is what got me hired on Werewolves Within, why I was the right guy for the gig. I love Darla and I empathize with her and I feel for her… but I also hate her ignorant ass so fucking much.
CBY: Dissociation, denial, and a melange of mental disorders are on full display throughout the story. It was expertly depicted and profoundly unsettling. Had Brianna not handled the story with her bold, colorful style, and you’d opted to give it a more visceral, graphic treatment the likes of Graham Ingels or Charles Burns might have delivered, it might have been a much more challenging read if the visual horror had matched the psychological horror instead of finding the balance you both achieved. How did you determine your approach towards grounding the actions of Darla and other characters in motives not necessarily apparent to the reader? What did you and Brianna discuss about depicting a lot of brutal actions that take place in a palatable manner?
JR: That’s a fantastic question, and you’re completely right. I conceived DARLA as a film first, and though we live in the age of the brilliant Beau is Afraid, not many artists can pull off such comic darkness. You’ve got to do so with style and vision and a bright sense of farce.
I took one look at Briana’s work, the gangly, twisted, eerie charm of her characters and worlds, and I thought, This is gonna work. Once she started sending pages, character designs, it all fell into place. It was less a conversation of how are we going to high-jump the dark stuff, and more, let’s talk about the world of Stephen King’s Derry and just run with it. The result clicked. Briana’s art plus this story equals dually wanting to hug and run from these characters. A buddy of mine who read an early draft said this reads like Todd Solondz in graphic novel form, and god I love him for it.
CBY: Oh, I can definitely see shades of Todd Solondz in there, too. Now, I read DARLA the day before seeing Beau is Afraid, and they both operate in a space of phantasmagoric disruption, tapping into a visual and psychological realm outside of rationality - experiencing both made for a hell of a weekend! You'd mentioned Ellen Burstyn’s character in Requiem For A Dream, and Aronofsky doesn't shy away from the same horrifying sub-realities in his work. You mentioned a number of other film & TV influences (Dead Zone, The Babadook, Tales from the Crypt, etc.) which definitely all resonate within the story in various ways. Can you speak a bit about the influences within the world of comics that fed into the narrative and aesthetic you crafted with Brianna?
JR: I grew up devouring so much Batman and only recently discovered the genius of Charles Burns (of which Bri and I referenced a bit), but it was Briana’s RICTUS that ignited my lightbulb moment: she was the artist for this job. I gave her the text and said Go. With each set of pages she’d churn out, I’d take them in and just keep repeating: “This is blowing my mind, this is eviscerating my expectations…”
CBY: Oddly, the first film that came to my mind in the same vein of grotesque Americana was American Honey (which, ostensibly, wasn’t a horror movie, but sure felt like one when I watched it). The idea of seeing Darla transposed to live action with the insulating stylization of Brianna’s art stripped away is a bit overwhelming to comprehend in its potential for overwhelming horror. What would Darla look like if adapted, and who would you ideally see attached to such a project? What sort of location would be best suited for the fictitious, fracking-riddled Derryl County, and what other elements of a filmed version have you considered, if at all?
JR: I might be on a Beau is Afraid high, but the only way to adapt something as twisted as DARLA is to lean into style, vision and world-building. You gotta straddle the line of fantasy and reality; think, a twistedly funny Requiem for a Dream or Dancer in the Dark. Juxtapose the muted tones of the town with the lush colors of the fantasy sequences; the nightmares, the monster’s scenes… If I had my druthers, I’d film the adaptation in a quaint ‘lil Hudson Valley town, like Fleischmanns (where we shot a good deal of Werewolves).
For the record, I wouldn’t direct DARLA – it should be a women-led production. I’d want to produce, I’d offer my brain as much as they’d want it, otherwise, I’d hand it to a killer woman filmmaker and back the fuck up.
CBY: Beau is Afraid was certainly indelible, and even though it's cresting the zeitgeist, I'm not surprised to see it tanking in the box office given how difficult a film it is (though the theater in Melbourne where I saw it was packed). My wife was one of Ari's classmates in college, so she clued me into his career back with Herman's Cure-All Tonic and The Strange Thing About The Johnsons - seeing Beau is Afraid definitely marks a return to form after his two more conventional horror films in Midsommar and Hereditary, despite seeing the production expand in scale and scope relative to his earlier work.
On that note, comics provide opportunity for a much less cumbersome collaboration than motion picture productions, where casts and crews often necessitate a large number of participants. Given your ample experience with the latter, how did you find the experience of moving to a tighter, more static creative project, and now that you’ve dipped your toes into the process of creating a comic, do you anticipate developing further comic titles? What sort of similarities have you found between Darla’s development and film storyboarding, and what do you think this experience will change about your approach to filmmaking in the future?
JR: I loved making the book. Just me and Bri, batting ideas, molding, shaping. The graphic novel process is so intimate, and so streamlined, I’m addicted. I’ll do this again.
As I mentioned, I found this to be more like editing than anything else. Bri and I would chat about the world, the scenes, beats, etc. She’d get an idea of what I was thinking, and if she was conflicted about something, I’d tell her to take a swing, do what she was excited about, and then we’d adjust. It was awesome. No producers checking their watches and growing furious I’m on another take, going “Let’s try it again, but this time you’re a T-Rex.” As far as how this experience will affect my filmmaking future, if anything, I’m tripling down on cinematography. Filmmaking is a visual medium. Don’t miss an opportunity to fill every frame with story.
CBY: While you and Brianna handled the bulk of the creative work, there are a few others involved in bringing this book to the public - first, can you shed some light on how you enlisted Daniel Crosier for the alternative cover offered? Beyond that, what circumstances led you to working with Invader Comics, and what sort of arrangement did you come to around creative ownership to get Darla published?
JR: In my past life as a commercial director, I met Kevin Miller and Mike Perkins, before they founded Invader. Bri and I were essentially gonna self-publish, put the book on a website and split the profits, but when Kevin and Mike signal boosted the launch of Invader, I thought hell, we’re way better suited with professional muscle behind us. I’ve since learned SO much thanks to these guys. I’m immensely grateful. They’re in it for the love of comics, and you feel it. They taught me about the value of full-page “chapter breaks” and encouraged me to look holistically at the experience of reading the comic in your hands; how each right-side end page is a cliffhanger… stuff you don’t think about as a comic lover, but while making the thing, you go, Oh, shit! That’s a no brainer!
It was Mike and Kevin that introduced Bri and I to the brilliant Daniel Crosier, and suggested an alt cover for the Kickstarter campaign. Such a great idea, because the whole initiative is to incentivise folks to get their pre-orders on.
As far as the ownership goes, Invader, Briana and I will split profits on the book and I retain film rights, with Briana getting backend on the property because the book simply wouldn’t have a life without her.
CBY: Beyond Darla, your recent features as a director (Werewolves Within), writer (Scare Me), and actor (A Wounded Fawn) all explore the interplay between comedy and horror. Given the subject matter of Darla, effectively drawing a balance between the two is an exercise you deftly maneuver. It demands a type of dynamic and lateral versatility that can run incredibly hamfisted if not handled with the sort of skill you display in your narrative construction, staging, and performances. Can you provide some insight into your process of capturing this mood and conveying it in all these different roles? You’ve certainly honed this specific tone in your recent work - what factors into your intent and your delivery when trying to tell horrifying stories in amusing ways?
JR: Man, these questions are bangers!
As far as genre-bending goes, if I’m making a film, it starts with casting. Let’s work backwards. Travis Stevens wrote a serial killer movie that takes place in the art world. I was just as surprised as anyone he offered me the role of Bruce, BUT Travis gets that to make something interesting and entertaining, especially in horror, your cast is your lifeblood. You gotta assemble an ensemble that’s willing to take risks, play, and frankly, get weird. That sums up Sarah Lind and I.
For Werewolves, it was about world-building (finding a quirky location in the Beaverfield Inn, aka the Spilian venue in Fleischmanns, NY) and shooting it with Carpenter-esque lensing, then bringing in the ensemble we had… later, working with an editor like Brett Bachman… the producers. Vision, cast, world, edit. Play. But, to do all that, you gotta earn their trust. That’s the real challenge. I wouldn’t be able to do half the shit I do if I didn’t make endless mistakes directing thousands of sketches on CollegeHumor and many, many commercials. That was my “film school.” Now, I confront problems, but it’s a lot easier with a thick skin of experience. From there, it’s all about fighting for your vision. The more specific your vision, your world, your art, the more impactful the work.
CBY: Given your multimedia professional background, I’m excited to receive your response to our usual closing question - besides DARLA, what other material out there has been keeping your attention lately in terms of comics, films, music, books, etc.? What should our readers be sure they check out after they give DARLA a read?
JR: Oh, man. Let’s start with comics. I devoured and fell head over heels for Nick Drnaso’s Beverly. It’s scary, funny, odd. Brilliant. Film-wise, as you can see, I can’t say enough about Beau is Afraid. It’s not for everyone, but not all art is. You can’t question Aster’s vision. He had an uncompromising vision and it shows. Same with Bill Hader’s work on BARRY. Talk about genre-bending. Hader’s churning out a new chapter of action-rich psychological horror every week and it’s intimidating as hell. I’m as stoked as I am terrified to see what he’s going to do in the feature horror space (dude’s gonna put me out of work and I’m here for it!?).
As for music, I’m biased, but I adore everything my sister Rachael Yamagata does. She’s the first genre-bender in our family. See my sister live. She gets on the mic and is bitingly funny, cracking the room up. Then, she leaps into songs that will tear your guts out. It’s phenomenal.
As for books, I’ll read anything Nathan Ballingrud does. Heartbreaking, scary, original. I just bought his debut novel, The Strange and I can’t wait to start it.
CBY: I didn't realize Rachael was your sister! I've been listening to her since her she linked up with Bright Eyes back on Cassadaga in 2007 (so I'll second that recommendation, Yeti readers!) I'll also concur that BARRY is phenomenal, and you've just added a couple more books to my ever-expanding reading list.
Josh, thank you for making time to sit down today and field some questions. Please share any social media links and sites where DARLA and your other work may be found, and we’ll include it below.
JR: My absolute pleasure! I put it allll on my website. Check out www.joshsmindhouse.com. Thank you so much for checking out DARLA, and for your killer questions!