HEAT VISION

How Dave Franco's Own Paranoia Inspired Him to Write and Direct 'The Rental'

The filmmaker discusses his creative partnership with wife Alison Brie, the “elevated and tasteful” romantic comedy they wrote together during lockdown and his self-deprecating response to Barry Jenkins' offer to be in 'If Beale Street Could Talk.'
Dave Franco on the set of 'The Rental'   |   IFC FIlms
The filmmaker discusses his creative partnership with wife Alison Brie, the “elevated and tasteful” romantic comedy they wrote together during lockdown and his self-deprecating response to Barry Jenkins' offer to be in 'If Beale Street Could Talk.'

Dave Franco's art imitated his own life as he channeled his increasing paranoia regarding home-sharing services and modern technology into his debut genre feature, The Rental. Led by Dan Stevens and Franco's wife, Alison Brie, the film chronicles a vacation getaway between two couples that quickly unravels because of their own secrets and a shadowy presence in the distance. The story allowed Franco to explore the potential danger of Airbnb-type services as well as technology's role in the process.

"My paranoia about the concept of home-sharing is what inspired the film in the first place," Franco tells The Hollywood Reporter. "But my paranoia has reached new peaks since filming this movie, where now when I stay in a rental home, I'm not thinking, 'Are there cameras here?' Instead, I'm thinking, 'I know there are cameras here. It's just about whether or not I'm going to find them.'"

Franco's fears extend well beyond Airbnbs and hotel rooms as he has the same anxieties at home.

"Yeah, I am personally very scared of technology, and I do think about how we are potentially being watched and listened to at all moments in the day," Franco admits. "And one way that has impacted my life is when I'm talking to my family or some of my closest friends. In the back of my mind, I'm thinking, 'Should I say this? Or should I not knowing that there might be someone listening in on this call?'"

The 35-year-old actor-filmmaker also explains why he decided not to appear in his own film.

"So, the truth is I was not originally planning on directing this film. At that time, I was going to play Josh, and that role ultimately went to Jeremy Allen White," Franco explains. "As much as I wanted to cast Alison from the beginning, it would've been weird if we were both in it because she would've been playing my sister-in-law," he adds with a laugh. 

The Northern California native also reflects on the call he received from Barry Jenkins regarding a role in If Beale Street Could Talk.

"Barry Jenkins actually called me and offered me the role, and the first thing I said was, 'Are you sure?'" Franco recalls with a laugh. "When Barry Jenkins asks you to be in something, you do it. I would've been an extra in the film, walking in the deep background, if he wanted me to."

In a recent conversation with THR, Franco also discusses the unspoken shorthand he had with his partner, Brie, on the Rental set, the "elevated and tasteful" romantic comedy they wrote together during coronavirus lockdown and his hopes to continue The Rental’s story in a sequel.

Since making this film, have you been a little more paranoid than usual when staying at a hotel or rental property?

(Laughs.) Definitely. My paranoia about the concept of home-sharing is what inspired the film in the first place. But my paranoia has reached new peaks since filming this movie, where now when I stay in a rental home, I'm not thinking, "Are there cameras here?" Instead, I'm thinking, "I know there are cameras here. It's just about whether or not I'm going to find them."

The Orwellian term "Big Brother" is closely associated with mass surveillance by the government, but what makes this movie so alarming is that modern technology can turn any ordinary citizen with a credit card into a Big Brother of sorts. Does today's technology also frighten you since cameras are just the tip of the iceberg?

Yeah, I am personally very scared of technology, and I do think about how we are potentially being watched and listened to at all moments in the day. And one way that has impacted my life is when I'm talking to my family or some of my closest friends. In the back of my mind, I'm thinking, "Should I say this? Or should I not knowing that there might be someone listening in on this call?" And I hate that I think about that stuff, but it does tie in to some of the reasons why I made this film.

I can't help but view entertainment through our present-day lens. And among the points that have had the most effect on me is that it's not enough to be not racist; it's important to be anti-racist. So, when Sheila Vand's character questions Toby Huss' character about racial profiling, the three other characters stood out to me because they were passive and silent during that argument. Are current events also reshaping the way you view not just your own movie but entertainment in general?

Yeah. Obviously, we made this film before any of the events that are currently happening right now. But that aspect of the film is based on friends of mine who have experienced racial profiling when trying to rent a home on one of these apps. It was important for me to include this in the film, and it was an honest way to create immediate tension between one of the renters, who is of Iranian descent, and the homeowner, who is white. And it's a moment in the film that makes everyone else in the scene uncomfortable, like you said, as they are all forced to deal with the fact that their friend, played by Sheila Vand, was likely a victim of racial profiling and this isn't something that they can just ignore anymore. So, it definitely does feel relevant to what we're seeing today.

You and Alison have both created your own material lately. Did you see her writing Horse Girl first and get inspired by that? Or was it just the opposite?

(Laughs.) I promise I'm not trying to brag here, but I did start working on The Rental before she started writing Horse Girl. And I only say this because I know she has said in multiple interviews that watching Joe Swanberg and me write The Rental inspired her and gave her the confidence to start writing her own script. And I'm so happy that she did because I think she gives one of her best performances ever in Horse Girl, and I'm so impressed just by how her and the director, Jeff Baena, put that story together. It's not an easy one to tell and they executed it in such a way that it feels extremely unique and abstract, but at the same time, relatable and universal, and just very human.

I believe you could've played Dan Stevens' or Jeremy Allen White's parts if you really wanted to, but did you avoid casting yourself so that the viewer wouldn't carry their real-world knowledge of you and Alison into the movie?

It's an interesting question. So, the truth is I was not originally planning on directing this film. At that time, I was going to play Josh, and that role ultimately went to Jeremy Allen White. As much as I wanted to cast Alison from the beginning, it would've been weird if we were both in it because she would've been playing my sister-in-law. (Laughs.) But as soon as I decided to not act in the film, she was obviously my first choice, and I'm so happy that it played out the way that it did for a few reasons. She's incredibly talented. She has this unique ability to balance heavy drama with moments of levity, sometimes within the space of a single scene. It was really impressive to watch her navigate seamlessly between conflicting emotions, and there aren't many actors out there who can do that. I guess I'm going on a tangent here about just how much I love my wife. (Laughs.) But it was just comforting to have her there with me because as you can imagine, as a first-time director, there were moments where I would get in my head and start to doubt myself in small ways, and she was always there to build me up and give me confidence and remind me that we were doing good work.

As someone who's addressed one of his friends as "Brosephine Lilly" for 16 years, I loved the bro wordplay moment quite a bit, especially since it sold me on Dan and Jeremy's characters being brothers. Was there a point where you and Joe Swanberg sat in a room and just riffed on all things bro?

(Laughs.) Absolutely. My closest friends in real life have commented on that scene, saying that it's a reflection of our lives more than anything else in the film. But yes, there were many bro puns being thrown around while Joe and I were holed up in his hotel room in L.A. 

I talked to Joe Gordon-Levitt recently, and I've been kicking myself ever since because I forgot to mention "Broseph Gordon-Levitt" to him.

(Laughs.) I think it'll be better as a surprise for him if he ever does watch this film.

When I first saw Joe Swanberg credited as co-writer, I did a double take since horror isn't his usual M.O., but then I remembered V/H/S and his acting work with Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett. So how did you end up with him on board?

Yeah, so I acted in Joe's Netflix series called Easy, and we got along really well and realized we had similar sensibilities, including our love for horror films. But the main reason I wanted to pair up with Joe on this one is because his main strengths lie in character and relationship. And so, our goal was to create a tense relationship drama where the interpersonal issues between the characters were just as thrilling as the fact that there's a psycho killer lurking in the shadows. At its core, the film really is about these characters and their relationships, and then we sprinkled the horror elements on top to help accentuate the problems they're going through. But the disintegration of their relationships also coincides with the characters finding themselves in more physical danger, and I guess it's somewhat of a metaphor …

I'm sure you had a shorthand with Alison that was unique from the other actors, but how specific could you get with her? Did you reference her previous work or remind her of a shared experience where you knew that she felt a certain way?

It was honestly much more simple than that. She would do a take, and then I would start walking toward her to give her a note. And before I said anything, she would look at me and say, "I know exactly what you're going to say. Just let me try one more." And then, she would do the next take and do exactly what I was thinking. I can't explain it, except for the fact that I guess that's the dynamic you have when you've been living with someone for eight years.

First-time filmmakers often test their films via friends and family as they shape the final cut. What feedback did you pick up from such screenings, and what did you ultimately apply, if anything?

The main takeaways from the test screenings were in regard to pacing, where there is an underlying tension from the opening shot of the film that slowly builds throughout. But the first half of the film is really about these characters and their relationships, and so we needed to find ways to keep the tension during that portion of the film, even when there was nothing overtly scary happening onscreen. And so, it was really about spacing out these voyeuristic shots that we have that almost remind the audience that we're in a thriller or a horror film. That's what we really took away from those screenings.

I love the poster for this film, and despite a few exceptions here and there, I feel like artful movie posters are a thing of the past. Do you find movie posters to be lacking these days as well?

I don't know. I mean, we definitely put a lot of time and effort into our poster. And I'm really happy to hear you recognize that because we did try to make it feel a little more artful than a standard horror poster. It was difficult because we wanted to lean into certain horror elements, but at the same time, the movie is not your standard horror film. There are not jump scares every few minutes. It's more of a nuanced, atmospheric approach where the movie really takes its time to creep up on you. And so, we wanted to somehow reflect all of that in the poster, and I think we were able to achieve that by just creating more of an atmosphere and not leaning too heavily on the horror, but just enough so that you know that you're in for a creepy ride.

Is it safe to say that you've caught the directing bug?

Absolutely. I would love to continue on this path and direct another horror film. I have a pretty strong idea for a sequel to this film, if I'm lucky enough to have the opportunity to carry on the story. But also, Alison and I have written a romantic comedy during the quarantine. We love the genre, but we were kind of looking at the landscape of romantic comedies over the past decade or so and we feel like people are really yearning for one that feels a little more elevated and tasteful. And so, we started thinking about some of the classics like When Harry Met Sally …Sleepless in Seattle, My Best Friend's Wedding and Pretty Woman, which are all films that are extremely grounded. The acting is great, and they are all shot like dramas, so they look good. And so, we were just wondering why no one approaches the genre from that point of view anymore. So that's what we tried to do with this script, and that would be for me to direct and for Alison to act in.

I really appreciate when a known actor shows up for a scene or two and immediately makes their presence felt. And you certainly made an impression on me in If Beale Street Could Talk. What do you remember about that day or two of shooting, and was it a standard casting process?

Oh, thanks. It was not a standard casting process. Barry Jenkins actually called me and offered me the role, and the first thing I said was, "Are you sure?" (Laughs.) And we talked through it, and you know, when Barry Jenkins asks you to be in something, you do it. I would've been an extra in the film, walking in the deep background, if he wanted me to. But I remember the experience on set being very positive in the sense that he creates such a comfortable environment, and he really gives you the time to find the moment. He's so confident about what he's doing, and has such a strong vision and knows exactly how to talk to actors. I remember he would come up to me and sometimes just say one or two words, and I knew exactly what he wanted. And these simple poignant directions that he gave ultimately made the character much more complex and gave him a lot of weight.

You were also part of a memorable opening sequence in Michael Bay's 6 Underground. Was that movie as bonkers to shoot as it was to watch?

It was crazier than you could ever imagine. Whatever you're thinking, multiply that by 50. (Laughs.) I'll leave it at that. If we ever get to meet face-to-face again, we can spend an entire dinner reflecting on that experience, and I have many, many entertaining stories for you.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The Rental is now available at drive-ins, in select theaters and on demand.

  • Brian Davids
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