Dave Franco is a bit of a mystery to me. When I think of him, I think of the final season of “Scrubs” or 21 JUMP STREET or NEIGHBORS. Fun romps, big laughs, youth fare. But then he goes and does something like THE DISASTER ARTIST, or signs on to play Vanilla Ice in an upcoming biopic about the oft-maligned Florida Man.
And then there’s THE RENTAL, his feature-length directorial debut which he co-wrote with Joe Swanberg (DRINKING BUDDIES, HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS). THE RENTAL doesn’t misidentify itself with its poster and tagline “Secluded Getaway. Killer Views.” It’s a thriller film, and it doesn’t fall short on that promise. Less rollercoaster, more haunted house, the film oozes with dread in the final half of its runtime, and reveals a villain that will change the way you look at vacationing. For the first half of the film it’s a slick character study, relying on its lean cast and claustrophobic set. The film follows two couples, entangled together by the men being brothers and two of the four being business partners. After a successful launch of their new business, the four procure a beautiful Air BnB atop a hillside overlooking the ocean for a weekend of stress-free wide open air and copious amounts of booze and drugs. There’s a sense of unease about the man who lets them into the property but they mostly think he’s harmless. That is until cameras are discovered in unusual spots throughout the house, causing tensions to rachet up to eleven and the characters’ baser instincts to take over their better sense of judgement.
Check out the trailer:
Charlie, played by Dan Stevens (EUROVISION SONG CONTEST, BEAUTY & THE BEAST), believes he’s the smartest person in the room, and immediately assumes control of the entire groups’ welfare. His younger, aimless brother Josh, played by Jeremy Allen White (Showtime’s “Shameless”, BAD TURN WORSE), goes into fight-or-flight mode, emphasis on fight. Michelle, David’s fiancé, played by Franco’s actual wife Alison Brie (NBC’s “Community”, Netflix’s “GLOW”), wants to run, and Mina, Josh’s girlfriend and Charlie’s business partner, played by Sheila Vand (TNT’s “Snowpiercer”, A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT), wants the entire weekend to just disappear.
The entire cast is great, turning in sympathetic performances and selling the tension with aplomb. Franco’s directing is quite good, eliciting strong performances and balancing the sense of terror with a humanity that keeps the viewer invested. THE RENTAL is a strong debut from a terrific entertainer that, like his brother before him, is going to keep surprising us in new and inventive ways as his career flourishes.
A terrifying, brutal slasher/thriller, THE RENTAL is hard to discuss without going into spoiler territory, and when I got the opportunity to chat up Sheila Vand and Jeremy Allen White, I did not squander it trying to talk around the film’s revelations. I wanted their take on the bad behavior of the “protagonists,” the bait-and-switch of the true source of menace for the vacationers, and the sheer terror of the emergent villain. I also asked Vand about her work on TNT’s “Snowpiercer,” which just wrapped its stellar first season with a whopping cliffhanger, and White about saying goodbye to Lip Gallagher after eleven years on Showtime’s “Shameless.”
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!
Sheila Vand: Hey, Eric.
Eric McClanahan: Hello. How are you?
SV: Good. How are you?
EM: I’m well. Thank you for asking. So we’re talking about THE RENTAL, which comes out later this month. Co-written by Dave Franco and directed by Dave Franco, and you play Mina. Tell me a bit about your character.
SV: Yeah, there’s basically two couples in the movie that decide to go off on a weekend getaway to celebrate something that happened at work and I’m in one of the couples. My business partner is played by Dan Stevens and something great happened at work and that’s part of the reason why we decided to get out of town and I also date Jeremy Allen White’s character, who is the brother of Dan Stevens’s character, so basically these two couples are very entangled because the two guys are brothers. I work with one and date the other. We get away for the weekend and one thing goes wrong after another until complete horror ensues.
EM: It’s hard to talk about the film without going into spoiler territory because so much of the film is that story. So, since we’ve both seen it, we’re just going to drop the veil and talk about this movie and really break it down. Mina is obviously a conflicted character. She seems to carry a bit of baggage from a lifetime of being something of an outsider.
SV: Yeah, definitely.
EM: Did you bring any personal experience into that portrayal?
SV: Absolutely. Mina, whose last name in Mohamadhi, is an Iranian-American character, as I am in real life, and this movie does touch upon some of the discrimination that she faces and some of that micro-racism that I’ve for sure experienced in my life and I was glad to see it included in the film without it having to take over the whole film, you know? But I’m glad we’re at the point where we can weave things like that into movies now, now and forever, but without feeling like they have to take over the entire plot. But yeah she’s conflicted for several reasons; I think part of it you put really well that may come from feeling like an outsider but there’s also some things that she does in this movie that are morally questionable, I think in an interesting way, because I like to play flawed characters. I love when characters sometimes exist in that moral gray, because I don’t think things are so black and white. And yeah, she makes some mistakes of her own in the film; she doesn’t always make the right choices, and I like how complicated she can be, in that way.
EM: So she does end up hooking up with Charlie over the course of the weekend and it begs that eternal question: Can two attractive people, who are attracted to each other, have a professional relationship?
SV: Yeah, right. It’s a difficult situation that they’re in, and thank you for saying that I’m attractive, I’ll take that compliment. And Dan Stevens, who plays my business partner, certainly is. But I think it goes beyond that; it’s two characters who have a certain intimacy as well because we work together and we’re such close collaborators professionally that it kind of bleeds into how they feel about each other outside of it. And beyond the potential possibility that is something that’s been bubbling up between them for some time, they’re also very intoxicated on the night that it happens, and they’re “on drugs.” Not to excuse their bad behavior, but it’s kind of a perfect storm of bad choices that lead to the mistakes that they make.
EM: I think the way that it plays out on screen, particularly from Charlie’s perspective, was that they had such a victory, professionally, that he felt this feeling of power, that said “I’ve already accomplished so much, I could do and have whatever I want.”
SV: Yeah, they feel like they’re on top of the world and they can take it too far. You get the sense that it wasn’t necessarily as weighted of a mistake as it might seem like it was but the next day when they acknowledge it with each other you can see that this is something that they regret and don’t want to ever do again. But it’s too late at that point; the avalanche has begun. The first snowball has started rolling down the hill.
EM: So how empowering was it to be the “Final Girl?”
SV: Ha! The Final Girl! That’s awesome. I love these kinds of “Everybody Dies” movies and it was satisfying. It was also beyond getting to be the Final Girl and have this really, really fun sort of ending to my character. Also, it was great to be in such a leading role, like it’s such a small cast; there’s really only like five people in the movie. But going back to my personal life experience and some discrimination I’ve faced in my real life, I haven’t always had an opportunity as an actor to play a part this big alongside other white actors who are playing just as big leading roles. I’m very used to being more in supporting types of roles and it was very nice to step up to that plate. It was great and it felt like a real opportunity and I was so happy to take it. Maybe it’s a bit of tangent from talking about having the final death in the movie but to me that ties into her importance in the movie and her importance in this story. So, yeah, that was a nice thing, too.
EM: Now, did you get to see the full script which reveals the killers M.O. before you filmed or did you get just enough?
SV: No, I got the full script. And I love that it’s… people keep bringing up this element of “Oh, this is going to make it where people don’t trust Air BnBs anymore or rentals anymore?” But in the movie it’s not even a host that turns out to be the main villain. And it’s not a guest; it’s not us and it’s not them. And that’s the thing: there’s trust on both sides. There’s trust we put in to the people’s homes we enter and decide to stay in but they’re trusting us, as well, right? To go into their home. So yeah, the whole breakdown of trust in this movie is the paranoia that turns into complete horror.
EM: Well, what I loved about it is when you’re watching it the first run through, you assume that there’s a personal vendetta; that the killer has a personal connection to the victims, and you’re trying to figure out “Oh, is it that guy’s brother? Is it that guy’s son?” And you get to ending and realize that it’s completely impersonal; it’s just a weekend activity. Which is so chilling.
SV: Yeah, it’s terrifying.
EM: Really well-constructed.
SV: But at the same time, it could be that because these people have already spun themselves into a web that they become the perfect victims, in a way, for this killer. You know, they’re already caught in a web of their own drama and so they seem like the perfect people to prey on.
EM: Right? And he certainly didn’t shy away from that; he did use that to his advantage. Do you think there is any hope for Mina’s character? Her ending is somewhat ambiguous. Do you think that maybe she survived?
SV: I completely agree with you that it is totally ambiguous. That’s another thing that I love about it: it’s open-ended. You don’t actually see her body; she doesn’t get attacked in the same way that the other characters do; she just kind of disappears from view. So, we’ll have to wait and see if she makes a comeback. If the movie does well enough for a sequel, maybe we’ll see.
EM: Speaking of big, meaty roles alongside other already celebrated leading performers, I’ve been watching your character arc as Zara in “Snowpiercer.” Super fun! It looks like a lot of fun to make. Tell me about your experience on that show.
SV: That is another just amazing ensemble cast to work with. So many strong actors who are down to earth and we have such good chemistry with each other, similar to the cast of THE RENTAL. I love working with those guys, and also I just love genre stuff. I love sci-fi. I love working on those amazing sets and seeing all the little details that they put in to create this world of our own. That’s my favorite thing about genre stuff: you have that extra liberty to use your imagination. The sets are beautiful! There are four huge soundstages that we shoot on that are just filled with all different kinds of train cars and one of my favorite things to do is if no one’s shooting on that set I’ll just kind of wander around quietly and check out all the props. So much thought gets put into it and it’s just super transportive. It feels like you’re in a play, like you’re on a stage with how much work goes into the production design.
EM: Yeah, production design, particularly on a show like that, is like 90% of the world-building. And I think that there’s a correlation between a show like that and a feature like THE RENTAL that it’s imperative to create that sense of claustrophobia.
SV: Yeah, totally. Because “Snowpiercer” all takes place on a train, for those who don’t know, and I’ve often said that I don’t know if I’d survive living on a train for that long, personally, being somewhat claustrophobic.
EM: Well, we’re getting kind of a dry run with this pandemic and recommended isolation. So, THE RENTAL is coming out July 24th but you already did a pop-up drive-in theater experience at the Arclight in Los Angeles. How much fun was that?
SV: That was so much fun! It was kind of compounded with energy by the fact that it was the first time for a lot of us seeing that many people and getting some kind of movie theater experience after all these months. And they did such a good job with it; they were so safe, following all precautions with social distancing. Each car was one parking spot apart from each other, but we still got to feel that energy of seeing a movie around all these other people. Instead of the applause or screams that you might hear, people were honking their horns or flashing their headlights. It was nice! It gave us a sense of having something like a premiere in this pandemic-time. And also I think a horror movie is one of the best things to see at a drive-in, so it felt like the right place to share it with people.
EM: I can imagine. There is some vehicular terror in the film, too, so I imagine I’d have been looking around me at that time, thinking “Am I okay? Is this okay?” It could get unsettling.
SV: It does. It’s funny to finish a horror movie and then just see all these headlights come on. All these people in dark cars driving away. But it was great, a lot of fun!
EM: So is there anything more you’d like to add about THE RENTAL?
SV: Actually, yes! IFC is doing this amazing thing where they’re going to actually be releasing it at many drive-in theaters around the country. So if you didn’t get the opportunity to see it at the Arclight pop-up you can see it at a drive-in on July 24th and after. I hope that people get to see it that way because it was a special experience.
EM: So what are you working on next? What have you got coming out?
SV: Well, I actually made this very wacky kind of psychedelic video music show that I’m just going to be self-releasing in the next couple of weeks on my Instagram. It’s called Medicinal Music and I think it’s pretty appropriate for the times, even though I actually made it before Coronavirus. It’s about using music to help with the anxiety and depression of being isolated. I hope it cheers people up, that’s the purpose of it. I hope it brings people joy. I’m not sure how many episodes I’m going to put out yet, but it’s an episodic kind of really wacky zany video art kind of thing. Other than that I’ve been working on my own writing projects, certain things. A pilot. And I have some movies that are supposed to be shooting soon but everything’s pending when our industry opens back up.
EM: Well, that sounds very timely. I think it’s perfect that you’ll be releasing that soon. Please let me be the first to say thank you for that.
SV: Thank you so much. Thanks for talking.
EM: It’s been my pleasure. You have a great day!
Jeremy Allen White: Hey, Eric.
Eric McClanahan: Hey, how are you today, Jeremy?
JAW: Doing alright. How about yourself?
EM: I’m doing quite alright, as well. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today about THE RENTAL.
JAW: Yeah, of course.
EM: It’s a great movie. Josh is a very compelling character. So the first thing I gotta ask is what got you attached to the project? What brought you aboard?
JAW: Just blind luck, truly. Dave Franco cold emailed me. I was watching TV at home and checked my email and I saw an email from Dave whom I’d never gotten to work with. He sent a really nice message just letting me know that he’d been aware of me for years and he’d liked all the work that he’d seen and if I was interested he’d love me for me to read this script and consider a part in it. When I saw that it was written by Dave, whom I was already a fan of, and Joe Swanberg, whom I was also a big fan of, he’s a great writer/director, I was interested. And then discovered that they already had Alison Brie and Dan Stevens attached, and I’m a fan of theirs, too. So even before reading the script I was pretty interested and then I started reading and realized it was a horror film and I’d never done anything like that before and I don’t think I ever really wanted to, necessarily, not that I had anything against it; I’m a fan as an audience member. But I feel like Dave and Joe had an interesting take that seemed quite plausible to me; it didn’t seem other-worldly or far-off. It seemed like a very accessible fear, which was interesting to me. And then Josh, I was excited to play. I really fell for him, I guess. He’s this mostly sufferable kind of aimless guy but he cares for Mina so much and then everything just falls down all around him, in an almost comical way, to me, at least. He was just so tragic. So yeah, it seemed like a no-brainer, so I called Dave back and we got together for lunch a couple of times and talked about movies and then, yeah, we went up there and did the thing.
EM: So are you saying that the Josh character was written for you?
JAW: No. There’s a bit of backstory but I probably won’t get it all correct. There was a point when he was writing this with Joe and was talking it over with Sean Durkin, who was and Executive Producer on this, and they were discussing that Dave would play Josh and they wanted to get his brother James to play Charlie and they were meeting with other directors. At a certain point Dave realized that he wanted to direct it and felt that it might have been a tough go directing for the first time and playing one of the lead roles, so I lucked out with Dave passing on his own movie and got the shot, which was great.
EM: Josh is a wonderful character with a lot of heart and a lot of damage, and as the character was becoming fleshed out on the screen, when Dan was giving the backstory, I thought he reminded me of Lip Gallagher. Did you see that similarity?
JAW: I think that, yeah, in that they’re both kind of goodhearted fuckups, sure. But I do think that Lip has a bit more of a chance of getting out. I found Josh to be a bit more hopeless, unfortunately. But that was fun for me to play.
EM: I like what you said that it is almost comical the way the wind falls out of his sails and everything falls apart, because it is so incredibly dark that you almost have to find a humor in it.
JAW: Yeah, he’s just so ignorant for so much of the movie, until the very end, really, he’s just so ignorant of what’s going on around him and then you kind of feel, or I felt, “Just put him out of his misery, you know? He’s not meant for this world anymore.”
EM: Right? With the villain that they’ve crafted, who we as viewers want to invent a story for him that has a personal connection to the victims; you know, we want to make into an I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, and then it’s revealed that it’s all just for sport, do you think that Joe and Dave have created a new villain that could live on in multiple films in the American film culture?
JAW: I hope so. I hope enough people watch this one for that to make sense for them. I know it’s definitely something that they are open to and have talked about it. But it’s going to be something dependent on people clicking “rent” at home or going to the drive-in and what theaters they can, you know?
EM: I got to talk to Sheila Vand last month and she said that she went to the Arclight Drive-In experience back on June 18th. Were you able to attend that, as well?
JAW: I didn’t, unfortunately. I Zoomed in for the Q&A but I wasn’t physically there, myself. But I do want to try to find a drive-in close to home this weekend or early next weekend. I’d love to see it in that environment; I think it’d be really cool.
EM: Yeah, she said it was an amazing experience. We have one more question so I have to ask, Jeremy: I know we’re getting ready for the last season of Showtime’s “Shameless.” What does it feel like having grown up on this show and being such a cultural phenomenon in America; what does it feel like as you’re preparing to say goodbye to Lip?
JAW: Man, I haven’t had to do it yet, but I know it’s going to be a hard day. I am grateful, obviously, for the time in people’s living rooms and the people that have cared enough to keep up with us after all these years. We were supposed to start this thing in mid-March and obviously we didn’t, it keeps getting pushed back, but I know we’re going to get it done and I don’t look forward to that last day on set. I think it’s going to be a tough goodbye, you know?
EM: Yeah, it is. Well, thank you so much for talking to me today and best of luck with THE RENTAL and “Shameless – Season Eleven” and everything, man.
JAW: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. It was nice talking to you, man.
EM: It was my pleasure. Bye.
THE RENTAL is streaming on Theater-at-Home platforms and playing at Drive-In Theaters (and if there's one open near you, actual theaters) today, Friday, July 24th all across America. Let me know if you've seen the film and if you agree with Franco's achievement and potential and what are your thoughts on the Vanilla Ice biopic?
Untl next time, stay safe and stay sane!
-McEric, aka Eric McClanahan-