Dave Franco has made the leap from directing comedy shorts to feature films — and the results are thrilling. Based on a script co-written with Joe Swanberg (Easy, Digging for Fire), Franco directs Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, and Toby Huss in The Rental, a tightly-paced horror/thriller about two couples whose weekend getaway is anything but relaxing. To say anything more about The Rental would mean spoiling all of the neat twists and turns Franco and Co. have laid out for viewers — and you definitely don’t want me to spoil this one.
I knew after my first screening of The Rental I had to get on the horn with Franco to discuss his twisty feature-length directorial debut. During our 1-on-1 phone call, Franco opened up about directing his wife, directing actors as an actor himself, what inspired The Rental‘s story, if a sequel is a possibility, and more.
COLLIDER: I’m curious to know what was it like working with your wife, Alison Brie. What was it like to direct her?
DAVE FRANCO: Yeah, we’ve acted together before. We knew that we worked together really well on a movie set. That being said, we’ve never worked together in this capacity. But I had a sneaking suspicion that it would go really well, and it surpassed all of my expectations. It really was a dream for a few reasons. She is so talented and she made my job very easy in that way, where she would nail it on the first take every time. I would go up to her and say, “Okay, we got that. I’m happy to move on, but if you want to try some new things let’s go for it.” I’ve always known how talented she is, but when I was in a position where I was able to watch her intently for five great weeks, I realized that she is one of the best. She has this unique ability to balance heavy drama in moments of levity sometimes within the space of a single scene. There’s not many actors that can pull that off.
Coming from an acting background primarily, what was it like to flip to the other side and have to direct actors? We talk about this notion all the time of the “actor’s director,” a director who uniquely understands how to speak with actors because they have an acting background. I was just curious what that was like for you, switching to that head space and talking to actors as an actor?
DAVE FRANCO: One of the biggest takeaways from this experience was realizing how challenging and bizarre acting really is.
I remember sitting behind the camera and watching the actors prepare for a scene, where they were psyching themselves up and trying to get into this really intense head space while hundreds of crew members watch and scrutinize their every move. It’s really a vulnerable position that actors put themselves in. I just have more respect for actors than ever after this experience. Obviously, I have so much sympathy for them, having been in their shoes many times. I was really fascinated by everyone’s different approach, because everyone excels in different ways. It was fun to me to try to make adjustments and learn how to talk to them, and talk to them as individuals and not treat them like they are all the same type of actor.
On top of that, before we started filming I wanted to have a table read with just me and the actors where we went through each scene. I had them identify any lines of dialogue or even single words that felt unnatural to them. The purpose of that was to obviously put the dialogue into their own words, but also I just wanted them to start to take ownership of these characters so it all felt very organic by the time we were actually shooting.
I’m really curious about the genesis of this story for you because watching it, I latched on to this familiar home invader horror story, but it also felt like a commentary about sort of the paranoid of devices in our homes, and who’s listening and who’s watching, and who’s accessing.
DAVE FRANCO: Yeah. Yeah.
Is that is accurate? Also, how did this story came about?
DAVE FRANCO: The idea was inspired by own paranoia about the concept of home sharing, where I think about how the country is as divided as it’s ever been, and no one trusts each other. Yet, we trust staying in the home of a stranger simply because of a few positive reviews online. In reality, while we were filming the movie there were new articles coming out every week about homeowners getting cameras in their place. All that being said, I still use all of the home sharing apps. In fact, I stayed in an Airbnb while filming this movie. I guess I was trying to explore that disconnect where we are all aware of the risks of staying in a stranger’s home, but we never think anything bad will actually happen to us.
Going back to your question just about technology, I am a generally paranoid person. I really value my privacy. But I can’t help but constantly think about whether or not people are watching us through our computer cameras, and listening to our phone calls, and even when I’m on the phone with my family or close friends, in the back of my mind I’m always thinking, “Is someone else listening in on this?” I hate that I think that way, but that’s the world we’re living in, and I think that definitely ties into some of the themes in this film.
I really think the way that you handled building and releasing tension was really well done because it’s really hard to nail. Was that ever a conscious focal point while you were directing or writing the script?
DAVE FRANCO: Yeah, that was one of the most challenging things about this whole process where this movie isn’t just a horror film. The reason I wanted to collaborate with Joe Swanberg on this script is because his main strengths lie in character and relationships. We wanted to make a relationship drama where the interpersonal issues between the characters were just as thrilling as the fact that there is a psycho killer lurking in the shadows. But, at its core, the movie is about these characters and relationships, and then we sprinkle the four elements on top to help accentuate the problems that they are going through. For me personally, whenever I’ve had problem within my own romantic relationships, it really does feel scarier than anything else in life. I think there is a little bit of commentary on that as well.
The end credits of this movie are really fascinating because they’re open-ended. I get the sense that this could morph into a franchise, or at least get a sequel if possible. Has that ever been a discussion? Is that possible?
DAVE FRANCO: Definitely. Definitely. I have a pretty strong idea for what I would do with the sequel if I was lucky enough to get the opportunity. Without giving too much away, I would want to explore the mythology of the villain a bit more, and also set the story outside of the U.S. because there are Airbnbs and home shares all over the world. I feel like the rest of the world deserves to be a little bit creeped out, too.
Finally, I’m just curious to know: Why make The Rental your first feature length directing project? Why step into the director’s chair at all? I’m really curious about your decision to do that.
DAVE FRANCO: Yeah, so I’ve actually been directing for a while on a much smaller scale. I started about a decade ago when I was making short films and skits for the website FunnyOrDie. I’ve always wanted to take the leap to directing a feature, but, candidly, I was a little nervous to do it. Then when I wrote this script with Joe, I realized that I knew these characters and this story more intimately than anyone. All the nerves seemed to go away, and I just started to feel excited because I had such a strong idea for who I wanted to approach this project.
Once I was on set, I realized I knew a lot more than I thought I did, because of the fact that I have been on so many sets as an actor. It just made me think about how a lot of first-time directors, when they are stepping on set that first day, it’s their first time on any set ever. So, they are learning about just the dynamics between the crew members, and just how things generally work. I felt like I was able to skip a lot of those steps. It immediately put me more at ease.
The Rental now available in select theaters, drive-ins, and on-demand.
Allie Gemmill is the Weekend Contributing Editor for Collider. You can follow them on Twitter @_matineeidle.