Dave Franco’s “The Rental” is effectively disturbing in how it toys with our sense of security, whether it’s with long-term relationships or Airbnb rentals. Something is always off in “The Rental” right from the start, when we see how Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) are close to each other in an office. Their body language and ease is mighty comfortable, but they’re not together—Dan is dating Michelle (Alison Brie), and Mina is with Dan’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White). It’s Charlie and Mina’s decision to get an Airbnb for the four of them that weekend, and because that’s just how Charlie and Mina are, it’s not questioned. A fun weekend with drugs, a hike, and some hot tub time is meant to ensue.
Something is also off with the Airbnb host, Taylor (Toby Huss). He’s handy with a repair when they need it, but his readiness to offer them a telescope, and his silent racism against Mina, leaves everyone uncomfortable. Is he watching them? These two uncertainties layer up in an original script that’s thrilling through its unsettling final moments, when it leaves viewers with such a plausible evil for the era of Airbnbs that making a movie about it seems dangerous itself.
Beyond our common modern anxieties, “The Rental” owns its major influences, like the mind of co-writer Joe Swanberg, who is no stranger to intimate arenas for intricate relationships (and previously worked with Franco on the Netflix show “Easy”). There’s also a bit of Sean Durkin’s cold-blooded nature in there, the “Martha Marcy May Marlene” director serving here as an executive producer. But the way in which Franco sharpens horror conventions, while pushing his characters and audience alike to multifaceted discomfort, announces him as a major director to keep an eye on.
Franco talked to RogerEbert.com about constructing his directorial debut, his own paranoia about privacy, and more. Semi-spoilers are saved for the final question.
Back in 2016, when we talked about “Now You See Me 2,” there was a moment when you asked me, “Do you think it would be tough to accept me in a serious role?”
Thaaat’s an interesting question that I posed.
Is directing a horror movie reflective for you of that thinking back in 2017?
It definitely wasn’t my intention to make people take me seriously [laughs]. I think most people just know me from the comedies that I’ve acted in, and everyone is surprised that my directorial debut is a horror film. But as a viewer there’s nothing I enjoy more than a smart genre film, a film that takes the scares seriously but also prioritizes everything else: the acting, the visuals, the music, the production design, and really approaches everything in a more tasteful, elevated way. I think about filmmakers, this young group of genre filmmakers now, people like Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, Amy Seimetz, Sean Durkin, David Robert Mitchell, these are all directors who make projects that feel more nuanced and atmospheric and they really take their time to creep up on you, as opposed to many genre films that if we rely too heavily on cheap jump scares, ultimately feel disposable.
I noticed that Sean Durkin was an executive producer on the project—did he provide any tips to you, or provide any help to the project outside of being an executive producer?
I don’t know how I convinced Sean Durkin to be a producer on my first film, but he ended up becoming somewhat of a mentor to me throughout the process. I trust his taste inherently, and I really value his opinion on how much or how much little to lean into the genre element, and in the end he really gave me the confidence to make a horror film that doesn’t rely on jump scares. Instead, I want to set a very specific tone with the music and visuals, where as an audience member you believe that something scary could happen at any moment, even when there’s nothing overtly scary happening on-screen. He just really instilled that confidence in me to trust that there was enough tension between these characters that I didn’t need to put the horror element too much in the audience’s face.
The first half of the movie is very much about developing these intricate relationships, and the secrets at their core. How did you want to balance that with the horror, and the karmic results of it? What were your goals?
I wrote the script with Joe Swanberg, and the reason I wanted to work with Joe is because his main strengths lie in character and relationships. Our goal from the beginning was to create a tense relationship drama, where the interpersonal issues for these characters were just as thrilling as the fact that there’s a killer stalking them. At its core, the movie really is about these characters and these relationships, and then there are these horror elements to accentuate the problem these characters are going through. For me personally, when I’m having a problem in my romantic relationship, that’s scarier than anything else in life. I think we were playing with … I guess the movie is somewhat a takedown on modern relationships too, where as the relationships in the movie start to fall apart, that coincides with the characters finding themselves in more danger.
It almost seems critical of platonic friendships.
Yeah, in a way. It’s funny, me and my wife talk a lot about how as adults, it’s much harder to start friendships with people of the opposite sex, because there just always seems to be something more under the surface. It’s a tricky thing to navigate. I think about my closest female friends, and all of them I’ve known since I was really young.
Another element that adds to the horror of “The Rental” is privacy, and I was wondering what privacy means to you. Do you feel you have to be extra protective of it, especially being married to someone who is also on movie posters?
Definitely. I’m a pretty private person in general, I’m not on social media. I’m also generally paranoid and … technology in general does scare me. I’m always thinking that people are watching and listening to everything I’m doing, and I hate that I think that way. But even when I’m on the phone with my family or close friends of mine, the back of my mind I am thinking, is someone listening in on this conversation? I guess that’s the world we’re living in, and those ideas are definitely tied to scenes in the movie too.
Do you feel that paranoia comes from something you felt growing up?
I think it has to do with how crazy the world is, but also it’s a lot worse in my mind than what reality is. I know that I worry about things that I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it. Maybe being in this industry for as long as I have, and dealing with paparazzi at different points in my career, I think that stuff has slowly started to take its toll on me.
So who wrote all the bro puns then? You or Bro Swanberg?
[laughs] I think that was a combined effort. That’s something that’s based on stuff that me and my friends do all the time. A few of my friends have now seen the film and they say that scene is the most accurate representation of who we are, and how we grew up.
Given that personal presence in it, did you ever feel like you wanted to act in “The Rental” yourself?
Yeah, the truth is that I wasn’t originally planning on directing the film. At that time, I was going to play the role of Josh, which ultimately went to Jeremy Allen White. But when I decided to direct it, I thought it would be smart for me to just focus on my responsibilities behind the camera, knowing how much I would have on my plate, and knowing that I would be learning a lot as a first-time director.
And I’m really glad that it played out the way that it did. Jeremy is such a naturally gifted actor, and he just has this raw, unpredictable energy that reminds me of actors like Joaquin Phoenix and Shia LaBeouf, and you just don’t know what he’s going to do at any moment, and those are the most exciting types of actors in my eyes. I think he brought something to this role that I wasn’t even thinking when I was writing the character, and he just gave it more layers than I could have anticipated.
I want to ask one spoiler-y question, but we don’t have to get into any spoiling details—where did the idea for the evil in “The Rental” come from?
What I can say is that there were early drafts, where we had the villain monologuing about why they were doing what they were doing. And it felt preachy and kind of cheesy. We realized there was something much stronger about simplifying it all, and making it more ambiguous.
“The Rental” will be available in select theaters and on digital platforms on July 24.