Actor Dave Franco steps up to becoming writer-director Dave Franco with ‘The Rental’
For the past 15 years, Dave Franco has carved out a busy acting career made up of recurring characters on TV shows (the full-of-himself Cole Aaronson on “Scrubs” was a standout) and members of ensemble casts in feature films (the drug dealer Eric in “21 Jump Street” and the realtor Levy in “If Beale Street Could Talk” showed his comedic-dramatic range). But he’s also dabbled in writing and directing shorts and has been waiting for the right moment to step up to writing and directing a feature.
Which is what he’s done with “The Rental,” a psychological horror film that initially appears to be yet another of those “people being terrorized in an isolated house” movies, but seamlessly and successfully develops into a story of frayed relationships that also just happens to be a horror film. The affable Franco, 35, spoke about the film by phone from his home in L.A.
Q: You’ve mentioned wanting to direct for years. What pushed you into finally doing it?
A: I’ve been writing and directing short films and skits for a long time. I’ve wanted to take the next step to directing a feature, but I was nervous to take that leap. The main reason I’m doing any of this is because I love movies. My first job was at a mom and pop video store when I was 14. It was illegal for me to be working there at that age, so they paid me by allowing me to take home as many movies as I wanted, and that became my film school. I wanted to find a way into the movie business, and the path I took was through acting. But over time I became curious about every step of the process.
Q: How long has the idea for “The Rental” been around?
A: (My cowriter) Joe Swanberg and I came up with the idea roughly two years ago. I acted in his Netflix show “Easy” and we realized we had similar sensibilities and interests, including genre films. The idea of writing with him was intriguing because his main strengths are in character and relationships. Our main goal was to create a tense drama, where the interpersonal relationships are just as thrilling as the fact that there’s a psycho villain lurking in the shadows. But we mainly use the horror elements of the film to help accentuate the problems these couples are going through.
Q: Does the shooting script differ a lot from early drafts?
A: The main difference is that the early drafts didn’t have a dog. What we learned over time is that the dog was very helpful in terms of adding immediate tension. The audience learns early on that these characters aren’t supposed to bring a dog to the house they rent. So, from the opening scenes, they already have a secret. And as the movie progresses, there are lots of secrets (laughs). The dog also serves as a character that the audience can fully root for. These characters are all flawed and live in this gray area, but the dog is pure, and I think he gives the audience a little bit of relief throughout the film.
Q: You’ve said in the past that, as an actor, you enjoy doing rehearsals. Was there much time for rehearsals in this film?
A: I do enjoy rehearsing before filming. It helps me start to take ownership of the character as opposed to stepping on-set and saying the words for the first time while the cameras are rolling. For “The Rental,” we were only able to do a table read with me and the actors before we started filming. We went through the script, scene by scene, and I asked everyone if there were any lines of dialogue or even any single words that felt false to them. And we changed the dialogue to put it in their voice so they could start to feel comfortable with who these people were. That allowed us to hit the ground running when we started rolling the cameras.
Q: The film is really unsettling and atmospheric, and there’s lots of emotional tension. But unlike so many other films in the genre, there’s no nudity and only minimal sex and gore. Was that all part of a plan to make it more accessible to wider audiences but still bring in the horror crowd?
A: I’m a huge fan of the genre. The horror films that I love are the ones that take the scares seriously, but they also prioritize the acting, the visuals, the music, the production design. The films that influenced me are “Hereditary,” “Blue Ruin,” “The Shining,” “Rosemary’s Baby.” Those films are much more nuanced and atmospheric than a traditional slasher film. They take their time to really get under your skin as opposed to horror films that lean too heavily on cheap jump scares. So, I guess I approached everything from the perspective of wanting to treat the genre in an artful way and try to subvert expectations wherever I could, and not lean too heavily on gore and nudity and things that feel like second-rate ways to titillate the audience.
“The Rental” is in select drive-ins, theaters and on demand July 24.
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.