Dave Franco directing "The Rental" with Alison Brie on the monitor (IFC Films)

Dave Franco shares your Airbnb anxieties in new horror flick "The Rental," starring wife Alison Brie

On "Salon Talks," he discusses directing, COVID movie-viewing & starring in a new Vanilla Ice (ice, baby) biopic



D. Watkins
July 24, 2020 9:00PM (UTC)

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a horror movie? I normally think of a creepy doll that sneaks up on you while you're in the shower or some big mangled-face dude chasing you through the woods, swinging a chainsaw or machete at your head. So many films that dominate the horror genre fit that mold, but what about the horrors that develop out of social situations? 

The creepy uncle, the crazy ex, the spouse that swipes the credit card as if limits don't exist, or the thoughts that dance around in the cheating husband's head on the day his mistress contacts his wife. Those stories are as scary as some of the horror flicks with vicious monsters. Dave Franco, star of "Neighbors," "21 Jump Street," and "Now You Can See Me," perfectly tackles that social horror in his directorial debut of new film "The Rental." 

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Staring Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, and Jeremy Allen White, "The Rental" is about two couples celebrating a business triumph by venturing to a beautiful rental for a weekend of hiking, partying, and enjoying life. What they don't know is that the house will cause feelings to surface that are strong enough to make everything spiral. 

I recently got the chance to talk comedy and horror with Franco on "Salon Talks."  Watch the episode with Franco here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about how he's been surviving and collaborating in quarantine with his wife Alison Brie and how he is preparing to star in his next project, a Vanilla Ice biopic.   

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The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How's it going?

Good, man. How you doing?

Still just holding my patience and trying to adjust to quarantine life. What about you?

Yeah, we're doing the same. What gets you most excited right now? What makes you happiest right now?

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New books.

I like that.

There are so many books that I wanted to read from my peers and colleagues that I just haven't had time because everything's always about what am I going to put out and what am I doing next? But I've been able to absorb art from other people. Films, too. What about you?

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I would say watching movies. We were watching at least one every night and we got a list going of everything we've watched in the quarantine.

Anything that I need to see?

We revisited all of Spike Jonze's movies recently. He might be my number one, just seeing how inventive that guy is. "Being John Malkovich," that was his first film, which is one of the craziest concepts of all time, and just the execution is perfect. "Adaptation," "Where the Wild Things Are," and "Her" is just a perfect little foursome right there. For some good TV, have you been watching, "I May Destroy You"?

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That's such a good show, and heavy. It's so heavy.

Heavy, heavy, but so well made. It's crazy. Do you watch the Ruffalo show, "I Know This Much is True"?

No, I never saw it. I need to check that out.

Another really heavy one but very well made. A lighter one, "Dave" on FXX is fun. Yeah, what about you? You watching anything fun?

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"Dave" is with the rapper Lil Dicky, right?

Yeah.

I like that show. That show's cool. So congratulations on your film "The Rental." What are some of the challenges in rolling a movie out during COVID?

Yeah, it's a different time we're living in, but I feel very lucky to have paired with IFC, who is distributing the film, because they they've just been really thinking outside the box and being agile. And for example, we did a premiere at a drive-in, which everyone kept telling us [that] this is the first time anyone's done this. No matter what happens with the movie, we got that. It ended up being really fun, where most premieres are a little bit stuffy. I usually feel a little anxious, just the red carpet and all these cameras in your face. But with this one, it just felt more like a communal experience. Everyone was just excited to just congregate with a bunch of movie lovers and just share this experience together.

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Give us a brief synopsis of the film.

I don't want to spoil anything.

No spoilers, no spoilers, but just a quick little . . .

Yeah, the very basic premise is it's two couples going away on vacation for what should be a celebratory trip, and secrets come out between the couples, and other things are revealed, and things start to take a very dark turn. What I will say is, it sounds like a premise that we've heard many times before in the genre, and it is, but within that premise, we really tried to subvert the genre wherever possible and try to bring things that horror audiences haven't seen before and really keep them on their toes so they don't know where the story's going. Even if they think they know where it's going from the beginning, we really try to just kind of, yeah, keep you guessing

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Something that has really been popping up since COVID hit is house parties and Airbnb. All of the nightclubs are shut down and the bars that shut down, and those stubborn people who refuse to social distance had the great idea of going to Airbnbs and trying to have little parties and stuff like that. Were you trying to work at deconstructing that industry, without telling people too much who haven't seen the film yet?

No, I promise my intention was never to take down Airbnb or any of these home sharing apps. The idea was more inspired by my own paranoia about the concept of home sharing, and thinking about how the country is as divided as it's ever been and no one trust each other; yet, we're trusting in the home of a stranger simply [because of] positive reviews online.

And the truth is, while we were filming the movie, I swear there was a new article coming out every week about homeowners who have hidden cameras in their place. All that being said, I still use Airbnb. I was staying in an Airbnb while filming this movie. I just think there's this disconnect where we're all aware of the risks of staying in a stranger's home, but we never actually think anything bad will happen to us, and so I was just trying to explore like that mentality.

This is your first big film that you're doing behind the camera as a director. What was the transition like?

It was really fun. I've been wanting to take this leap for a long time and I was waiting for the right project and the right time. I co-wrote this script with a friend of mine, Joe Swanberg, and I wasn't intending on directing it originally. But after we just got into this writing process, I was like, you know what, I know this thing better than anyone and I just have such a strong vision for what I want to do. And it just finally, it felt like the right time and I just felt excited.

When I stepped on set, what I realized is I knew a lot more than I thought I did because I've been on so many sets as an actor. And I just thought about how a lot of first-time directors, when they step on set that first day, that's their first time on any set ever. And so they're just learning about the dynamics between everyone and just the basics of how things work on a set.

You already have that because you've been training for it before you even knew.

Exactly.

Yeah, you've wore a lot of different hats in your career as an actor. You've done drama, horror, comedy. Do you like mixing it up creatively or do you feel like this is your sweet spot?

No, I love mixing it up. I like trying to keep mixing it up so no one can really pin me down and pigeonhole me. But I do think that most people know me from the comedies that I've acted in, and I think a lot of people are surprised that my directorial debut was a horror film. But for me as a viewer, there's nothing I love more than a smart genre film. I think about movies recently like "Hereditary," "Get Out," "It Follows," "Blue Ruin", "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and this young group of filmmakers who are working in the genre space, they're really approaching their work in a more tasteful, elevated way, where their films are more just nuanced and atmospheric as opposed to leaning too heavily on jump scares.

I think there's a stigma against horror films where a lot of people look down on them and treat them like they're just these schlocky, cheap projects. But out of the projects that I mentioned, I really think those are some of the better ones as of late and I think those films have just as much merit as any of these heavy dramas that are typically recognized during award season.

What's brilliant about your film to me and why I think people will connect with it is when you think of a horror film, there are certain stigmas that always come to mind, but we never really focus on the horror of being in certain social situations. Am I doing the things I'm supposed to do in my relationship? Am I a supportive partner? Is my whole life a sham?  Just thinking about the horror of some of these things coming to light. What makes your film so nuanced and why so many people are going to be able to sit down and relate to it is that I forgot I was watching a horror movie and I was just sucked into the dynamic of these couples and what is happening in their world. Was that something that you were going for?

I love to hear you say that. The reason I wanted to pair up with Joe Swanberg in the first place to write the script is because his main strengths lie in character and relationships, and so we basically wanted to write a really tense relationship drama where the interpersonal issues were just as thrilling as the fact that there's a psycho villain lurking in the shadows. At its core, it really is about these relationships, and then we use kind of the horror elements to just sprinkle on top and accentuate all this stuff that these characters are going through.

Have you ever been in a social situation that felt like a horror movie?

Haven't we all? What's interesting is, I'm an introvert at heart. These times right now during quarantine, it's been lots of ups and downs for me, but I do feel very comfortable with it just being me and my wife. I'm happy when it's just two of us. And I'm totally fine in social situations in general, and I can be okay and not super anxious, but just my natural being is being a homebody and being just with the people who I know the most intimately. And so that's not really an answer to what you're saying, but I guess it's a long way of saying I do have a little bit of social anxiety in general.

This is going to sound really petty, but I have to say it because it's true. I can't stand big, big, big family dinners at restaurants for a number of reasons. One, I really, really, really respect the industry and I think that people who work in that industry should be taken care of. They're making the food for us. Well, it should be a good time for everybody, right?

Absolutely.

One, it's always at a restaurant that doesn't really respect the industry, so it's like some big Red Lobster-type of situation. Two, there's like 80 people ,and I already know that they're going to stick me with the bill. And then three, before I even say I'm going to pay it because I have to just sit back and watch everybody pass it back and forth two or three times, to say like, "My dish was $20, so here's a $20." And I'm like, "Well, is gratuity included?" And then you had like eight Chardonnays. You drunk that whole bottle of box wine. But in all fun, in all fun, I'm happy for the family time, but that moment is always like . . . It's funny, I could imagine a horror story about the guy who always pays the bill and he's going out to eat with his family, but it's like the day he got fired so he's not going to have the disposable income. He has to take a knife and kill the server.

I love it. And you just let the music . . . From the beginning you're like, "This seems like a pretty simple, straightforward story," but you've got this music underneath where you're like, "Oh God, this is ominous. Where's this going in?" And then ultimately, the reveal in the end is just that he didn't want to pay the bill. I'm in.

Another thing I liked about the film and I think that it ties into a lot of stuff we see happening in this country today with America being so divided and at the same time having open conversations about race. We get a chance to see a little bit of that in your film.

We made this movie over a year ago and so I couldn't have anticipated what was happening now, but those elements of the film are based on friends of mine who have experienced racial profiling when trying to rent a home on one of these home sharing apps. I felt like it was important to include. We use it in a way to create immediate tension between one of the renters who is of Iranian descent and the homeowner who is white. That moment in the film, it makes everyone else in the scene uncomfortable because they're forced to recognize that their friend, who's played by Sheila Vand, was likely a victim of racial profiling and they can't ignore that anymore.

What other cool projects are you working on right now?

I actually wrote a script with my wife during the quarantine. It's a romantic comedy, and this would be for me to direct and for her to star in again. We loved the genre, but we we've been thinking about romantic comedies over the past decade or so and how the bar feels like it's set really low. Where there's this tendency to make the aesthetic, really overly bright, and for the acting and the stories to be really silly. We started looking at some of the classics, like "When Harry Met Sally," "Sleepless in Seattle," "Pretty Woman," and first off, they're really grounded, the acting's amazing, and they are all shot like dramas. They look good. We were thinking like, why does no one approach the genre from that point of view, this more kind of smart point of view? And so that's what we try to do with this new one. And so we're going to try to sell that.

Then on top of that, I got a couple of things that I'm attached to as an actor. I can't really talk about a few of them yet, but one I can talk about is we were developing a Vanilla Ice biopic for me to star in. I think it'll surprise people, but we're approaching it more from "The Disaster Artist" tone where we're not leaning into the joke. It's more like there's so much inherent humor in this story already that let's just play it as earnest and as straight as possible, and just let the humor come from that. And so there's a lot of heart to it and it's coming together really nicely.

Behind the scenes must've been crazy for that guy because he had one of the biggest songs of the decade. That was a mega hit.

Exactly. And you start to think of what being a one-hit wonder what that does to your mentality over the years and just being recognized for that one thing. There's so many crazy twists and turns in his life, and I'm excited to kind of bring that to life and share that with everyone.

I think it's cool that you get to work with your wife. That's a cool thing because my wife and I, we work together on things too, and it brings a different type of clarity to the relationship.

It's interesting because a lot of people have been almost a little scared to ask, "How was it working with your wife?" I think that's more informative of those people thinking about what it would be like working with their own significant other. But with us, it's like we love it. Honestly, I would love to collaborate with her on everything if possible and that's why we wrote this script together so we have another chance.

Tell everybody where they can see "The Rental."

It's coming out on VOD and in certain drive-ins and certain standard theaters that are open, who knows where, but it's out everywhere on July 24th.


D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir." His latest book, "We Speak For Ourselves: A Word From Forgotten Black America," is out now.

MORE FROM D. WatkinsFOLLOW @dwatkinsworld


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