Dave Franco has been a working actor in Hollywood for over 15 years with no shortage of high profile gigs, from his breakout role alongside Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum in 21 Jump Street to his work with his brother James in the Oscar-nominated The Disaster Artist. Though he’s no stranger to horror either, his previous forays were genre hybrids like the rom-com Warm Bodies or the comedy Fright Night with Colin Farrell, so it might seem strange to learn he chose the genre for his directorial debut. When we spoke to him, though, he confessed that horror was not just a genre he had an affinity for but one he specifically wanted to work in for his first time in the director’s chair.
The Rental follows a pair of couples as they embark on a getaway to a remote vacation rental on the seaside. Once there, they discover that they may be under surveillance, and as the couples begin to war with each other and old secrets are exposed, the once idyllic retreat turns sinister. The ensemble cast, led by Franco’s wife Alison Brie, The Guest star Dan Stevens, Shameless’ Jeremy Allen White, and indie darling Sheila Vand, shine in the thriller, which serves as perfect — or perhaps torturous — viewing for those quarantining at home.
Ahead of the movie’s release, Franco spoke with Rotten Tomatoes about his five favorite horror films and how he approached directing his wife in some harrowing horror sequences. The movie is available to download now on various platforms and available to watch on-screen at select drive-in theaters across the country.
Let’s start with It Follows. it’s such a simple, brilliant concept, and it’s hard to believe that no one had ever done it before. It feels timeless. And the filmmaking is incredible. The lighting, the camera moves, the music, and the slightly heightened performances that feel like they belong in a throwback ’80s horror film. It just knows exactly what it is, and it somehow manages to feel nostalgic and extremely modern at the same time. I don’t know how David Robert Mitchell pulled that off. That opening sequence of that girl running away from the house and getting killed on the beach really sets the tone for the whole film, and you know that you’re in for a really unique ride.
I love that Blue Ruin is practically a silent film for the first act. Yet it’s still one of the more intriguing setups I’ve seen in a thriller. I also love how Jeremy Saulnier approaches gore in his films. For example, in Blue Ruin, there’s the scene in the bathroom where Macon Blair’s character stabs the guy in the neck with a knife, and it’s raw and shocking, but it shows the audience the lengths his character is willing to go to get revenge. And after that scene, the rest of the violence in the film is more subdued, because we already know what this character is capable of, and we can use our imagination to fill in the gaps. Brilliant.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is probably more of a thriller than a horror film, but I think it’s nearly a perfect film. I tracked down the director, Sean Durkin, and somehow convinced him to be a producer on The Rental. He was somewhat of a mentor to me throughout the whole process. And he gave me the confidence to make a horror film that doesn’t rely on jump scares. Instead, I tried to mimic what he did in Martha, where he manages to set an eerie tone with the music and his visuals that makes an audience think that something jarring could happen at any moment, even when there’s nothing overtly scary happening on screen. The movie takes its time to really draw you in, and then when it finally takes its punches, they land really hard.
I feel like Rosemary’s Baby inspired all of the smart genre films that we see today. It takes the scares seriously, but it also prioritizes everything else. The acting, the visuals, the music, the production design, and approach everything in a tasteful, elevated way. It’s nuanced and atmospheric, and it takes its time to get under your skin, as opposed to leaning too heavily on cheap jump scares. And it’s the perfect example of how a well-made thriller or horror movie has just as much merit as the heavy dramas that are typically recognized during award season.
Finally, I will go with Goodnight, Mommy. I was going to say The Shining, but it’s probably better for me to highlight a lesser-known film. Goodnight, Mommy is an Austrian thriller that’s so beautifully shot, that features those incredible performances, the story so dense in an unpredictable way. It starts with a quiet indie vibe, and then before you know it, the characters are being fed cockroaches and getting their eyelids super glued shut. It’s a pretty wild ride.
Jacqueline Coley for Rotten Tomatoes: Why did you want to make a horror film your first time out? You’ve done comedy and drama, but this is not necessarily a genre that you’ve done a ton of previous work in. So why horror first?
Dave Franco: I wanted my directorial debut to be a horror film for a couple of reasons. As a viewer, there’s nothing I enjoy more than a smart genre film. You know, I think about this young group of genre filmmakers that I mentioned in my top five favorite films, people like David Robert Mitchell, Ari Aster, Jeremy Saulnier, Amy Seimetz, people who are doing projects that are very artful and just happen to be scary too. And I think there’s a general stigma against horror films where people tend to look down on them and write them off as being schlocky. But I think they have just as much artistic merit as any serious drama out there.
There were also logistical reasons. I could make it with a small cast and crew and make it relatively cheap as long as we primarily shot in a single location. And the horror genre tends to deal with extreme scenarios and emotions, so I was able to have fun with the overall style. I could push boundaries, take risks, and make bold choices that would ultimately make the film feel unique to me.
You’ve worked with a lot of directors in your career. Did you hit any of them up for advice?
Franco: I basically reached out to most of the directors I’ve worked with to pick their brains before I started. I also reached out to the directors I’ve really been inspired by over the years, or Seth Rogen and his crew, Barry Jenkins, my brother, obviously. They all create a very comfortable environment on set where they encourage everyone to voice their opinion if they think it will help the film. There are no egos on their sets, and the main rule is the best idea wins no matter who it’s coming from. That creates a warm environment where everyone feels heard, and it’s very collaborative. I tried to keep that going for The Rental.
You’ve acted with your wife, Alison Brie, before, but I’m just curious, did you find it worse to torture her through this movie or better? Was she mad at you at the end of the day?
Franco: [Laughs] Weirdly enough, we were both kind of indifferent to the torture. In a way, it was fun, because in horror movies, you get to have fun and let loose, show your range and just go crazy. I saw how much Alison was enjoying being a part of this genre that she’s not typically in, and her enjoyment was infectious. So I was giddy when we were filming the scenes of carnage that involved her.
You also co-wrote the screenplay. Was there something you wrote as “the writer” that you were kicking yourself for writing as “the director?” Because there’s always something.
Franco: The cliff sequence was challenging to film — it was really dangerous. You know, there’s a lot of wirework. We had so many extensive conversations about the storyboard or the sequence. We were constantly just making sure that we can get everything we needed creatively while keeping everyone safe. We ended up getting lucky and somehow pulled it off in one day. I look back at that sequence and really can’t process how we accomplished it, but I’m proud of it. And I also hate myself for writing it.
The Rental is available to rent or buy digitally now.
Thumbnail image: James Atoa/Everett Collection, Fox Searchlight, Radius-TWC, Paramount Pictures.