People who offer their dwellings on Airbnb recently received a marketing email from the company about trends. As travel restrictions ease, the message said, groups and families will want “stays outside of major cities” where they can rent “entire homes and apartments.”
For Dave Franco, those aren’t trends. They’re the makings of a nightmare.
“I’ve become a little distrusting of strangers,” said Franco, 35, best known for his roles in movie comedies like “21 Jump Street” (2012) and “Neighbors” (2014). “Home sharing is one of these concepts where, if you take a step back, we’re really putting a lot of trust in strangers.”
Franco explores his misgivings to eerie effect in “The Rental,” his feature directing debut (available on demand) about two couples whose getaway at a rented oceanside home turns into a cat-and-mouse game with a mysterious adversary. Written by Franco and Joe Swanberg, the film puts a sharing-economy spin on the horror subgenre of wicked proprietors who, like Norman Bates, rent rooms with evil intent.
The movie also touches on an insidious part of the home-sharing experience: racial discrimination. One of the weekend guests, Mina (Sheila Vand), is an Iranian-American woman who suspects the home’s caretaker of bigoted motives after he ignores her booking request and instead rents the home to her white co-worker, Charlie, played by Dan Stevens. (The film also stars Jeremy Allen White and Alison Brie, Franco’s wife.)
In a phone interview, Franco discussed this and other themes, but he pivoted from talking about his brother, the artistic polymath James Franco, who directed him in the 2017 comedy “The Disaster Artist.” (“I draw inspiration from many directors I’ve worked with,” he said when asked about his brother’s influence.) Instead, Franco focused on why sharing is scary. Following are edited excerpts from the conversation.
There’s a long history of horror movies set inside residences. But yours is about a rental property. Why did that distinction interest you?
I was inspired by my own paranoia about the concept of home sharing. The country is as divided as it’s ever been, but we trust staying in the home of a stranger because of positive reviews? We’re all aware of the risks of staying in a person’s home, and we don’t think anything will happen. My paranoia has reached its peak. Now when I stay in a rental home I don’t think, is there a camera in this house? I think, will I find the cameras in this home?
Do you feel the same way when you stay in a hotel?
I don’t think of this as much when it comes to a hotel. But I’ve read articles about a hotel where someone stayed in a room, planted a camera, started livestreaming the guests for months and posted it to porn sites. It’s not my intention to freak the world out. It’s more this idea of trusting a stranger.
Do you consider “The Rental” a horror film?
It’s between a thriller, horror and relationship drama. I wanted to write the script with Joe Swanberg because his main strength lies in character and relationships. Our goal was to create a drama where the interpersonal issues are just as thrilling as the fact that there is a psycho villain in the shadows. We used the horror elements to accentuate the couples’ problems.
Why a horror movie as your feature debut?
Most people know me from the comedies I’ve acted in, so it’s a surprise to them that I would want to tackle this genre. As a viewer, there’s nothing I enjoy more than a smart genre film that takes the scare seriously. There were also logistical reasons I wanted my first time to be a thriller: I could make it relatively cheap with a small cast in one location. Within those parameters, I could have fun with the style. Mainly I just wanted to make a scary movie that was relatable and set in the real world. For me there’s nothing scarier than thinking: that could happen to me.
Are there horror films that influenced you?
I just rewatched “The Blair Witch Project” and it holds up. It’s crazy that the movie is considered one of the scariest movies of all time and you don’t see the villain. I was also inspired by “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Blue Ruin” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which all are grounded in the real world, where you believe something scary could happen, and the punches land hard.
Have you had any bad home-sharing experiences?
With anything I write there are personal elements sprinkled throughout. But the racism that Mina experiences is not something that happened to me. It’s based on friends of mine who have experienced racial profiling while trying to rent on a home-sharing app. It’s so important to include that element in the movie. It was an honest way to create immediate tension between a renter, who in this case is of Iranian descent, and the white homeowner. When it comes to my friends, there were multiple situations where they tried to rent places that had availability but they were not allowed to rent.
What did you learn about being a director?
Over the years I’ve realized that film is a director’s medium, and as an actor there’s only so much you can do. It’s disheartening when you put so much effort into a role and the editing or visuals or music can turn the performance into something you never thought it would be. As a director, the movie lives and dies on your decisions. That’s liberating. I have so much compassion for actors. When it came time to edit their performances, I would comb through the footage to ensure we used everyone’s best moment. I didn’t want the actors to think: why would they use that take?
Now I’m going to think twice before renting a home share. Does this mean you’ve sworn off Airbnb?
I still use Airbnb. [Laughs] I stayed in one while making this movie, in this wood cabin on the beach in Oregon. We brought Harry, our 17-year-old cat, with us and it was his first time ever getting on a plane. He was able to look out the windows every day. Harry was thriving. But he recently passed away. It was his last hurrah.