Based on an actual vhs video from 1987 called Rent-A-Friend made for lonely people with a VCR, Jon Stevenson’s Rent-A-Pal starring Wil Wheaton and Brian Folkins takes the instant friend concept and makes it even creepier. The original tape made by actor Ben Hollis aka “Sam” went viral a few years back but it’s mostly a passive hangout tape that you’d just sit back and watch before you cry yourself to sleep. Wheaton plays the man inside the spools, a bearded square named “Andy” (a direct nod to Child’s Play) who immediately starts to interact with David (Folkins), a shut-in taking care of his mother who is in desperate need of a hug.
Is this new TV relationship with Andy all in David’s head as he slowly starts to unravel or is there something more nefarious going on? Wheaton and Folkins both give outstanding performances in Stevenson’s first feature and, in the below interview, we dissect how they were able to act alongside each other even though they were never in the same room. Stevenson also gets personal revealing how Rent-A-Pal helped him through some very dark times, and Wheaton explains why he felt so compelled to take on a role that shows his sinister side.
Synopsis: Set in 1990, a lonely bachelor named David (Brian Landis Folkins) searches for an escape from the day-to-day drudgery of caring for his aging mother (Kathleen Brady). While seeking a partner through a video dating service, he discovers a strange VHS tape called Rent-A-Pal. Hosted by the charming and charismatic Andy (Wil Wheaton), the tape offers him much-needed company, compassion, and friendship. But, Andy’s friendship comes at a cost, and David desperately struggles to afford the price of admission.
Note: Dread Central took part in a virtual round table event with IFC Midnight. Not all questions are our own.
Dread Central: My question is for John [Stevenson]. Earlier this afternoon, I had the chance to watch the real Rent-A-Friend video from 1987. I was curious how that became the basis for your film?
Jon Stevenson: Just Rent-A-Pal, in general, came together in this really bizarre set of circumstances. It starts with Rent-A-Friend. A few years ago, essentially I was in a really dark place. I had fallen into this depression and anxiety, I was just going through a lot. I was in this really vulnerable place. One day, I came across Rent-A-Friend and it was this amazing concept from the ’80s by a guy named Ben Hollis. The idea was that you would just rent a friend. You would bring a VHS tape home and talk to this guy on tape. It was a one way conversation but for the ’80s it was interactive. I’ll never forget though, where I was in my life when I saw that video, how it made me feel. I knew I had to capture that in a horror movie. As I started writing, I realized it wasn’t about the tape at all. It was about a man who was very vulnerable being led down a very dark path by someone who was evil and manipulative. And just how, if two people meet at the wrong time, it can have really disastrous results.
Dread Central: I wanted to know if the script was always aligned with David having a hallucination experience or if at any point you wanted them to meet as a more down to Earth resolution?
Jon Stevenson: When writing the script that was the big question, right? Is this all real? Is the tape haunted? What’s happening? We tried to answer that for the audience but everyone has their own interpretations obviously. So, I think you’ll just have to watch the movie and see what happens. I would love to talk about all the different versions of the script and how Andy manifested in different ways early on.
Wil Wheaton: An aspect of the script that I really loved and the thing that moved me from, ‘Wow, I really like this to I have to be part of this,’ was this moment in the script, and it happens in the film too, where I went, ‘I don’t know if Andy’s even real.’ There’s an actor named Andy who sat down for a videocassette but I don’t know if the things he’s saying, I don’t know if he’s really saying those or if all of this exists inside David’s mind. I loved that because either interpretation is completely valid and the picture is satisfying in either case being true. That’s so hard to do and it’s so rare that it happens. We have our fan theories about things, like my fan theory about the end of Breaking Bad is not valid according to Vince Gilligan. My fan theory about the changes in Rent-A-Pal is completely valid because the material absolutely supports it in either way.
Dread Central: There’s a brilliant social commentary on our lives on social media with this movie. We seem to be putting what strangers put out on the internet and we mold ourselves to it. Have we really changed that much from the 1980’s and video dating and video pals to Twitter and Tinder?
Brian Folkins: What I love about this film and it coming out now is the connection between our isolation and David’s isolation and our relationship with screens. In quarantine we’re all glued to the screens in a variety of different ways and a variety of different devices. I don’t think it’s any different from David in the late ’80s finding a kinship with the screen, both in trying to date and his rent-a-pal.
Jon Stevenson: We had a discussion about the film where it’s kind of timeless. You could write Rent-A-Pal to be a modern day on-a-screen type of movie, or it could have been film reels. We’re always seeking that validation and that acceptance. Whatever window we have to that, whether it’s a screen or a book, we’re going to cozy up to it.
Wil Wheaton: One of the things that’s really important for a film finding its audience is timing. We could not have predicted the dumpster fire we’re living in right now when we worked on this movie. We are now in this moment, like Brian said, where we’re so intimate with our screens. My wife and I have coffee with our friends on Zoom because it’s the only way that we can see each other. I feel like this timing is extremely interesting and, just to “yes and…” what Brian said, people are going to watch this movie and I think now relate to it in a way they would not have related to it had it come out one year ago.
Dread Central: One of the big accomplishments I think of the film is you’ve made Go Fish incredibly creepy for a new generation of people. I was really curious with Brian and Wil how did the interaction work between both of you during your scenes together? The timing of the taped dialogue and David’s actual dialogue feels like a real conversation. It feels like you’re in the room. Wil, did you shoot everything separately? And Jon, the editing in that is really well done so kudos for that.
Wil Wheaton: So, when we filmed Andy’s scenes, we shot everything in one day on a little commercial stage. It was me and Jon and a real small crew. Brian came to the set that day. I’m actually really interested to hear your experience Brian. Every time I talk about this picture, people tell me that they loved Andy’s performance and they love how sinister and menacing he is. But I have to keep reminding everyone is Brian’s reactions to Andy, Brian’s side of that conversation is what you’re reacting to. It’s how Andy affects him and it’s the choices Brian makes as an actor allowing David to be so seduced by this guy and so manipulated by this guy that makes him so scary. My performance is better because of Brian’s performance in this film than it is in isolation. I think it’s a good performance in isolation but it’s a better performance and I have to give a ton of credit and gratitude to Jon for trusting me to just run with the material that he put in front of me and give me the opportunity to make Andy who he is.
Brian Folkins: We started shooting and we had, was it three weeks before Will came in, Jon?
Jon Stevenson: Yeah, three weeks of shooting that we did on the movie before we had any scenes that had Andy so we got like half the movie done.
Brian Folkins: In those three weeks, I was looking at a blank screen and then Wil came in and delivered just the most beautiful, wonderful, layered, nuanced performance. Jon and Jimmy cut together what they called the “Andy tapes” and sent me the “Andy tapes”…
Wil Wheaton: Oh, how creepy!
Brian Folkins: Totally. So I could start working with that. I saw what Wil did on the day of shooting but I really wanted to dig into my relationship with the rent-a-pal. I would work on my lines with the “Andy tapes” so when we came back to set for two weeks where we actually had the footage and Wil was on the screen when I was actually working with him. I’ve never done anything like this before but to work with an actor on a screen was just delicious. They, on the set, would play the tapes and Jimmy was a whiz with this stuff. He would play the scene, we would do the scene and then he would back-track it so we could do the scene again. It was such a unique and magical experience working with Wil in that way which was just him on a screen. He was fantastic and it also really elevated my performance.
Wil Wheaton: It’s interesting that we worked together but we never worked together.
Jon Stevenson: Just from a technical perspective, Jimmy Weber our producer, had a laptop with all the “Andy tapes” on it with a cable going to the TV and he was literally hitting the spacebar during the performance. So, we called him the Wizard of Oz. He was like a DJ in the back puppeting Wil Wheaton in a funny way.
Rent-A-Pal is now playing in drive-ins, select theaters and VOD.