Wil Wheaton, Brian Landis Folkins and Jon Stevenson
Hanging Out with Their Rent-A-Pal
by Jay S. Jacobs
Rent-A-Pal. The idea is so out-there and yet so brilliant that it is shocking that it is not more common. The world is full of lonely people, why not charge for friendship? However, what if the Rent-A-Pal had a dark side? What if he was like an abusive boyfriend: clingy, needy, passive aggressive and had some really dark impulses?
This is the idea behind the new psychological thriller Rent-A-Pal, starring Brian Landis Folkins as David, a lonely Denver suburbanite in 1990. He has no friends. He has no job, because he is a full-time caregiver for his mother who is in the throes of dementia. He is lonely and he is desperate for love.
This leads him to Video Rendezvous, an old-school version of Tinder. It is a dating service where you go in, film a short video tape in which you must quickly summarize your life, your wants, your experiences, your hopes, and dreams. All in about a minute. Then you take other videos – for a cost – and see if anyone you have picked has picked you. David is a little awkward, a little dorky, and he is getting no interest.
However, it is at Video Rendezvous that David meets Andy, played by Wil Wheaton, star of Stand by Me, Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Big Bang Theory. Andy isn’t a person – well not exactly – he is the host of a specialty tape called “Rent-A-Pal” which David finds in a bargain tape bin. The tape is essentially an open-sided conversation in which Andy has a real heart to heart with his viewer “pal” about life, aspirations, the world, clothes, girlfriends, family, etc.
Rent-A-Pal is loosely based on a real-life, very era-specific oddity: a 1986 videotape called “Rent-A-Friend: The Original Video Companion” This featured future Emmy-award winning Wild Chicago TV personality Ben Hollis as your “Friend.”
Rent-A-Pal writer/director Jon Stevenson discovered this cultural artifact and thought that it would make the basis for an interesting, strangely timeless psychodrama. What if the generic VHS patter becomes extremely specific to your life? Does that mean that the video is magic, the “pal” is real or all in your head? And what happens if you finally find someone to love and your pal doesn’t take it as well as you had hoped?
This makes for a fascinating movie dynamic. Folkins and Wheaton interact seamlessly even though they are never in the same room, in fact Andy is just a face on the TV set.
The movie Rent-A-Pal looks at the darkness of the situation, but looking at it in a lighter vein, but I wondered during a recent Zoom conference call with Wheaton, Folkins and Stevenson: What would the guys want in a Rent-A-Pal if they were to have one?
“I mean I’ve got my perfect Rent-A-Pal,” Folkins told me. “Wil Wheaton. Come on that’s all I need.”
“I feel ‘Rent-A-Friend’ is perfect,” Stevenson said. “He is the man that I needed at the right time, you know what I mean? [Or maybe] I just want a tape of me to look at. And I can just go, aahhh.”
Wheaton, on the other hand, thinks he may just give the whole idea a pass, particularly after having to deal with some of Andy’s darker impulses. The Rent-A-Pal probably isn’t getting anywhere near his VCR.
“Through my experience with Rent-A-Pal, maybe I’d skip it and go check out Holy Grail again,” Wheaton said. They all laughed.
“This is funny,” Stevenson continued. “There was a day on set, the day where Wil Wheaton was on set and he was like, ‘Jon, I can’t wait to never be this character again.’”
Wheaton took a closer look at his hesitance.
“In my experience, as an actor,” he said, “when I’m doing a character for more than a day, a little bit of that character lives in me, no matter what. He’s always there. He’s still alive. I have access to him on the set, so I can bring him back out and put him on. I’ve played some pretty bad villains, especially, I played a serial rapist and murderer on Criminal Minds.
“I could not wait to let go of this character,” Wheaton continued. “He was so dark and so terrible and [always] justifying the worst. But I had to do it, it was my job as an actor. I meant it. I could not wait to let Andy go. I felt his darkness. I felt his cruelty and his insincerity. I felt all of it. It was a lot. I was really glad that I only had to keep this guy alive for about ten hours.”
So, we guess that Wheaton did not keep the sweater vest as a souvenir of the experience?
They all laughed again. “I did not,” Wheaton said, quickly.
“I have it,” Stevenson admitted. “It’s in a vacuum-sealed bag in a storage garage.”
“As it should be…,” Wheaton said.
“An unmarked storage garage,” Folkins agreed.
Rent-A-Pal is so dark, how did the movie idea come to Stevenson?
“Rent-A-Pal in general came together in this really bizarre set of circumstances,” Stevenson said. “It starts with ‘Rent-A-Friend.’ A few years ago, I was in a really dark place. I had fallen into this depression and anxiety. I was going through a lot. I was in this really vulnerable place. One day I came across ‘Rent-A-Friend.’ 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, just because of where I was in my life, when I saw that video, how it made me feel. I knew that how I felt I had to capture that in a horror movie. So, I started writing Rent-A-Pal.”
“For me, watching the original ‘Rent-A-Friend’ video was earth shattering,” Folkins agreed. “When I first read the script when Jon sent it to me, I was about nine pages in and I was like, ‘This is different than anything I've read before. I have to be a part of this. Please, Jon, please, please.’ Then he referred me to the ‘Rent-A-Friend’ video…. It rocked my world. The things that he was doing with the one on one relationship through this videotape. I was so fascinated.”
However, in the screenwriting process, it became obvious to Stevenson that the film was not about the tape or Andy, it was about the vulnerability of David. He is in a very precarious place in his life and could easily be drawn to a very dark place by someone with the wrong motivations. Particularly someone who was evil and manipulative. It was a very stylized new version of Strangers on a Train, where two people meet by chance and totally change each other’s lives. Only one of those people was a videotape.
Stevenson related to the whole situation with David, feeling like it was in some way his story. The script came out in a rush, finished in a month. Wheaton and Folkins signed on quickly, impressed by the story.
“In the movie, it's about timing and how [the dialogue] works out to the answers of the questions,” Folkins said. “When the timing lines up, that's all it took for David to release himself over to Andy. That was the turning point.”
“I wanted to keep Andy really simple,” Wheaton explained. “I felt that Andy was a predator. Andy was an abusive boyfriend. He was deeply insecure and extremely controlling and super manipulative. His primary fear – the thing that he was absolutely terrified of – was being alone. He seduced this person into being his friend and then just wouldn't let him go. The stakes for Andy were ‘I'm going to be alone forever this guy leaves.’ I just played with those fears.”
However, Wheaton realized that the disconnect in Andy was even deeper than that.
“An aspect of the script that I really love,” Wheaton said, “and the thing that that moved me from, ‘wow, I really like this’ to ‘I have to be part of this’ was this moment… where I went, ‘You know, I don't know if Andy's even real.’ Like there's an actor named Andy who sat down for a video cassette. But the things that he's saying, I don't know if he's really saying those, or if all of this exists inside David's mind. I love that because either interpretation is completely valid.”
Of course, the ideas of loneliness and isolation and talking to people on screens have become even more vital to the world in the time since Rent-A-Pal was filmed. The COVID-19 pandemic has the whole world sheltering at home and unsure about so much which seemed to be taken for granted just six months ago. In this way, Rent-A-Pal is even more trenchant.
“What I love about this film is that it is coming out now,” Folkins said. “[It] is between our isolation and David's isolation and relationship with screens. In quarantine, we were all glued to the screens in a variety of different ways in a variety of different devices. I don't think it's any different from David in the late 80s finding a kinship with a screen both in trying to date and in his Rent-A-Pal.”
“It's all stuff that we just cannot have any [influence in],” Wheaton agreed. “We can't help it. We don't know what's going to happen. We could not have predicted the dumpster fire that we are living in right now when we worked on this movie together…. But we are now in this moment where like Brian said, we are 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. Folks are going to watch this movie and I think now relate to it in a way that they would not have related to it had it come out one year ago.”
Still, Stevenson does not want it to seem that Rent-A-Pal is a story which is specific to the weird new world order we find ourselves in.
“We have had a discussion early on about the film that it's kind of timeless,” Stevenson explained. “You could write Rent-A-Pal to be a modern-day on a screen type of movie. Or it could have been film reels. Whatever. We're always seeking that validation and acceptance. And whatever window that we have to that, whether it's a screen or a book, we're going to cozy up to it.”
In fact, the 1990 setting adds a certain tactile feeling to the movie, a nostalgia for the days of Blockbuster Video, big hair, tight jeans, Doc Maartens and VHS tapes. 1990, which was essentially sociologically still part of the 80s even though it was literally part of the 90s, makes for an interesting era to make the film, giving it a bit of hazy nostalgia.
“I grew up watching TV,” Folkins said. “I would take VHS tapes and record movies off of HBO at the super slow speed so I could get as many movies on a tape as possible. You watched the shit out of a man. I would just watch them until they fell apart.”
“I am aware of Zoomers discovering the 80s the way we discovered the 50s,” Wheaton agreed. “We discovered the 50s through Stand by Me and Back to the Future. They discovered the 80s through Stranger Things. There is absolutely an audience that wants to experience that time. There's those of us who lived it and want to remember the good parts of it. Then there are our kids who weren't there. Their experience of the 80s is really filtered through our desire to only remember the good parts. We don’t want to remember the AIDS crisis. We don't want to remember [Ronald] Reagan destroying the economy or ruining unions. We don't want to remember the Challenger [space shuttle explosion]. We don't think about that stuff. We think about malls and video games and riding our bikes and all of that stuff.”
However, Wheaton agrees with Stevenson about the idea of timelessness. The technology of the Rent-A-Pal can exist only in an awfully specific time, but the story itself could be done at any time, anywhere.
“The movie is about a multitude of things,” Stevenson explained. “Primarily, vulnerability and manipulation. But also, it's about loneliness, dementia, losing your grip on reality, relationships, love. There's just so many things that I was going through when I was writing it that just made their way in. It's hard to pick one thing. I think you could even make an analogy to fake news right now with Andy. People just believing anything they see on a TV or something.”
“The loneliness is what I attached to,” Folkins said. “What did David have to go through in order to get to where he was? He had committed himself to taking care of his mother with dementia. [He] just felt so lost that he needed to reach out through Video Rendezvous. He wanted love so bad. The way he lost his father. For me, the overriding thing is that loneliness and love and love is above all.”
“I feel very strongly that what is driving Andy,” Wheaton agreed. “If we accept that Andy is an actual person and that the relationship between Andy and David is real, what's driving him is his fear of loneliness. There is just this common theme that keeps coming back in this and it is isolation. Andy has been isolated for a really long time. If he were an actual person rather than finding someone and saying ‘let's step out into the world together,’ he's actually saying ‘I'm going to bring you into my world and I'm not going to let you go.’ That mirrors a lot of predatory behavior that I think we see happening in the world right now. Towards vulnerable men and women all over the place.”
“There's a scene in the movie that struck me the most when we were shooting,” Folkins continued. “It's when David goes in the kitchen. He's put his mom to bed. He's sitting at the kitchen table, staring at the wall, having a drink of alcohol and a piece of chocolate… Mounds. That's when he gets to unwind. The loneliness of that just wrapped it all up for me.”
Of course, with the world suddenly full of lonely people, as noted before that sense of loneliness and desperation is particularly widespread. People can’t go to the movies, can’t go out to dinner, are afraid to go to work of school, can’t go to concerts. The world is in a dark place.
“There's a thing happening in the world right now where people are afraid,” Wheaton said. “People are uncertain. As a consequence of that, there are a lot of extremely vulnerable people around who are ready to be manipulated by a charismatic leader, whether that leader is a white nationalist racist who happens to be President, or that leader is a leader of a religion or some other things like that. We see this happens a lot with vulnerable people being manipulated by predators who have their own agenda.
“Like I said before, when we were making this picture, we had no idea what it was going to be like,” Wheaton concluded. “No one could have predicted this, which makes me really afraid of the things that we can't predict that we're gonna be talking about a year from now.”
“Yeah, timing has been a theme that keeps coming back on this movie,” Stevenson agreed. “The timing in which it's coming out, [it] just seems like the world is ready for something like this.”
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