Wil Wheaton and Brian Landis Folkins Discuss the Nostalgia and Horror of ‘Rent-A-Pal’

There will be few characters as tragic and lonely in the movies this year as David. “Rent-A-Pal” imagines him so vividly and tragically as a man dealt all the wrong cards in life, reduced to living in his dementia-stricken mother’s basement, finding solace in a VHS tape. David is brilliantly played by Brian Landis Folkins, who conveys a personality both kind and increasingly deranged. The setting is 1990 and David tries to find dating prospects via a system where individuals tape themselves for a company that then tries to match them with other taped prospects. He’s handed a tape titled “Rent-A-Pal,” featuring Andy (Wil Wheaton), a sweater-wearing persona who gives the impression he’s your friend from beyond the TV screen. He chats, looks around the room, shares personal stories and takes away the loneliness. But in the low-lit world of David’s basement, Andy’s dialogue starts taking another turn, a darker one that will intrude in wild ways in David’s actual life.

Written and directed by Jon Stevenson, “Rent-A-Pal” combines classic psychological thriller tension with a love for ‘90s video aesthetic. It’s both a horror story and a look back at a pre-Tinder, pre-iPhone world.  Wheaton, Folkins and Stevenson spoke with Entertainment Voice about how they combined nostalgia and suspense.

“I had fallen into a really dark place, there was a lot of depression, anxiety,” said Stevenson, who also wrote the script. “I was in this vulnerable place. Then one day I came across ‘Rent-A-Friend.’ It was this amazing concept from the ‘80s, invented by a guy named Ben Hollis. The idea was that you would just rent a friend. You would bring a VHS home and talk to this guy on the tape. It was a one way conversation but in the ‘80s it was interactive. I’ll never forget, because of where I was in my life, how that video made me feel. I knew that how I felt I had to capture that in a horror movie. It was just coming out of me.”

“We could not have predicted the dumpster fire that we’re living in right now,” said Wheaton, who is no stranger to films where everyday life combines with extreme events having starred from a young age in films like “Stand by Me” and “Toy Soldiers.” For Wheaton the themes in “Rent-A-Pal” are not confined just to the ‘80s and ‘90s “If we had predicted it, someone would’ve said, ‘come on! That’s not gonna happen!’ But we’re in this moment now 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.”

“We had a discussion about the film early on that it’s kind of timeless,” said Folkins when observing how the themes of isolation in the film strike a particular chord in our pandemic-stricken world. “We’re always seeking validation and acceptance, and whatever window we have to that, whether it’s a screen or book, we’re going to cozy up to it.”

A film of claustrophobic power, “Rent-A-Pal” manages to focus with laser precision on just how good Wheaton and Folkins are. Wheaton’s entire role as Andy is based on him sitting on a couch, expressing friendliness through the TV screen, until David’s delusions spiral out of control and he becomes a completely unnerving voice, feeding demented ideas into his lonely victim. “When we filmed Andy’s scenes we shot everything in one day in a little commercial stage, and it was me and Jon. Brian came to the set as well. Everytime I talk about this picture with people they say they like how menacing Andy is, but Brian’s reactions to Andy, his side of the conversation is what you’re reacting to. It’s all about how Andy affects him and it’s the choices Brian makes as an actor, allowing David to be so seduced by this guy that makes him so scary. My performance is better because of Brian’s performance, better than in isolation.”

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” said Folkins. “To work with an actor on a screen was just delicious. On the set they would play the tapes and Jon was like a wiz with this stuff. We would do the scene, then he would backtrack the tape so we could do it again. Sometimes I would say, ‘give me a little more time so I can listen to him for a second, but it was such a unique and magical experience working with Wil in that way, which was basically a guy on a screen (laughs).”

“Rent-A-Pal” is the latest in the thriller genre from filmmakers of a certain age who also bask in lovingly remembering the VHS era and its look. “It’s when we grew up,” said Folkins. “I still remember taking VHS tapes and recording movies off HBO with super slow speed to get as many movies on a tape as possible, and then watch the shit out of them until they fell apart. One of them was actually ‘Stand by Me’ with my good friend over there, Andy, who was close to my age.”

In a sense “Rent-A-Pal” is also about the darker truths beneath ‘80s nostalgia, or the convenient remembrance of any past time. “I am aware of the zoomers discovering the ‘80s the way we discovered the ‘50s,” said Wheaton. “We discovered the ‘50s through ‘Stand by Me’ and ‘Back for the Future,’ and they discovered the ‘80s through ‘Stranger Things.’ There is absolutely an audience that wants to experience that time. Then there’s those of us who lived it and want to remember the good parts of it. Then there are those, our kids, who didn’t live through it but their experience of the ‘80s is 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 Reagan destroying the economy and ruining unions. We don’t want to remember Challenger. We just want to think about malls and videogames and riding our bikes and all of that stuff.”

“Growing up you have all these textures,” said Stevenson. “You remember what a VHS tape feels like and the crumples that it makes inside. The sounds the VCR makes. My life as a kid was so centered on the TV and that was the kind of stuff I remembered. I felt that if we didn’t make it so much about the ‘90s, but about the feel of that stuff I guess.”

“I don’t feel like the period is a character in this film,” said Wheaton. “I feel like this film could not exist in any other time because the technology of ‘Rent-A-Pal’ is pretty advanced technology for the early ‘80s and ‘90s. This is a story that is out of time but also kind of timeless.”

Rent-A-Pal” releases Sept. 11 in select cities and on VOD.