What do you get when you combine a creepy Mr. Rodgers, a VHS tape from the 80s called Rent-a-Friend, and an Irish play titled The Beauty Queen of Leenane? If you’re Jon Stevenson BFA ’10, you get all the material you need to write a film script. The resulting movie, Rent-A-Pal, is a psychological thriller soon to be released by IFC Midnight.
But Stevenson didn’t make Rent-A-Pal on his own. He had help from a trusty band of friends, including Annie Baker BFA ’09, Brandon Fryman BFA ’10, and Jimmy Weber BFA ’09. They met in the Film & Television program at CU Denver’s College of Arts & Media (CAM). Weber, who produced and wrote music for the movie, admits the group “has a pretty unique dynamic.” In between their day jobs working in the film industry, the friends use creative projects as a way to connect. “We don’t go more than one year without doing a big collaborative project,” Fryman said.
Filmed in 2018 and 2019, Rent-A-Pal stars Wil Wheaton as Andy, the friend inside the VHS tape who offers progressively intrusive advice, and Brian Landis Folkins as David, a lonely forty-something looking for love. If Wheaton looks familiar, it might be because he portrayed Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Stevenson and his collaborators knew they wanted Wheaton to play Andy, even though they weren’t too sure the actor would accept. “We sent the script to Wil, and it was shockingly easy to get him on board,” Baker said.
The filmmakers financed the movie themselves, so selling it to IFC Midnight was a big win. The coronavirus pandemic, as it turns out, also helped Rent-A-Pal. “The film industry is kind of in shambles,” Weber said. Unlike the big movie studios, IFC Midnight took advantage of the current moment to offer streaming entertainment to countless people. So far, it’s a tactic that’s working.
The plan was for Rent-A-Pal to be released in movie theaters, an exciting prospect for independent filmmakers. When social distancing closed down movie theaters, Rent-A-Pal’s theatrical release was not so theatrical. “As sad as it is, who knows if IFC would have picked us up had there not been a pandemic,” Weber said.
Stevenson, who wrote the script in one month, actually thinks the timing is fortunate. “The movie is about a guy sitting at home watching TV,” he said. “It will resonate with people watching … Every step of the way has felt meaningful to me,” he added.
If you’re looking for more happy coincidences, check out Rent-A-Pal’s timeline. “The release will be three years to the date of our first production meeting, September 11,” Weber said. What’s even better about the timing? The brevity. “What did we learn in film school?” Stevenson asked, before answering his own question. “It’s an average of seven years from writing a script to getting it on screen,” he said. Which means Rent-A-Pal made it in record time.
Unlike other artists, the filmmakers behind Rent-A-Pal have a rather magnanimous and encouraging set of parents. Baker described her parents as “very supportive” and Weber called his parents “incredibly supportive”—descriptions that will surely disturb less fortunate creatives.
But misunderstood artists can take heart in the filmmakers’ collective parental confusion. Baker admits her father doesn’t understand that IFC Midnight is actually a film production and distribution company. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to watch Rent-A-Pal—because he doesn’t think he gets the IFC cable channel. “I don’t think he gets the magnitude of this,” she said. And Stevenson’s mom is also underwhelmed. “I don’t think Jon’s mom realizes how big a deal this is,” Weber said.
The people behind Rent-A-Pal give a lot of credit to the Film & Television program at CAM. “We graduated 10 years ago and we still email these guys,” Baker said (“these guys” refers to some of her previous CU Denver professors). Fryman and Weber said the program was very collaborative and less competitive than other film schools. “We had to learn to work with each other from the very beginning,” Fryman said. “That was probably the most valuable skill we learned.”
In fact, the group of filmmaker friends enjoy the process of working together so much that they usually make movies about making movies. Their short meta-movies can be seen on YouTube. “It’s a fun way for us to show people not only how we make movies but also how to make movies,” Weber said.