In Room for Rent, writer/director Matt Atkinson and producer Justin Rebelo tell a stranger-in-my-home story starring Mark Little, Brett Gelman, Mark McKinney, and Stephnie Weir. With Room for Rent’s VOD release, Matt and Justin spoke with Film Threat’s Managing Editor Alan Ng about the challenges of writing a comedy, getting it funded and working with well-known actors.
What I like about your film Room for Rent is a fresh take on the stranger-in-the-house trope.
Matt Atkinson: The seed of the idea came was when I was a young guy graduating from high school and going away to college. My parents talked about renting my room to a stranger for some extra cash. What a strange concept! I come home after college and who’s that in my … A stranger in my house! That’s kind of creepy. It just felt like that was a great premise for what could be a comedy movie.
Okay, so tell us a little bit about the story itself.
Matt: It’s about this young guy, Mitch Baldwin. In high school, he wins about $3.5 million on the lottery. His ego soon takes over. He’s a jerk and spends all this money lavishly buying friends and all that stuff. This is just in the first 3 minutes. Years later the money’s gone, and he moves back in with his parents. They get to the end of their rope when dad loses his job. They’re going to have to sell the house.
So Mitch panics because this is his little bubble that he’s in and so he decides to clean out their spare room and rent the room for extra cash. Lo and behold, the first person that comes to rent the room is this stranger, Carl, and things start to get weird from there as Carl befriends Mitch’s parents and work against Mitch to ruin his life.
“I come home after college and who’s that in my … A stranger in my house!”
What was the process of fleshing the story out? I like the fact that there are twists in it and that you take the story in unexpected directions.
Justin Rebelo: I think the breakthrough for Matt story-wise was when he realized the connections of all the characters needed to come from one central moment in the past. That’s sort of what ended up really being the major story breakthrough. That really brought that plot together.
In the past, the stranger has always played the antagonist, but it seems that it’s actually Mitch who is the film’s villain.
Matt: Yeah. It’s a little ambiguous who’s really at fault here. We’re kind of dealing with people who are at their worst in a rock-bottom moment and how they deal with failure and redemption. It’s taking people to their worst position, and asking how can we make that worse for them. Then as Justin says, have that bred out from one point in the past.
Let’s talk about producing the film. You have a completed script. Where do you take it?
Justin: It took probably two good years of just solid script work from the point that Matt and I first started discussing whether we’re going to try to make something and when he sort of brought this concept forward. I always joked that making an indie film is like Fitzcarraldo. You’re always pushing that boat up the mountain until it finally tips over that point.
I started working on taking the basic premise of the stranger in the house premise with this sort of comedic dynamic. We started pitching it out for financing very early in the process. It was about moving the script forward at every phase.
“…he’s a really great dramatic actor, could play the comedy really, and play the menacing character too.”
Any advice for people chasing that money? Financing.
Justin: Chasing the money? Yeah. Listen, I would say we’re very lucky in Canada that we have a system in place that allows us to use some of the incentives that are there. We have a good tax credit system. We have a government who supports and invests in feature films and really, I would say, they take the approach of investing in talent.
The reason that I wanted to work with Matt is that I was a big fan of his first film … Small indie called Dakota. I saw his comedic timber, if you will, that he had and the talent for dialog. He was at a point in his career where I felt like a lot of these financing bodies and … Whether it be pre-sales and television or distribution in Canada, I thought that he was somebody that people would want to invest in.
Let’s move to casting. Your leads are Mark Little and Brett Gelman. At what point are they in the project? Was it something they saw and liked or did you go the traditional casting route?
Matt: For the whole cast it’s a different story for each. Mark Little was kind of early in the process. We went to him straight away as the script was more in a locked draft. Maybe a year?
Justin: Yeah, it was the first draft we took to market, and we approached Mark because Mark is one of Canada’s most talented stand-up comedians and his sketch comedy troupe, Picnicface, had their own television show on Comedy Network in Canada. He was the talent we knew we wanted to attract early.
Matt: And then Brett Gelman (who recently appeared on the Film Threat podcast) … I was trying to think of who could really embody this character. We’ve all been a big fan of his over the past 10 years in comedy and different things. And he’s a really great dramatic actor, could play the comedy really, and play the menacing character too. Brett came in very late in the process. Again, as you get the financing, you get all these balls in the air, it’s kind of a magic act. And poof, suddenly you’re making the thing. I think it was maybe even a couple of weeks out and he got the script through one of our executive producers who had known him a little bit.
Anyways, he responded to the material, and next, we know he was there for the first day, and we were shooting. It was pretty incredible.
“They are comedy heroes, and for me, they are essentially the straight characters…”
The two performances I thought stood out the most was Mark McKinney from Kids in the Hall and Stephnie Weir from Mad TV. Mostly because this is probably the most dramatic role I’ve ever seen either of them in. There is a lot of comedy behind it, but there is a lot of realism to it.
Matt: Exactly. They are comedy heroes, and for me, they are essentially the straight characters. They have to be the characters that the audience is identifying with. They nail it every time. Mark McKinney is incredible to work with. We were really tamping him down because he’s such an incredible comic actor. I thought he did a great job at really underplaying the role for us and then Steph is just an incredible actress and an incredible comedian.
There’s a moment where she stands up to Mitch.
Matt: Exactly. It was trying to find a standout moment for each for each of. And I think they both play it beautifully but then all these little bits of having to live in the house with these two crazy guys, so you know.
Justin: Just one word on casting. We’re really proud of the comedic cast we brought forward. Like I said earlier, Matt has a background in casting. What I found to be exceptional was how we managed to get ours through personal relationships. Our connection to Brett was through our executive producer’s wife. I was friends with one of the producers of a Canadian show, Less Than Kind, who then introduced us to Mark McKinney. Ultimately, everyone across the board was found through a connection…indie filmmaking. It’s that Fitzcarraldo thing of like who would be amazing, who knows somebody who knows somebody who knows them. Who’s their cousin, you know?
That was one of the biggest challenges I think we had to overcome, but I think we had a real ambition of getting some really cool people. We really were pretty relentless on that.
“Festivals become the first time we actually sat down in the theater with an audience.”
Speak to other filmmakers about the importance of films festivals.
Matt: Film Festivals are a way to get out and meet people and show your film. To work on a script for two years and then shoot it and then sit in an edit bay for a year and then you’ve got this thing. It’s all done in isolation. Festivals become the first time we actually sat down in the theater with an audience. You watch it, and it’s an incredible thing. There’s nothing like it.
You also make this little passport for yourself, and you get to go around and meet other people that you would never otherwise meet. These become connections for later in your life and career.
Justin: Just to echo Matt’s sentiment. I think we made this movie for audiences. There’s a lot of crazy things going on in the world, and I think a little bit of escapism keeps us all grounded. We wanted to have this film set in a very solid, grounded, dramatic place, and at the same time, make sure that the laughs were really front and center. For us, that’s the most gratifying result. To be at festivals where people get to enjoy and actually hearing them laugh is why did it in the first place.