Can a Friendship Survive the Making of a Buddy Comedy?

Writer-director Fernando Andrés on the real-life story behind his new movie Rent Free, which premieres at Tribeca tomorrow.

The truth is, if you had told me four years ago that my first two feature films would be about twentysomethings like me navigating life, love and work in contemporary Austin, Texas, where I live, I wouldn’t have believed you.

As a masochist first and filmmaker second, I dream mostly in elaborate locations, highly specific subcultures and costly period pieces. But in 2021, the year I fell in and out of love with an older man in an open relationship, the ensuing storm cloud of emotions was more thrilling and inspiring to me than any expensive genre concept I could have ever come up with. The script wrote itself over one crazed weekend, we went into production that summer, and not even a year later, Three Headed Beast premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. “Great,” I remember people saying to me, “you got your microbudget debut out of the way.” I took the industry pill: I found a great manager, I flew out to Los Angeles, I was ready to pitch and hopefully finance my next film (a 1990s sex comedy set in the Marine Corps). And then the strikes happened. The industry ground to a halt, but I was desperate to make something again, anyway. I knew I sure as hell wasn’t going to be able to make anything that much bigger than my first film, so once again I thought about what was most exciting to me in that moment.

Fernando Andrés and Tyler Rugh in New York City in 2022. (Photo by Mark McCrummen.)

There were the many talented filmmakers and actors I had met on the festival circuit, many of whom had become good friends. There was the dystopian landscape of post-tech boom Austin, beautiful and bizarre in equal measure, that I felt I had left largely unexplored in my first film. And finally there was my complex and troubled relationship with my co-writer and best friend since childhood, Tyler. All the pieces were there: my next film would be Rent Free, an anxious buddy comedy set in Austin with an ensemble cast, based on my friendship that was crumbling in real time and would explode before the movie was finished. What follows are my scattered recollections of the most emotionally and creatively challenging year of my life as a filmmaker.

Pre-Production (April – June 2023)
Tyler is a Capricorn; I am a Sagittarius. I don’t actually believe in astrology, but I’ve always found an odd comfort in entertaining it, especially when it comes to compatibility charts. To catch you up on this particular pairing, it is one of the least compatible in the Zodiac. “Sagittarius might feel like Capricorn is a stick-in-the-mud, while Capricorn has a hard time taking Sagittarius seriously,” one of the many astrology websites puts it. “Capricorn might feel too limiting or not spontaneous enough or adventurous enough for Sagittarius, and Sagittarius might spin out a bit too much for Capricorn.”

Tyler and I met in a Christian private school when our biology teacher sat us next to each other, because she knew we both liked movies. It was a whirlwind, laugh-filled, emotionally codependent bond from that day on: weekends spent watching movie marathons, school breaks spent filming terrible short films. Our friendship only strengthened during our college years, but a certain stasis had set in. I wanted, sometimes foolishly and at the expense of more pragmatic pursuits like finishing college, to devote my entire existence to making films; Tyler craved stability.

Astrology app Co-Star’s take on Tyler and Fernando’s compatibility as friends.

Production on Three Headed Beast was hard on Tyler. I convinced him it would be a worthwhile endeavor with a big passionate speech about not letting our early twenties slip by (lol) and repeating the clichéd comparison between a film shoot and a summer camp. It ended up being a grueling process that involved 18-hour days and frequently being disenchanted with the journey from the page to the screen. I remember Tyler coming to me early on and lamenting how hard we had made things for ourselves. After that film, Tyler decided he was more comfortable writing than he was directing together. It was a move that I agreed with and felt was right, but I could already begin to feel the distance it would put between us.

The spring we spent prepping Rent Free was a chaotic haze: casting actors and friends before we even had roles written for them, booking Airbnbs for locations and writing the script around them, working with my producer and lead actor Jacob Roberts to privately source our budget. But mostly I just remember the dread of exchanging drafts with Tyler. I knew what I was writing was nakedly personal; the tensions and disagreements between us, professional and otherwise, manifesting in the film’s two heroes, Ben and Jordan. Ben is an overly ambitious and sexually impulsive agent of chaos who can be oblivious to Jordan’s feelings, while Jordan is a talented but stagnant aspiring photographer who is along for the ride but struggles to voice his own feelings until it’s too late. In the film, Ben is a Leo and Jordan is a Taurus. Every day I would send Tyler new scenes and he would send them back funnier and punchier than they had been before, but he never said a word about the parallels. At the time, I took that as his approval; I now know it was easier for him to just not talk about it.

Production (July – August 2023)
July was the happiest month of my life. I’ve long been fascinated hearing about different directors’ favorite phase of the creative process, because for me it has always been production; while many of my heroes luxuriate in the daydreaming stage of writing or the laid-back experimentation of post, I make movies just to be able to get on set and find images on the day with my cast. The whole month of filming Rent Free was a road trip within the Austin city limits, as every day a new actor would join us from down the street or drive in from Dallas or fly in from Los Angeles. It was a marathon 28-day shoot fueled by adrenaline, record-breaking Texas temperatures be damned. We would shoot all day and then I would go home to edit footage with Jacob, who was sleeping on my couch for the entirety of production. Thankfully, exhaustion waited to set in until after we wrapped.

We shot mostly in chronological order, with the exception of our prologue, which we filmed in New York City in the first days of August, right after we’d wrapped in Austin. On the flight to NYC, we stole one of my favorite shots of Rent Free mid-air and shot the opening montage of the film all over the city. At night, we would rewrite entire scenes with the cast and then immediately hop into filming. It was thrilling, and in many ways, it was the entire shoot in miniature. But it was also the moment I realized just how far Tyler and I had grown apart.

Tyler Rugh, Fernando Andrés and Jacob Roberts during the making of Rent Free. (Photo by Megan Bitchell.)

While Tyler had been on set most every day, running sound and helping with odd jobs as needed, we had barely spoken the entire shoot; on our first film, we would debrief and text each other every day. “I love you man,” one of his texts read after a particularly rough day. “I’m gonna text you I love you every day of the shoot.” I look at my texts with him during the entirety of the shoot for Rent Free. Nothing really other than the occasional “Do you know where the 50 mm lens is?” or “Can you pick up lunch today?” from me or “What time do you think we’ll be done today?” from Tyler, in between occasional messages of encouragement or satisfaction with how shooting was going. This was such an intensely emotional month for me, full of creativity and passionate, even if brief, connections with the cast and crew, who had come from all over the U.S. to help us make this film. In particular, my connection with Jacob while crafting his performance and producing the film together had been the most enriching and organic partnership I’d ever had with someone. So why did I feel so utterly disconnected from the person I once considered my closest friend, “more than a brother but a little less than a wife”?

Post-Production (August – December 2023)
The week after we wrapped, I was already rushing to put out a workprint cut to start from. I would spend the first part of the day driving Favor (the UberEats of Texas), trying in vain to make back some of the money we’d spent, get home and hang out with my boyfriend, Will, who I hadn’t seen for the past two months despite us living together, and then sneak away from our bed at night to edit until the sun came up.

This was a dark and cavernous headspace I would not leave for the entirety of post-production. And in many ways, it was an escape from the pain of one night in early August when Tyler came over to my apartment to discuss the film. What had begun as a conversation about the shoot quickly blew up into an airing of grievances so intense and so emotional that I defended myself with words I would come to regret. Words as harsh and sweeping as those astrological charts: he was stagnant, I wanted something more intense and emotional out of our friendship instead of the polite distance I felt between us, we were incompatible. Overwhelmed, Tyler headed for the door, and I handed him his jacket he had left behind the last time he was there; I had a feeling we might not see each other for a long time after that night. I was right.

Jacob Roberts and David Treviño in Fernando André’s Rent Free.

As I said earlier, I make movies so I can be on a bustling set with friends and fellow artists committed to finding something together … not the lonely process of editing, where all you have in front of you is a 90-minute feature film to piece together, scene by scene, cut by cut. It was especially hard to edit a film that was a story about two best friends when my own best friend wouldn’t even text me back. The months that followed our falling out were a blur; I buckled up and pushed through editing a film which I assembled from more than 40 hours of raw run-and-gun footage. I have Will and Jacob to thank for helping me through that long process, as we went from an astonishingly jagged workprint to a decent rough cut to a picture lock that our friends and family responded well to.

And something miraculous happened after all that time: watching the film back no longer filled me with a sense of despair, but a melancholy and a bittersweet sense of recognition. I realized that Rent Free was not just a buddy comedy or a sensitive portrayal of friendship, but in its own way also a depiction of the way we grow out of relationships as we go our separate ways in work and life. I was finally being reminded of why I wanted to make this film in the first place – it had helped me work through it all.

It’s almost six months since we finished editing Rent Free. Everyone’s getting ready to bring it out into the world at Tribeca and we couldn’t be prouder of the film we ended up with.

A BeReal shot shared by Tyler Rugh and Fernando Andrés.

And Tyler and I are hanging out again. We’ve caught up and apologized to each other, but we both know it’s a long road ahead and things still feel a little rusty as we navigate our new place in each other’s life, knowing it may not ever be as close as it used to be. We try to text each other a little more regularly, and we just watched Joanna Arnow’s incredible The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed together and it felt like taking a time machine back to the way things were before last summer. I’m about to finally show him the finished film at a tech check. I don’t think I’ve ever been more nervous about a screening, but at least it’ll make the world premiere in New York feel like a walk in the park.

Fernando Andrés is a writer-director based in Austin, Texas. His latest film, Rent Free, will premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival. His debut feature, Three Headed Beast, premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival and will be released later this year via Buffalo 8. His films explore relationships, sexuality, and society through a stylish queer lens, and have screened at festivals including Outfest, New Orleans and Austin Film Festival.