2019’s theatrical genre releases are kicking off with a bang this weekend, as Adam Robitel’s Escape Room is set to captivate audiences starting this Thursday night. A twisty little experiment in psychological horror that follows a group of participants trapped inside an Escape Room experience where their lives are constantly hanging in the balance, Escape Room was written by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik, and stars Deborah Ann Woll, Taylor Russell, Tyler Labine, Logan Miller, Jay Ellis, and Nik Dodani.
Daily Dead recently had the opportunity to speak with Robitel about his experiences on Escape Room, and he chatted about the directorial leaps in his career which has led to him taking on the ambitious thriller. Robitel also talked about the evolution of the script for Escape Room as well as how integral the production design on the film was to the story, and the challenges of creating a room that’s entirely upside down.
Look for more from Adam Robitel on Escape Room tomorrow when we return with the second part of our interview with the filmmaker right here on Daily Dead.
Great to speak with you, Adam. It seems like these days escape rooms have become almost this cultural phenomenon, which is so interesting. I always joked about them, saying, "What if we did one of these things, but the people in charge were like, 'Yeah, no, you're not leaving.'" Because you hand over your phone and your belongings, so you are giving these people this power over you, which is a lot. So I just really loved how it tapped into all these things that people love about escape rooms, and then took it to this really heightened level.
Adam Robitel: Thanks so much. I have to admit, when I first read this script, I'm an old fart that doesn't have a social life, so I was like, "What are these escape room things?" And so I didn't even know. And then the producer told me there are 2,000 in LA county alone, and I'm like, "Wow!" So I went out quickly, complete and full candor, and just did a bunch of escape rooms. I wanted to see what the kids were doing these days. I quickly realized how the good ones are really art-directed and really well-designed, and very visual.
You'll be in a cold war bunker and you'll solve a riddle, and then a hidden black light will turn on that reveals a map that was behind you the whole time, you just didn't see it. So, I got really excited on a truly visual, storytelling level of what one of these escape rooms could be. It absolutely taps into the fear of claustrophobia, the fear of the sort of omniscient person watching you, and then the narrative of each room, too. In this film, each room has a psychological connection to the characters.
You're always trying to do something that is gonna cut through the noise and hopefully get people in the seats. It felt like it had the type of concept idea, when you're competing against a Marvel movie, at least here, when people say "Oh, it's an escape room movie," they sort of know what they're getting. So there's this sense of perceived IP, at least on that level. But then it's like, how do you do it differently? How do you make it fun? And we wanted to make a movie that is like a psychological roller coaster ride. So, I'm glad you enjoyed it. That's awesome.
You mentioned the different escape rooms, and I was wondering, when you were coming into this with the script, did you do anything to massage it a little bit in terms of making it your own? Or were all the concepts already there on the page?
Adam Robitel: Yeah, we did a lot of development. There was a really strong draft by Bragi Schut. When I came in, I really said the biggest thing I want to do is try to make these characters bigger. If the movie's about puzzles, then let's make these characters about puzzles, and let's have some sort of mystery that we have to unpack. Because at the end of the day, it's still a 10 Little Indians movie, where people are getting picked off one by one, and I find that gets really, really boring if the characters aren't interesting and there's not something to them.
So, Maria Melnik came in, who was writing on American Gods. She said, "Let's make this about trauma. Let's make this about these people that are brought together, this idea of being some sort of element within their backstories." And I thought that was really interesting because it just elevated everything a little bit, and makes the audience lean in. And then Maria had some great pitches in terms, going from fire in the lobby to "let's go to ice" because she grew up in Siberia in Russia, so this idea of making a thriller and a horror film that could actually be kind of beautiful got me very excited, too, because you always play in the same sandbox, and all the movies end up for better or worse looking similar.
So it was a combination of character work, and then the set pieces. How best to push the envelope with the resources that we have. Let's have an inverted room where everything's up on the ceiling, and the floor panels are falling away. The hard part was just really, as soon as you're going 110 miles an hour with everything that’s happening, it's hard to have any character beats, right? Because as soon as people are worried about their lives, there's no time to stop and say, "Tell me about your childhood." So that's the hard part with a movie like this is, if it's always at 110 miles an hour, there are no breathing moments.
Obviously directors are always working with production designers because that's part of the gig. But I feel like, in this instance, where you have to build elements of a story within the sets themselves, that the production design ended up being a super crucial part of this project. Can you talk a little about that? I'm guessing that was something you probably had never faced before when directing.
Adam Robitel: Yeah, this movie is a tour de force for production design. Ed Thomas, who did all the Resident Evil movies, he's a genius. He hit the ground running two months before I got down to Cape Town and started everything. He had a construction crew up and running, and so he was a whiz. A lot of the story, and a lot of the props, the hero props, all these different clues had to be on the page, which meant that the art department had their work cut out for them, too.
At the end of the day, everything was on the page in terms of what we needed. And I remember that Marc Spicer, my amazing DP, came in and said, "Wouldn't it be cool if the light fixtures were inside the columns, and the whole room just starts to transmogrify in front of us?" It was a constant back-and-forth with everyone on Escape Room. They would have an idea, and we would change it on the page, and so forth.
And we wanted to make each room like a little mini movie. So, going from the cold modern feel of the lobby that quickly turns into this red oven, then going back in time to this feeling of an old movie in the cabin, to then going into this weird, almost fantasy Narnia land and that inverted pool room—each room influenced the way we approached the camera, and the way that the camera behaved. So it was just such a fun obstacle to be continuously working through. And all of that was practical, too. Everything you see is pretty much practical. It all took such a long time, but it was worth it.
You mentioned the inverted room which, for me, was my favorite part of the film. I think there are a lot of good set pieces, but I love that one the most because as a viewer, it really messes with your sensibilities because you're so used to seeing the image one way, and you've got actors moving a completely different way. It harkened back to these days of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, when they used the rotating room for different set pieces and things like that. It’s so great.
Adam Robitel: Yeah, I'm really proud of that scene. That room was, logistically, the most challenging. There were a lot of concerns of it not being producible, frankly, because of how challenging it was. We had eight days in that room, and I storyboarded everything out. The set was a miracle in and of itself, too. The scaffolding alone to structurally engineer and build it, it was basically like a giant fishbowl. And it was six feet off the ground, because every time we'd come in and say, "Oh, okay, wait, Deborah's up here, but the third and fourth panels are gone now," we had to literally physically remove pieces of the floor to light the green screen. It was very logistically challenging.
For me, going from a small found footage movie to Insidious, to then Escape Room, was a big jump. A lot of it was iterative. It was just figuring out when the panels are gonna drop, and where to put the camera. That was another really big issue because there were four walls. You could take one wall out to get the crane in there, but then if you're on a wider lens, you're gonna see the opening in the set.
And here’s a little anecdote: the cool shot at the end when they finally solve the riddle and the camera rotates 180 degrees. I said, "It's gonna come around the corner, we're gonna flip 180 degrees, and then Deborah Ann Woll, she's gonna catch that ball and it's gonna go up into her hand, and we're defying gravity." And so we tried it for two and a half hours with the advanced, very modern techno crane. And we just couldn't get it to work. There was a servo issue on the motors. At the last minute, we dusted off this ancient crane that had no business being anywhere near a human being, and it got the shot.
But yeah, it was really hard. That was the hardest room by far, and a lot of people said it couldn't be done. I have to say, I had an amazing crew in Cape Town, just an amazing crew. This was a movie where we really did a lot with what we were given, let's put it that way, and that room is a prime example of that.
In case you missed it, check here to read Daily Dead's previous coverage of Escape Room, including Heather's review of the movie and part 2 of her interview with Adam Robitel.