Interviews: Director Adam Robitel Talks Escape Room and His History of Horror

TMS: In 2014, you released The Taking of Deborah Logan. What has changed in the industry and your professional career since then?

AR: Well, a lot has changed since 2014. When Logan was unceremoniously placed on Netflix, I had the impression that the movie had died on the vine. Little did I know that it would become viral and people would discover and share it and in some ways, I found a much larger, more rabid audience who weren’t cajoled into liking it because of clever marketing. We were just on the cusp of the Netflix explosion and tracked as one of the more talked about and watched genre films on the site. Many of the reviewers were generally surprised that it was quasi-good. That was well before NETFLIX really started to up its game and produce its own content. Now it has become one of the main homes for independent horror. The problem with theatrical movies is they have to hit the four quadrants typically. There is so much pressure for a movie to play across so many demographics. The average theatrical release is going to spend upwards of 30 million dollars to market a film. Because of this huge financial risk, I think it’s made theatrical movies less daring and dare I say, more predictable. It also forces a bit of dumbing-down and over explanation. With the advent of the streaming giants, filmmakers can now make much more intimate and personal films that can find niche audiences. Beyond this, I’d say the biggest single change is the utter renaissance of TV, also born out of this new technology. TV budgets are getting bigger and filmmakers are finding much more creative freedom in a medium that was once very limiting.

TMS: Considering the advent of streaming has seriously altered how we're watching movies now, how has this effected the way you're making movies? Or has it had any effect at all on your career?

AR: I’ve sort of answered this a bit above but let’s put it this way: I have a project that is a cross between Arrival meets The Thing… a super scary, hard-core R rated monster movie.. and the first place I’m going is Netflix. The Studios are reticent to invest in a horror film above ten million dollars, it seems… unless it’s a piece of massive I.P., (IT)… Ten million really seems to be the basic ceiling because of risk and ten million usually means few locations and characters locked in a claustrophobic environment with limited set pieces and scares.

TMS: You ended up directing the last installment in the Insidious franchise. What was it like coming back to an original project after that? Is that freeing for you creatively? And how so?

AR: Yes, it was more freeing. I love Insidious and it’s such a cool world but I saw myself very much carrying the creative torch of what had been so dexterously established at the hands of Wan and Whannell. The rules, the look, the vibe, were all pre-ordained. With Escape Room, I had a clean slate and enjoyed the opportunity of developing and refining the aesthetic from the ground up. Each room represented the opportunity to reset the visual language, set design and lighting (like five or six mini-movies within the film), so that was very cool…. From the cold modern blue of the lobby, to the Sam Peckinpah western warmth of the cabin, the Narnia like wilderness of the ice room, the Nicotine-stained walls of the 1950’s billiard hall… you get the idea.

TMS: What are some of the better horror films you've seen in the last five years? And have any of them inspired your work?

AR: Hmmm, there’s been so many. I loved  A Quiet Place, and Don't Breathe, which reminded me of the power of high-concepts. I dug Hereditary, which reminded me of the power of drama, performance and lensing. I found The Wailing, deeply disturbing… thought The Autopsy of Jane Doe was absolutely riveting; best genre script I’d read in years and the direction was stellar. They all inspire me and remind me, I have a lot to learn.

TMS: For the most part, you've stuck to this genre. Do you see yourself expanding into different areas or do you think you'll stick with it since you obviously enjoy this?

AR: You know, I’m enjoying playing in this scary sandbox but I’ll never say never. I tend to gravitate towards dark ideas and themes but I also have a warped sense of humor and would love the challenge of comedy, at some point. Comedy is really a filmic cousin to our beloved genre in terms of setup, timing and edits and I guess the opposite of fear is laughter. I’d love to get up into the mid-level dark-thriller space, a la Prisoners… I have a sci-fi spec that I’m developing that involves Synthetic Humans, basically a biblical fable. I have a western / horror love story. So I’m a bit all over the place. At the core, I need to have a compelling characters. That said, the older I get, the more I’d love to make a life-affirming film someday…. Perhaps a coming-of-age tale: My Stand By Me. We’ll see. Not everything is fire and brimstone, but EVERYTHING is predicated on the market and what is actually feasible.

TMS: If there were another franchise to work with, which one would you pick and why? Or would you consider rebooting a branded series with your very own mark?

AR: This is always the question. I’d LOVE to do my own version of The Brood, since I loved it so much. There has been some flirtation with it, but the rights are hard to come by. Not sure… there is one franchise being discussed right now but unless I have a homerun take, there are many pitfalls with reboots, obviously. I loved Friday the 13th and thought we had a really cool pitch for a new one, but they went another way. Let’s put it this way: Crystal Lake during the winter. I’d LOVE LOVE LOVE to make a version of Pumpkinhead, but again, you need the right resources to pull off that seminal creature work. I love all of Barker’s stuff… the Books of Blood is like my bible. We shall see… the long-winded point is, if I could actually move the narrative forward and create something wholly unique, within a particular universe / brand, only then would I take it on. Some folks claim Escape Room is just a rehash of Saw or Cube and while I’m honored that they’d lump us into that category, (they are the gold-standard for locked in a room thrillers)… I was excited by the conceit of the room itself being the death device and really a character that would change as the players interacted with the puzzles and felt that gave it a reason to exist.

TMS: This latest release is much bigger on a production level (at least it appears that way). How was working on Escape Room different from your last couple films?

AR: There was no other place in the world we could have shot this movie other than Cape Town, South Africa. My production designer, Ed Thomas, is world class and he had an incomparable construction team behind him, for these astonishing builds. Shooting in Capetown, we had 43 days of photography and 13 days of splinter. This allowed us to pull off something so ambitious with the resources. I had a very productive prep period on Escape and my cinematographer, Marc Spicer… took me under his wing. We had a lot of visual effects and logistically challenging sequences. Because the mandate going in was the film had to be “not gory” and PG13… we relied more on suspense than shock. This was a fun challenge. How do you create a sense of fear and tension and hopefully hold on to it? We also did a lot of previsualization, particularly the Billiard Room, which helped everyone get on the same page. Other than having more time and more toys, the approach and process is typically the same on every film.

photo courtesy Sony Pictures

TMS: How did Escape Room come about? Where did the ideas come from? And who came up with those rad designs and effects work?

AR: I was in post on Insidious: The Last Key when my agents called and said the producers, Neal Moritz and Ori Marmur at Original Film, had a script they wanted me to read. I went over and read the great first draft by Bragi Shut, under lock and key. Once I signed on, we developed the draft further, with Maria Melnik. Maria was very particular about certain aspects—she’d grown up in Siberia and pitched going from Fire to Ice, which I loved. I put together a very detailed Look Book of inspiration that was the brief for my department heads. The development of the rooms was iterative and a real team effort between me, Maria and Ed Thomas / Marc Spicer. By the time cameras were rolling, everything was on the page with a startling level of detail, I have to say. There were like twenty key hero props, that all had to be built and fabricated. The whole art department was incredible and really excited about this particular film because there work was so front and center. Marc Spicer worked hand-in-hand with Ed Thomas, in terms of lighting changes and how we could make each room transform from a shadow and light perspective.

TMS: There are some Final Destination and Saw influences with your latest. This movie definitely has the markings of a franchise. Do you think it will go that way? And would you come back to direct another one?

AR: Never say never… one only hopes but it’s up to the market and whether the studio deems it worthy. It would be fun to do a second one but I also have a lot of other projects I’d love to do. Time will tell.

TMS: Deborah Logan was obviously a launching pad for you. How do you think that movie established your directorial career and how would things be different if that wasn't made?

AR: I think more than anything Logan resonated because of the script and Jill’s performance. People were genuinely surprised to see a fully realized human being and the relationship between a child struggling to care for her infirm mother, was so universal. If I didn’t get it made, well I wouldn’t be doing this interview right now. It certainly launched my career and I’m beyond grateful—in some ways, it’s my most personal film and the film I’m still, most proud of.

TMS: What projects are next for you or are you planning on taking a much deserved vacation?

AR: I’m really hoping to crack that much vaunted… TV nut! I have a horror series I’m developing with Darren Aronofsky’s company that I’m super stoked about.