Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
If there’s one thing people love about escape room challenges, it’s how engaging and immersive the puzzles can get. The more wild and interactive, the better. This is something director Adam Robitel (INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY, THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN) took to heart when fine-tuning the psychological and emotional stakes for the characters in ESCAPE ROOM. The tension, claustrophobia and team dynamics that have made this experience a pop-culture phenomena have now been transformed into a fully cinematic one.
This taut, pulse-pounding thriller involves six strangers – Zoey (Taylor Russell), Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), Ben (Logan Miller), Mike (Tyler Labine), Jason (Jay Ellis) and Danny (Nik Dodani) – locked in a competition for survival. With little more than their wits and wisdom guiding them, they must make their way out of a labyrinth of deadly theme rooms, solving a myriad of complex riddles and challenges. And naturally, little by little, the mystery of what brought them all together in the first place is unlocked.
At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, I spoke with the talented auteur about everything from the escape rooms’ designs, to the particular melancholic pop song utilized during a palm-sweat inducing sequence, to which sequence was vastly different in the original script.
How many escape rooms did you participate in before you felt comfortable enough to say “yes” to this job?
I hadn’t done an escape room before I read the script. I read the script and was fascinated by it and then quickly ran out and did 10-15 to get a sense of what they are. I realized how visual they are and how a good one is really well designed. It’s sort of like the way Jony Ive labors over the design of a computer, a good puzzle maker with every choice of a lighting fixture and architectural details will be well thought out. I got super excited what that could be for a visual medium like film and how immersive it could be. The rooms themselves should be psychological extensions of the characters.
For example, Taylor Russell’s character Zoey went down in a plane crash so the entire billiard room is flipped upside down. What’s gonna kill you in that room? Gravity. Or the lobby which turns into an oven, which plays on Deborah Ann Woll’s character’s fear of fire since she experienced an IED. The set pieces are like the “Id” of these characters.
What’s great is that you “show” and not rely too heavily on “telling.”
It’s this fine line. It’s like good confusion versus bad confusion. Sometimes we are a little expository in places maybe, if left to my own devices, I wouldn’t have been. But in terms of the puzzles, [screenwriter] Maria Melnik and Bragi Shute did a great job of laying out puzzles that audiences could guess, but other times, they’re a little bit behind since Zoey is so good at solving these puzzles. You want that active engagement with the audience. You don’t want them sitting there bored. You want them at the edge of their seats and to stay in that place.
Is blocking a film like this with so many literal moving parts more intense than a normal film?
Yeah. It’s my third film – my first film was a found footage movie, which was a little more improvisational. I love rehearsals. My DP, Marc Spicer, and I did a bunch of pre-blocking. We had all the sets in overheads. A lot of it was pre-planned because of the elements, whether that be a heat element that turns on and I want Deborah’s reaction over here. Some of it was planned and some of it was improvisational. On the day they would rehearse and I’d see how I would want to move the camera accordingly. It was a really fluid iterative process.
The first day we shot the lobby sequence. It was me and my six actors all in the same space and it was really challenging. I think we did 35 or 40 set-ups on that day.
What was the sequence that changed the most from script to screen?
That’s a great question. Initially, like all movies, you wind up running out of money. So the set that’s the crazy room where the guys are tripping, initially had been written as a big, crazy industrial-like factory where these big stompers were going to come down and crush them. I was touring these factories in South Africa and thought, a, this is too dangerous and, b, too expensive, and, c, I’ll never do this well. We ended up going for a trippy experience. That changed a couple weeks before filming.
Most of it was on the page. I think the billiard room was certainly the hardest logistically to pull off. There was a fear we wouldn’t be able to do it, but I’m so glad we did. The set itself was a work of art. There was scaffolding and structural engineering dedicated to keeping this pool table aloft and keeping Deborah safe. Where do you put the pick points? Where do you put the camera when the giant set is a fishbowl? It was a giant challenge, but we hopefully pulled it off.
Touching on that a bit, you made the sets as practical as possible to give the actors something to interact with. That’s important.
Shooting in Cape Town, I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world we could’ve pulled this movie off for the budget. We had amazing sets. Ed Thomas, my production designer, could do anything. His construction team hit the ground running six weeks before I got there. For a little movie we had two soundstages, a tank shot we were doing at the time. We really put a lot of value on the screen.
What was your toughest day on set?
The ice room was really challenging because of the atmosphere. Everybody was on edge during that sequence. We had to wear respirator masks. It took the longest. The ice was never quite right in terms of the way it looked. I had a crew member fall at one point. We’d think we’d be done in that room and then we’d need to go back. I was really glad to be done on that.
Do you feel a greater sense of creative control being a part of something original like this versus being a part of a franchise where you need to service those needs?
Oh, for sure. Look, I had a great time on INSIDIOUS and it’s Leigh Whannell’s baby. I equated to a TV job in the sense where I can’t rock the boat too much. The INSIDIOUS fans apparently expect a certain kind of movie when they go to that movie. Yeah, I’d say it was a lot more free. For sure.
I was also curious about the box design. It seems like craft was put into that.
Some people are saying it’s the HELLRAISER box and I certainly loved HELLRAISER. It’s an homage if people see similarities. We modelled it after these Japanese puzzle boxes that do exist. We wanted to give it a cool iconic quality.
Was the billiard room song always Petula Clark’s “Downtown”?
It’s funny you should ask that. We went through a couple of [songs]. It ultimately became about what we could get cleared. I think it was Ed Thomas who had pitched that song. Initially it was going to be “Come Fly With Me” by Sinatra, but it was $200,000. Then it was going to be a John Denver song for a little while and we were like, “Oh that’s too on the nose.” So we ended up with “Downtown” which we thought was really creepy and weird.
Did you play music on set for timing of the stunts, but maybe you couldn’t for sound?
We didn’t. I always knew I could find that in post. But what we did have to do was the moment of the drops, we had to keep a sense of the timing of those drop, figuring out how to shoot each one of those panels and where they are. When you’d come in one day, all the floor would be in, and later after lunch, we’d have to pull a panel out, because the third panel had fallen. It was really like an escape room puzzle to solve to shoot.
Let’s also talk about the score.
The score is so good. Bryan Tyler is like a demi-god. He does these massive 100,000 person crowds, but he killed it. It’s epic. It has this TRON-esque. He used a lot of experimental instruments – time remaps and old guitar rigs. It feels so much bigger than it should, frankly.
Do you have a favorite room?
I’d say the hospital room just because it’s character building moments. The problem with these movies is they are so rapid fire and the first acts have been cut down and you don’t have a lot of time to get to know characters. That’s just a product of being in the “Twitteriffication” of our brains. The hospital scene, in terms of the performances and characters where you feel bad for them in this rollercoaster where you get to know them, I love that.
What about a favorite character?
What’s interesting is ESCAPE ROOM is really a meditation on trauma. We did a lot of research on PTSD and how some people respond to trauma in different ways. Some withdraw from the world. Others, like Jason, he becomes an adrenaline junkie. For me, I feel most empathetic towards Zoey. She’s the most wounded at the beginning it seems. But I also love Ben, who messed up and made a mistake. There’s all this talk about “likability versus relatability” and anybody can relate to someone who hates himself so much because of this one thing he did and isn’t letting himself off the hook to change. Amanda is very heroic and you can’t help but relate to her.
I know you didn’t write this, but how far ahead do you go thinking of how to spin this off?
We have some ideas, but we’ve frankly been so busy with this one. I don’t want to get to crass, or ahead of myself, but we do try to tee it up. We would like to do another. We have a rich mythology.
ESCAPE ROOM opens on January 4.