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Director Adam Robitel Levels Up “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions”

Tuesday, July 13, 2021 | Interviews


When the end credits rolled on 2019’s ESCAPE ROOM, audiences around the world were immediately ready for more. A massive box office success, the film not only captivated movie-goers with it’s exciting horror-thriller blend, it also left the door open for sequels. Filled to the brim with conspiracy, danger, high-concept production design and a hot ensemble cast, all the elements were in place for an open-ended and profitable franchise. Now, after several pandemic related delays, the Minos plot officially thickens as ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS finally hits theaters everywhere on July 16th.

Returning to the ESCAPE ROOM director’s chair for this new adventure is director Adam Robitel. Known for his keen ability to marry horror and heart, Robitel has become an instantly recognizable name in the horror arena thanks to his work on the ESCAPE ROOM films and others like The Taking of Deborah Logan and Insidious: The Last Key. In celebration of the ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS release, Rue Morgue sat down with Robitel to discuss this new and exciting sequel. Along the way, we chat about the new film’s incredible new cast, the power of discussing trauma and mental health in horror, the escape rooms themselves, and so much more.  

Director Adam Robitel with Logan Miller and Taylor Russell on the set of Columbia Pictures’ ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS.

I have to say, as a fan, it’s been a bit of a roller coaster with the release date for this film. But, it’s finally happening and it’s such a perfect summer release. How has this last year felt waiting for this moment and what does it feel like now that you’re here?

Well, I’m very superstitious. I’ve had two successful movies released in January and this was initially going to be last January. So when they told me about the change I was like, “What do you mean…summer?” Then we kicked it to next January, which is a really long time to wait. But then things started to pick up and I got this call that was like, “Yeah, we’re moving to July.” At this point, we were still mixing and getting musical and visual effects work done and stuff. It was a bit of a shot of adrenaline, but I’m really excited. July is such a good release date for movies. And it seems like with A Quiet Place Part II doing such robust business that maybe the tide is turning. So, fingers crossed!

I was really thrilled to see Taylor Russell and Logan Miller return to their roles as Zoe and Ben, but the new cast is really awesome as well! Tell us a little bit about the cast for this one and what these new characters bring to the ESCAPE ROOM mythology.

What we realize in the second movie is that Minos is much bigger than we first realized. While the game was happening in Chicago in the first film, there were actually multiple games going on around the world. Whether it’s New York City or Europe, it’s just a much bigger scope. So, what we’re going to realize is that there are other people who have been through the gauntlet and we’re now going to meet some of them! 

For casting, it’s about trying to round out and really bring cool vibes, different vibes, from each player. I was super excited to work with Indya Moore. We really leaned into this idea that their character Brianna had this backstory as a travel blogger and had been traveling around the world while building a fan base. And, when they were pulled into the game and then ultimately survived, they got really, really paranoid. They had sort of run away from that life of being a nomad and went into hiding. So, coming back to New York was such a mistake in their mind as a character. They came back and got pulled into the game all over again. 

Then, we have what we called “The Hot Priest” character, played by Thomas Cocquerel. He’s a man of faith and we thought it would be really interesting to see what somebody who had such an unshakable faith in God would do when thrown into this incredibly tumultuous ordeal. He ultimately has his faith shaken and has such extreme survivor’s guilt. Why did he live? Why did the others perish? So, we thought that was kind of an interesting thing. And, his faith is going to bring some antagonism inadvertently into the rooms. Some of the choices he makes, while well-intentioned, get him into a little bit of trouble.  

We also have Theo, played by Carlito Olivero, who makes such a great impression in the film. He’s somebody who was in the armed services and his series of escape rooms involved a submarine. I can’t wait to see that version of the movie. [Laughs] But, he had shattered eardrums and when his car doesn’t start at the beginning of the movie, it’s just weird. He takes a cab, gets pulled into the train and it all sort of seems suspicious. He brings a lot of life to that first scene. He kind of comes in with a bang.

And then Holland Roden who is Lydia from Teen Wolf, she came in playing this really scrappy, no-nonsense gal named Rachel. She’s sort of like the foil to Zoe. Zoe is the expert in the room and Holland’s character also has that “eye of the tiger” kind of thing. And so, at the beginning of the movie, they definitely butt heads. But I think they arch towards a bit of a friendship. 

Look, I think with casting, you’re always looking for really cool faces. Just interesting people who bring kind of a soul to the character. And I think we did a really good job. They’re all beloved. It was also really fun on set to see them all. It’s a hard movie because they’re all in one scene together and there’s so much going on at once. It’s really an ensemble kind of movie and so that kind of chemistry between them is really important. And this one was harder because it’s not like the first movie where you had the first half where they are still having fun. They still think it’s scary, but it’s also still a game. They don’t know that they’re going to die. This one was harder because they know what the deal is, right? Finding that balance of not being too flippant, having little moments of levity, but always honoring the stakes which are life and death. 

So in that respect, it was harder, but we always try to do a comedy pass and try to punch it up. But in reality, the game is on. So that was trickier. We also felt like, because the audience had been through the first movie, educating them about what an escape room was and how it works, it was something we didn’t want to do again and repeat ourselves. So that was part of the choice to say, “Wouldn’t it be cool to not only expand the mythology a little bit, but also not have the audience be way ahead of our character?” 

Rachel (Holland Roden), Brianna (Indya Moore) and Nathan (Thomas Cocquerel) in ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS.

Something that I really love that carries over from the first film is this really beautiful emotional undercurrent. Especially when it comes to Zoe, there are these issues of trauma, mental health, and recovery.  As the director, how important was that to you to have that aspect running through these films, and how does that impact Zoe in TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS?

When I came on to the first ESCAPE ROOM film, I saw the potential [for] just a visual feast. Which, I think both movies have, but I always felt like if it’s going to ultimately be a Ten Little Indians type of movie where you have a set piece and then someone gets killed, then you need to put a little more meat on the bone. And I always felt like trauma and the way people respond to trauma was really a powerful idea. 

If you watch the first movie, it’s really striking. Zoe can barely leave her dorm room, right? She’s suffering from extreme anxiety. She’s had this horrible plane crash in her past and she’s lost her mom. So, she can barely leave the perfect box, as they say in the first movie. What a dramatic change by, in a weird way, the events in the safe room. I always say they’re like therapy for her in a way and they crystallized her. In this film, she’s much more proactive and she has this incredible strength. She’s kind of on that Lois Lane level where she’s going to go into the viper’s den. And what’s striking is we do a flashback to the first movie and with Taylor, we had to recreate parts of it, and Taylor went right back to that Zoe we first met. So, it was an amazing sort of juxtaposition of imagery. 

We all respond differently to trauma and in different ways. Certain people will withdraw. Other people will go through something really extreme and then they become daredevils or they start drinking or, you know, go into hiding. It was just really interesting to imbue all the characters with some elements of that. I’m sorry if I’m rambling. 

No, it’s great. It really adds so much depth to these movies and I’m glad we got to talk about it a bit. I also feel like we can’t be talking about an ESCAPE ROOM movie and not talk about the amazing rooms themselves. Something I noticed about these new rooms is the way they feel a bit more grounded and slightly less surreal in design. Tell us a little bit about these new rooms and why you chose to approach them in this way this time around?

I wanted to pull the audience in a really fun way that they weren’t expecting. You know, we hint at this sort of airplane at the end of the first movie and I liked the idea of that, but it felt limiting and it was important to me that these movies have a lot of scope. I also like the idea of each room being its own little mini-movie. I thought, “How fun would it be if Minos could derail a train car?” Like they have so much logistical power underneath their machine that they can literally, in broad daylight, just suck you into the game. And then the train was also iconic because it was the idea of a third rail. I think people can really relate to the electricity of the train. Most of us have been in a subway at one point in our lives so that was sort of like an aha moment. And then some of it is, “What locations do we have available?” 

The other thing that’s really hard with these movies is that, unlike the Saw movies which are rated R, these have to be PG-13. So, the threat has to be visual, right? You have to see what’s trying to kill you. So we went down the list and it was like, we’d already done gravity. High heat. Ice cold. We also did gas. So, how do we kill these people in a way that’s going to be filmic and cinematic and frankly, beautiful too? Because that’s the other thing we really try to do is have beautiful spaces that kill people. And so I started thinking about lasers and I thought, “Nobody’s really done good lasers.” Most lasers in movies are really just, not well rendered. It was funny. I went back and watched an old James Bond movie that actually had the best laser example. But anyway, I just thought, “What if we really can crush a laser scene?” And then it becomes, “Is it a security system? What about a bank?” We had this beautiful art deco bank that we’d found in Cape Town and so it was that kind of iterative process of what we were thinking. 

Brianna (Indya Moore), Nathan (Thomas Cocquerel), Zoey Davis (Taylor Russell) and Ben Miller (Logan Miller) in ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS.

And then, initially, with the beach scene, I wanted to do sand and we did this big concept art of an old ancient temple and it was super cool, but it felt like an Indiana Jones movie. So, as we were developing it we said, “Well, what would Minos do?” And like, “Why not take a beautiful Cape Cod beach and then make it malevolent and make it dangerous?” So that was the iteration there. A bright, sunny beach, it turns into this beautiful memory. That’s another thing I can’t get into details about, but what I love about this movie is that the rooms tell a narrative, but what that narrative is might surprise the audience. It’s not necessarily tied directly to our characters this time. There are some really cool twists and turns in terms of the way the rooms speak to another mystery. So, the beach was another really kind of aha moment for us. 

Talking out of school, we had to build this amazing and massive trans light. The fabric alone was like, two or three kilometers long. They had to bring it in from London and you get to have that one moment where you think you’re outside again. We did that in the first movie with the ice room, but I thought, “How cool would it be if it was full 360?” This time they come out and they look around and you can get a great 360 view. They know that they’re not outside, they know it’s some kind of technology, but then it changes. And then the whole room becomes an analog, a big shell. So just pulling that off was really, really challenging. It took all of our department heads working overtime with that. 

And each room changes over time, right? So you start with a beautiful sunlit beach and by the end, it’s this moonlight and you’ve got a giant lighthouse that turns on and becomes this beacon. I’m really proud of the way the scope of that feels. Because the other thing I always said, going into a sequel was like, “For a sequel to exist, you have to outdo the first one.” I don’t think I’ll ever outdo the billiard room, to be honest. It just worked on so many levels and it was Zoe’s backstory. It was also a Swiss army knife the way it came together. So that was always the benchmark. I think we have some rooms that are close, but I won’t say we outdid the billiard room. Also in the beach room, there’s this really cool moment where (without giving stuff away), something happens where Zoe, who is very stubborn and just does not want to play by their rules, causes the characters to go their separate ways. It’s a great sort of pivotal moment in the play of it all with them.  

The New York City room is super cool too. We thought it’d be really neat to replicate a downtown Manhattan cross street and make it feel once again like you’re sort of outside. This movie has a lot of really cool environments and Ed Thomas, who is our production designer, he’s amazing. I always say he is sort of the puzzle maker because he designs these things. There’s also a lot of Easter eggs that I think people will have to watch the movie a couple of times just to catch them all. I encourage audiences to look for them.

ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS hits theaters July 16th, 2021 from Columbia Pictures

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