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Exclusive Interview: Director Adam Robitel on his first trip to the Further with “INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY”

Thursday, January 4, 2018 | Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

While most of the INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY team have been with the fright franchise from the beginning, the man at the helm was a newcomer: director Adam Robitel. He gave RUE MORGUE an exclusive chat about working with both series veterans and a new demon.

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY (reviewed here) puts the full focus on parapsychologist Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) as she returns to her childhood home to confront a demon billed as Keyface (busy creature performer Javier Botet) that she first faced as a child. Robitel, who started out as an actor in movies like the 2001 MANIACS duo and CHILLERAMA, made his feature directorial debut on 2014’s possession chiller THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN, which became a fan favorite on Netflix. It led him to join INSIDIOUS creators Leigh Whannell (who scripted and co-stars in THE LAST KEY, and is interviewed here) and James Wan on the new chapter, and also to a thriller he’s currently working on called THE MAZE.

Can you describe the process of getting the LAST KEY gig?

Well, I was friends with James Wan way back when I was trying to make THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN, and he was very gracious with advice. Then, when the film premiered on Netflix, he gave it a beautiful and supportive shout-out on social media, and I was so honored. So subsequently, we stayed in touch, and he wanted to do something with me, and I think my name got thrown into the ring over at Blumhouse because of that. I went in and auditioned for THE LAST KEY, and put together a big look book with animated storyboards and a well-laid-out game plan, and the rest is history.

How much were you allowed to bring your own vision to this franchise film?

INSIDIOUS is an established universe, and a very particular universe, so I was definitely working within a framework. I had ideas for a new demon, and I thought this was an opportunity to do something a little more surreal. Also, I’m really good friends with Lin Shaye, and I’ve acted in a couple of movies with her like 2001 MANIACS, so we go way back, and this one really appealed to me because it’s sort of an Elise origin story, with tough subject matter—familial abuse, feeling different, being castigated for having special gifts. These were themes I found very interesting, within Leigh’s universe and his script. So I feel like it was more of a collaboration between Leigh and myself, as opposed to coming in and reinventing the wheel.

How did you find the right actress to play Elise as a child?

It was super-competitive. We saw a ton of young actors, and Lin has a very unique presence, so it was hard to try to match that. And Ava Kolker, who’s an astonishingly good little actress, came in and blew our socks off, because of her likeness and physicality and also her insane acting chops. Terri Taylor, who casts all of Blumhouse’s movies in-house, is incredibly good at finding and developing young talent. She’s really plugged into the young-actor scene. I find now that I’m on my third film, when I see the person who’s right for the role, everybody else sort of pales in comparison, and that’s what happened with these actors.

Can you talk about Javier Botet as the new demon?

Like many of us horror aficionados, I’ve seen his tests for [the title role in] MAMA, and was blown away by the stuff he was doing. He has this incredible physical presence, and I was always haunted by that. I wanted to do as much as we could in-camera, and there was only one man on the planet who I felt could play this demon. Obviously he’s got a storied track record by now, with the Guillermo del Toro movies and so forth, so he just seemed like the right fit. We had to move mountains to get him over here from Spain, but it worked out. He was in the makeup chair for about four hours, and he’s very tall and thin and so there were scenes where he was pushed to the extreme, and because of the design and the look of the monster, it was hard for him to breathe. He was telling me about one show he did where he literally couldn’t breathe under the prosthetics; they would do a take and then immediately stick an oxygen tube into his mouth. I mean, it’s old hat with him.

Who did your makeup effects?

Justin Raleigh and Fractured Effects, who have done all the INSIDIOUS movies, and also the CONJURING series with James. Those guys were incredible. A friend of mine, Jacob Hair—an incredibly gifted guy—had done some early concept art, and I loved the idea of a demon with key fingers, and tapping into that primal, clawlike thing that so many of us respond to. Because part four is such a pivotal chapter in the mythology, we felt it was a very interesting visual motif, and Leigh glommed onto it. When I went in for my initial pitch meeting, the script did not have an entity, and I said, “Look, I really think this all about that sort of big bad,” and Leigh, through the evolution of the project, came up with this idea. Fractured was deeply involved; they started with concept art, and from there they went into sculpting and refining. There was a long process of getting it right.

By the fourth film in this franchise, was it difficult to come up with new ways to scare people?

Yeah—I mean, I’m never going to outdo James Wan, and I’ve made peace with that. So THE LAST KEY sits apart from the others in the sense that it’s more of a family drama with some “Boo!” moments. I feel horror works best where if you took the scary elements out of it, it would still be a gripping story, and that’s what I feel about THE LAST KEY. Lin is a powerhouse, and she goes to hell and back in this movie. At the end of the day, it’s about girl power, it’s about self-empowerment, it’s about being true to yourself and finding your own strength. James always says that Lin is the strength of the franchise, and it was fun to focus on her.

In terms of the jump-scares, after four movies, they have to be earned, and not be there just to be there. They need to be a little more elegant, in a sense. It’s hard, because everything’s been done in horror, so it’s always about finding that new image, and it’s incredibly hard to come up with fresh ideas. For me, the fear is when you’re truly invested in the characters—real people, not cardboard cutouts or teenagers who are just there to get naked. What I’m most proud of is that this film is really about an older woman going back to confront her abusive past, and for a nationwide-release movie to be about something like that is exciting, because typically, especially for women, actors have a short lifespan once they get past a certain age, and Lin has bucked that trend, because she’s such a dynamic performer.

Can you talk about your work with her on your previous films, like 2001 MANIACS?

Yeah! She’s so good at everything in film, and she taught me a lot. In MANIACS I was a sheep-fucking redneck, so it wasn’t exactly something to show my family, but with Lin and Robert Englund there, it was a trip, being in my early 20s and having loved so much of what they had done. Lin is a real mensch; she has a ton of horror friends, she’s good friends with James and has these little dinners where the horror crowd shows up. And she takes her craft very seriously, whether it’s a horror film or a Farrelly Brothers comedy, or something very serious and intense. She can do it all.

What is your new movie THE MAZE all about?

Well, I’m under lock and key; I’m really in a cone of silence about it, unfortunately, but it’s a cool, multivisual thriller that I’m super-excited about. I have a great group of actors, and they’re all at the top of their game and very professional. Tyler Labine is hilarious, and Deborah Ann Woll and Logan Miller are great as well, and I think Taylor Russell is going to be a big star. They’re all bringing their A-game.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.