Starring: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Jay Ellis, Tyler Labine, Nik Dodani with Yorick van Wageningen
Directed by: Adam Robitel
Escape Room is a suspense thriller about six strangers who find themselves in circumstances beyond their control and must use their wits to find the clues or die.
IN CINEMAS FEBRUARY 7
ABOUT THE CHARACTERS
In the film, all of these characters have chosen to be part of the escape room experience – and, they will discover, there's a mystery that links them all together. "They all chose to be there – they haven't been kidnapped or forced there," notes Marmur. That said, they all get more than they bargained for. "They all go there expecting one thing and then it becomes a very different thing entirely."
And as they solve the puzzles and the plot of each of the individual rooms, they begin to see there is a larger puzzle to solve – why they chose to be there. As it turns out, they all have something in common. "The idea of strangers being brought together for mysterious reasons, thrust in this environment and having to work together, was a really appealing idea," says Robitel.
Because each of the characters has an independent and unconnected back-story in the narrative, the casting goal of the filmmakers was to find an eclectic group of performers. "We wanted to bring together energetic and diverse personalities with different appearances, backgrounds and perspectives," says executive producer Rebecca Rivo.
First up is Zoey, played by Taylor Russell. A science student, Zoey is a timid and introspective loner who survived an airplane crash in which her mother was killed. Russell, best known for her work on Netflix's "Lost in Space" and the television series "Strange Empire" and "Falling Skies," was excited by the chance to join the project. "Zoey is extremely smart and has a lot of anxiety; she's trying to navigate alone through this life," says Russell. "Adam is a huge horror buff and this is his genre and he really thrives at it. He brought a lot of passion that obviously comes from that love, and that was great to see."
"It was important that Zoey have a vulnerable quality, but also could turn and rise," says Robitel. "Taylor Russell just came in and destroyed it. She had everything I wanted – she could portray feeling powerless, but also showed how this character is incredibly smart."
Ben (Logan Miller) is a lost young man who lives his life in self-destruct mode to block out his trauma of being the lone survivor in a horrific car accident.
"Ben is a pretty grounded kind of character," says Miller. "He's dealt with something tragic in his life, and now he's having a lot of trouble dealing with what has happened. His friends are dead, he has nothing left, so I think he brings a 'screw the world' attitude – and that leads him to becoming an unlikely hero as he deals with his trauma."
To prepare for the physicality of his role, Miller says he trained for six months, but could have saved himself some of that effort. "My trainer and I were jumping off of roofs, running around, chasing cars, going through tanks, hitting each other, doing kung fu... I was in amazing shape and the filmmakers said, 'Hey Logan, we're going to have to dilute some of the shape because you play this burnt-out guy,' so I stopped my workouts and decided to hang out in Cape Town."
Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll) is an army infantrywoman who was wounded in action during an IED explosion and now lives with ongoing trauma.
To play a veteran of war, Woll's research involved visiting forum boards and talking about dealing with PTSD and survivor guilt. "It was a really helpful resource for me," she says.
Robitel says that the lingering effects of Amanda's experience is something that all the characters are going through. "From my research, a lot of the times PTSD survivors aren't able to move on from the incident," says the director. "They replay it and it affects their lives. For our characters, putting them through the fire literally, they become stronger on the other side."
Woll, who is an avid fan of puzzles and crosswords and an inveterate player of Dungeons & Dragons, says she was also intrigued by the relationship between the two women in the group. "I think so many genre films pit women against each other, they get catty and competitive, especially over the boys. I love that this was a story about women who are allies, who find strength in one another and are different, distinct people."
Jason (Jay Ellis) is a charismatic, competitive and egocentric finance executive. He uses the finer things in life to block out his past.
Ellis says his character is simultaneously a financial hotshot charmer living the high life and a stone-cold killer. "You can think of this guy as Christian Bale in American Psycho,
Pacino as the guy who is 'always closing' in Glengarry Glen Ross, or Ben Affleck's character in Boiler Room." Mike (Tyler Labine) is an everyday, blue-collar trucker from West Virginia, and the oldest in the group. A former coal miner, you'd think he'd be accustomed to confined spaces – turns out, not so much.
To prepare for his role and the different traumas his character will face from each of the rooms, Labine explored the Internet to find "actual real-life accounts of people going through what we have to pretend to experience in the movie. What happens when you get hypothermia, what happens when you get electrocuted, and what happens when you are subjected to intense heat."
Danny (Nik Dodani) is a young cyber geek and an avid escape room enthusiast. The team will need all of his skills and expertise in order to survive.
Dodani says that the character hit close to home. "I have a bunch of personal experience to pull from: I drag a lot of my friends to escape rooms, and during the last project I did, I took the whole cast out to an escape room as a team bonding exercise. From the moment I read the script, I knew exactly who this character is; I am that guy. I can't count how many escape rooms I've experienced. Sadly, I've never beaten one, but I will one day."
Veteran actor Yorick van Wageningen joins the film as WooTan Yu, the "Games Master" who works for the sinister Maze Corporation. "He's the games master who controls everything," says van Wageningen. "He controls everything that goes on in all of the rooms; he is the liaison between the people who are watching this and he gets involved when it all goes wrong."
"I didn't want this character to be too arch, the mustache-twirling villain," says Robitel. "Yorick had an elegance and effortlessness in delivering his lines. It's creepy, but not over the top."
ABOUT THE ROOMS
To create the Games Master's inventions, Robitel teamed up with production designer Edward Thomas and the rest of his department heads. Though special effects supervisor Max Poolman says they had one common first reaction when reading the script – "How the heck are we going to do this?" – like any challenge, solutions began to present themselves.
"Each of these rooms needed everybody's support from the very beginning and we did something unique in the prep of this movie," says executive producer Rebecca Rivo. "In a series of summit meetings, before the sets were designed, we brought together the director, cinematographer, production designer, visual effects and special effects supervisors to break down the script and design the production as a group."
Poolman says, "each department had their own piece of the puzzle to put in the story so that it could work seamlessly, so before we physically started building we'd put forward our 3D modeling to Adam, Ed in production design, director of photography, Marc Spicer, and Grant Hulley in stunts."
The sets themselves become characters in the film in their own right, says Thomas. "All of the rooms are born from the characters – each of whom have their own backstory – and each room comes with its own kill factor," he says. "For instance, the Billiard Room is Amanda's room, Danny's is the Ice Room, Mike's is the Tile Room. That was my attraction to the project, the opportunity to design a film where each of the sets have personalities and are almost the nemesis in the film."
"Such incredible craftsmanship went into creating the sets that when we walked in, every one of us, including the crew were just in awe," says Taylor Russell. "We live in these rooms for a long time as actors, so you become very intimate with the space and elements that play in there. They really do take on a life of their own." Robitel adds, "I can't think of another film that had sets that are so vital. The idea was that each room becomes its own new film."
"Some of Adam's previous films are very scary, and he is very good at creating that menacing, claustrophobic feel in the rooms themselves," says Thomas. "This film was multi-layered because the research became about the exploration of the sets themselves: the Billiard Room was based on a 1950's pool hall, and the Games Master's Room was Victorian library. One room tries to crush you; one tries to burn you; one tries to drown you; the rooms themselves go on a trek themselves. We designed the sets around the ways that a room might kill its contestants, and we really hammered the point that these rooms can really come to life."
The characters' journey begins in the Waiting Room. Believing at first that they will be participating in an innocent game, the group of strangers with something in common first meet in there, not knowing that by entering that room, they have already engaged in the game.
Robitel worked closely not only with production designer Edward Thomas, but also with director of photography Marc Spicer to turn up the heat on the audience from the very outset. "It starts out dimly lit; from there it matures so that the ceiling panels turn on, the columns turn on, then the front grill turns on, the windows close, and then the fans open up, so it literally transforms in the eyes of the audience over seven minutes," he says. "It throws the characters and the audience immediately into a pressure cooker situation."
After the Waiting Room is engulfed in flames, the group crawls into an air duct and through a fireplace to arrive in a warm and Cozy Cabin. "It's the Games Master's way of lulling them into a false sense of security before they step out in to the Ice Room, which is, of course, a killer ice room," says Thomas.
The Ice Room, which was designed to look and feel like a refrigeration box, proved to be the greatest challenge for the entire company, from the cast and filmmakers to crew personnel.
"From the warm cabin, the group has now stepped out into the North Pole and they're on ice. It's treacherous and foggy, you can't see twelve feet ahead; and then the worst starts to happen: the ice begins to crack," says Thomas.
For Thomas, the scene required building a massive set, nearly 10 meters high and made out of refrigerator panels. "I wanted it to look as if the Maze Corporation created a fridge to keep this room cold," says Thomas, "and then Marc Spicer had a fantastic idea to toplight the set – in the same way that a fridge would be lit. That illuminated the fog and made it really dense, was very clever."
Of course, the actors were not in danger of hypothermia during the shoot – but they had to look like they were. Before photography began, Robitel went diving with great white sharks in icy water to gain some firsthand knowledge of the body's reaction to frozen temperatures. "When you get hypothermic your body starts to radiate, you convulse, and you start to tense up," he says. "The cast had to be very physical with their reactions."
They did get a little help. "We were in a giant freezer for a minimum of two hours – the temperature drops rapidly and cold air was shooting out at us," Ellis recalls.
When it came to the ice floor itself, the filmmakers again relied on movie magic. "The whole crew had to walk on that set, so it couldn't be slippery. It just had to look slippery – which meant that we had to train the actors to move as if they were actually on ice," says stunt coordinator Grant Hulley.
"The floor was constructed with wood, so it was actually very easy to walk around," says Dodani. "To get more into the physicality of it, they fitted oiled moleskin in our shoe soles so we could slip around. Slipping around on the floor in a blind fog was challenging, but it was so authentic. I felt transported to an Alpine environment, the huge pine trees were real – you could smell the pine." To deliver that verisimilitude, Thomas and his team sourced living pine trees from a wine estate close to Cape Town.
That ice floor eventually has to break apart and shatter – a job that fell to Special Effects Supervisor Max Poolman. "It was made easier by having Jonathon Barrass in my team – he's worked for years on 'Harry Potter' and 'Game of Thrones' and that's made him an ice expert," says Poolman. Poolman and his team built a 330-square-inch resin floor that was dressed with snow by the art department.
From the Ice Room the group finds themselves in the Billiard Room, a 50s-era Palm Springs location. The Games Master has turned the room upside down and placed the group on the ceiling with the tables, chairs, bar and pool room. One by one, the floor panels drop away to reveal a treacherous lift shaft with a 15-story drop. The only way out for them is to climb their way up, clutching onto different perches.
It was this room that required the greatest number of shoot days. "The detail that our construction team and our art department went into to make this room look upside down is absolutely insane," says Ellis. "Right down to the glasses, the jukebox, the guitars, everything on the walls – it was all upside down."
"Not only was it logistically challenging, but any time you have an actor three feet above the floor you have to strap them in, so it is immediate wire removal and the CG element of clean up." explains Robitel.
For the head-trip that is the Tile Room, says Poolman, the goal was "to design a set that could revolve in tight space. We adopted an Ames room – a misshapen room where the scale changes as you walk through it – and modified it with electric motors with speed controls underneath the set. It's weird from the outset; from furniture to walls and floor, the entire decoration of the room is black and white fingerprints. It's lit mainly from an overhead spinning light bulb, which is offset, and then the floor spins in a counterclockwise direction."
In the Hospital Room, says Robitel, "We reveal how much research the Maze Corporation has done on these guys. This room feels more psychological, each character's section in the ward is designed especially for them; we have Amanda's burnt and scarred uniform, Jason's strange and abstract painting of his boat, Danny's carbon monoxide report, and Zoey's Vietnamese items. Each room was adapted for their back stories. They realize that they are all brought here for a reason."