Greetings and salutations everyone. Barbarella here after talking with writer, producer, and director of NO ESCAPE, Will Wernick. The film will be available on Digital and On Demand this Friday, September 18 and follows social media star Cole (Keegan Allen) as his friends take him abroad to do a special escape room. What could go wrong?
Speaking of things going wrong, Will let me know he was talking to me from Los Angeles and that the smoke from the wildfires has been problematic there.
“My voice is kind of going in and out today because it's been so... Like even indoors right now, it smells like I have a campfire going.”
My heart goes out to everyone dealing with the fires, the smoke, the hurricanes, and all the rest of the chaos 2020 is hurling at us. I could’ve had an entire conversation about more serious topics than movies, but then you probably wouldn't want to read about those here, so I moved into my questions.
Which do you think is scarier and why? Getting stuck in an escape room possibly run by sadistic sociopaths or social media influencers?
“Well, I've met enough social media influencers now to know that they're not that scary, so I'd have to go with the escape room.”
All right. When did you first get interested in escape rooms and decide that they'd make for a great movie?
“Well, I was in Los Angeles for about seven years, directing music videos and commercial stuff, and a producer that I was working with mentioned that there hadn't been an escape room movie. This was like mid-2015. So, I kind of wrote up a treatment for that, and we were shooting in like two and a half months. That was a very small movie. And once that did well, we wanted another crack at it. And that's how this movie came about.
“I've been to maybe 20 escape rooms. They're really fun. It's not something that I was really all that interested in before we started the process. But they're pretty cool.”
Were you able to get out of any of them?
“Yeah, I escaped from a bunch of them. It was really big for a while in Los Angeles, and a few of them that they built were incredibly complicated. Failed a couple of those. I lost in a William Shakespeare one, which was slightly embarrassing…but we got close.”
How did you come up with the ideas, or what inspired the ideas, for the various puzzles that they have to do?
“Well, we wanted the puzzles to sort of mirror some of the character traits and the differences of the characters. But, a lot of it was sort of a function of playing on things that a person who was a fan of horror movies and things like SAW would be familiar with. Because the character of Cole has sort of grown up with this stuff his whole life, and it's what he searches out, so a lot of it is trying to relate to things that the character and the audience would recognize in other movies.”
Would you talk a little bit about the locations that you used? This was all shot in LA, right?
“This was all shot in LA. So, we built the escape room completely. Had a really good production designer named Adam Henderson, who sort of understood immediately. When I wrote the script, I kind of drew a diagram out of what the things should look like, and he took it and just blew it out of the water. But there was a huge set. It was like 100 feet long on a stage in Burbank near the airport. So, yeah, created all that stuff. There was a couple of multi-level sets. And then we shot in Inland Empire at the airport out there, which actually happens to look quite a bit like the airport in Moscow. Similar architecture. We then shot a whole bunch of it at downtown LA at an old meat processing plant, a real one, that's now sort of a catch-all studio for these kinds of movies. [We] rebuilt and redressed a bunch of it. It's one of the grossest places I've ever been, but I think that works for the movie.”
This was originally called FOLLOW ME. Why did you go with that title at first?
“Well, the idea in this script started with the social media component. There were two different versions of escape-room movies that we wanted to make before this. But since Sony had made one, we'd already made one, and a couple of others had come out, it felt kind of tired. So, integrating the escape room into a social-media movie, to me, seemed a lot more interesting. FOLLOW ME came out of that. It's something that Keegan was saying all the time on set. The movie wasn't actually called that while we were filming, but right afterwards the title was changed.”
If you had the budget to shoot in Russia, would you have?
“We actually talked about shooting in Russia. I would have loved to. There was originally a whole sequence in Red Square that we shot and then was created in digital effects. But it sort of was unnecessary to the story. But yeah, I would have loved to shoot in Russia. We had a phenomenal cast of Russian actors. Ronen Rubinstein's not from Russia, but he speaks fluent Russian. He grew up in a Russian household. Pasha Lychnikoff comes from Russia. Dimiter Marinov speaks fluent Russian. I wanted the Russian to be very real. So obviously if we'd been able to shoot there, it would've added to it, I think.
“All the Russian that you hear in the film was written out in English, and then we worked with the actors to translate it themselves so it would feel natural. One of our camera ops is from Russia, so he was sort of double checking because I don't speak Russian. It was very important to me that they did not subtitle it because Cole, the character, doesn't speak Russian, and the whole thing is supposed to be from his point of view. So, whatever he wouldn't understand, we won't understand. It opens in Russia on the 24th. And it'll be interesting to see how it plays there, because I think they're going to dub it. So, all of it will be Russian. It'll change the movie pretty drastically.”
What moment or scene in the film are you most proud of?
“There's a few. There's a long scene, a really beautiful scene, that ended up getting cut out of the film, the scene where they're in bed talking. As a writer, I was incredibly proud of it. It was sort of written for a different movie, I think. That's a scene that'll probably be released as a deleted scene. It just speaks a lot to their character and his past. But as far as my favorite stuff in the movie, I think the water [tank scene] was probably my favorite piece.
“One of the things I love about film, and why I got into film, is you bring all these people together, and they have one distinct mission they're trying to accomplish. When you're doing a scene like that, it involves everyone to make it work, to keep her safe, to make it look dangerous, to make it look real. For me, that was really cool having written it, then see it come to life like that.”
I heard that Keegan Allen and Denzel Whitaker did a little karaoke on set. Did you participate in that?
“You know, I saw that from afar. I was just really busy, but I saw them in makeup. They had a little karaoke machine. So yeah, they were singing all the time. Directing's funny, you put this whole group of people together and you all become something of a family. But you're so busy that you don't get to do all that fun stuff while you're filming."
So, you wrote, produced, and directed. What is your favorite and least favorite role?
“Favorite part is directing, for sure. That's why I got into all this. Writing would probably be second. And then producing is like solving a Rubik's cube all the time. Producers tend to be a little bit unsung, but they work really hard. So yeah, probably directing then writing then producing. Writing is such a long process, and it's such a lonely process. It's almost unrelated to the rest of it in a funny way because you're just by yourself.”
How many drafts did you do of this? Roughly?
“We did almost two entire separate scripts before we came to this idea. Then this one probably went through four or five real drafts, and then a lot of polishing. Then I rewrite every day. Because as you're making a film, the film is changing right in front of your eyes.”
Do you read your own reviews? Why or why not?
“I try not to after our first movie. I think, especially as a director, the good ones sort of don't feel as good as you would think, and the bad ones kind of hurt more than you would think, and neither of them help you as an artist in a lot of ways, I don't find. But I can't help it. Sometimes I do.”
If people came with warning labels, what would yours say?
“What would my warning label be?”
“Oh God, that's a good question. Oh man. I'm like completely drawing a blank. I don't know. (Pauses for a moment) Whatever I'm doing at the time, I tend to get completely, wholeheartedly into, so my warning label will be, "Believe me that I'm still here for all the other stuff, but right now I'm kind of gone."
If you could go back in time and work on any past horror film in any capacity, which film would you want to work on, and what role would you want to do?
“I would've wanted to work on SE7EN in any role where I could have been around Darius Khondji and David Fincher working together, just to see how they did that because I find that film absolutely fascinating. I love big visual storytelling.”
What's the best advice anyone's ever given you?
“A family friend, who's a pretty famous actor, once sat me down. He basically said, "There's no reason to try to get help from other people in the industry. What they can't ignore is you being really good. So just try to become the best of your craft that you can, and people can't help but notice, eventually. I try to take that to heart, and I'm still working on it.”
I always respect those who continually work on improving themselves and their craft, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with Will Wernick about NO ESCAPE. I also spoke with the lead in the film, Keegan Allen (PRETTY LITTLE LIARS), but you’ll have to come back tomorrow night to read that one.