By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Horror filmmaker Will Wernick recalls visiting his first escape room The Basement in northern Los Angeles in advance of making his 2017 film “Escape Room.” He has since visited 20 of these experiential game locations in which teams move through a building by solving a number of puzzles during a set amount of time, usually about an hour. These escape rooms, or escape games, have become popular around the world, especially with young adults.
“I love the teamwork aspect and the puzzle aspect of them,” says Wernick by phone.
His newest film, “No Escape,” also is set in the mysterious and thrilling world of an escape room, but with an added an element of danger and a daredevil Vlogger protagonist thrown into the mix.
The film stars Keegan Allen (“Pretty Little Liars”) as a popular Vlogger who journeys to Moscow with his girlfriend and his crew to try out an escape room. Assured by his producer that the event will be safe no matter what he encounters in the dungeon-like maze, Cole (Allen) is thrilled at the opportunity to satisfy the curiosity of his fans and further bolster his popularity on the Internet. But as soon as the group enters the remote escape room location and the clock starts ticking, the danger appears to be real. Stripped of his camera phone or any means of communication to call for help, Cole must try to save his girlfriend and his friends from being subjected to what appears to be actual torture. But can he solve the mystery of the escape room before time runs out?
The intense action thriller also stars Holland Roden (“Teen Wolf”), Denzel Whitaker (“Black Panther”), Ronen Rubinstein (“911: Lone Star”), social media influencer George Janko and rapper Siya.
“No Escape” arrives on Digital and On Demand Friday, Sept. 18.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for “No Escape?”
Wernick: Around the time we started talking about doing another movie like this, I was watching a lot of Casey Neistat, a Vlogger, who was New York based and is now L.A.-based. He’s a fascinating guy with an interesting past. He started out making commercials and stuff for HBO, and then he just started making his life into a show. It seems like a mirror for what we all do but also for an escape room, which you can create an environment. So, merging the two (ideas) seemed interesting to do.
We had worked on two or three versions of this before that idea came up but we thought those ideas were tired and too similar to what had already been done. The social media aspect of this gives (the escape room story) something fresh.
Q: What filmmaking challenges did you face on “No Escape?” You have an incredible montage of Cole’s previous feats, which obviously took some time and planning.
Wernick: It involved a tremendous amount of work. We had a fairly long shooting schedule for this movie, which was 24 regular shooting days and we had two days to shoot (the montage clips) running Keegan through different activities that then got cut up. There was a lot of planning.
The rest of the footage you see is my life over the past 10 years, because I film a lot of stuff, and two of our producers, Jeff and Kelly Delson, travel a ton, so we had a fair amount of footage from them to play with as well. So, it was a mixture of all four of us to create this little rise to social media stardom.
Q: Are there other Vloggers that you follow that inspired you for “No Escape?”
Wernick: Not really, although Casey was a big one and Logan Paul, were big influences on the character. He’s really good friends with George Janko, who’s in the movie. He came to our friends and family night and saw it. It was interesting to meet him because he’s quite different in person than he is from his Vlog, which was a big aspect of this movie, obviously. It was interesting to talk to him about the how realistic the portrayal of the character was, given that it was sort-of based on him … but not really. It was influenced heavily by seeing his Vlog. We managed to get a pretty accurate portrayal of who those guys actually are.
Q: Why set this in Russia?
Wernick: We wanted to set it somewhere where the language and culture are very different (from Cole’s). Originally it was going to be set in winter in Russia. There’s been a lot of movies over the past 30 years that have been set in Russia or have Russian villains. Since the whole escape room is playing on tropes from all of these older movies, it seemed like an interesting way to go. Plus, I think, having the language become a character—Russia is such a different language (from English) and I know people who speak it—it seemed like a good fit.
Q: Did the cast go there or did you send a crew to film second unit (overview) shots of Moscow?
Wernick: We shot the entire movie in Los Angeles.
Q: I was wondering because on the first day of their trip, Cole and Erin (Roden) go sightseeing and the city looks very modern and lovely.
Wernick: We didn’t want to paint Russia in a negative light; it was a big thing. Also, we wanted to make it feel grounded. You go to Moscow and it’s not how a lot of Americans picture it; it’s a glistening city. It’s a wealthy city. And when we found the location for the restaurant that they go to, it seemed like a perfect fit. That place is actually in downtown Los Angeles but you’d never know it.
Q: The theme of the film is the obsession some people have to acquiring followers. At one point Erin says, “I don’t know if you’re more concerned about me or the number of followers you have.” Cole has grown up in front of the camera. The question becomes are you living your life or are you a performer for others’ entertainment? Are you trying to make a social commentary?
Wernick: Yeah, that was really important to me. Growing up in the ‘80s and being around before the Internet (was pervasive), I’m maybe the last year of the millennial generation, so seeing all that happen and seeing how that had an effect on myself and my friends, it seems that everyone has changed because of social media. I didn’t want to put it at the forefront of the movie but it is a huge thing for me with how the cast of characters relate to each other.
Q: Tell me about how you came up with the various tortures. You’ve got Erin in a locked water box like Harry Houdini’s, and Cole and the others have to try to get her out when the lock jams. It must have been very scary for Holland.
Wernick: That scene was probably the most fun part of the movie to make because it involves so many parts of filmmaking. There are stunts going on. There’s some element of real danger there. The sound and the visuals have to come together. We shot that over two days and Holland was a champ. She dove right into it. She was in there for a lot of hours at a stretch on both days and never complained once. The water needed to be a little dirty looking. It wasn’t a fun environment to open your eyes, even. Luckily, she’s fearless and just did it.
The other tortures were less scary than what you see. It was about shooting it. Since everything’s from Cole’s perspective, we shot it in a way that you think you’re seeing more than you are so it’s not gratuitous. Sometimes it feels gratuitous even if you’re not seeing it. But I think that’s always more effective.
Q: Cole is kind of self-centered at the beginning but goes on this journey where he reaches the point where he has to do something selfless to save his friends.
Wernick: For anyone who likes extreme experiences, I think the idea is more fun than the reality. At some point, it’s going to affect everybody. In putting his friends in danger around him shows him how much he really needs them but also how much he cares about them. Specifically, with the Thomas character, because they grew up together, and finally involving his friend in one of these things and then having it go so wrong teaches him a larger lesson than he thought it would in the movie.
Q: What else are you producing or planning to direct?
Wernick: The plan is to start shooting “Whitebread,” a straight up thriller in November. Psychological thrillers, to me, are actually more frightening. So, I’m excited to be doing this straight character study than these last two films that I’ve done. It doesn’t rely so much on theatrics of (horror) movies, so I’m excited for that. I’m also in the early stages of a film called “Spirit Lake,” which is a straight horror movie set in Iowa. It’s based on a true story and I’m really excited about that. There was a series of massacres that happened there. The historical component to that is sad too—the way the settlers treated the Native Americans there, and the lore that came out of it that was taught in schools in that area until relatively recently. It’s scary in its own right. It should be a fun one to dive into.
I think things will open up more next year. We have a few smaller backups in case things don’t open up. But right now, the safety measure that are being put in place through the Directors Guild (of America) has been really good about keeping us informed and laying out a framework for allowing us to go back and begin making movies again.