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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 09.18.20] horror

When writer/director/producer Will Wernick's sophomore effort Escape Room was released in 2017, the movie did well enough internationally that Wernick found himself at the helm of a sequel.

No Escape is not the direct sequel that the project started out as, but Wernick's new movie blends two popular concepts, escape rooms, and influencer culture, into a kind of sandwich that begins and ends really interestingly but falls into your typical horror movie in the second act.

The driving force of No Escape, and the reason the movie's forgettable second act doesn't completely derail the movie, is Keegan Allen (Palo Alto, King Cobra) who plays the charismatic Cole, a social media superstar who, with a few of his less internet-famous friends, heads to Moscow for a birthday and escape room experience that everyone assures him he'll never forget. Clearly things are not going to end well.

Ahead of No Escape's September 18 release on digital and on-demand, we had the opportunity to speak with Wernick about his writing process, how he creates puzzles and what he's up to next.

Quiet Earth: When did your love for horror movies start?

Will Wernick: My parents are both musicians. From a young age, I grew up in a house where storytelling was really important. As I got older, I started being attracted to more intense, darker movies, especially sort of nontraditional horror, like Seven, movies with a horror aspect to them, movies like Alien. Those are my favorite kind of horror movies. I love horror because it's very visceral and showcases all the things that I love about filmmaking.

When did you know that your passion wasn't just enjoying movies but that you wanted to make them?

I got into it in kind of an odd way. I was in college and I kind of didn't know what I wanted to do, but I was always really into the tech aspect of cameras and stuff like that. Somewhere along the way, when I was about 19, I bought a camera.

I had made little skateboard videos and stuff growing up and was always into creative, fun things. But as far as storytelling goes, I started maybe a little later than a lot of people because I was in love with the technology aspect. Later on, writing became an outlet for me to look inside myself more and understand the world better. Those two things marry into film. So I think I really enjoyed the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. Just as much as the story, film is one of the only mediums where so many different types of artists can come together and have one sole goal, which is to create whether it's a film or a scene, or even just part of a scene.

You don't only writer and direct but you also produce. Is that out of necessity?

Absolutely. It's pretty hard to get anyone to allow you to direct a film so producing was a means to an end early on. I'm attached to a film that shoots at the end of this year which I'm not producing and that'll be the first one that I've done like that, where I'm just directing. So I'm really excited to not have to worry about the larger production and just focus on the storytelling.

It's interesting to me that movies inspired escape rooms and now escape rooms are inspiring movies. You've made a couple of movies featuring escape rooms. What's your fascination with them?

Well, I think honestly it was an opportunity for our first movie, which was just called Escape Room, it was something that hadn't really been done yet; a straight escape room movie. In some ways it was opportunistic, but with this movie, it's definitely more of... I think the escape room is a mirror for the character's real-life where he's creating an alternate reality for himself, just like we all do on social media. This is sort of like a personification of the biggest version of this false reality that the character created for himself.

I'm 38 so I'm the last, the oldest year of the millennial generation and I think it's been interesting going from no internet as a child and no AppleTV all the way to everyone's connected all the time now and look and watching each other all the time. I think it's already changed how human beings interact and who they are and I think it's just gonna keep doing that.

So I think the rise of blog culture and that type of celebrity is also really interesting. Really anyone in their own environment can become a celebrity if they're interesting enough and they want it.

It's fascinating that you bring up influencer culture because again you seem to be ahead of the curve, this time tapping into another big part of popular culture. How did the basic concept for the story come about?

After we made Escape Room and it performed really well internationally, we wanted to do another escape room movie but larger and more like a straight forward sequel but it felt a little bit tired at that point. A bunch of people had done escape rooms and then I wrote a couple of versions of this movie without the social media component and it wasn't all that interesting.

At the time I had started watching blogs just because I found it interesting just as a sociological thing. Casey Neistat's one of the big ones and I had sort of seen a little bit of Logan Paul, but thinking about someone like that within an experience like this suddenly changed it and we pivoted pretty quickly. The whole writing process only took a few months after that and then jumped into pre-production and we were off making the movie

There are a couple of layers here because influencer culture is very much about performing for the camera but it's a different type of performance from acting. Where did you find Keegan Allen because he strikes a perfect balance between the facade of playing a version of yourself and giving a really great performance.

Our casting director, Brittany Ward, was pretty influential on all this cast. We needed someone that understood what it was like to be and to have five or six million people at his fingertips all the time and Keegan actually has that. So he read the script and he loved it. I remember we had a meeting and in the meeting, he actually went live on his Instagram and thousands of people were suddenly watching and he connected with one of them directly and a young fan like freaked out and she was crying. I sort of had an understanding of that, but it's pretty crazy to see it in person and he can do that at any time.

And so we did, we talked a lot about how that sort of either letting or not letting that affect your ego and who you are as a person. He has a really great understanding of that and then we also had Ronin [Rubinstein] who has a similar size following and George Janko, who is a legitimate YouTube star himself. Everybody sort of brought their own window to that.

Did you make changes to the script based on their experiences and what they brought to the table or was everything pretty much already on the page?

Most of it was on the page. I mean, you rewrite every day when you're filming because the film is sort of... you're laying down track in front of yourself for your train. So things are changing all the time and Keegan influenced the character a lot, maybe not in the writing, but just in the tone of the character. I would say he was very influential.

The key part of the movie is, of course, the puzzles themselves and this whole idea of escaping out of this giant puzzle. How do you personally write these or how do you think up the puzzles? How do you test them?

For this movie, there were even more puzzles. There were actually two more rooms in the escape room that we didn't end up doing because it was overly complicated.

I've gotten criticized maybe a little bit for this, but the puzzles in this are supposed to feel like they're from horror movies that you might know because the experience is built for this character to go through so they should feel somewhat similar to things that you've seen. The water jug puzzles - that's something that's been used before. We tried to do it in a little different way.

Then we have each of the characters sort of mirrored in their puzzle a little bit, but I tend to draw everything. So while I was writing out a pretty detailed schematic of the escape room and then of course our production designer, Adam Henderson, took it and made it much better than what I had sketched, but I'm a pretty mechanical guy so figuring it out spatially and how the puzzles worked mechanically was a big part of the writing process for me.

You kind of alluded to it that sometimes the puzzles are a little too complex to put on screen. Can you share maybe one that didn't make it for whatever reason and what that reason was?

There was a light puzzle that had to do with frame rates. It would be a really fun puzzle to do in real life but something that I don't think would have translated to film where you want to keep the intensity up and sometimes simpler is better. I think for these puzzles, having physical puzzles is important for a movie like this. So as he's putting the gears together, for instance, you can look at it and see how it fits together without having to over-explain it in detail.

You mentioned that you have another project that you're working on for the end of the year. Can you share a little bit about it?

I'm directing a film called White Bread which is going to shoot in November/December in Toronto, produced by a company called Roar and a company called Showdown. It's more of a straight thriller. It's not a horror movie but a little bit in the tone of something like Gone Girl. I'm really excited about that.

No Escape is available on digital and on-demand on September 18.

Recommended Release: Escape Room

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