In this week’s Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, the sequel to 2019’s hit thriller Escape Room, series main character Zoey (Taylor Russell) returns to confront the puzzle-orchestrating organization Minos but winds up in another set of elaborate traps. But besides the shadowy gamemakers, there’s another force at work designing the franchise’s killer rooms: director Adam Robitel. How do you construct an escape room that’s worth the price of admission? We asked Robitel, who clued us into his diabolical creative process.
To do a sequel, I always felt like we had to sort of out-do and expand the playing field from the first movie. That was a tall order because we used basically every device known to man to kill people in the first movie, from fire to gravity to poison gas. And so coming into and developing [Tournament of Champions], it was like, “How are we going to kill these people in beautiful rooms? What’s the way we kill them that’s different and exciting and visual?”
Most of the early development of the rooms came from my pitches. We know it’s Zoey’s revenge story. She has this coordinate that leads her to a downtown Manhattan building. What can happen? What kind of hijacks? How can we subvert the audience’s expectation and pull her into the game in a way that’s really cool and clever? So we tried to use spaces that people could relate to. So I thought a subway car could be really scary if it detached and then sort of became a Tesla coil. We don’t do so much pre-vis on these movies, but we do a lot of blocking out and figuring out what we’re going to do. I wanted Tesla coils to pop up and then to travel down the train car, a very Spielberg moment of everybody reacting to this creature that’s on the top of the ceiling.
Ed Thomas, our production designer, is amazing. We shot in Cape Town, as we did with the first movie, and for the train car, Ed got a model online, then he and his team built it to spec. What you see is literally a New York City train car. And we only had one stretch of a train station, about 200 or 300 feet long, so when you see the kids running down the length of the train station, that’s us recycling the same set four different times with four different actors and extras and stunt people. So there’s so much trickery.
Logistically, I pitch the different rooms to the studio. Like a bank with lasers. They were a little freaked out by lasers. We hadn’t really seen that many best-in-class lasers, and we weren’t even sure we were going to pull it off. I think we did, ultimately.
The bank was a beautiful space, we found in Cape Town, a beautiful art deco bank that we retrofitted. The art department built a 5,000-pound vault door that they brought in and hand fabricated. They had to change the tiles on the floor, and work with visual effects to make it all happen. The bank was the hardest because we had a hard out, and usually I love like three or four days to do pickups and inserts and stuff. That night we had to wrap the bank and be out of there by the morning, so I literally had four hours after a 12-hour day to just go and run around with my camera person and just get stuff.
Designing the rooms is tough. They have to be linear. In a real escape room, somebody finds a key and somebody finds a thing and it’s very nonlinear and you kind of put the things together. With the movies, you kind of have to be A to B to C, and each room transforms. In the train, you start with a little spark, and by the end, it’s a Tesla coil. In the bank, each time you step on the wrong tile, a new part of the grid comes on. The first tile that Indya Moore’s character steps on was eight lasers, and then the next time it’s 16 lasers, and it exponentially expands. So, it was super logistically challenging.
For the beach room, I thought, “OK, quicksand is really scary.” Initially, I thought it might be an ancient temple. We did some concept art for that, but it just felt like the wrong movie. It felt like The Maze Runner. And then we were like, “Oh, what if it was like a beautiful Cape Cod beach?” Because we had the billiard room and the ice room in the first movie, so we wanted beautiful spaces that then try to kill you and eat you. So it was an iterative process through the scripting, finding the right spaces. The other idea in the sequel is that nowhere is safe. We see Ben and Zoey are in a motel room and the ceiling comes down and tries to crush them. I wanted to try to make it feel like the trauma from the first movie had invaded their minds, in a way. Anytime you’re within four walls, you can be killed.
The beach itself was practical. We had 22,000 kilos of sand. They built it on a giant rostrum. The whole thing smelled like a dead crab. And we literally had aerators underneath the sand that would liquefy the sand, and after about a minute, the actors would start to sink. And it’s kicking up all the sand in the air and scratching people’s corneas. Everything you see in that beach set ... the pier itself was on a hydraulic, the crab shack was on a hydraulic, so it was all done in camera.
Certainly with some augmentation from our visual effects teams, but it was very challenging. Some of designing the rooms comes down to resources — initially, when they walked in, I wanted it to feel like they were outside for a second. Well, we couldn’t keep a CG full photo-real beach for the whole sequence, so we needed a creative way to shut it off and have it be part of the puzzle. So we came up with this device when she takes a photo, and all the walls change into what looks like the photo, and there’s a great light shift in the space. That set was a massive piece of fabric. We photographed a beach that we shot in South Africa, and then modeled it and put it up to encircle the entire massive set. It was this piece of fabric that had to be flown in from London and we got it like a day before we started shooting.
I always say, the Escape Room movies are smaller movies, they’re not big tentpole movies in the sense of the resources, but they are tentpole movies in what they’re trying to do.
Escape Room: Tournament of Champions is out now in theaters.