For the release of INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY, Craig had the pleasure of interviewing director Adam Robitel where they discussed everything from the horror of the unseen to designing a demon.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Hi Adam, thank you for speaking with us today. To start things off, what was it like stepping into such an established franchise?
Adam Robitel: It was a tall order and I was definitely daunted and excited. I’d seen the first film at LA Film School when James (Wan) played us an early cut of it and I was absolutely blown away. Since then I’ve been a huge fan and I think James and Leigh (Whannell) are like the Michael Jordan of modern supernatural horror. It was a tall order to step in and put my own stamp on, but it was great and Leigh was an incredibly gracious collaborator. I felt supported by Blumhouse all the way. Looking back it was like the dog who caught the bus.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Speaking of Leigh, what was it like not only directing him, but working off of his script?
AR: It was great. He was really open and we went through a series of revisions with a healthy give-and-take of where we felt like the movie should go. He was very open to ideas and whoever had the best idea won. Then when we got to filming he was very much the actor. He never looked over my shoulder to say, “Oh you’re going to put the camera there?” or micromanaged. I’ve heard stories of other productions where a young director comes in or takes over for a sequel and it doesn’t go well. He very much knew he was not directing this movie and he was fine with that so it was great.
Nightmarish Conjurings: How was it working with Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, and Lin Shaye – all well-established actors in this franchise?
AR: It was a little nerve-racking. I’ve known Lin a long time and had a pre-existing relationship with her because her and I were in a couple movies together. Coming from acting myself, I always see my job as getting out of the actors way and just trying to sculpt their performances by giving them the big picture. I mean, if they’re really good at what they do then I don’t need to do much, I just have to say, “Maybe that one was a little too big,” or, “You didn’t quite say this word right.” I sort of become more of a hall monitor to the performance. I was definitely the new kid on the block and nervous on the first day, but by the second day the train was running and it’s kind of like, “Come on, let’s go.” At that point, the self-paralysis kind of goes away because you know you have to just kind of make the best you can out of each day. It was a great learning experience and I feel like each movie I work on I learn more.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Speaking of learning more, what did you learn from making The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014) that you brought into Insidious: The Last Key?
AR: Nothing beats good performances; a good performance will trump a gag or scare or effect any day of the week. James Wan’s advice to me was, “There’s nothing scarier than somebody being scared.” Honestly, when I think of The Conjuring (2013) the scariest part of the movie is when that little girl is staring at the corner of the room. There’s nothing there but she keeps saying, “Do you see it? Do you see it?” while her sisters say, “What are you talking about?” A performance like that sells the scene. Like if Lin Shaye hadn’t really delivered that first expositional speech about The Further in the first Insidious (2010) I don’t think there would be a franchise. She owned that scene and she believed it, so whether or not we believe it we know she believes it. In the hands of a lesser actor, it would not have worked. That was my big take away. Also, I think it’s more effective if you make sure it’s a family drama. I think the thing the Insidious franchise does so well is, it’s about family units. If you structure the core around something like a family trying to deal with their child in a coma or the growing pains of Specs, Tucker, and Elise now living together, it gives a good foundation to put the scares on top of.
Nightmarish Conjurings: What do you consider your personal stamp on this movie?
AR: A lot of it had to do with the visual language of keys and locks. I wanted the prison to be right on top of the property to create the sense of foreboding. Like I said, when I came in the first draft did not have a demon in it so a lot of my contribution was saying let’s put an entity that thematically symbolizes what Elise is going through. In my mind, she’s a superhero like Wolverine or Obi-Wan so you need a villain that’s commensurate with her abilities; kind of like there’s no Superman without General Zod. So, how do you match her abilities? For that we made a demon that not only used her as a conduit as a kid but then killed her mother, so that there’s some real stakes. A lot of that was the early development of the script where we decided to do the biggest broadest most operatic version that we could.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Is there a particular moment within the movie that you are truly proud of?
AR: I love the prologue only because it just opens in a way that you’re not expecting and it’s very rich and transports the audience to another world. I love the way Javier (Botet) skitters out from the dark and the key through the neck stuff is fun. You’re always trying to come up with new images and look, let’s be honest, we’ve seen everything. We live in an age where I can go online and see Jordani pilots burned by ISIS if I want to and with things like that out there, we have been desensitized to images. Now what I say is that, it’s not about the image, it can’t just be some crass screwed up image, it is the context that makes it scary. Also, I love the idea of Elise going to the dark side for a second, like when she starts beating her father. To me a demon that spits up pea soup isn’t nearly as scary as one that makes you do the things you hate the most on an infinite loop.
Nightmarish Conjurings: How much input did you have on the design of Keyface?
AR: When I did my look book and my presentation to get the gig I brought in some concept art. I had started the design with my buddy Jacob Hare, who is a great illustrator and designer, and we had played with this idea of a gullet or like a shotgun would to the mouth that caused the demon’s mouth to look like a keyhole. From there, Jacob had done some cool designs of like keys on fingers that I thought were really interesting. When I did my presentation up on the big screen I remember Jason seeing it and going, “Oh yeah, that’s interesting.” Justin Raleigh at Fractured FX came in, looked at that initial concept, art and continued working on the concept until we had a final look. I was adamant that I wanted Javier Botet in the role because he just has this great physicality.
Nightmarish Conjurings: What would you say you learned from this that you hope to take your next project?
AR: It’s all hard. You know, I think prep goes a long way, but it always feels like there’s not enough time. I think you start to learn to prepare, but then be ready to throw it all out and be spontaneous on the day. That’s sort of where I’m getting to now because when the actors come in they will invariably do something totally different than what you had planned. On my last film I literally spent weeks pre-blocking where they were going to go, what they were going to do on the overheads, and where the cameras were. When the actors got to set they decided they would rather be sitting for a scene and I remember thinking, “Well, there goes that week of work.” I think it’s about being able to mentally prepare and do the work so that you know what the language of the camera is and then throw it all out and say, “What is this story really about?”
INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY arrives in theaters nationwide on January 5, 2018.
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