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'No Escape' Screenwriter-Director Will Wernick on Notes and the All-Important Ending

September 18, 2020
5 min read time

The best part about writing this column is meeting and interviewing some amazingly talented and genuinely nice artists; and writer-director-producer Will Wernick is no exception. Even over the phone, Wernick, 38, exudes such a calming cadence and friendly demeanor that it felt like I was talking to an old high school chum, and not a multitalented filmmaker.

While similar in title, his forthcoming movie, No Escape starring Pretty Little Liars alum Keegan Allen, is not a sequel to his 2017 film Escape Room, but rather a stand-alone “thriller-drama with a horror movie in it.” During our twenty-minute interview, we talked about the importance of receiving draft notes, a surprising connection to influencer Logan Paul, and an ending so great I can’t even write about it. What I can say, as the writer of a blog called Afro Horror, is thank you to Wernick for having Black people in the film—and a film I thoroughly enjoyed, at that.

When asked where the concept for the new film came from, Wernick said, "We had just finished Escape Room in late 2015 and it came out in 2017. It did pretty well internationally, and got a good release here from Lionsgate and we knew we wanted to make another movie. We commissioned another writer to write more of a straight escape room movie as a sequel." 

But the universe had other ideas—and ideas seem to come in waves themselves, it seems, in this industry.

"At that point, Sony had released their big Escape Room film, so it felt like it had kind of been done," Wernick continues. "We went back to the drawing board and I wrote a couple of different versions of this movie before landing on the social media aspect of it. I had been watching a bunch of vlogs at the time, guys like Casey Neistat, and finding them really fascinating. I thought it was a really good way into the story, because these guys create their own and the world that they've created, sort of creates them in return."

Going back to the other Escape Room (2019), there's always the conversation within the writing community of, "I don't want my ideas stolen." But escape rooms were such a "real world" thing by then, so it's not surprising that multiple writers had the same muse. 

As Wernick points out, it simply motivates you to do better. 

"Having an original idea is super important. With my Escape Room, we were able to make it very quickly for various reasons. One of them being there had never been a real escape movie, and we moved really quickly on the idea. We found out about the other slew of them after we finished. I think writers tend to be overly scared about sharing their stuff. If something is in the zeitgeist and it's a good idea, there's gonna be other people working on it. Make sure your idea is really good and get it in front of people as quickly as possible, because if you wait, someone else is gonna do it."

So does that mean Wernick believes we should all be writing our quarantine horror shows right now? 

"I think if you're going to write about quarantine, it needed to happen three months ago. There's just so many of them now. I know I've been pitched a bunch. There's a lot of quarantine projects getting made; it's wild! You’re going to see fifty movies like that coming up."

Which leads nicely into the idea of "public opinion" of sorts and the idea of getting eyes on your pages, whether it's friends or family or even other writers. 

"My dad is a writer. Not for film, but he’s a musician and has written books, so I tend to ask him. He's a really good person for me to ask, especially because he's not into thriller or that type of stuff. I have a lot of writer friends and my favorite thing to do is take two or three groups of them, have them read, and then get together and discuss so they don't have to write notes. I let them really pick it apart."

It can feel like an attack, but getting notes is essential to the process.

"People need to get over notes very quickly. I think every single note comes from somewhere, whether the person didn't understand what you were trying to do, or you didn't accomplish what you were trying to do. Or maybe, it just comes from something personal in them. But no matter what, there's something to be learned from any note. I think notes save you from yourself later on. Especially with directing."

When it comes to parts of the story coming from somewhere, Wernick's insane torture scenes come from a seemingly normal person, so how did he come up them? 

"I get that question a lot," Wernick laughs. "For me, this film wasn't really a horror movie. It's a thriller-drama with a horror movie in it. So I was thinking of things that the character—without giving too much away—would have wanted to experience in this kind of experience that he's in. Obviously, there’s a lot of the stuff that’s inspired by other movies like Saw and Hostel; the kind of movies that the character would be watching. But I think what you don't see is often the scariest thing. So, the most violent stuff happens offscreen. The water box is probably the scariest thing in there to me, and it's just, yeah... You're completely helpless."

Finding those relatable aspects—being in an enclosed space can be very triggering for the audience—is a good way for the writer to build tension. For Wernick, it's about word choice and knowing the audience.

"I think a lot of script writing is mechanical, in my opinion. And a lot of its about laying out a blueprint for a movie that will happen. But when you're talking about something that thrills or scares, the prose of it matters a lot. So in those sections, maybe being more flowery and thinking about it more like a book, as opposed to a script, is probably a good idea. I don't personally write that way too much because we make these movies ourselves, so I'm writing something that I know I'm going direct. But I have another script that's out right now which I co-wrote, Ghosted, and that's not the case. We had to be much more careful about how the information is delivered. It was fun going through that process with somebody else. You've also got to know your audience for the scripts."

In terms of studying the craft, Wernick hopes that his script for No Escape (Follow Me, outside of the U.S.) will be available. 

"I’d be curious to see what people think, because the script is 125 pages and has a lot of detail about him growing up, which helped us because even though a lot of that was cut from the opening, I think it really informs the movie."

The "him" Wernick is referring to is the protagonist, Cole, played remarkably well by Keegan Allen—even when his character is busy pissing off the audience. You still find youself rooting for him.

"One of the big things we talked about earlier on was the Logan Paul-type influence on it. It's sort of being not just this character, but hopefully there's enough of him being innocent in it to really make you care for him. There's also seeing this world he's created for himself topple down around him, and realizing that he's been doing this since he was a child. So, he's probably not as mature as he needs to be to be dealing with such things. Yeah, that was actually the scariest part for me; living his entire life from adolescence to adulthood in front of a camera. And, uh, that's frightening!"

"George Janko (Dash) is a real internet star and he's really good friends with Logan Paul. So, at one of our early screenings, Logan came and gave us a lot of praise on how realistic it was, which was really metal, because, you know, it was sort of inspired by him. It was pretty cool."

Without giving away the ending, Wernick touched on the process of getting there, and if he had it in mind all along.

"While the original ending was different than [what ended up on screen], the idea of how the ending would work was the same throughout. But there's a lot of versions of what happened. Some that went really far in terms of just how cruel it got. I believe in terms of the audience's experience watching the movie, that the end is the most important part, as long as you make a movie that supports getting there. So, a lot of care was taken in putting it together.

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