Be aware there are some slight spoilers in this interview.
Insidious: The Last Key marks a passing of the baton. Saw duo James Wan and Leigh Whannell created Blumhouse’s hit horror franchise with their 2010 microbudget breakout Insidious, and the duo remained at the forefront through the following two films, Wan returning to direct Chapter 2 and Whannell stepping into helm Chapter 3. Now they’ve handed the keys to the franchise to filmmaker Adam Robitel, writer and director of the freaky as heck supernatural found footage drama The Taking of Deborah Logan, who steps in to direct one of the most surprising and pensive Insidious films yet.
With Insidious: The Last Key now in theaters, I recently hopped on the phone with Robitel to talk about taking the franchise in new directions. He discussed how he ended up with the gig, why it was a personal and professional pleasure to direct Lin Shaye in a film that put her front and center, creating the so-called Key Face demon and venturing to the Further, putting his own stamp on the Insidious aesthetic, and more.
The Insidious films have stayed in James and Leigh’s hands until now, so how did this project come to you? How did you get involved in the Insidious universe?
ADAM ROBITEL: Well, I had known James Wan personally. I had also been in a couple of horror films with Lin Shaye as an actor. I knew Lin, and we’d go up to Lin’s house. Sometimes she’d have dinners. And then I met James through her. We were in the periphery when made my first film, The Taking of Deborah Logan. James was very supportive and was very lovely in the press, and sort of nurtured it. So, we have this previous relationship. And then when Leigh Whannell decided he was not going to direct Chapter 4, I was sort of put on a short list, and kind of was vetted over that Christmas break. I kind of put together a really strong presentation, lookbook, and animated storyboards and just a concept art. And was vetted by Blum, and then ultimately was sanctioned by Leigh and James to kind of jump in. And obviously, you know, had a big responsibility to kind of stay within the boundaries of an Insidious film.
Was the script already written at that point? How pinned down was the story?
ROBITEL: Yeah. There was a draft. I mean it was much more … It did not have a demon at that point. I mean, it had a lot of the ideas that ultimately were in the movie, but we went through a series of revisions and loved this idea of keys and locks, and locking a part of yourself away. And so for me it was like I really wanted something iconic in terms of a demon, I always think of the Lipstick Demon or Man Who Can’t Breathe, I felt like an Insidious movie needed that, sort of the big bad, and so out of those earlier development sessions came a new draft with this idea of this puppet master that Lyn Shay’s character happened to let into this world, using her as a conduit, opening the first door to the Further. And so for me, I really felt like if you’re gonna make a movie about Elise’s origin story, she’s sort of like a superhero. She’s not really afraid of ghosts, and so you need something that really, really scares her. How do you do that? Well, you play her psychology. You play on the thing that she hates the most, which is this relationship with her father, and his distrust of her, and the fact that she lost her mom in this formative event when she was younger.
It’s so cool to hear you say she’s the superhero and it’s so cool to see Lyn Shaye who has this long fantastic supporting career, get to take on that role. How was it for you working with her on that performance?
ROBITEL: Well, Lynn is a dear friend, and I love her more than life, I really do. I was very close to my grandmother, and we have a –Again, going back to my first film, having an older female lead. There just aren’t these roles. You get to a certain age and Hollywood just turns a blind eye. So, I think it’s a coup in that respect. And Lynn is just incredible. I mean, she brought 110% to it. There was never a day where … Some people just take it for granted. And I think just getting to make a movie, no matter what capacity you’re working on, it’s such a luxury, and she brought that every single day. She worked her butt off. She was two months in prep before we even started shooting. And a lot of it was just sculpting her and staying out of her way. There were times where I would just nudge her in a certain direction. If she felt she went too big, we’d kind of tone it down a little bit, or give it all in terms of performance, but she had so much ownership of the character, really just had to stay out of her way.
Obviously, doing an Insidious film is a great opportunity for a filmmaker, but what was it about the world, specifically, that you were excited to tap into and that made you want to come onboard?
ROBITEL: I love a good haunted house movie and, I was saying earlier, the opportunity to have a bigger playing field. When you start making movies, usually, you get few amounts of resources, and this was a jump off in, certainly, in toys and in ways that could tell a story. But, at the end of the day, you have to take all the horror stuff out of it and go, “Is this a compelling story?” And I just loved the idea of childhood, and we all have parts of our childhood we’d like to forget, and the idea of somebody in their later life going back and peeling off that scar, and looking at things that they don’t want to look at. That was very compelling to me.
So, all of the imagery, and the motifs, and the ideas that came out of the drafts are in it, whether it’s keys and locks and the prison. I had my visual effects team go to Easter State Penitentiary and have these beautiful map paintings. So, it was all a cohesive, thematic evolution, and it was a joy. And I had Leigh and James, they were my grandfathers, and Leigh was right with me the whole time, and very collaborative. And, so, I really … Each movie is like a new film school, and I learned a lot from those guys.
You talk about putting the look together for it, how did you approach the challenge of putting tour own stamp on it but also staying within the realm of the Insidious franchise?
ROBITEL: Yeah, there’s a couple of ground rules. Insidious movies are inherently very dark, so we stomped down a lot of the footage later in post. James and Leigh don’t like to do false jump scares. So, even if a jump scare felt like it was a little cheap, we took it out. And the virtue of Leigh having written the movie suggests that it’s still his world. So, the blueprint, is the blueprint, is the blueprint. You know what I mean? So, I couldn’t really deviate too much there. And then it was just about finding locations that were really evocative. Ava, the 1950s of it all, setting a look that looked nostalgic and almost Norman Rockwell-esque. And then, look, I’m sure I’m gonna get flack from some fans, “There’s no fog in the prison scene,” and, frankly, that was just because of, logistically, the fog is very difficult and because they were gonna have a fistfight. They have that fight in the end and it was just a practicality that we had to avoid.
How did you approach the fun, comedic element that comes in with Tucker and Specs? And when it comes to the narrative structure in this one there’s also a pretty sizable shift in the middle from what we’ve seen in Insidious films before. I’m curious about how you approached that.