Adam Robitel

I first met Adam Robitel back in 2014 when I discovered The Taking of Deborah Logan which he directed and co-wrote with Gavin Heffernan. I quickly tracked him down and sent him a message requesting an interview which he, to my surprise, eagerly accepted.

I was brand new to iHorror and this was his first outing as a director so we were basically taking a chance on each other.

In the time since then, I have come to know and respect Robitel a great deal as both a writer and a director in the genre as well as the man he is when he’s not working, which admittedly is rare.

Adam Robitel Taking of Deborah Logan
Anne Ramsey and Jill Larson in The Taking of Deborah Logan

From our earliest conversations, I knew that Adam was gay, but he explained that he was not ready for that information to be completely public. He was out to his family, out to his friends, and even out professionally, but making that public statement still stirred up feelings in him that he was not quite ready to dig into.

He had admitted to me, for instance, on multiple occasions that when the SCOTUS decision on marriage equality came down it wasn’t until some of his straight friends posted the equality badge on their Facebook pages that he felt comfortable doing so himself.

It’s been five years since that fateful meeting. He’s gone on to direct Insidious: The Last Key and Escape Room, and he’s finally come to the place in his life where he is ready.

We carved out a little time on a Sunday afternoon to chat in between his numerous meetings and plans to set out for Capetown to begin scouting locations for Escape Room 2 which he will direct later this year.

We began with a deceptively simple question: Why now?

“I always wanted to lead with the work,” Robitel said. “I think, a lot of times, when people find out about your sexual orientation, that’s what your story becomes. I’m fascinated by the human condition in all its forms. I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker who tells human stories first, filled with all kinds of characters: straight, gay, trans, etc. My first film centered around a lesbian protagonist. I just wanted the work to speak for itself. That said, I think the political landscape has changed and our rights are really on the line and I felt a responsibility to identify. Too many LGBT kids are losing their lives; be it through bullying, suicide or substance abuse and in some small way, if my identifying helps one person feel less alienated or alone, it is well worth it to me.”

Like so many of us, however, now is entirely shaped by then, so Robitel took me to the beginning.

“My younger sister is a lesbian, and I think my parents knew very early on which side of the road she was on,” he told me. “She was really brave and came out first, but I was terrified of what my parents would think. I was a pretty popular kid and for me it was easier to hide who I was. I remember she had this little butch haircut when we were kids. I had no understanding of gender identity or anything like that so I called her “Bob” at school one day. By the end of the day, everyone was doing it. It was mean and it was cruel and it was all based in my own internalized self-hatred.”

Because Robitel had been able to hide his own queerness from his parents for so long, and because his sister had not, his mother had inadvertently placed certain hopes for the future on him. She wanted grandchildren someday, and so, like many of us have done, he did his best to pretend that he was something he was not.

Though he played the sports his father expected him too, he also excelled in gymnastics and gravitated toward theater and the arts. At the same time he found himself over-compensating in other areas to keep up that straight facade admitting that he started a few fist fights in his day.

He recalls that when his parents finally found out his father actually took the news well, but his mother actually seemed to mourn what would not be.

“She was really devastated and worried about me and what my life would become,” he said. “She thought I’d be lonely, childless, and judged by the world, and she was right to some extent. Rotten Tomatoes judges me often.”

It was in college that he finally encountered the proverbial fork in the road.

“I was either going to rush a fraternity and do the whole ‘frat-tastic’ frat guy thing or go to film school,” he recalled. “I ended up having my first gay experience at USC during freshman year. It was really disturbing to me. I was traumatized and confused. I ended up bringing this amazing girl home and told her what had happened. I was sobbing. She and I ended up dating for a year, but no matter how hard I tried to push back what I was feeling, it was still there.”

He threw himself harder into the social scene and admits he hardly drew a sober breath  through college.

“I wasn’t processing and dealing with who I was,” Robitel said. “I was burying it and trying to escape it.”

Eventually, he began to come to terms with himself and his identity, but the road ahead was still difficult. He wanted to act, but he was told by the first manager who wanted to sign him that if he wanted a career he must never, ever come out of the closet publicly.

“It was a totally different environment 20 years ago,” he pointed out. “The landscape has changed dramatically for actors who want to be out, now, but back then it was like grabbing the third rail. He put the fear of God in me. I had worked so hard to accept who I was and he had me bottling it up all over again.”

And so he found himself hiding in the open and surrounded by a different intoxicating environment in the midst of “gay Hollywood.”

Adam Robitel Chillerama
Adam appeared in the hilarious ‘I Was a Teenage Werebear’ segment in the horror-comedy anthology Chillerama.

“I was going to parties and you end up being the main course, so to speak,” he explained. “You’re the new guy in town and it’s an intoxicating feeling when you get that kind of attention. There’s a sheen and an allure and a seduction that goes with it. There’s also an incredible imbalance of power. You end up, as a young gay man, getting all your self-worth from your body and how ripped your six pack abs are. It became clear to me after a few years of partying and coasting by that I’d actually need to apply myself and dare I say, my brain, if I were going to have any real, lasting success.”

He began to work behind the camera, first in editing and then pivoting to learning the craft of screenwriting. In a way, the work became an obsession to take the place of the partying, but it has, at the same time, yielded results he never expected.

“When Guillermo del Toro took an interest in my Bloody Benders script, that was really formative for me in my trajectory,” he said. “This incredible artist and creator acknowledging my talent as a writer…it opened a lot of doors for me.”

He also came to know Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) and John O’Hurley (Seinfeld), and even recalls chatting with Bryan Cranston who told him to lock himself away and “just finish the script. Editing comes later.”

“I’ve had a lot of angels along the way,” he pointed out.

Those angels helped bolster Robitel’s confidence, but it was an angel who entered his life much earlier who gave him his love of scary stories.

“My grandmother, who was really like my second mom raised me on terrifying ghost stories,” he recalled fondly. “Her house was possessed in the 70s and there was some crazy shit that went on that she told me about. From an early age, going up to her house in the woods, my sister and I were conditioned to think about ghosts and the supernatural and things that go bump in the night. I think it’s really in my DNA because of her.”

He also, when he began to put things together about his own sexuality, found another dimension that drew him to horror. He quoted Kevin Jennings, who once ran GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network) who said that LGBTQ people, from a very early age, are raised in a society that conditions you to think you are not “normal.” It’s a type of psychological abuse.

“Things have changed considerably in the level of tolerance,” he said, “but back then we were conditioned to believe we were a mistake of nature. I think that sense of being the “other” is what naturally drew me to the genre.”

Adam Robitel on the set of Escape Room.
Adam Robitel on the set of Escape Room.

“I was raised Catholic and I remember being terrified of the nuns when I was a kid and surrounded by the sort of grand guignol imagery of the Church,” he continued. “It’s scary and so binary to think ‘if you sin, you’re going to hell.’ I’ve always been interested in parapsychology and whether our souls exist after we die. I don’t have those answers, but I am fascinated by it.”

As Adam and I were finishing up our interview, I asked him what he would tell the younger generation of horror fans and LGBTQ youth out there who might stumble across this article, and he paused.

He is aware of the advantages and the privileges that have come with being a white gay man living in Los Angeles, and that others don’t have the luxury of such an open-minded environment.

“For a long time, I felt like my orientation was a liability and a curse,” he began. “I felt that I wasn’t normal. What I’ve personally found is that the very thing that I thought was this huge cross to bear is actually in some ways the thing I’m most grateful for. It’s made me more empathetic. It made me more generous in my thinking. It’s made me more creative and forced me to think about other people and their experiences in life.”

“I don’t have kids. I won’t ever have kids,” he continued. “My projects will become my legacy and I’ve discovered that I love my family of origin, but that my friends have also become my family. We exude love and compassion and on occasion competition with each other. I felt tremendously unburdened when I was finally able to be myself even though there were other burdens to take its place. I know a lot of men who are still in the closet living quiet lives of desperation and it’s sad.”

“I can’t do that anymore,” he said finally. “I’m reminded of my dear friend, the novelist Eric Shaw Quinn. When his mother used to ask him, ‘Eric, why do you think God made gay people?’ he would answer with dripping sarcasm, ‘Oh mother, someone had to paint the Sistine Chapel!’ I’m not equating my work to Michelangelo’s, but the sentiment that I might devote my life to the church of horror is not a bad way to spend the day.”

Robitel may not be painting the Sistine Chapel, but in my mind, he is doing something so much more in creating something accessible to everyone that paints positive examples of who we as LGBTQ people can be within the genre space.

When he and Heffernan wrote The Taking of Deborah Logan they created a wonderfully developed lesbian character whose story was not wound up in the fact that she was a lesbian. It was a near-perfect example of normalized representation and one that I’ve pointed to repeatedly when speaking on queer inclusion in the genre.

At this time, the two have also started work on a horror series for Netflix that is rooted in the opioid crisis in America which will also include LGBTQ characters, and they have another top-secret supernatural project for Sony I promise to report on as soon as we can here at iHorror.

Here’s what I can tell you, though: Adam Robitel is out and proud, living with Ray, his partner of 20 years, and their children–who happen to be cats–and both he and the world are better for it.