Disney unwittingly stars in dark, surrealist movie
By Steven Zeitchik
Los Angeles Times
PARK CITY, Utah -- About three years ago, Randy Moore, a struggling screenwriter living in Burbank, Calif., had an out-there idea: What if he took a tiny camera and, without asking permission, began shooting a Surrealist scripted film at Disney theme parks?
As a child, Moore had visited Disney World in Orlando, Fla., with his father, and he'd recently begun taking his two children, then ages 1 and 3, to Disneyland. Juxtaposing the all-American iconography of Mickey Mouse with a dark story, he thought, would be cinematic gold, or at least deeply weird.
So with the help of an extremely small Canon camera and some very game actors and crew members, Moore made the movie guerrilla-style. He grabbed shots on monorails, rides and anywhere else he could film his performers.
The result of Moore's effort is "Escape From Tomorrow," a genre-defying black-and-white film that was shown for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday night. Shot primarily across the vast expanses of Disney theme parks in Orlando and Anaheim, the movie includes scenes of Space Mountain and Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin, the Enchanted Tiki Room and the spinning cups of the Mad Tea Party. There are roving princesses and a Main Street parade. At one point, Epcot Center blows up. It is one of the strangest movies shown in many years at Sundance, the kind that seems destined for the label "cult film."
Whatever their opinion of the movie, audiences will marvel at how Moore pulled it off - that is, if they ever see it. The independent film may never be shown in theaters because the specter of a fight with Walt Disney Co. seems to be discouraging companies interested in releasing it.
Sitting at a Park City cafe shortly after Friday's screening, Moore, 36, was trying to take deep breaths. The director has been living the last three years in fear that Disney would find out about his stealth project and quash it.
Moore encouraged those working on the film not to tell anyone, and he refrained from talking about it even with friends. Concerned that if he did postproduction at a facility in Los Angeles someone might blab to Disney, he took the movie to South Korea to edit.
"It got really tense for a while," Moore said.
Although he filmed 25 days on Disney turf, cuing his half-dozen or so actors by phone and blending his crew of three into the crowds, he said he never tried to speak to anyone at Disney. Nor, he said, has anyone from the company contacted him -- yet.
It seems highly unlikely that Disney executives could be happy with Moore's ingenuity. In addition to using Disney trademarks with abandon, Moore marries Disney's family-friendly imagery with a series of odd and grotesque behaviors.
"I have nothing against Disney," Moore said when asked whether he saw his film as political. "It's just upsetting that it was about a one-man vision, and now it's like so much of the world in how corporate it's all gotten."
Two Disney spokesmen did not return messages seeking comment. But the company has a history of snuffing out entertainment that doesn't fit with its brand. Several years ago, Disney bought a script about flawed Muppets characters with the purpose, according to several Hollywood experts, of making sure it would never see the light of day.
Cinetic Media chief John Sloss, who is representing the film at Sundance, said he hoped "Escape" would avoid such a fate: "I hope Disney sees the value of this film," he said. "If the Disney corporation is about anything, it's about imagination, and this film is all about imagination."
"Escape" is a character study of sorts about a man who seems to have lost any sense of optimism in a place overrun with it, but the movie is not easy to describe. The film is reminiscent of the works of David Lynch, both in its deadpan tone and its utter inscrutability.
The plot centers on a down-on-his luck man in his 40s (Roy Abramsohn) on the last day of a Disney World vacation with his henpecking wife and their two angelic children. As he takes his children to various attractions, the father is haunted by disturbing imagery; meanwhile, he is also (with his kids in tow) tailing two flirtatious French girls. Airy music that evokes classic Hollywood films plays in many scenes, giving a light shading to the darker moments.
It is not always clear what exists in the father's mind and what is happening in the real world. Sometimes it's not clear what is happening, period - a scene at a spaceship exhibit suggests the father is part of a larger, possibly extraterrestrial-themed experiment.
"I like movies that you have to see several times," Moore said. "I don't like movies that have a skeleton key that explains everything."
The surreptitious shooting required meticulous planning - and creativity. For starters, Moore wouldn't print out script pages or shot sequences, instead keeping all the information on iPhones. This way, passersby would think the actors and crew were glancing at their messages instead of setting up their next scene.
Although Moore's actors entered the parks wearing the same clothes day after day, and Moore was filming with abandon, park authorities never shut down the production - in part, the director suspects, because using a camera is about as natural an act as you can imagine at Disneyland.
Still, Moore worked under some serious constraints, often having to stand with his assistant director across the park and communicating by phone as actors moved in front of his cinematographer, so that it didn't look like a crew was forming.
Most of the extras were real people unaware they were being shot (which could present its own legal issues). Abramsohn said the experience was "emotionally intense.... (I was) a little scared as an actor running around and bumping into actual people."
Remarkably, though, "Escape" does not play like a guerrilla filmmaking exercise. There are numerous wide shots, and scenes luxuriating in classic Disney images. The film looks as if it were made with the company's full cooperation.
"To me this is the future - cameras in your hand, cameras in your glasses," Moore said. "Anyone can be shooting at any time."Moore graduated from Full Sail University's film school near Orlando and had never shot a feature movie before this. He said he largely financed "Escape," whose budget he pegs at less than $1 million, with an inheritance from his grandparents.
The director was surprised Sundance organizers accepted his movie given, he said, the festival's abundance of corporate sponsors. (Before Friday's screening, festival programmer Trevor Groth said he was "blown away" by the film.)
Moore has hired Sloss to peddle his film to buyers, who would then distribute the film to theaters and other platforms such as video on demand. But whether any will nibble, given the potential legal headaches, remains to be seen.
"I don't think it's a given that this film is not protected" by First Amendment law, said Sloss, who is also an attorney. "The issues of trademark and free expression are complicated."
Moore said no matter what happens, he feels satisfied by what he's created.
"It's out there, and no one can change that," he said. "If this never gets distribution, that's OK. If not a lot of people see it, that's OK. I made it, and it's in the world. That's all I ever really wanted."