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Sundance 2013: How did a newbie make an unapproved film in Disney parks?

January 19, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik
  • A scene from "Escape from Tomorrow"
A scene from "Escape from Tomorrow" (Sundance Film Festival )

PARK CITY, Utah -- About three years ago, Randy Moore, a struggling screenwriter living in Burbank, had an out-there idea: What if he took a tiny camera and, without asking permission, began shooting a narrative movie at Disney theme parks?

Moore had been visiting Disney World in Orlando, Fla., with his now-estranged father since he was a child, and he’d also begun taking his two children, then 1 and 3, to Disneyland. He thought that juxtaposing the all-American iconography of Mickey Mouse with a dark scripted tale 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, the director began shooting a movie guerrilla-style.

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The result of Moore’s quixotic dream is “Escape from Tomorrow,” a Surrealist, genre-defying black-and-white film that was shown for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday night and that was primarily shot across the vast expanses of Disney theme parks in Orlando and Anaheim. There is Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin and Space Mountain, Tiki Room and teacups, princesses and a Main Street parade. At one point, Epcot Center blows up.

It is one of the strangest and most provocative movies this reporter has seen in eight years attending the Sundance Film Festival. And it may well never be viewed by a commercial audience.

Sitting at a Park City café shortly after the screening ended, Moore, 36, is trying to take deep breaths. The director has been living the last three years in a state of heightened tension, fearful that Disney would find out about his stealth project and try to quash it.

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The filmmaker strongly encouraged anyone who worked on the film not to tell anyone, not even close friends, what they were working on. He was so nervous about a potential blabbermouth at a postproduction house that he took the movie to South Korea to edit, where he has been traveling to, on and off, from Los Angeles for the last two years.

“It got really tense for a while,” Moore said of his home and personal life. His wife knew what he was up to; many friends didn’t.

Moore had drifted through several film schools before graduating from Full Sail in Orlando. After graduation he packed up his car and headed out to Los Angeles with a friend, and for the last decade he's been mostly engaged in rewrite work, never shooting a feature before this one. He largely financed this film's budget, which he pegs at under $1 million--and generally supported his family over these three years--with an inheritance from his grandparents. (There is some but not a lot of green screen and sound stage work that can be more costly.)

To attempt to describe the plot of “Escape” is to go down a rabbit hole as disorienting as any amusement park ride. Basically, the film is about a down-on-his luck fortysomething father (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; he is also, in the meantime (and with his children in tow), tailing two young flirtatious French girls around the park.  Airy musical compositions you might find in classic Hollywood films play over many of these scenes, giving a light shading to the darker moments.

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“Escape from Tomorrow” is not a puzzle movie per se, though a healthy dose of clues and a general dream-like vibe will have fans trying to figure out what it all means. (Certainly the film fits with "Memento," “Primer" and other indies of that ilk, a cultish comparison Moore seems comfortable with, though maintains, with a fair degree of sincerity, that he didn’t set out to elicit.) "Escape" is also, ultimately, a character study about a man who seems to have lost any sense of optimism in a place that’s overrun with it.

Yet to discuss the film in these conventional terms is also to miss the point. It's true that it is not always clear what exists in the father’s mind and what is happening in the real world. It is also true that it's sometimes not clear what is happening, period—a scene at a spaceship exhibit suggests the father is part of a larger, possibly extraterrestrial-themed experiment. It is one of many mysteries the film chooses to leave unsolved.

The third act “Escape” takes on an increasingly macabre tone. And though the movie borrows tropes from horror movies (think young girls running out of sight and creepy smiling dolls) and 1950s futurism, it most often evokes David Lynch, both in its deadpan tone and its utter inscrutability.

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