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

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.

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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.

 “I like movies that you have to see several times,” Moore said. “I’ve seen ‘The Master’ six or seven times, and I can’t wait to see it an eighth. I don’t like movies that have a skeleton key that explains everything.”

How the film was shot is a mystery unto itself.

To make the movie, Moore wouldn’t print out script pages or shot sequences for the 25 days he was filming on Disney turf, instead keeping all the info on iPhones. This way, when actors and crew were looking down between takes, passersby just thought they were glancing at their messages.

Though Moore’s actors entered the parks day after day wearing the same clothes, and though Moore was filming with abandon, the production was never shut down by anyone at the parks--in part, the director suspects, because taking out a camera and holding it in front of people at Disneyland is about a natural an act as you can imagine.

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.

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Most of the extras were real people unaware they were being shot--a challenge unto itself. (Abramsohn said after the screening that the experience was “emotionally intense...[I was] a little scared as an actor running around and bumping into actual people.”

And some of the actors Moore used, like those who played the French girls, would often have to be cued by phone via a spy across the grounds.

At one point, Moore even needed to shoot a scene of people passing on opposite monorail cars, having them board again and again for hours because he couldn’t quite decode the exact schedule.

What’s remarkable about all this is that, in watching the film, one doesn’t get the feeling of a guerrilla filmmaking exercise. There are numerous wide shots, and scenes luxuriating in classic Disney images. It looks as if it was made with the full cooperation of the company, which of course it wasn’t.

“To me this is the future. Cameras in your hand. Cameras in your glasses. Anyone can be shooting at any time. And I think it will explode,” Moore said.

Moore has never attempted to speak to anyone from Disney, nor has anyone ever contacted him.

Still, there is no way the company could be happy with the result, in part because of what many courts might deem rampant trademark infringement but also because of the nature of the thing, a juxtaposition of Disney’s family-friendly corporate imagery with some pretty grotesque behavior. 

In so doing, the movie seems to be denouncing a culture-of-distraction in a way that might call to mind “Infinite Jest,” a novel Moore, like many of us, sheepishly admits he didn’t finish.

“I have nothing against Disney,” Moore said when asked if 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,” he said. “I look at Apple and Steve Jobs and my biggest fear is that something like this will happen there.”

Whatever his politics, Moore in person comes off as affable and a little  wide-eyed. He has never been to the Sundance Film Festival before, and was in fact surprised organizers even accepted his movie given. he said, Sundance’s abundance of corporate sponsors. (Before the screening Friday the festival’s Trevor Groth said that choosing “Escape” was the highlight  of his programming season; he was, he said, ”blown away” by the film.)

Whether a distributor, even a bold one, takes a flier on this is the big question. The media interest would be high. The legal bills would be even higher.

The film’s rights are  being represented by Cinetic Media, which has sold high-profile Sundance titles such as “Precious” and “Napoleon Dynamite” as well enigmatic fare such as 2010 Banksy movie “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” The company’s principal, John Sloss, declined comment for this story, but the feeling in distribution circles is that the movie will have a legal Everest to climb. While trying to censor an independent film tends to blow up in a conglomerate’s face, it would be hard to imagine how Disney would ever allow this film to see the light of day.

A Disney spokesperson did not return an immediate message seeking comment; it is not clear how aware they are of the movie.

Yet Moore said he didn’t expect any kind of typical distribution deal and wouldn’t even necessarily need the film to be passed along, mixtape-style, to feel satisfied by what he’s created.

“It’s out there, and no one can change that,” said Moore, who said he wants his next film to be an indie project in a different vein, perhaps a European period piece. “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.”

ALSO:

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Sundance 2013: From Kutcher to Pussy Riot, five storylines to watch

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