Independent film is filled with dreamers who are too naive to believe in the impossible – filmmakers who don't concern themselves with the millions of reasons not to make a movie. Some of the best works of art are created from this naiveté.
Escape From Tomorrow, which recently screened at Sundance and set the film industry atwitter last week, takes place during a family vacation to Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. Not only do the filmmakers make no attempt to hide or obscure the location, but the Disney theme park and costumed characters play a huge part in the story. Most of the movie was shot in the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disneyland without the knowledge or permission of Disney. This is a film that, from a conventional perspective, should never have been created, much less screened at the most prominent independent film festival in the United States.
Director Randy Moore, who did interviews with the Los Angeles Times and other major media outlets during Sundance, went into the park with his actors and a tiny crew and shot the entire film on a Canon 5D DSLR camera. The cinematographer and assistant director conducted intensive location scouting – every shot was exhaustively planned and blocked in advance; they even charted the position of the sun for each shot of the movie to make up for the fact that they wouldn't be able to bring lighting equipment with them. Sound was recorded without an on-set sound mixer – sometimes they used smart phones or digital recorders taped to the actors, which would record an entire day's worth of audio, which editors then had to sort through afterward.
Though the film was shot guerrilla-style, it doesn't feel like found footage or home video. The entire movie was shot in black and white, a practical decision that helped the filmmakers get a better feel for composition and lighting in the camera as they shot using available light in the parks. The result is a film with a classic feel, which adds to its cinematic aesthetic. The director argues that most people haven't seen the Disney theme parks (especially the Disney World parks) in black and white, and that it brings out details that normally go unnoticed. Disney fans will probably relate the footage to Walt Disney's early telecasts from Disneyland.
The movie takes place over the course of one day, following a family vacationing at Walt Disney World. The father receives a phone call early in the morning informing him that he no longer has a job. He tells no one – all he wants to do is have one last day of vacation in the park. His relationship with his wife is strained, and the day isn't the pleasurable escape from reality that he had hoped. He begins to fantasize and follows a couple of French-speaking teenage girls. He experiences delusions as he wanders around the park that may hint at a more sinister underbelly of Walt Disney World.
To make the film, the cast and crew bought season passes to enter the parks as "normal visitors." They filmed for 10 days in the Orlando parks and two weeks in Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. Most viewers would never notice, but the Disney World presented in the film is an amalgamation of the Disney parks on both coasts. You'll see the family walking through Cinderella's castle in Magic Kingdom in one scene, then minutes later they'll be in line for Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters in Disneyland's Tomorrowland. (Star Tours can be seen in the background, a ride that doesn't even exist in the Magic Kingdom.)
I live in Los Angeles and have a top-level annual pass to the Disneyland parks; I'm a Disneyland fanatic, so I go to the park a dozen times each year. I've been on every ride, watched every show, and I've probably seen everything there is to see in the public areas of the parks. My family vacationed at Walt Disney World a couple times growing up, and I visited Orlando on an anniversary trip a year ago.
That's a long way of saying that I know the experience of visiting the parks better than most. The film is partly a story of one family's adventure through the parks, and I'm not sure how to experience it through new eyes. But maybe that's the point – almost everyone has visited a Disney theme park and the experiences are universal. So when things begin to go haywire in Escape From Tomorrow, it feels all the more surreal.
Near the end of the shoot, the filmmakers were almost caught by Disney while filming the family entering the Disneyland gates. The Disney cast members thought that the camera crew was a bunch of paparazzi trying to get a shot of a famous family. (Remember, they were shooting with a DSLR camera, which is a little more conspicuous than your average point-and-shoot.) The film cast and crew were taken aside and the family insisted they were not famous. A Disney employee kept asking: "Why did you enter the park two times in seven minutes?" Luckily, the young girl in the cast began screaming that she needed to go to the bathroom. The cast and crew escaped after a crowded parade began on Main Street, their wireless sound mics shoved into their socks in case they were stopped. But they weren't.
When I first heard about this film I thought that it was a total no-budget guerrilla production, but that's far from the case. The actors are professional. Golden Globe-nominated composer Abel Korzeniowski (A Single Man) recorded music for the film on the Eastwood stage of the Warner Bros lot. Visual effects were completed by the same company in South Korea that worked on The Host. Green-screen and set production took place at the same movie stages used by Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith.
Escape From Tomorrow is not a great film. The story has some good ideas, but the execution is uneven. And yet, it is unlike anything you've seen before and will probably be unlike anything you see again. The film shines in its more trippy moments, when it becomes about something more than a family vacationing at Disney World.
For that reason alone, I would recommend you see this film if you have the chance.
"If you have the chance" are key words here, as I don't expect you ever will get a chance to see this movie. Disney is very protective of its image, and there are scenes in Escape From Tomorrow that the organization would not want to be connected with. For instance, in one scene, a bunch of Disney princesses are revealed to be undercover hookers for Asian businessmen. The film also features some sex and nudity, though those scenes were not shot inside the park.
Disney characters and intellectual property appear in almost every shot, with no attempt to cover or cut them out of the frame. In fact, some of the classic Mickey characters appear on props and set decoration used in the sequences shot outside of the park in fully crafted sets on a studio lot. The only thing the filmmaker chose to censor is one mention of "Disney" by one of the main characters. It's not clear why, since the word "Disney" appears in text multiple times in shots from around the park.
Intellectual property and copyrights aside, many people appear in this film who never signed a release. Real families and children are seen in the background of almost every shot. None of them gave permission or knew they were being filmed. Neither did the cast members in the parks, many of whom appear in the film, and not just in costumed form. In one scene early on, the family poses in front of Cinderella's Castle for a photo taken by a Disney cast member with a camera. Close-ups of real cast members waving with Mickey hands are featured as the family exits the park in another sequence. In other words, there are legal reasons why this film may never be publicly available outside of the few screenings at Sundance.
While Moore embraces the Disney World location to a possibly extreme legal fault, paradoxically he did decide to replace the iconic (copyright-protected) music in It's A Small World and the Enchanted Tiki Room, and he also replaced the film projected in Soarin' with generic stock footage of flyover shots. How strange is it that the filmmakers thought it would be OK to have actresses playing hookers dressed up as Disney princesses in the park and to feature actual Disney art prominently on screen, but they drew the line at the Sherman Brothers' songs?
Escape From Tomorrow isn't the first movie to be shot in Disneyland without permission of the Mouse. Banksy's documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop features a very memorable sequence in which Banksy plays a prank inside the park and Mr. Brainwash (who shot footage of the prank) was questioned in Disney's backstage jail. He escaped with the footage, and they appeared in the film without any fallout. Of course, Exit is a documentary, so that footage probably falls under fair use. Exit also avoids showing any Disney intellectual property in close-up.
And last year a viral short was made titled Missing in the Mansion, which was shot inside Disneyland and inside the famous Haunted Mansion attraction. The found-footage horror film was posted online for free, and Disney has made no apparent attempts to get it taken down. But Escape is the first fictional feature film production that I know of to shoot a significant portion of the film in the Disney Parks without approval from the Mouse.
Peter Sciretta is editor of the blog /Film (slashfilm.com), where a version of this story first appeared.