“People do really weird shit at Disneyland.”
That was Escape From Tomorrow cinematographer Lucas Lee Graham, explaining how a guerrilla cast and crew were able to shoot a feature narrative film, sans permits, without attracting too much attention at Disney World. Of course, Uncle Walt never would’ve granted access – not after he caught a look at a script teeming with courtesan Disney princesses, decapitation, and something called the cat flu (symptoms include the hacking up of hairballs, natch).
As a goof, Alamo servers passed around shots of whiskey as inoculation against said flu just before Fantastic Fest screened writer/director Randy Moore’s brave and bizarro sci-fi/fantasy/horror hybrid set inside Disney’s Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center. And don’t forget the domestic drama: Escape From Tomorrow’s genre elements may amount to one long head-scratch – I didn’t walk out of it satisfied with the film’s conclusion – but it’s also a pretty withering portrait of the middle-aged anomie of “married-with-kids,” determined to have a good time, even if the good times are killing them.
The film was largely shot on location on the sly, with some green-screen inserts that are obvious, but not to the detriment of the film; indeed, their artificial flatness, which put me in mind of Fifties sci-fi pics, only builds on the film’s funhouse-mirror weirdness of so much menace in the Magic Kingdom.
Post-screening, Moore and Graham – both wearing the red fez and Jimmy Buffet-y guayabera of the film’s Dad figure – took to the stage to talk more about the project, which debuted at Sundance to big buzz and has been dogged ever since by the eternal question of how the fuck has Disney not sued over this yet?? (Moore cited protection from the Fair Use Act for parody and assured the audience it had been “vetted thoroughly by a lot of lawyers.”)
Moore, a lifelong Disneygoer, explained he plucked inspiration from his foreign-born wife, who “viewed the park through a completely different lens than I did.” Turning on the critical brain as “an observer, not a tourist,” he become interested in taking an “anthropological view” of the Disney experience, an American pilgrimage where emotions run high, from “ultimate hope and joy to utter despair.” The film plays off of the built-in extreme emotions of an expensive family vacation at the most magical place in the world and – let’s be honest – its kinda-creepy vibe, if you’re not already predisposed. (No way am I the only person who deboarded “It’s a Small World” just shy of a panic attack.)
The filmmakers ran through some of the logistical problems of the shoot – how they scouted the parks for three weeks, charting the sun so they knew where to be, at what time of day, for which shot, for continuity purposes. They shot in black & white in part to offset the “Disney effect” – the sensory overload that is the so-called happiest place on earth. “It just attacks all your senses, and you think, ‘Shit, I am in a good mood,’” Graham said. There was also the added pressure of a shoot with child actors, while Moore’s own offspring were also along for the ride: “It’s hard to make a film,” Moore said, “and it’s hard to go on vacation with your family. We did both.”
Shockingly, Disney never busted the filmmakers, save a close call at the end of the shoot, when security thought the camera crew might be paparazzi. When the script called for shots of the park after-hours, the filmmakers fudged it by being the first in line in the morning to enter the park, then running like hell to the necessary location, where they had “10 to 15 seconds to get shots” before the throngs stormed in. Even that, it seems, didn’t raise an eyebrow.
“Once again,” Graham said, “you’d think it would be weird for three grown men to be running, with big bags of cameras on your back, but...”
Escape From Tomorrow screens again at Fantastic Fest on Thursday, Sept. 26 and is slated for VOD and theatrical release on Oct. 11. For an interview with Randy Moore, see “Dark, Darker, Darkest,” Sept. 20.
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