I don’t know why, but somehow I expected Randy Moore to be a lot more tired when I called him up to chat about all the ink and sweat that’s been spilled about his already heavily talked about film Escape From Tomorrow. What I got was the exact opposite: a bright, chipper, thoughtful, and optimistic guy who you never would be able to tell from talking to him that he’s just spent the past nine months or so talking about creating one of the most audacious exercises in filmmaking ever to get released.
For those who haven’t already heard, Moore’s heady science fiction film with a healthy dose of family drama, centres on a man named Jim (played by Roy Abramsohn) who has just lost his job and finds himself forced into suffering unhappily through a final day at a Walt Disney World resort with a family he seems increasingly disconnected with. Jim begins following around a pair of teenaged French girls that catch his eye, he begins suffering black outs, cheats on his wife, and unknowingly acts neglectful towards his young wife and daughter, all the while slowly coming to the realization that there might be more to the park than meets the eye. Oh, and perhaps most importantly, it was filmed almost entirely at Disney World and Disneyland without anyone from the House of Mouse even knowing it was happening or authorizing it.
Shot utilizing a Cannon camera that could easily blend in with those belonging to other park attendees and having all production notes and scripts on cell phones, Moore and his crew worked around peak operating hours of the park to produce most of the film in hopes no one would notice. Even when shooting completed, the secret was maintained while Moore had post production done on the film in South Korea, far from prying eyes.
But perhaps what’s most remarkable about Moore’s efforts is that Escape From Tomorrow doesn’t look like a cheaply slapped together film crafted by one guy out with his friends trying to make a one off production. It’s actually very professionally crafted in every aspect, and the budget in the hundreds of thousands of dollars (most of that for post production) speaks to that desire to make a real film out of limited means in terms of setting.
With the film opening in several Canadian cities this month after its Sundance premiere and summertime rounds on the festival circuit, we called Moore to talk about how the production stayed secret with so many people working on it, how he kept his cast and crew happy under stressful situations, what his films have in common with the work of Woody Allen, how talk of the film’s legality skews public perception of the final product, and the weird things that happened at Disney that weren’t a part of the film at all.
Dork Shelf: When people talk about the film with you, I’m sure that a lot of people talk about the concept of it, how you shot it, the filmmaking conditions, and most importantly where you shot it. But I actually want to go to the very end of the film and talk about the credits, which is where I was initially taken aback because I don’t think people realize just how many people worked on this film during and post-production. This definitely isn’t the kind of thing people think of when they say guerrilla filmmaking. This is an actual production. So with that many people involved and the obviously touchy nature of the project, how did you keep it under wraps?
Randy Moore: That is a good question, and that was the biggest concern that I had as the production ultimately grew and grew and grew, was about making sure the project didn’t get out. Originally, and I’m sure you’ve heard, I was just going to shoot and direct it myself and just go in with some friends of mine. And then I said I wanted to have professional actors so it would add a bit more weight to it, and since this was L.A., there was really no excuse not to use professional actors since there were so many of them. So I had to get a casting agent, and from there once we brought in professional actors, scheduling was now an issue because these people still have to go to other auditions, and jobs, and now everyone is on a different time table. So then I brought on an Assistant Director just to deal with that initially, but right from there was when it just sort of grew and snowballed into what you ended up seeing, which is basically this huge, end crawl.
At one point my cinematographer started joking that there wasn’t a single conversation that I would have with someone that wouldn’t end with “And don’t go telling anyone you aren’t supposed to.” (laughs) But, yeah, as the production went on I didn’t get more relaxed and more comfortable. It was the exact opposite. More people came on board and I was getting more and more nervous that this was going to get out. People say all the time that L.A. is a small town, and I was really worried about basically not being able to finish the film because someone would say something to someone else. It was very nerve wracking, especially the way those credits ended up. And I mean, really most of those credits are post-production credits anyway, but it was still bigger than I initially thought it would be, for sure.
But I think everyone who came on board the film was great. A lot of it was probably luck, but we just had great people who believed in the film and they wanted to see it succeed and they knew what was at stake for all of us. They knew if too many people found out about it, their jobs and the work they had been doing would have been jeopardized, as well. It was in everyone’s best interest to keep mum about it, you know?
DS: Yeah, and even from your point of view this was something you had in mind for a long time. You had planned things out months in advance and very meticulously in terms of how you were going to shoot everything. Was it hard initially after all this visualization and planning to start putting other people into the plans?
RM: It was. It was at first, and then it sort of became a relief in the sense that there was just so many things to worry about. I remember going in there for last looks before we were going to bring the actors in, and I almost had a complete nervous breakdown. I realized that there was no way I would be able to concentrate on framing and focus and the performances of the actors all at the same time in such a potentially chaotic and uncontrolled atmosphere.
But I did feel a little sad that I was giving up the reigns, because I did envision it for so long as being something I was going to shoot myself, but Lucas Lee Graham, who was our DP, brought an amazing perspective to the film that never would have been there otherwise in the final cut.
And even in editing it was a struggle. I think any director struggles when they have edited a film of their own in the past. You just hand it over and then you wait, and eventually something will start to take shape and you start collaborating with them, but for about a month or so there you have a period where the film’s no longer yours and it just feels bad. (laughs)
And that just keeps happening over and over again, because then you’ll get a distributor and more people will come on board and try to figure out how to market it or where it should play. Even on set with the actors, they’ll always say “I want to try this this way.” So it’s really only in your hands when you’re writing it.
DS: How do you even find people to come on board and produce a film like this, since it’s not that low budgeted of a production, ultimately? To keep the ruse going you guys are actually having to pay to use the park, which after a while becomes a costly thing to think about when I think a producer might realize that the film might never even be seen after it’s made.
RM: Well, none of our producers were executive producers here. Their money was never on the line. Their reputation was, for sure, but they just had to keep everyone believing in the magic, I guess. (laughs) The film was never intended to be something where we would think we were going to make a lot of or any money off of this. It was never going to be that movie. The budget was about $200,000 initially, and there are a lot of UCLA student films that cost $100,000 and are essentially just really expensive demo reels. And we were hoping it would play some small festivals, and beyond that it wouldn’t know what it was going to do.
And like I said about the production getting bigger, the budget slowly started increasing. Plus because it was also over the course of years it was never a case of us saying “We need $200,000 more.” It was more like, “Could you spare $5,000” or “a couple hundred dollars.” So there were quite a few generous people out there willing to help. I mean, some of them might have felt sorry for us. (laughs) “Okay, we’ll help these guys get this one out of their system.” (laughs) But I think a lot of people saw what we were doing as being different and unique, and obviously it wasn’t a sure thing by any means, but I think just the audacity of the project made people want to get involved with it.
DS: Outside of actually paying to get into the park, what would you say your biggest expenditure was while you were at Disney?
RM: Hotels were obviously really expensive. Again, we weren’t sure if the film was ever going to see the light of day and everyone was going so far out on a limb with this one to make this movie on one giant leap of faith, so I felt like if we were going to go this way, at least everyone should be comfortable and eating well. We could have cut all of that, but we didn’t.
And we paid all of the actors, too. On a normal film of this size, I’m sure that they would have deferred all the cast and crew salaries and had them working for next to nothing and eating junk all day and staying at the worst hotels. But we stayed at fairly decent economy hotels, and we ate decently. It was so stressful making this movie that to go back to some really shitty hotel in the middle of nowhere would have broken people completely, I think. I knew it was important for people to have good food and good and a good bed to sleep in, because when you’re that stressed making something you need to have something that you know will be comfortable for you when it’s all over.
DS: That sounds like a much happier Disney experience than the one the characters in the film go through.
RM: (laughs) Yeah, and actually the hotel that’s on screen isn’t very much different from the one we actually stayed at, and that hotel was pretty nice.
DS: Something interesting about that, though, is how there’s this stress on the shoot, and you’re following a main character who has his own very specific and obvious stressors and malaise about him. One of the things I think you touch on quite nicely is that Disney can be an incredibly insufferable place if you’re in a rotten mood or you’re depressed going in. How do you work with the actors to keep up this sort of fracturing family dynamic? Because it’s hard to create a fracturing family dynamic in a film in general, but it must be even harder when filming under a possibly greater and more constant stress.
RM: You know, now that you mention it, I think just the way we were filming the movie probably added a lot to that feeling. But I think a lot of it was just good acting. We cast in both L.A. and New York for a long time. We saw a lot of kids and a lot of adults for the parental roles, and the people we have the people here that really nailed it. The way they read it in the auditions was pretty close to the way we ended up shooting it, especially Roy and Jack Dalton, who plays the little boy. They both read that scene in the auditions where they were going around on the people mover and the boy asks if mommy was pretty, and that dynamic that they had was just there right from the start.
This was really a case where you had to hire the absolute best actors you can. They read their scripts (laughs), they took their notes, and they listened and always asked questions whenever they needed to, and they worked with me every morning in my hotel room. Everybody already knew where the cameras were going to be, so it wasn’t like we were going to walk into the park and muddle around for a while and figure out where our shots were going to be. It was very structured, and everything was planned to the minute and even months in advance , like you mentioned before, even right down to when and where the sun was going to be. I think in a case like that you just have to do your homework. They did their homework, and we did our homework, and they’re just really talented, gifted actors.
DS: I think when people watch the film they might get a sort of sci-fi vibe or something more akin to David Lynch, but I got almost a Woody Allen vibe at times from what you were going for in terms of taking a real place and making it into a character in the film. You, like Allen with New York or one of his European cities, seem to have a genuine affinity for Disney World overall, but you can still see that darker side of something like that.
RM: I love Woody Allen. It’s funny because shortly after we wrapped production, I kind of went on a Woody Allen marathon. Before the movie I was watching a lot of Kurosawa and Tarkovsky films, but I do see what you’re saying because in his films the locations are real characters in those films, and I really wanted the park to play a character. The film isn’t about Mickey Mouse, but what Mickey Mouse represents to culture.
It’s not necessarily about Disney, but the experience of going to Disney, and that theme park – which I have said before – is for me and I’m positive it is for other people other people is just a normal average theme park. But then again, there are a lot of people who would go there to get married or to bring their newborn baby there. It’s such a rite of passage to go to Disney, and it’s so iconic and meshed into our culture that you can’t escape it. To not be able to comment on it or critique it I think is just wrong. Even if you love it – and there are things about Disney that I do love – you should be able to do that. You should be able to point out things that are less than perfect. It’s like not being able to comment on the government.
DS: I’ve danced around this question for a while because pretty much everyone on the face of the planet has already asked you about the sort of potential legal standing you have between yourself and Disney, with whom you haven’t had any contact with regarding the film. It seems like that’s a discussion most often carried on by people who haven’t seen the film and are largely trying to be speculative for the sake of having an opinion or trying to get an answer that doesn’t really exist yet. Do you think at this point when people talk about your film in light of all the discussion it’s generated that it makes people now expect a movie that they aren’t going to get and their expectations of it might be skewed somewhat unfairly or inflated in a lot of ways?
RM: I’m not sure. There’s definitely a lot of misconception regarding what the film actually is. A lot of people think it might be this crazy slasher horror film set at the park. But when you say “the legality” what aspect of it do you mean, exactly?
DS: Nothing really specific, but I think once the conversation starts towards talking about fair use and that the film is rated R and how it’s not really in line with Disney values and that it’s unauthorized, that on a general level it creates a mythology almost bigger than the film itself. I’ve seen the film, but when I talk to people who haven’t seen it, but they know the title by reputation, most of the time they seem to be thinking of something that film actually isn’t.
RM: Yeah, I mean, it’s funny because this is such a small, independent, black and white movie, so if there’s press about the legality of it all and it gets people to go see the movie it’s definitely something to think about. We’ve always said it’s not only our greatest asset, but our Achilles’ Heel. I prefer it when people go to the movie knowing nothing about it. I think that’s when we have to best audiences and I think it’s when I enjoy doing the Q&As I go to the most. I love the audiences where people some out of it saying they had no idea what to expect from it or what it was going to be about going in. So having expectations can hurt it at times, but there are always some positives to that.
At the same time, I want people to see the film, so I can’t say “Okay, let’s not do any press and let’s not say anything about the film.” I’m upset that there are all these incorrect stories about the film coming out, sure, but it gets people to see the film. Like you said, there are a lot of people who worked on this movie, and I want them to feel that their hard work was well spent. So I’m happy that they’re finally being recognized and getting out there. I’m always happy when people see it.
But, yeah, I like it most when people think it was this crazy guerrilla film that was shot on the sly, but then they realize it doesn’t look like that at all. I love that. That’s great, because that was our main goal the entire time. We never wanted this to come across as someone’s home movies, or found footage, or a Blair Witch thing or anything like that, which I think might be the other thing most people kind of confuse us with without having seen it. Especially because of the location, I can see where it would be easy to make something that would be like someone’s home movie, and that would be excruciating to watch if it wasn’t your family. I wouldn’t have made that movie.
DS: When you’re at Disney and you’re filming like you do, you can see a lot of crazy stuff through osmosis as you would at any theme park. Was there anything that you shot that was unplanned that you wish you could have put into the film?
RM: (laughs) There were so many things that I tried so hard to work in, but I just couldn’t figure out how.
First of all, that scene where there’s an airplane skywriting “JESUS” over the statue of Walt Disney was just serendipitous. We were just scouting one day and just said “Oh my Gosh.” Apparently that happens a lot there, but I didn’t know. (laughs) So that was never in the script at any point.
But there was another thing that always stuck with me. We would be shooting those entry scenes with people coming into the park, so we would get there really, really early and run in as soon as they opened the gates and we would have a few seconds to set up and shoot before everyone would come in behind us and wreck the shot. And underneath Spaceship Earth, the giant geodesic sphere, there was this couple, and I don’t know if they were on their Honeymoon or they were living out some sort of fantasy, but they were just laying down right under the sphere to take nap. They were just totally sleeping there in perfect bliss like this was their dream: to just sleep under the ball at Epcot. And people were walking by and security walking by, and I was wondering if someone was going to stop them and say “Hey, you can’t do this,” but no! Eventually we had to go get other shots, but we were just watching this for a good ten minutes or so, and it was the weirdest thing that I saw while I was there
But that was their dream! It was their fantasy coming true. And that’s the thing about this place is that I’ve said before: for so many people this is like a church. It can be almost like a religious experience going there. They take so much of the indoctrination that had with them from their childhood and they worshipped these characters that really mattered to them.
There was a moment when we were on a bus going to the park where a mother was just yelling at her daughter. She said, “Listen! Disney World is just as magical for mommies, too! You can come along and SHARE the magic, but don’t get in the way of mommy’s magic!” I swear to God that was almost verbatim what she said, and I looked at my DP and said, “Yeah, this is the whole reason why this place is the way it is.” We had a moral obligation to make this movie. Someone had to say something or at least show at least the mania or the frenzy of it all, which I think comes across maybe best towards the end when we have that shot of people running and trying to get into the park first.