The big story out of this year's Sundance Film Festival wasn't about an early Oscar contender or another feel-great fantasia that was sure to dominate the Indie Spirit Awards, but rather about a movie that probably shouldn't exist, and that one of the entertainment world's most powerful corporations almost certainly doesn't want you to see. A demented odyssey through the psychic fallout of manufactured happiness, Randy Moore's "Escape From Tomorrow" is the story of an average American family man (Roy Abramsohn as Jim) who learns that he's been fired from his job while he's on vacation with his wife and kids at Disney World. Haunted by the bad news, Jim begins to see The Happiest Place on Earth from a different perspective, the theme park's attractions becoming a nightmarish venue for a nervous breakdown that owes far less to "Cinderella" than it does to David Lynch's "Inland Empire". (Read our full review of the film here).
Since Disney is notoriously protective of their brand, and has been known to annihilate even the most innocuous unauthorized uses of their brand with extreme prejudice, Moore had to shoot most of his first feature in secret, he and his crew pretending that they were ordinary tourists and definitely not a professional group of filmmakers using the parks as a backdrop for his freaky psychic collapse. Thanks to the talents of Moore's collaborators, the coherence of his vision and the enduring strength of his personal connection to Disney World, "Escape From Tomorrow" doesn't feel at all like a gimmick, but rather a movie that was only shot somewhere it couldn't be because it couldn't have been shot anywhere else. Like "Russian Ark", Moore's debut is a marvel of modern film production, but also fundamentally inextricable from its central location. Even when removed from the sideshow that accompanied the film's Sundance splash, "Escape From Tomorrow" is one of the year's most exciting and forward-thinking independent films.
With his movie finally set to hit theaters and VOD this week, I sat down with Randy Moore to talk about artificial happiness, shooting an impossible film, and convincing an actor not to yell about Hitler in the middle of Epcot Center.
FILM.COM: I was talking to Roy [Abramsohn] on the Operation Kino podcast, and he said something interesting about how there's a pressure, when you go to Disney World, for it to be the best day ever. You see families yelling at their kids, "Are you having fun? You have to be having fun!" Could you talk about the idea of "manufactured escape" and how living up to that can almost be as much of a burden as the problems in our real lives?
RANDY MOORE: Yeah, well, I mean, I think when everyone goes there it's sort of like they're thrown into this hyper reality where everyone is, like, super super happy, and there's a limit to how much you can take of that. It's sort of like you can only go to Vegas for a certain amount of time before it sort of eats you up. And I started just wondering also about the people that work at the park, and what it does to them to be manufacturing that happiness on a daily basis. And it seemed almost like, you know, it dements them in some strange way. And I think it does do that. It's an artificial happiness that they're giving to you, that you're paying for, and one of the the things that got me really kind of interested in the project besides my own history of going to the park as a child was I had heard someone that, after Vegas, like, the most popular place for people to commit suicide is Disney World. And I thought that's so strange that they would choose this place that says they're the happiest place on earth to end their lives. And then I started thinking about, well, what happens when that goes down? Who comes and takes the bodies away and cleans up and maintains the veneer of fantasy that nothing bad ever happens here?
That that was part of the genesis of the story, along with my own childhood and growing up there and going to the park with my father religiously as a child until I was probably like 13-years-old, and then not going back there until I had kids of my own. And when that happened, it was almost like, because my relationship with him had changed so much by then, some of those rides can almost be like time machines, where I'm all of a sudden haunted by his memory again and all of these emotions and memories that I hadn't had for so, so long just came back and were so visceral and real that I couldn't stop thinking about it. And then that, on top of the fact that my wife – who had never been there and was just having a miserable time – wasn't, like, living between these two worlds of the nostalgia that she had for the rides when she was a kid and then, you know, the actual rides as you experience them as an adult. She was just seeing them from that one perspective, and she was able to, like, I think, objectively look at the parks.
So, you were able to see it sort of anew through her eyes?
Absolutely. She turned to me at one point - and she's a nurse - and she said, "This is worse than working the psych floor at the hospital." And I was still kind of under the nostalgia spell from my youth, and I was kind of upset at her at first for, you know, not getting on board.
"It's the happiest place on earth, what do you mean!?"
Exactly. "You're supposed to be happy here!" But then I, started looking around and I took the blinders off and I did see, you know, like, everyone is just so... you see such a range of human emotions there, from people who are having a great, happy day to people who look like their marriage is just about to fall about because they're under so much pressure to create this idyllic, perfect day that's almost unattainable. People go there with, like, a war plan. "We're gonna hit this and this and this and this, so we can see the fireworks by this time, and we can then eat at this place by this time," and if they're not on schedule, Dad is mad, Mom is mad, the kids are just cranky. And you see, like, everything is crumbling around them.
I love that you incorporated the logistics into the movie, with the FastPass and the Buzz Lightyear ride. It's like you have to be a general of an army when you attack this place.
It was really interesting watching the movie - and I know you didn't intend this as an exercise in guerrilla filmmaking - and thinking "Okay, what part of this is part of the production and what part isn't?" And as the viewer's filtering through, they're thinking "How long must they have waited to get the timing right on the monorail?" and things like that. That process speaks to Jim's experience, like the small flap in the corner of reality that's starting to come up. Were you conscious in manipulating how people would see what was part of the production and what wasn't?
When I told people it was postmodern, I think, honestly, that's sort of why I was saying that. I knew for the shots of Epcot and Disney World being empty that people would scratch their heads and go, "How did they get those?" And, you know, I left the beep in - which is more of a wink - when he says the word "Disney" when he's in the underground chamber, because everyone by that time it's clear where they were. There's no way we could ever hide that. So, yeah, I was definitely conscious of some of that. You know, I was surprised by how much interest there was, in terms of how we got some shots. Because, honestly, some of the stuff that people are, like, "How did they get all these different angles?" was just persistence. We just rode the rides a lot of times. There wasn't really much magic behind it, you know? Yeah, we just went on Small World 12 times and, you know, shot them from 12 different angles.
It's rare to find actors who I think are able to do that. In the casting process, was it most important for you to find actors who were sort of fearless, and could-
It was terrifying, because every time I found an actor who I really liked and I decided "I'm going to offer this person the part," I made it a point to then say "You know, this is what we're going to do." I wouldn't just give them the part and then be like, "Here's your call sheet. Show up at the gates." So, I was so worried that they would say "no" or "that's too crazy" and it wasn't just with the actors, it was with every single person in the crew, too. So, I had to sort of make believers out of everyone. And, first of all, for just being a first-time filmmaker, it's hard to get everyone on board with your vision. Being a first-time filmmaker is tough. You just want to get that first film out of the way so you can say, "I made a film. This is my second film. So, trust me." But you can't really say that, they have no basis to trust you at all, so it was really hard to get everyone to go along with it, but, I have to say, you know, everyone – there were only one or two people that basically said no in the process. And everyone else was just great about it.
And you were able to get an actor who, maybe because of his theatrical background, wasn't afraid to stand up in the German restaurant in Epcot and –
I mean, there were times where Roy did stuff where even I was like, "Roy, knock it off. You don't have to actually, you know, shout about [Hitler] in the German pavilion."
One of the things that really made the movie more sinister was the music. I know that Abel [Korzeniowski] is great, and a big get for the movie. Did he come in late in the game, did you show him the footage and he was like, "Ah, I know, I'm going to build a really creepy contrast to this" or how did that relationship work?
Well, we had a temp track, and the temp track was very, like you said, it was in contrast to what was going on the movie. We used a lot of Michel Legrand cues from "The Young Girls of Rochefort" and "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg", and we actually tried to get the rights to those songs, but his people didn't want to part with them. So at one point I showed Abel the movie, just as a friend, to get his opinion on the movie. I never thought we'd be able to get him to score the movie. I knew Abel pretty well because his wife used to babysit for our kids.
But, uh, you know, he had just done Madonna's movie "W.E." at this point, and he was nominated for the Golden Globe for that, and for "A Single Man", so he was in demand. And when he saw the movie and said he could do it, I was just blown away. And he even said he'd do it for free. And I just, one thing was that I wanted to pay everyone who worked on the movie, because I felt like, "Probably no one's ever going to see this movie, so at least you deserve to be paid." It was the minimum, but I paid everyone. So I said, "Abel, you're not going to be the only person who works for free on this movie." So, you know, he probably took, like, the biggest pay cut in movie composer history, but I paid him a little bit, a few thousand dollars, basically, and he did what he did. And I was really familiar with his work, too, by that time, so I knew it would be perfect.
It's funny, because I didn't see the movie until last week, but the score was on iTunes when the film was at Sundance, so I've been listening to it all year, and thought of it as its own thing. And then pairing it with the images in the movie, I was like, "Holy s**t." I can't listen to it in the same way anymore. I love it, but it's just different. Speaking about Sundance, the story from afar was like, this anti-Disney movie, but reading the press notes and some other interviews with you, and watching the movie, which doesn't feel anti-Disney to me so much as a neutral look at how difficult it can be to reconcile your dreams with their manufactured reality. Were you surprised by how people interpreted it to be anti-Disney? Or were you at all maybe even hurt by that, since you had such a complicated love relationship with that place?
Honestly, I didn't really think about it too much. I knew it wasn't anti-Disney. And, you know, I think I realistically, or very quickly at Sundance, realized that I can't control what people are going to think about the film. So people were calling it all sorts of things that I disagreed with, and because of the princesses possibly being high-priced escorts and whatever, I can see how people might think that it might be anti-Disney. So I wasn't up-in-arms, being like, "It's not anti-Disney!" I mean, it's a parody of the experience of going to this theme park that's just so much more than just - I say this over and over again - to me it's transcended being just a theme park.
These rides, you know, people have been going on them since they were kids. It's almost like a religious experience for a lot of people, going to the park. These characters mean so much to them. Mothers yell at their kids not to get in the way of the magic of, you know, "You can share in it, but don't ruin Mommy's thing because Disney is magic for mommies, too." And that was a conversation we actually overheard. And there was a moment when we were - when I was with my own family - there was a Fantasmic show, and Mickey appears at the top of this mountain and there's fireworks and lasers and music and audible gasps from all the audience, and I just felt it. There were having a religious experience, like they had witnessed the second coming or something. It was insane, I was like, "These people have been so indoctrinated that grown adults are getting this reaction to a guy dressed in a mouse suit at the top of a mountain." They're supposed to be here for this family thing, mainly for their kids. And, also, you see people yelling at their kids all the time, and I never understood that until, obviously, I went back with my own kids.
So, maybe the movie was sort of cathartic for you.
It was cathartic. It was, definitely. Writing the movie was very therapeutic for me. That was how I actually began, was just to sort of flush it out of my system, because I kept thinking about it and I wanted to stop thinking about it.
I know from talking to Roy that you're reluctant to explain any of the things that happen in the movie literally, but with the idea of "flushing it out of your system", the one question plot-wise I really want to ask you is the genesis of Cat Flu. Which sort of comes from out of nowhere in the movie, and really left a mark with me, narratively and aesthetically. Can you talk about how that came to be?
Well, first of all, as Roy will tell you, I'm a little bit OCD. And, you know, these parks are like giant petri dishes. Kids are touching everything. You're constantly telling your kids, "Don't touch that! Everyone else has touched that railing, you're going to get sick." When I was writing it, Bird Flu was a big thing going on and I was thinking, "Gosh, how horrible would it be for an epidemic like that to spread in one of these parks like it does on these cruise ships and stuff?" And I was thinking, there's got to be an antidote to all of this happiness. Sort like an anti-matter. If happiness is the matter, what's the anti-matter? Maybe it's something like a cat, or cat flu. And that was sort of the genesis of that.
Aside from David Lynch - when you were thinking of how you filter Disney World through your own personal experience and how you wanted to put it on film, were there certain reference points you had? Not sure why, but it kinda reminded me of "The Battle of Algiers".
You know, when Lucas, the DP, and I got on the plane to go to Orlando for the first time together, we both gave each other the same movie that we'd brought in our bag with us. It was Tarkovsky's "Stalker". And he had just read the script for the first time. There was something about going into that zone in that movie that I think he was instantly, you know, obviously it made him bring that movie along with him, and I love Tarkovsky. The black and white in "Ivan's Childhood" was a big influence on me, too. Just the fluidity of it and everything, that's how I wanted the movie to look, so that was a big influence. I wanted the movie to be really locked down and cinematic. And we did it as much as we could. I've seen the movie so many times now, and I wish it was more locked down, but those were big influence on us. We've been watching a lot of Kurosawa, too.
I spoke to Claire Denis this morning and she brought up Kurosawa, too. Maybe he's having a renaissance among modern filmmakers [laughs]. And really, you know, for all of your concerns of it not looking like another "Cloverfield" or "Blair Witch", I don't think you have anything to worry about. It really feels like a fully fleshed out and intended fantasy that happens to be set in a place that was very opposed to - or oblivious to - it being made.
I appreciate that. We tried our best.
"Escape From Tomorrow" opens on October 11th in theaters and on VOD.