If you heard about “Escape From Tomorrow” after the dark comedy/horror became one of the most talked about films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, then you also probably know a few key facts: that it was shot in a guerilla-style manner at Walt Disney World and Disneyland without the permission of the parks, it was edited in South Korea so as to stay off the radar of the Disney corporation and that if you weren’t at Sundance you missed your chance to see the film because Disney’s lawyers would never allow it to be shown to the public.
However, one of those facts is false: “Escape From Tomorrow” will be released on October 11 in select theaters and VOD, regardless of whether Disney wanted to take it to court.
The hype surrounding this black-and-white satire raised its profile in the film world seemingly overnight and had distributors running for the nearest lawyer familiar with copyright law to get a sense if the film was releasable.
But while the history of the production makes for great copy, the truth is far more remarkable.
Randy Moore has been going to Disney World as far back as he can remember. After his parents divorced when he was very young, he’d travel every summer from his mom’s house in Chicago to his dad’s down in Orlando, with the two always visiting the park. But as the years went by, even the fantasy atmosphere couldn’t mask Moore’s distain for his father, leaving him with memories of the park that are both happy and horrific.
A struggling screenwriter in L.A., Moore’s career frustrations led him in 2009 to begin jotting down ideas for a movie set in Disney World that mixed Disney urban legends (ride fatalities, the delicious turkey legs sold throughout the park that, according to one myth, are actually Emu meat), with memories of the heavy-drinking antics of his father. Moore wove together a twisted tale that follows Jim, a family man who learns he’s been fired from his job on the final day of vacation at Disney World, leading to a downward spiral filled with hallucinations and an obsession over two teenage French girls.
Describing the film as an “experiment,” Moore said he suffered a breakdown after attempting to make the movie with his friends and no resources. He eventually brought on a casting director, assistant director and eventually a cinematographer (the film’s final budget would be $650,000).
“My initial reaction was, ‘Who does he know that got him access to shoot something at Disney World? He’s someone’s kid or something,’” said Lucas Lee Graham, who met Moore for the first time in 2010 after answering his job posting on Mandy.com for a cinematographer. “But then he said, ‘We have no permits,’ so I thought it would be like a heist, which really caught my attention.” The day after meeting Moore, Graham was on a plane with him to Disney World.
After at least a half-dozen trips to the parks in 2010 to scout and then shoot the film—during which time Moore lost 47 pounds because he was so scared they were going to get caught, spent three-and-a-half hours on one ride to get a scene right and forced the whole production to flee the park when they were almost nabbed by security—Moore had completed what he set out to do: make a movie at the park. But would anyone ever see it?
“I asked that question constantly,” said Roy Abramsohn, a veteran TV/theater actor who was cast in the Jim role. Graham concurred: “People [on set] were googling ‘fair use.’ I asked him if anyone is ever going to see this and he said he didn’t care if he drove around in a van and projected it on walls.”
Luckily that would not be the film’s fate.
Editing and special effects work consumed the next year. Though most reports note that the editing process took place in South Korea, the only post-production work done there was visual effects, through connections the film’s producer/editor Soojin Chung had; the bulk of the editing took place in a small production office in East L.A.
The film was selected, by Moore’s count, to as many as 25 lower-tier festivals around the world, as both Moore and Chung felt the film could never play at an American festival.
But after a chance encounter Chung had with Sundance senior programmer John Nein at a Film Independent event in August 2012, “Escape From Tomorrow” was suddenly on Sundance’s radar.
“To pull out of all these other festivals for this pipe dream of Sundance was really difficult,” Moore admitted. But Chung convinced him that this was a gamble they had to take. Three months later, Moore got a call from Sundance director of programming Trevor Groth saying the film was in.
“We all knew we wanted it in the festival,” said Groth. “I think the biggest discussion we had around the film was [which section] we were going to show it in.” He ended up placing it in the festival’s NEXT section.