It was when Randy Moore got married that he started looking at Disneyland with fresh eyes.
“It’s a shared universal experience that so many Americans have,” says Moore. “When you go back as an adult, you’re in between two worlds. You’re going on these rides as an adult and at the same time you’re remembering what it was like when you were a kid and when you haven’t had that experience as a kid and you’re just going on it as an adult, like my wife – she’s from another country, and I got to see it through her lens – it’s totally different.”
Then again, it’s probably not as different as the vision of the Magic Kingdom that Moore creates in “Escape from Tomorrow,” a darkly funny, phantasmagoric fever dream about a father who learns on the first day of his family vacation that he’s been laid off from his job and begins to see the shadowy underworld where Disney princesses work as escorts and “It’s a Small World” feels oppressively small.
While much has been made of how the film was shot mostly on location with a professional cast and crew without the permission of Disney, not as much has been said about what Moore really accomplished with “Escape,” a film that speaks to the moment by challenging our use of nostalgia as a crutch and finding the perfect emblem of the American dream to turn into a nightmare as it’s drifted out of reach for most families. Despite being shot on the run, it’s as crisp in its humor and its sense of purpose as Lucas Lee Graham’s stark black-and-white cinematography and the notes in Abel Korzeniowski’s fine, fantastical score.
After years of wondering whether he might get in trouble with Mickey’s legal department for what he pulled off, Moore speaks now as his first feature is being released in theaters and on VOD as if the spiggot’s been turned on, reflecting freely on how the film was inspired by the childhood trips he made to Disney World while growing up in Florida, the explicitly detailed shot list that made the covert filming possible and how a love of music led him into making movies.
It was just going to Orlando every summer to visit my father, going to Epcot and Disney World religiously with him until probably junior high or high school, then going back with my kids when they got older. That was the big influence because we spent a lot of time there. My mom lived in Chicago, my dad lived in Florida, so when I thought about him, I’d think about the parks or vice versa. Eventually, the two became inseparable and that’s why I kept making the movie in the face of [the idea that] no one might ever see it. It was almost therapy and it examined my relationship with him and the park at the same time.
Had you always wanted to direct?
That was always my goal and I thought, like I think a lot of people do, I would get into it through writing. That just wasn’t happening. I got to a point where I was just getting frustrated and [thought] if I don’t direct something in the next year, it might be too late. I just really felt a strong compulsion to do it. I had a few scripts laying around and this was the script [where] I was most familiar with the world and I thought I could do it fast and cheap. I thought it would be easy.
At first, I wrote this script as just something like a palate cleanser. Whenever I’d get bored writing on what I was working on, I’d just go back to this because it was fun. But I kept going back to it more and more and more, more than the other scripts. Then when the Canon 5D Mark II came out, I got really into that camera. I started going [to Disneyland] with my family and shooting home movies. Its low-light capabilities are just incredible and I was like, “You know what? I could make a pretty nice movie.”
And when everyone else has seen everyone’s home movies from Disneyland already, I wanted it to be different. That was one of the major reasons we went with black and white. It is shakier than I wish it was. That was unavoidable, because there was a lot of pressure to get stuff fast before a huge throng of people would walk down the street. We tried to lock it down as much as we could. We would use trash cans or ledges or anything we could to try to get … We even had a very small tripods that they allow you to bring in, so it wouldn’t have that shaky kind of feel.
You manage to create some incredible compositions.
Obviously, Lucas Lee Graham, our cinematographer, was a huge component of that. We scouted probably an excessive amount before [production]. Originally, I was planning on shooting it myself with just some friends to get my feet wet, get back in the feel of directing and working with actors. Once I did that, I would feel more comfortable working on the other projects I had laying around, but I soon realized that my friends aren’t the greatest actors in the world. I [thought]. “If I’m going to do it, I might as well get some good actors.”
I got a casting director. We got some actors, then once you start having a lot of professional actors, you need a good person to schedule. We got an [assistant director] to start making schedules for everyone. Then we needed transportation and [production assistants] to assist with that. Because I had just been writing this whole time, I realized again why everyone has these jobs since I left film school. They actually are important. You need a caterer. You need all these things that I was originally not going to have. It was just going to be me, the camera and some actors. It snowballed from that. Had I known that we were going to have this big crew on this movie, it would have been too daunting of a task. It was that slow buildup that got it to be what it is now.
On a film like this, it seems like so many choices are made for you. Does that leave a lot of room to find your own voice?
Honestly, there were not many restrictions due to the location. It was so exhausting physically and mentally because there was this paranoia that ran through the making the movie because making the movie was an experiment. We did not know if we could do it. We didn’t know if it was going to good or bad. Every single day something might happen, we may not finish this scene and that’s it. But we got every single shot on our shot list. There weren’t times when we really had to compromise that. I knew pretty much what we were going to be able to get and what we weren’t, even before we started making the shot list. We had designated stuff for greenscreen and for location as being things that we were going to build on the set.
But I think my voice comes out in this film. I made a lot of student films before. Pretty much the reaction that people are bringing to this film is the same reaction that those films got. My mom is like, “Why can’t you be just make a nice sweet normal film?” To me, it’s just a fun, entertaining film. I don’t set out to be super bizarre. I like strange films. Obviously, I like David Lynch movies and things that you can watch over and over again and find new things or provoke new questions. When I write something that I think is really funny, people tend to think it’s really dark. I made this movie to be entertaining for me and I enjoy it. It’s entertaining for me when I watch it.
There’s all these things I wish I could go back and do. That was probably the one thing that, if could have, I would have gone back more. It got to a point towards the end where it was just like, I just can’t go back there anymore. But that’s my only regret is that it got to point where we were all just like, “Okay we did it. Now we just have to just work with what we have.”
Even though you had been to Disneyland a lot as a tourist, this must’ve been the most intense your relationship had been to the park – did being inside of it for so long and thinking of it in work terms affect what you wanted to say with the final product?
If anything, when you’re a kid and you go there, you just see the rides and the magic and Mickey. Then when I went back as an adult, you see the other people. You see strange things going on. You see the cracks in the vineyard here and there. Like everyone, it burst my bubble a little bit because I still had this nostalgic idea of Disney. But when we were making the movie there were moments…every night when we were at Epcot in Orlando, we had to shoot the fireworks scene. We would have our actor running around this lake while the fireworks were going off to get all our angles. We did it every night for seven or eight nights in a row. After the fireworks are done, they have this nice exit music for everyone and the park is quieting down. It’s calm and I think we started getting sucked into that world. It brought back these fond memories I had of the park when I was a kid. I went into it a little cynical. I knew people would think that this would be some sort of an indictment of Disney culture. But there were moments when it started to win me over again. It’s hard to be there for a long time and not let that happen. They do a good job. That’s their business.
You’ve said you’ve trimmed the film a bit since its premiere at Sundance. Since this is your first feature, and one you kept under wraps before its first screening there, what was it like to receive audience feedback and reevaluate what you had?
Most of the criticism that came from Sundance I was right on board with. By the time we screened it at Sundance, picture had been locked for almost a year. There were times when I would have liked to have opened it up to make changes, but because it was my first movie, there were budgetary constraints and I didn’t want to screw up the sound designers and make them go back and redo a scene. We had [visual FX] coming form Korea. So I was nervous to make new changes after we had locked the picture.
I’d been watching this same cut for a year. Obviously, when you’ve done it so many times, you see all the flaws. You know what scenes are running long and you have a pretty clear idea what you’d like, if you could, changed. When the more critical reviews came out of Sundance, I was like, “Yeah, I totally agree with that. It’s too long here and all that.” Once our sales agent John Sloss said, “Because we’re going to add a disclaimer at the beginning of the film and a few other things, if there’s anything you want to do and open up the film again, now is the time.”
That allowed me to go in and make those mostly editorial changes. There’s very little changed other than shortening head and tails of scenes, just scrupulous stuff or redundant things that the film didn’t need. There was an intermission montage that’s maybe the one thing that I miss, but hopefully someday there’ll be a director’s cut. Everything else, I think it’s a better picture for those cuts that we made.
How did you get interested in making films?
I started when I was in junior high and high school. I was very interested in music, mostly electronic music and I was doing a lot of like mini-keyboard compositions and stuff like that. At school, we would have concerts and everyone else would get up and play their instruments and I would just press start on sequencer. I felt like there needed to be some sort of visual for people to make the experience richer, so I started making videos just to go along with the music. Then at some point, people started complementing the videos more than the music.
When it came time to go to college, I really felt like I needed to make a decision as to which one I was going to focus on. Part of me still wishes that I could have balanced both of them because I do miss music a lot. I was making these very bizarre music videos to go along with this electronic music that I was writing, which led me to go to Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston. It’s more of an art school really than a film school and they have a film department too, that [specialized in] very experimental films like Maya Deren. It was a little too experimental for my taste, so I went back to Chicago, where I’m originally from.
I went to Columbia College for a little while and I started thinking a lot about my father, who still lived in Orlando. I knew that there was a school like literally a few blocks from where he lived called Full Sail University, which is now advertised all over the place, but most film schools you go and you’re on a Bolex [a low-grade camera] for the first two years. You’re not getting access to any of the good equipment until you’re a graduate student and this school was offering, here, you’ll come and in the first few weeks you’ll be cutting stuff on an Avid, so it was a new exciting prospect to be able to use the same stuff that real filmmakers were using.
I went there and spent time with my father again and got to know him slightly, since I hadn’t really spent time with him since I was a kid. Then right after I graduated from Full Sail, literally the next day I packed up my car and drove to LA, not knowing anyone there. I started working small production jobs on mostly independent films as a [production assistant] and boom operator. I wrote a script that was the quarter finalist in the Nicholl Fellowship. Then I met a producer named John Daly, who produced the first “Terminator” movie and “Platoon” and “The Last Emperor,” among other movies. He brought me on as a basically as a reader, which was great. I was just reading scripts left and right and occasionally, he would throw a few rewriting jobs my way. I had option to script, which was in development for five years and never got past that stage. Then, shortly around that time, I wrote [“Escape From Tomorrow”]. That’s why we’re here today.