The Trippiest Place on Earth: ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW’s Roy Abramsohn
by Dan Casey on October 10, 2013
After it made its debut at Sundance last year, director Randy Moore’s Escape From Tomorrow set the blogosphere on fire like so many dresses worn by Katniss Everdeen. Terrible similes aside, the final product is a true feat of filmmaking ingenuity, careful craftsmanship, and precision planning. Approximately 75% of the film was shot on location in the parks, completely unauthorized and unlicensed, with actors wearing personal audio recorders in addition to their lav mics and communicating with the production team via two-way radio and earpieces. If it sounds like they’re undercover agents in a spy flick, you’re not that far off the mark. To go deeper into the insane world of Escape From Tomorrow and its, shall we say, unconventional shooting structure, I caught up with the film’s star Roy Abramsohn, for whom the film was something of a big break.
When accepting a role like this on a project that is guerilla and covert by nature, one has to imagine a certain amount of trepidation on the part of the actor. What if this never gets seen? Will Disney’s army of litigators put the kibosh on Escape From Tomorrow before it can escape into theaters? “I always had that thought in my head,” said Abramsohn, “that this is probably never going to see the light of day.” Still, Abramsohn soldiered on, explaining with a laugh that, “At the same time, when someone offers you the lead in a film — I’ve been in L.A. since 1991, and it’s very hard to get the lead in a film.”
To help him make the decision, the actor looked to Michael Caine for career advice. A self-professed “big Michael Caine fan”, Roy recalled a piece of particularly Caine-ian wisdom: “As long as you’re the lead in it, do the movie.” Abramsohn explained, “That’s why he did a lot of crappy movies, but he was always the lead in the crappy movies. There’s a film mentioned, I think it was about bees, that he was in once— The Swarm, or something — if it had a great location — I remember hearing him talk, ‘Open on casino, Monte Carlo, Summer — I would take that role! If it says Open on Arctic, blasting snow, I would not do that role.’” Knowing that he would be in Disney World or in Disneyland, and coupled with the fact that he would be getting paid for his work on this “fascinating, weird script” whether or not it made it to the big screen, made the decision a no-brainer for Abramsohn, who was living off of unemployment checks when he landed the part.
“I did years and years of regional theater, and I left L.A. the last time so I could go and do regional theater, because I’d rather get paid that, than to have to wait for the phone to ring,” said Abramsohn. The role really resonated with Abramsohn, a dad himself, thanks in part to its “strange art film” qualities. Director Randy Moore thinks of Escape From Tomorrow as more of a black comedy, which is how Abramsohn first read the role. “It was the kind of thing Ben Stiller would do. I’m the guy that all the shit happens to. You’re just watching: ‘How does this guy get out of all this shit that’s happening?’” Unlike a certain New York Times reviewer that Abramsohn mentioned, we won’t spoil how it goes down here.
The film is a harrowing experience, as it taps into some deep-seated truths about family vacations and the effects of constant, pre-packaged entertainment, presenting us with what starts out as likable characters who slowly act worse and worse as the Disney experience, their imaginations and subversive visions take their toll on them, especially Abramsohn’s character, Jim White, the put upon father who loses his job and tries to find meaning and fulfillment in his rapidly deteriorating family getaway.
It took Abramsohn a few viewings of the film for the title’s meaning to sink in. “This movie is about how he escapes his tomorrow. It isn’t just escaping from Tomorrowland; it’s escaping from an unhappy life he’s living,” he explains. Yet there’s more to it than one dad having a really lousy family vacation. “I really think it’s about loss. I think it’s about how life is so short, and he has lost his youth, and I think when he’s following those girls around — yes, they’re young; yes, it’s wrong — but I think he sees purity and youth and sexuality, and that’s all gone for him.” For many couples, real and fictional, Disney in all its prepackaged, tidy glory is a means through which some try to recapture that youth that they feel is missing.
However, much like in Escape From Tomorrow, there is a darker side to why people are attracted to Disney. In response to one scene where Jim tries to make out with his wife on a ride and gets rebuked, Abramsohn noted that, “At Ebertfest, this woman that used to work at Disney came up to me and told me, ‘You would be shocked at how many people do things on those rides!’” It sounds gross, but it actually kind of makes sense. As she explained to Abramsohn, “these families come from the Midwest, they have their fun at Disney World or Disneyland, but they’re all in the same room. They’re not getting suites because they don’t have the money, so they get a room, and the father can’t do anything at night because the kids are in the other bed, you know, and so they get on the ride, and it kind of opens the door for the father to make a move.” The moral of the story? Never take a black light on Space Mountain.
The last day of a family vacation and days of sexual frustration are enough to melt anyone’s brain, but visual hallucinations of monstrous faces on It’s a Small World, decapitations on rollercoasters, and beautiful flying naked women on Soarin’ take the trip from exhausting to David Lynchian in short order. Yet, there is a message behind the madness, one which the Sundance program guide nicely summarized as the “terror of ubiquitous entertainment.”
For Abramsohn, this was a theme that strongly resonated with him. “What’s interesting is that Disney is all about imagination, but having to go on all these rides, they’re kind of doing your imagining for you.” The actor elaborated, “You’re not really using your imagination, you’re buying into theirs, which is a beautiful… they have some fantastic imaginings, you know. So I’m kind of torn, because some of that stuff is amazing.” Nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than in Epcot Center, Disney’s sanitized version of a trip around the world, in which park goers travel from section to section themed after different countries to experience exhibits based on the country’s culture and try “traditional foods.”
This cultural whitewashing didn’t escape Abramsohn’s gaze: “I can’t forget, I was in the Mexico part, and it was like,’Wow, this is how Americans who don’t want to go to Mexico experience Mexico…. They don’t want the kidnapping, the dirt, the crime, the poverty, the begging — they don’t want any of that, so they can go to Mexico at Disney World and ride around in a big scooter like that fat guy does in the movie, and then you’re done, you can go to Japan.” Abramsohn understands the appeal, but they are pale imitations, nothing that “they’re kind of sanitized versions of the actual countries you go to.”
Sanitized or not, Epcot Center has long been a bastion of hope amongst weary parents worn down by Odyssean marches through park after park thanks, in part, to the fact that it serves alcohol. One of Abramsohn’s strangest on set experiences happened in the Epcot’s German beer hall. In a particularly memorable scene, Jim begins coping with his situation by getting liquored up at dinner time. Abramsohn recalls, “I’d get up, and I was acting drunk at the table, and the waitresses could see that I was drunk, but they didn’t know I was an actor.” Abramsohn continued, “Then I’d get up, and occasionally I’d say something like, ‘Deutschland uber alles,’ and I’d raise my hand in kind of a Nazi salute, and my AD would come over and say, ‘Hey, no Nazi stuff!’”
What seemed like a bit of innocent improv quickly turned to a sobering realization as the reality of Abramsohn’s situation set in. “I was doing stuff like that because I thought it would be funny. There’s one other little bit where I would do stuff, and I would dance with the waitress, and my wife was arguing with me, so there were moments where it was kind of like I was on the edge. And then you have to realize, whoa, we could get kicked out of here!” And when the director had paid to fly down the crew, the actors and, in some cases, their families and put them up in a fancy hotel, the last thing you want to do is be “that guy” who gets the entire production shut down.
Except there was one time where that was exactly what almost happened — the cast caught the notice of a particularly eagle-eyed security guard who caught them entering the park, exiting, then re-entering in short order, while they were being filmed the entire time. To preserve the thrills and chills of the tale, here’s Roy’s story verbatim, so please prepare your bodies for a wall of text:
“So we go into Disneyland that day — it was early morning, I remember — and the camera guys had gone in; we were going to do the shot, which is not in the movie anymore. It’s a shot of the family entering the theme park. There was a weird moment, I believe, in that scene — it’s cut now, maybe it’ll be in some extra — of the boy in the movie looking up at the guy in the turnstile, and they give each other a look. Now I don’t know how they were going to do the guy in the turnstile, because that would have to be an employee of Disney, but they were going to get the shot of the boy looking up at this guy, and then this guy looks down at him, and gives him a ‘you’re the anointed, imaginative one’ look. You know what I mean? Here’s this boy, here’s my son, who gets Buzz Lightyear — there was a connection early on that’s not in the film anymore, between Disney and my son. I kind of wish they had left it in, because it almost made things clearer to me.
“So this is the shot, we go in — the family entering the park for the first time. So we go in — me, my movie wife, my movie kid — and then a PA walks up to me and goes, ‘OK, go back, do it again, make sure you’re in this order when you come in.’ Sometimes we were out of order — they wanted the shot a certain way. So he whispered to us, ‘Go back out.’ There weren’t that many people around, and we go back out, and I come back in, and all of a sudden a security guard watches me after we’ve gone through the turnstile. He says, ‘Excuse me sir, can you come here a second?’
“So me and my wife in the movie and the two kids, and he says, ‘Why did you enter the park twice in seven minutes? Why did you leave and come back in?’ He had a big smile on his face – ‘Hi! How are you?! Can I ask you a question?’ – you know that Disney smile? Always friendly! So he goes, ‘Why did you go back out?’ So I said the only thing I could think of, ‘Well, I left my sunscreen out there, so I had to go back and put sunscreen on the kids.’ He goes, ‘Oh, OK.’ And he gave me a look, like he wasn’t really buying it that much.
“And then he said, ‘Are you a celebrity, sir?’ And I said, ‘Celebrity? Why would you say I’m a celebrity? Honey, he thinks I’m a celebrity — isn’t that funny? Why?’ And he said, ‘Well, there’s paparazzi that are taking pictures of you.’ And it was the camera guys. And I look up, I look around really fast, and these guys had vaporized. They were gone. Wherever they were, they were not there.
“So he goes, ‘Come with me.’ And we led us inside the park at Disneyland, and there’s a kind of tunnel there on the left, and then you’re at Walt’s fire house — Walt Disney actually stayed at this fire house, it looks like a little fire house — right at the entrance, right where the Monorail goes over — not the Monorail, the train that goes around the park. And we stood out — he had as stand there at the entrance point, and he said, ‘I want you to wait here.’ And I realized, ‘Oh, shoot, I have the sound equipment.’ And then I realized that I had our IDs, which are all different last names — these are obviously not my kids.
“One kid’s last name is Rodriguez — my daughter in the movie’s last name is Rodriguez. That’s not going to jive with Abramsohn. And my wife, too — different last name. That’s how we have to get our IDs. So what am I going to do next? He was looking around for the camera men, to see where they went, and then other security people came over to join him, and he said ‘I want you to wait right here.’ So I said, ‘My son needs to use the restroom — can I just use the restroom?’
“So we went in the restroom and I took off our sound equipment, because I realized we need that, and I was maybe going to throw it away, and I realized, uh-oh! There could be a week of sound on this! I’m throwing away half the movie — I didn’t know, because we were near the end of the shooting schedule, so I put it in my socks — his tape recorder and my tape recorder, I put in my big dad, white tube socks that guys wear. Then we walked out, and as I walked out, his back was to me, and it all happened very fast. The PA walked by me and he goes — this PA walked by me very fast, like in a spy movie, and without looking at me, going ‘Go to the parking lot, get in the production van; go to the parking lot, get in the production van.’ He walked right by me, saying that. So I was like, ‘OK.’
“So then I saw Elena [Schuber], who plays my wife in the movie, with the girl, and then there was a parade that passed by, a bunch of characters walked by, Goofy and others, dancing around, and it was kind of distracting, and they were kind of between me and the guy — the security guy that told me to wait, so I looked over at Elena, and I gave her a nod, and I’m like, ‘Let’s go. Get out of the park now — get out, follow me!’ So we walked to the turnstiles, very fast, and as soon as we hit the outside of the turnstiles, we just ran with the kids! We were flying in the air — we were holding them, they were off the ground, we were running to the production van as fast as we could. We got in the van, and then Randy somehow was in the van — Randy had got out, I guess — and the photographers were not. They went inside the park, I think. I don’t know — I’ve got to ask them what happened that day. But we got in the van and we sped away, and I feel like I saw some Disney security — I know I did — I saw some guy writing down the license plate number of the van as we sped away.
“He looked like a guy in a ripped T-shirt — he was just like a gardener or something, and then I saw him talking into an ear piece, putting his finger up to his ear and talking while he was writing down the license plate number. And Randy goes — we had just checked in, we had the hotel rooms for the whole weekend, the Sheraton or wherever we were staying, and it was expensive — we had something like eight rooms—he had two camera guys, he had props and wardrobe room, him, me and my family, the mothers of the kids — and he said ‘Everyone is going to check out and go home right now. We’ll go back to L.A., we’ll figure out another way to do these shots on green screen or something.’ I was like, ‘Can I stay and use the hot tub?’ He said ‘NO! Go home. Don’t stick around.’ [laughs]“
The best part? The segment was cut from the final film. All of that terror and paranoia and it wound up on the cutting room floor. So it goes in the world of guerilla filmmaking. Add that to the pressure of trying to convey these otherworldly, mindbending moments of horror, both human and otherwise, and you have a compelling narrative that is equal parts riveting and full body cringe-inducing.
As Disney’s 1987 commercial tells us, the next logical step after a major triumph – like, say, completing a film – is to go to Disneyland, but does that hold up if you’ve just spent months of your life in the House of Mouse’s parks, taking Ethan Hunt-style evasive maneuvers to evade security, skulking around theme parks for hours on end and dealing with some serious black ops plainclothes agents? Is Abramsohn on their most wanted list or something? Is his picture up on the wall? ”You know, I’ve wondered if that would happen. I have not been back,” he confessed.
Abramsohn didn’t grow up immersed in the world of Disney’s theme parks. Sure, he grew up watching Disney films on TV, “back when there were three channels,” but when I spoke with the actor, he confessed, “I had only been to Disney World once in my life, kind of in the early ’70s, and I’d only been to Disneyland, before I shot this movie, one time.” And that one time at Disneyland wasn’t anything to write home about. “My kids were too young to go, because you can’t get on a lot of rides,” Abramsohn explained. “It really was a miserable day. I remember that day, my daughter had a really full diaper — it’s really not for little-little kids, you know?”
Anyone who has been on an extended family vacation, especially one that involves going to an amusement park for upwards of ten hours, can relate. For Abramsohn, the experience was “interminable.” As if waiting in lines for hours on end wasn’t enough, Roy’s most visceral moment of clarity occurred in the Disneyland restroom. “I remember saying to [my wife] as we changed my daughter’s diaper, ‘This is the most miserable place on Earth, and I am never coming back.’ That is an honest story. I remember just like — we had to throw away her clothes, we were sniping at each other — it made the sniping in the movie look tame!” And, as anyone who has seen Escape From Tomorrow will tell you, that is really saying something.
Escape From Tomorrow is in select theaters on October 11. Have you seen the film? What do you think? Let us know in the comments below or reach out to me directly on Twitter!