When Roy Abramsohn calls me for our interview, he’s 15 minutes early and in the middle of filming a yogurt commercial.
Hiding in the back of the studio and speaking in a near whisper, Abramsohn explains that he doesn’t want his current employer to know he’s the star of the controversial new indie film “Escape from Tomorrow,” and fears he’ll be cut from the ad if they find out.
“I may have to hang up and call you back,” he says. And he does hang up – three times.
To be fair, it’s hard to know how anyone (yogurt companies included) will react to “Escape from Tomorrow,” a fictional narrative that was secretly filmed without permission in the Walt Disney World and Disneyland theme parks. When the movie debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, critics proclaimed that it would never play a screen outside of Park City, Utah. There’s no way the notoriously protective Mouse House would allow an often tawdry film featuring footage of Disney rides, Disney characters and Disney employees (a.k.a. cast members) to play to the public, right?
“Everyone’s an armchair lawyer,” Abramsohn tells me. “The thrill is that they kept mum about it and they decided not to sue or take any action. Even though, legally, if they could or not according to fair use, that’s another question.”
Unbelievably, “Escape from Tomorrow” is now playing in limited theatrical release, and is available in living rooms across the country with XFINITY On Demand.
But be warned – this is not a family film. Abramsohn plays the film’s protagonist Jim White, an unhappily married father of two who gets tele-fired from his job on the last day of a family vacation at Walt Disney World. The story follows Jim as he parades his dysfunctional brood around the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT, and slowly loses his mind in the process.
In planning the guerilla-style production, writer-director Randy Moore and his cinematographer took several trips to the theme parks, plotting the entire movie and creating sun charts to optimize the use of natural light throughout the day.
“Randy grew up going to Orlando to visit his father, who was divorced,” Abramsohn tells me. “His dad would take him to Disney World all the time as a kid. This was Randy’s childhood, was going to Disney World. There’s a lot of dark stuff – well, with any divorce – and that was kind of a ray of hope.”
When it came time to film “Escape from Tomorrow,” Moore purchased annual park passes for the entire crew, including the moms of the two child actors. Disguised as average, every day parkgoers – using unassuming Canon digital cameras, wearing hidden microphones and reading the script on their iPhones – the crew slipped into the parks and began to stage their film amongst the public.
“We were in Disney World for 11 days, we were in Disneyland for 14 days and then we were on various, different sound stages and other locations,” Abramsohn says, explaining that several elaborate scenes were shot at Los Angeles hotel and in a studio against a green screen.
For weeks, Roy and his film family, played by actors Elena Schuber (wife), Katelynn Rodriguez (daughter) and Jack Dalton (son), rode attractions while two cameramen sat in adjacent cars to get the shots. In some cases, such as a scene in which Jim has his first hallucination on “It’s a Small World,” the crew was forced to ride an attraction more than a dozen times to get the scene just right.
“We rode that ride all day,” Abramsohn says, adding that producers obtained Fast Passes for the attraction ahead of time to speed up production. “I was on that ride from morning till night. It was a 12-hour day of just that ride. It was a long shoot and I remember getting tired of the song.”
The production was not without its close calls, and Abramsohn and his cohorts knew that one wrong move could expose their plot and sink the entire movie.
“You always know you’re trying not to get caught,” the actor says. “The hardest scenes were really in Germany [in EPCOT], where I was acting really drunk and we were arguing at the table. You don’t see the takes where I stood up and I was pretty loudly saying ‘Deutschland uber alles’ and putting my hand up in a Nazi salute. I would do stuff like that and the director would go, ‘Hey, don’t do that anymore.’ His big fear was if we got kicked out in the first few days, he’d have to tell everyone that, sorry, film’s not gonna happen. Go home.”
Despite the crew’s admitted deception, Abramsohn says the production of “Escape from Tomorrow” was never meant to be a “gotcha” aimed at the Happiest Place on Earth.
“I knew from day one this wasn’t about him punking Disneyland or punking Disney World,” he says. “I knew it never really had to do with that. And if someone’s seen the movie, you can tell that’s really not what it’s about. [Randy] says it was a story he felt he had to tell. It’s deep in his childhood. It’s a story he felt like he had to tell, and this was the only place he could tell it.”
As we finish our conversation, Abramsohn leaves the set of his commercial for the privacy of his car. He is the prototype of a struggling actor, moonlighting as a limo driver while auditioning with the horde of Hollywood hopefuls by day. And although he has appeared in TV series such as “Picket Fences,” “Diagnosis Murder,” “Medium” and “Weeds,” Roy ultimately waited more than 20 years to land a leading role in a film. And now, that high-profile performance threatens his yogurt commercials, not to mention any future projects with ABC, ESPN, Marvel or LucasFilm.
“I wish I had thought of that when I did this,” he says frankly. “The challenge of doing something this exciting kind of overrode all those things. Now, whether I’ll ever get cast on some kind of subsidiary of Disney some day or not, I don’t know.”
After all. It’s a small word.
“Escape from Tomorrow” is now available with XFINITY On Demand. Click here to begin the process of ordering at home.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.