(CNN) — Princesses transformed into ghouls. Psychedelic teacup rides. Simulated suicide. The world’s most famous theme park turned into a vomitorium.
And you thought this was the happiest place on earth.
In “Escape From Tomorrow,” the most buzzed-about movie out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, director Randall Moore presents Disney World as a dystopian hellscape and uses it as the backdrop for a descent into madness. Jim White (Roy Abramsohn) is on holiday with his wife and two children when he learns he’s been fired from his job. As he reels from that news, his mental state progressively worsens as he and his family navigate the park.
Shot in black and white, Disney’s “attractions” become nightmarish specters as perceived by White’s unstable mind.
Now The Walt Disney Co. is weighing whether to quash the film or to let it slide — not so much because of the disturbing imagery, but rather the way Moore made his movie. In an audacious act of filmmaking, he shot it almost entirely at Disney World and Disneyland — all without Disney’s knowledge or permission.
After a screening of the film at Sundance, Moore answered questions from an enthusiastic audience, hinting at how he pulled off his cinematic subterfuge.
Avoiding detection by Disney security took “a lot of planning,” he said. “We were careful and cautious and tried not to draw too much attention to ourselves. But planning was the main thing.”
Abramsohn said shooting in such a stealthy fashion “was scary. … It was exciting and fun.”
In a “director’s statement” included in press materials for the film, Moore describes the origins of his film:
“Heavily influenced by various strange outings I endured as a boy with my father — who at the time lived in Orlando, Florida — ‘Escape From Tomorrow’ is my personal attempt to make sense of what felt like a very artificial childhood, brought on by our cultural obsession with these fake, manufactured worlds of so-called fantasy.”
He adds, “I think the film is really about defining the word ‘escape’ and how so many American households seek it out in a yearly pilgrimage to a materialistic Mecca.”
It’s a small, small dysfunctional world after all, in Moore’s depiction.
The director said he succeeded in making his film without tipping off Disney largely because of advances in camera technology. It’s now possible to shoot high-quality video with what looks like, to the uncritical eye, a digital SLR camera.
“(Digital) SLR’s had just hit the market at that point,” Moore said. “So we had the Canon 5D Mark II we could bring into the park and look like a tourist.”
Moore shot for 10 days at the Disney parks in Orlando, and for two weeks at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. (He filmed additional scenes off Disney property on a soundstage in Los Angeles and at a hotel in the LA area.)
His crew and actors went unnoticed by Disney, until near the end of filming.
“We almost got caught once. … We were shooting in the entrance of the park and we had to do a few takes and basically they thought our team was just paparazzi and we were shooting a famous family (entering the park).”
Moore said Disney security pulled his actors aside and demanded to know why they had entered and then re-entered the park within a seven-minute period.
He said his crew took advantage of a passing parade to scatter while Abramsohn and his co-star, Elena Schuber, struggled to explain themselves.
Abramsohn said he felt like he was “acting for his life.” He said he told Disney security he and his “family” entered and then quickly left the park because they needed to reapply sunscreen.
While his interrogator was temporarily distracted, he hid his microphone and mini tape-recorder — used to record dialogue — in his sock. If that had been discovered, the game would have been up.
“It was very scary that day,” Abramsohn admitted.
Although Moore and company escaped Disney’s notice then, the company now knows about them all too well.
At the Sundance Q&A, an audience member claimed, “Disney is furious and they are going to sue.”
That may or may not be true. Disney told CNN “(We) are aware of the film” but “are not commenting at this time.”
Moore seems resigned to a possible lawsuit from Disney that might keep the film from ever being seen by the wider public, but he described “Escape From Tomorrow” as a passion project that he could not step away from, despite the legal risks.
“It started off really small and it just kind of snowballed,” he said. “I became obsessed. And at one point there was no turning back.”
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