Unofficial Disney: Interview With Dark Side of Disney Director Philip Swift

Today we continue our series in Unofficial Disney with an interview with Philip Swift. Philip released a documentary on Celebration, Florida in 2012 called, “The Bubble.” His film chronicles the evolution of the city built during Michael Eisner’s reign as CEO of the Walt Disney Company and how it’s far from the utopian paradise it may seem to outsiders.


Philip’s latest project is currently seeking funding from Kickstarter. Swift will be creating a film adaptation of Leonard Kinsey’s best-selling book, “The Dark Side of Disney.” I got a chance to chat with Philip about the project and some of the answers are quite surprising. Enjoy!

Copyright The Bubble

Copyright The Bubble

Prior to directing “The Bubble”, what was your background?

I grew up in Akron, OH and started making movies at the age of 13.  Before that, I wanted to be a toaster, because I thought they were magic, and then an animator and comic book artist, but I quickly learned I had no talent at illustrating.  Then, when I was 13, my grandparents bought me a video camera and I never looked back.


My friends and I made over a hundred movies between the years of 1993 and 2005.  One of the biggest projects that a small group of us did during our senior year of high school was that we set out to make a feature-length film.  We started in the fall of 1997 and would shoot whenever we could. Six months later we had finished the film and it slowly spread throughout Northeast Ohio.  It’s interesting to see how some of the dialog from the film has spread its way into the vocabulary of the area.  It’s not that common, but every now and then you’ll hear someone drop a line from the film, and that blows my mind.


That film, “Dear Mothman,” is a pretty ridiculous film, but I am still impressed that we were able to complete it as teenagers.


We continued to make films, but production slowed down as we went on to college and other adult adventures.  I moved around a lot and eventually moved to New York City in 2006 to go to art school and finally validate my love for filmmaking by getting a degree.  I quickly learned that making a movie in New York City is quite different than making a movie in Akron, OH.  The biggest challenge?  Money.  It’s amazing how quickly the budget goes up when you’re trying to make a film, not only on a professional level, but also in NYC.  Because of that, I made a conscious decision to transition from narrative filmmaking to documentary.  This happened to occur around the tenth anniversary of “Dear Mothman,” so I decided to head back to Akron and interview my friends about the creation of that movie.  However, one big thing had changed since I left Ohio…


In 2004, one of the main stars of “Dear Mothman,” and one of my best friends, Steve Caynon, lost a three-year battle with Leukemia.  So when I started interviewing my friends about the 10th anniversary of “Dear Mothman,” the obvious thing that kept popping up was the appearance of Steve in all those old movies and his absence from our current lives.


Those interviews became my first documentary, a short film called, “Sincerely, P.V. Reese, the title being a reference to a mysterious character from “Dear Mothman.” “P.V. Reese” went on to be shortlisted for the Vimeo Awards in 2010 and was the opening-night selection of the Akron Film Festival that year.


When I’m not making films, I teach filmmaking in public schools throughout New York City as a member of the Tribeca Film Institute and through another organization, Young Audiences.


Why the interest in Disney and specifically the town of Celebration?


When I was considering a subject for my first feature length documentary, the reports started to come out about the first murder in the Disney-built town of Celebration, FL.  I had driven through the town with my mom in 1994 when it was being built, but hadn’t thought about it since.  Soon after the murder, a British newspaper published a story about a supposed swingers scene in the town, and after reading that I was hooked.  What could make for a better subject then murder, sex and Disney?


I was further compelled to make the film because I couldn’t find any simple resource about what the town was really like.  I read a couple of books about Celebration, but they were written by New York Times reporters or college professors.  I wanted to hear the story of the town from the residents, and that’s what started the whole process of making my first feature, “The Bubble – A Documentary Film About Celebration, Florida.


Beyond that, I grew up going to Walt Disney World with my mom.  We would go almost every year, sometimes multiple times in one year.  To this day, my mom still has an annual pass and goes several times a year, even though she still lives in Ohio.


Personally, I have nothing against Disney, I love the parks and everything, but I am always intrigued by the imperfections in things.  I guess that’s what keeps me looking back at them as a subject for my current work.  Disney puts on this facade of childlike wonder and fascination, but at the end of the day they’re just as fragile and human as everything else.  It’s that fragility that I find very interesting.

Copyright The Bubble

Copyright The Bubble

What did you find to be the most surprising thing you learned while making “The Bubble?”


First, it had to be the fact that the town is really not that weird as some people would like you to think it is.  At the end of the day, it’s just another small town where life goes on like anywhere else.  Murder and sex?  I live in New York City where it happens, probably every second.  The only difference with Celebration, of course, is the Disney factor.


My wife came with me for the first trip I took to the town and when we would leave interviews at residents’ houses, there was sometimes this silence between us.  Eventually one of us would hesitantly say, “You know what?  This place isn’t so bad, I could live here…” and the other would agree, “Yeah, I know!” It shouldn’t have been, but that was really surprising to me.

Dark Side of Disney Documentary

Currently you are trying to fund another documentary called, “The Dark Side of Disney,” which plans to expose some of the things the mouse doesn’t want guests to see. What made you want to attempt this?


When I was doing research for “The Bubble,” I came across Leonard Kinsey’s travel guide, The Dark Side of Disney and I found it really entertaining.  I kept going back to it and re-reading some of the funnier parts with the idea in the back of my mind that I would definitely want to try out some of the tips and tricks on my next trip to WDW.


When I was done with “The Bubble,” I sent Leonard a copy because I thought he might like it.  He did, and we started a little back and forth correspondence that eventually led to me pitching him the idea of the DSoD documentary.


The idea was simple; myself and some other filmmaking colleagues would look at the book as a series of challenges in order to investigate the plausibility of the tips and tricks in it.  However, as a filmmaker, I knew that wasn’t enough to build a whole film on, so I also pitched to Leonard the idea of interviewing “Expert Darksiders,” who have taken their Disney obsessions to the next level.


What this allows us to do is analyze the “dark side” from two different perspectives, the first and third-person.  First person by investigating the book and third by examining what obsession does to some fans.  One excerpt from the film that you can see on the Kickstarter page features my mom talking about the time we scattered my grandmother’s ashes at the Magic Kingdom.  I think it’s a great showcase of the in-depth, emotional interviews that we’re hoping to conduct with the fans we’ll be interviewing for the film.


The world famous Hoot Gibson is on board to be interviewed for the film.  For those who may not know him, Hoot has over 20 years of experience as a “Disney Adventurer” or someone who’s obsession as pushed him to peek behind the curtains of many of Walt Disney World’s attractions.  He and his partner, Chief, have documented behind the scenes of everything from Splash Mountain to Horizons.  Through interviewing Hoot, we hope to further understand more of the why and less of the how, if you know what I mean.

Dark Side of Disney Documentary

Leonard Kinsey has said that you are “nuts” for even attempting to do this and can’t in good conscience give you his blessing, what are your thoughts on that?


Of course Leonard can’t publicly endorse actions that could be perceived as “illegal”, but let me set a few things straight.  First, I’d like to quote Leonard from a recent blog post he did on the Dark Side of Disney website: “After a lot of thought, I decided to give Philip the go-ahead for the film. I have NO financial stake in it and I absolutely do not condone any backstage shenanigans or illegal activities that he and his crew might engage in. But, I’m VERY interested in seeing how the whole project turns out. I truly believe that Philip is the real deal, and that he’ll handle the subject matter professionally and will treat the parks, Guests and CMs with the respect they deserve.”


I present that to show that while, yes, Leonard does not condone what we’re planning, he does support it.


Second, I cannot emphasize enough that what I’m looking to do is a documentary investigation of the tips and tricks presented in Leonard’s book.  This does not necessarily mean that I am going to be sneaking into the utilidoors or anything like that.  In fact, the utilidoors are mainly referenced in Leonard’s book through an anecdotal story at the end of the book, not in the tips and tricks main content.


When I interviewed Leonard back in February, the last question I asked him was to give me one really good tip to end the interview with.  I expected something about where to smoke weed or how to get a free meal or something, but without hesitation he responded with the need for me to respect the fact that everyone at the park is there to have a good time.  Some people save their whole lives and come from across the globe to WDW, and if I did anything to jeopardize those peoples’ vacations, then I would have failed.  That’s the ultimate takeaway from Leonard and his book.


Copyright Bamboo Forest Publishing

Copyright Bamboo Forest Publishing

What exactly are you hoping to cover in the Dark Side of Disney documentary that wasn’t covered in the book?


Less than half of the film will be that investigation of the book, the majority is really going to focus on the interviews and experiences of those “expert darksiders” I already mentioned.


While we will be examining the how when we’re in the park, the park that personally excites me more as a filmmaker is how we’ll be examining the why through those interviews.


Also, like I already said, the main goal is to create a documentary, which means that we’ll be telling a story.  The film will not just be some goof balls running around the park and pushing the boundaries.  Again, I recommend people watch the excerpt from the film featuring my mom, then they’ll see what we hope to cover beyond the book.  Here’s a link:

Philip Swift and Mom

Philip Swift and Mom

You said in your Kickstarter promo that you plan to shave your beard off and dress as a normal tourist and film yourself doing “some stuff”, care to elaborate?


There’s a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor with all of this, just as there is in the book.  “Some stuff” simply refers to what’s in the book.  There are no secrets here, Leonard’s already written it all down.

Even the idea of going in “undercover” is something that I found to be completely unnecessary when filming with my mom in the park last month.  I went in with a Canon 7D DSLR with a Zoom H4N audio recorder on top of it, filmed interviews with my mom in front of the castle, on the WedWay Peoplemover, at the spot where we had scattered my grandmother’s ashes, and continued to film all over the park.  No one, not once, even questioned for a second what we were doing.


Also, what we’re doing is exponentially less of a risk than what the makers of “Escape from Tomorrow” did.  That film is a narrative film where they had multiple cameras, actors with lines to deliver and marks to hit, not a single permit for any of it, and now you can walk into a Best Buy and buy that movie on DVD.

Leonard Kinsey (Left) and Philip Swift (Right)

Leonard Kinsey (Left) and Philip Swift (Right)

Assuming you get the funding needed for this project and it moves forward and you get to film the “Dark Side of Disney,” are you prepared to get trespassed from the property?


Everyone seems so scared at the possibility of me getting banned, but I think it’s because they’re projecting their own fears.


However, if I do get trespassed and I am banned from the park, something that I don’t want to happen because it would break my mom’s heart, it would not be a dead end for the film.  Again, what I’m looking to make is a documentary film, and getting banned would just add another layer to the story of the film.


What is the banning process like?  What is the appeal process like?  How do they enforce the ban?  If I’m banned from WDW, does that apply to Disneyland?  To Paris?  Tokyo?  Shanghai?  All of these questions and many more would just enhance the story of the film.


I cannot emphasize enough that it is not my intention to get banned, seriously would kill my mom, but it would just enhance the film if it did happen.  Also, keep in mind that filmmaking is a collaborative medium.  If I get banned and thrown out of the park, doesn’t mean I can’t send the rest of my crew in while I’ll kick my feet up by the pool with a pina colada.

Philip Swift

There are probably Disney fans reading this who feel that you shouldn’t be exposing the “underbelly” of the mouse and snooping around in places that you shouldn’t, what do you have to say to them knowing you will probably piss some people off?


Every film ever made is not for everybody.  I really like horror films, my wife does not, so we don’t watch horror films together.  I don’t force her to watch them, I have friends that I can watch them with, and my wife and I watch other movies together.


If some Disney fans feel I shouldn’t be doing this, then the movie’s not for them and my intention is not to piss anybody off by making this movie.  The simple fact is that this movie is going to be made and if you disagree with it, then don’t watch it.  It’s really that easy.

Copyright Dark Side of Disney Documentary

Copyright Dark Side of Disney Documentary

Knowing that the Walt Disney Company isn’t kosher with it and being a Disney fan yourself, do you feel any guilt about doing this?


Someone once told me, in reference to documentary filmmaking: Make a film about something that YOU are interested in, make a film that YOU want to see.  That’s what I’m doing; I’m pursuing a story that I want to hear because I think it will be informative and entertaining.  If I felt guilty, I wouldn’t do it.


Granted, you are just a guy looking to get some “cool/unique” footage. However, let’s say someone sees the movie of you poking around backstage and it inspires them to actually do damage to Disney property. Or even worse, someone like a terrorist could use it to help them gain access to genuinely harm people. What are your thoughts on that?


I lived in Pittsburgh in 2004 and while there I was taking this 8mm film class.  For the final project, I wanted to make this short film about a guy who’s trying to take the bus, but he keeps getting thwarted by stupid little things.  A simple, kind of dumb idea, but that’s what we did.  In Pittsburgh, they have these special kinds of highways that are just for some of the buses, and for one scene my friend was supposed to be looking at the map at one of the stops on this special highway.


While we were filming there, this police van rolls up and asks why we’re filming the map.  I explain that we’re student filmmakers, I’m filming my friend for this project, and that we’re almost done.  There’s no one else there, just me and my friend, we have no tripod or anything, so we’re in the clear as far as permits or anything are concerned.  The cops told me that if I was filming the map, then they would have to confiscate my camera, and when I inquired as to why that was, the cop says, “Because the footage might end up on the internet and then something bad could happen.”


Seems strange to me, so I respond, “So, you’re telling me that there’s no Pittsburgh bus maps on the internet?”


The cops stared at me, eyes shielded by mirrored aviators, and said, “We’ll be back in five minutes.  If you’re still here that camera is ours”.  They drove off. We filmed the scene and then left.


So, I ask anyone reading this now that might be concerned about possible backstage footage I may get influencing someone to do something bad, simply google any number of different things, “utilidoors”, “Disney backstage”, behind the scenes at the Magic Kingdom,” whatever they can think of.


I’m too late, it’s already done.  The secrets out!  That’s way I, one more time, cannot emphasize enough that it is not our goal with this film to break any laws or tear down any curtains.  Some laws may get bent, we may peek behind a curtain or two, but that’s not what is going to make this film good.  It’s the why and not the how that I hope to examine that will make this film worthwhile.


Many thanks to Philip for taking the time to chat with me. Make sure to follow Theme Park University on Twitter and take a few moments to like our Facebook Page!!

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