When the trailer for the upcoming movie, Willy’s Wonderland, was released on January 15th, horror fans around the world screeched a loud “yeeeeesssssss!” that was followed by a collective “what the fuck did I just see?!” The action/horror/comedy would have already been plenty fun, bizarre, and bat shit crazy based solely on its premise: a man is locked inside a family entertainment center and is forced to do combat with haunted animatronic Chuck E. Cheese-like singing mascots, but the filmmakers behind Willy’s Wonderland brought way more to the table than just that. They topped off their wildly over-the-top concoction with what would seem to be the perfect icing-on-the-cake ingredient for such an audacious film: Nicolas Cage!
Cage, who once appeared in such highly-respected films as Rumble Fish, Raising Arizona, and Moonstruck and also took home an Oscar for his performance in Leaving Las Vegas, has become the go-to actor for bat shit crazy films (and I mean that in the best way possible) in the last fifteen years. (It would appear to have been the one-two punch of awfulness that was the Wicker Man remake and Ghost Rider that changed his career trajectory.) He has become the punchline of a joke for many who see him as a guy who won’t turn down a paycheck. (A recent Quora question read: “Has Nicolas Cage ever turned down a movie role?”) And while it’s true that Cage has appeared in his fair share of stinkers, he isn’t quite the joke that a lot of people seemingly need him to be. The truth is, he has appeared in a lot of ballsy films that have taken real risks over the last decade, as well as some that are very good (if not under-the-radar) efforts. (Drive Angry, Joe, Dog Eat Dog, Mom and Dad, Mandy, and Color Out of Space are standouts of the past decade.) Although none of us have seen it yet, Willy’s Wonderland seems poised to be a cult film at the very least (and perhaps something far better).
In anticipation of the February 12th release of the film on V.O.D., I sat down to speak with the film’s director, Kevin Lewis. Lewis was friendly, but he ducked a key question regarding an important aspect of the film. His secrecy coupled with the fact that screeners are not yet available may indicate that there are some crazy things in this film that are even crazier than what the trailer reveals.
By speaking to you, I’m actually getting points with my daughter, Jaiden, who is really excited to see the movie. [Laughs.] So thank you for that.
We’re both excited, honestly. I had already seen the trailer, and then she sent it to me and said, “Have you seen this? This looks like your kind of movie.”
That’s great. I’m glad to hear that you’re both pysched for it.
Okay, the trailer is out and the internet is abuzz about it. What’s your reaction to the excitement, and what do you think it is about this movie that has everyone so amped up?
I’m so happy that people dig the trailer and are looking forward to seeing this movie. I think with everything that’s going on with Covid and the pandemic and all the political unrest, I think we need a fun movie to just relax our brains. That might be something to it. Also, I was thinking about Covid and how we’re all in our homes being held up by this invisible bug and how we’re all scared to go out. And if you think about Willy’s… here comes Nic Cage and these dangerous demonic animatronics are running amok, and he’s not having any. I think in the subconscious, maybe, this is what we would like to do to Covid. [Laughs.]
Did you film during the pandemic?
No. We wrapped February 28, 2020. We went and shot in Georgia, and I got back March 1st. Then the pandemic hit, so we had to do post in the pandemic.
But you narrowly missed having to shoot in the middle of it or having to be shut down.
Thank God. It’s amazing.
You guys had a title change at one point. The film started its journey to screen as Wally’s Wonderland and was eventually changed to Willy’s Wonderland. Why the change?
We just liked Willy’s better at the end of the day. And Nic like Willy’s, so we just decided to change it at that point.
As you know, a lot of people on the internet are talking about the similarities between Willy’s Wonderland and Five Nights at Freddy’s. What would you say to the people who think your film is a rip-off?
I really had the idea to make this movie with a vintage ’80s feel, similar to movies like Magic and Dolls. That was kind of the vibe I was going for. And then you’ve got Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park. So I think dark animatronics is its own sub-genre now. I think they can coexist. One helps the other. I don’t think it’s an either or. Do you like Star Trek or Star Wars? You can like both. And this really goes back to ShowBiz Pizza and Chuck E. Cheese anyway, you know?
And let’s be honest, the animatronics at those places had an inherent creepiness anyway.
Exactly. And you know, you’ve got Freddy and you’ve got Pennywise the Clown… I think they all can coexist.
How did you initially become involved with this project?
A producing partner/friend of mine, Jeremy Davis, was the one that brought me the script. And G.O. Parsons wrote a great script. Jeremy optioned it and worked tirelessly on it for years. Every day. So he brought it to me and we worked on it. I got some artwork done and stuff like that, and then we took it to Nic. He was perfect for it.
What was your reaction when you read the script for the first time?
I thought it was great. It was unique and different, and I immediately saw it when I was reading it. You know, making movies is very hard, so you’ve got to be passionate about what you’re making. I think when I was reading the script, I just knew how to do it. It all clicked.
Was Nicolas Cage always the actor that you saw as your lead?
Absolutely. And he liked the script right off the bat. And he was the only one that we wanted.
I’ve heard that his character has no dialogue in the film, which is pretty daring. Is that right?
[Long pause.] Um, you have to see the movie.
So it’s a secret?
Yeah, you’ve got to see the movie.
Cage’s character seems kind of like his character in Drive Angry. Were you going for a Drive Angry sort of vibe?
I wanted to make a grindhouse movie that has kind of like a punk rock rave at two in the morning vibe.
Nicolas Cage has, in recent years, gained a kind of reputation for cheesiness. That’s obviously not always the case, but that reputation is there. But I think that actually works in your favor in the case of this film, which already has this wild in-your-face bat shit crazy theme. I wondered if you wanted to talk about that? I think he perfectly accompanies that. I mean that tagline, you could just say “Nicolas Cage fights animatronic characters,” and already you’ve got a hot product.
Yeah. That was the whole idea. Something like “Nic Cage versus Chuck E. Cheese.” You know, Nic is kind of a genre unto himself, right? He’s his own genre. I mean, he’s been such an amazing movie star all this time, but he’s also an amazing character actor. He just has it all, and he was a great partner to be with on this movie. We never disagreed. We saw eye-to-eye on everything.
Looking at him from afar these last few years, one gets the idea that he’s an eccentric guy. Things like his numerous public “Purple Rain” karaoke performances. So tell us, what is Nicolas Cage like as a person?
Just an amazing guy. Not only an amazing talent, but an amazing human being. I mean, he worked tirelessly, nonstop. He never complained. He would be on the set working on the stunts. He would be watching. Sometimes he wouldn’t even have a second team. He would just come in and do it. He was just an amazing partner.
Do you think he gets short shrift sometimes? Do you think he sometimes gets knocked undeservedly? I mean, here’s a guy who won an Oscar, and people give him shit all the time.
I know. Yeah. He has such a résumé, from his early work in Vampire’s Kiss to Valley Girl to the ’90s with The Rock and Leaving Las Vegas. Very few people have done the work Nic Cage has done. And now he’s having a resurgence with Mandy and Color Out of Space.
I think it’s interesting (and I never would have imagined at one time) that Nicolas Cage has become a name associated with horror. In the last few years he’s had a slew of them with Mom and Dad, Mandy, Color Out of Space, and now your film. He’s becoming a sort of Vincent Price in that way.
Vincent Price is a perfect analogy.
I’m curious, did he ever say anything to you about his thoughts on working in horror?
I know he loves Godzilla and the Universal monsters, so I think it’s a passion of his.
What are some of the difficulties that you faced while making this film? Every film has difficulties of some kind. What did this one have?
Well, it was a 20 day shoot, so that’s difficult enough. So I had to have everything pre-planned. Sometimes I had seven pages to shoot in one day. So I created a 70-page shot list called The Willy’s Bible, and I didn’t stray from that. It wasn’t a movie where we’d say, “Hey, what are we doing today?” Everything had to be precise, so it was very planned. I could only do like two takes because I had so many pages and setups to do. I had to move on. So that was the difficulty.
Someone’s going to see this film for the first time and they want to know what they should expect. What do you tell them?
A rollicking good time.
You mentioned characters like Freddy and Pennywise… If Willy’s Wonderland is successful, do you think we’ll see these characters again?
I would love that. I would love them to be in the horror lexicon. Willy and Siren Sara and Gus Gorilla. I think that would be great.