Given the 2020 we just had to endure, audiences are crying out for some popcorn escapism, and what could be a better distraction than watching Nicolas Cage deliver an unhinged performance as an unnamed and mysterious janitor trapped in an amusement park where the animatronic residents have come to life with a thirst for blood?
That’s the bonkers premise behind Willy’s Wonderland, the R-rated horror comedy that hits VOD today. The majority of Cage’s career has been built on his on-camera eccentricities and commitment to going all-in on every role he plays, with this year shaping up to be his wildest ever thanks to supernatural thriller Prisoners of the Ghostland, self-aware action comedy The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent and the gonzo Willy’s Wonderland.
We recently spoke to director Kevin Lewis, making his first feature film since 2007 drama The Third Nail, and in our exclusive interview we had the chance to ask him about handling a concept as wild as Willy’s Wonderland without descending into self-parody, the experience of working with Nicolas Cage and just why you should make a point of catching the insane 80s throwback.
Check it out below, and enjoy?
Willy’s is your first film in a while, what was it that convinced you that you had to direct?
Kevin Lewis: G.O. Parsons wrote a great, fun script and the concept was just so out there. It was so unique and different, and when I read it I had to do it. It was just such a unique, fun story and I think we need some of that in this day and age. The script was great, and I immediately saw how I wanted to make the movie when I read it.
You described Willy’s as Pale Rider vs. Killer Klowns from Outer Space, which sounds like a difficult thing to pull off. Would that make the Janitor a lone gunslinger in the Clint Eastwood mode? And was it by coincidence or design that [Killer Klowns star] Grant Cramer ended up as part of the cast and working on the second unit?
Kevin Lewis: The idea of Nic being in gunslinger mode, a cowboy, definitely was intentional and the idea of Killer Klowns from Outer Space, you know, the creatures and stuff like that made sense. Having Grant part of the project was great, because he brought all of that experience as well, so the idea is like a Western turned on its head. Nic is kind of the gunslinger riding into town, so I thought it was the perfect analogy.
A few filmmakers have said that the way things are with COVID-19, it’s actually worked in their favor because it opened their projects up to a bigger audiences that they might not have found otherwise. Do you think Willy’s Wonderland might benefit in the long run from going straight to VOD when there’s not a lot of bigger titles in theaters to create competition, because the trailer makes it look as though you have to see it.
Kevin Lewis: Yeah, I think that there are pluses and minuses on everything. It’s interesting to me, because I was thinking about what’s going on with COVID-19 right now and how we’re all freaked out about this bug, and we’re all kind of locked in our homes worried and nervous, and here’s our movie. The Janitor comes in, he’s locked in with these creatures and they’re terrorizing, but he basically takes it into his own hands and takes control. I was thinking about that, and I think that might be deep in the psyche of what’s going on with COVID-19. That’s what we want to do, so I think that there might be something to that, with COVID-19, that we’re living in a fantasy world as we watch Willy’s. Taking control, taking our destiny in our hands like the Janitor does. I don’t know, I think there’s something to that, I’ve been thinking about that.
It’s definitely going to put people off Chuck E. Cheese for a while! Willy’s has a pretty wild concept, but is it easier to deal with something so outlandish when you’ve got Nicolas Cage in the lead? Because with a premise like that, fans are expecting a certain level from his performance that it looks like he’s going to deliver in a big way.
Kevin Lewis: I mean, Nic is fantastic in this movie, and I think that it’s such an outlandish concept, but I wanted everyone to play it straight. I didn’t want them to be winking at the camera and doing slapstick, like this thing is really happening. It’s funny, because as I would be shooting the movie they’re saying, ‘Is this too much? Is this too extreme?’. And I’m thinking, ‘It’s Nic Cage versus an animatronic weasel, so I can pretty much get away with anything!’. It’s a wild, fun adventure and it’s a hark back to the 80s movies. I love some of the cheesy movies of the 80s, and it’s got that flair. I wanted it to have an 80s vibe, because that’s what I grew up in, that’s my era.
Each of your films have been set in a different space, genre-wise. Is that a conscious decision on your part, or is it based on the material?
Kevin Lewis: I love all genres, so it’s kind of just what propels me to work hard on a script, or push it to make a movie. Making movies is very hard and difficult, so you’ve got to have a passion for the story you’re trying to tell.
Nic’s also credited as one of the producers through Saturn Films. He makes a lot of movies, but he doesn’t produce many of them as well, so how hands on was he in terms of shaping the story or was it a case of, ‘This is the script and off we go’?
Kevin Lewis: He was such a great team player, we saw the movie eye to eye, never one argument. He worked so hard on the film. He would do stunt work in the morning when he got to set, just an amazing partner on this picture, so he helped with everything because he loved the material so much. He got it, which was great.
Does that make it easier for you, when you’ve got a star and producer that’s on board with your vision and there’s not a lot of compromises that have to be made when you’re both in sync about how you want the final product to turn out?
Kevin Lewis: Absolutely. We would talk every night through email or text, I’d pitch him my ideas, and he was just such a great team player.
Everyone seems to have at least one Nicolas Cage story from their time working with him. Are there any moments or scenes that stick out from your time on Willy’s Wonderland?
Kevin Lewis: You know, one of my favorite things with what Nic did, was the first day of shooting, and I’ll never forget. He was doing some of the car stuff and after the first take he said, ‘We’re in it now’. And I just loved that spirit. Also, there was another thing, as he left set on the last day of shooting he said, ‘Good luck with your movie’. Because he knows that he’s the actor, and he’s going off to shoot another thing, with post-production and everything else going to be handled, and he had a say in that as well, but it was amazing he said ‘good luck with your movie’. He’s been around so long, and such a pro. Just fantastic to work with.
Is he definitely someone you’d like to work with again in the future?
Kevin Lewis: Absolutely.
Can you tell us anything about what you’ll be working on next?
Kevin Lewis: I’ve got two or three projects I’m working on at the same time, just developing them. I want to do more genre movies. I want to do more movies in the genre of Willy’s Wonderland, because I just think it’s a lot of fun. So yeah, I’ve got a couple of things going on that.
Based on how things have turned out over the last year, there’s definitely going to be an audience for this sort of broad, crazy genre movie. Audiences are looking out for escapism, now more than ever.
Kevin Lewis: I think it’s key that we have that, because we all need it with what’s going on the world, COVID-19 and everything. I think it’s good, we need a little brain check at the door and enjoy a popcorn movie.
How would you describer Willy’s Wonderland in your own words to convince people to check it out, if they might be on the fence about seeing it or might not know what it’s all about?
Kevin Lewis: It’s a roller-coaster, adventure, horror, fun ride, strap in the seatbelt and just go. Just check your brain at the door and have fun. Maybe it’ll bring you back to when you were a kid, going to Chuck E. Cheese and Showbiz Pizza. I remember Showbiz Pizza when I was young and went there for birthdays. It has a vintage feel, and I don’t think kids these days are going to have that any more, so for people my age and a little younger, it’ll bring them back to when they were a kid, but it’s just a roller-coaster fun popcorn thrill ride.
That concludes our interview with Kevin Lewis. Willy’s Wonderland is available on VOD from today.