‘Willy’s Wonderland’ Director Kevin Lewis on Making the First Cult Hit of 2021 – Exclusive Interview

What could be the first true cult hit of 2021, Willy’s Wonderland first caught the attention of horror fans upon its announcement two years ago. Nicolas Cage would produce and star in a film where he would face killer animatronics ala Five Nights at Freddy’s. Of course, this got everyone’s attention. Especially when Cage himself is in the middle of redefining his image to the general public. Arguably kicking off with his leading role in 2013’s Joe, this trajectory has now lead to unprecedented turns in incredible films like Mandy and Color Out of Space. 2021 isn’t slowing down for Cage with a handful of more films on the way, each sounding really f*cking bizarre in their own right, but director Kevin Lewis was lucky enough to start the fire.

Backed by a script from G.O. Parsons, Lewis put every skill from his indie career into the making of Willy’s. He gave all of himself into this movie (how could you not when working with Nicolas Cage and demon robots?) but as the film industry shut down due to a pandemic, things became bleak. How could such a niche horror find its place in the midst of adapting film releases under COVID-19? Not only that but in the weeks before Willy’s premiere, Lewis himself underwent another kind of battle with COVID-19, a more personal one that saw him holding on to life with a ventilator. Lewis was hospitalized with the deadly virus and practically faced death, but as he puts it himself, “I beat COVID like the nine-foot Orange Weasel and I am alive.”

Off the heels of his recovery, Lewis was faced with a new world – one that absolutely went wild for Willy’s. In a time when many didn’t have access to theaters, the film struck a peculiar chord at home, almost instantly leading social trends and becoming one of the top titles to rent on VOD. From the memes to the watch parties to the endless waves of fan art, people adore this Cage-fueled rodeo. Lewis was happy enough to talk Willy’s with us; we cover everything from the dedicated fans to what people seriously misunderstand about Nicolas Cage.

Kevin Lewis on the set of ‘Willy’s Wonderland’ courtesy of Kyle Kaplan
I have to say, the fan response to Willy’s Wonderland has been incredible. Have you gotten a chance to actually go online and see all the reactions, like the tons of fan art?

Kevin Lewis: Oh it’s amazing buddy. I’m a fanboy myself. I collect action figures and comic-books; Silver age, Bronze Age, man, I have the Kenner Star Wars figures. I collect from Sideshow and Hot Toys. I made this movie for the fans out there that are digging it, you know? Fans of 80s Horror and that vintage style. And yes, I’ve had a chance. It’s really been so inspiring and exciting that people are really digging the movie. It’s just great.

People made it go viral almost instantly. Goes to say that it feels like lightning in a bottle in the sense that everything is right where it should be: the music, the visuals, the performances. Did you know or feel this when making the movie?

Kevin Lewis: I really felt it when I read the script, and I felt like we had lightning in a bottle. When I read it, I saw everything you’re talking about. Jeremy Daniel Davis was the one who walked in the script from G.O. Parsons and brought it to me, and we partnered up and worked really hard on getting it made. We worked with a company that was close to making it but didn’t, then it was like, “Oh my gosh, will this movie ever get made?” There were so many ups and downs on the cycle of getting Willy to the screen.

When you pitch Nic Cage versus Chuck E. Cheese… that was the simple pitch, but I just knew that people would dig this movie. It just is what it is. It knows what it is and we’re very self-aware. It’s funny because sometimes you read some critic responses and they’re like, you have to have an arrow in your head to enjoy something. Well, I got a bunch of arrows in my head (laughs). This is a movie for movie lovers. It’s for geeks, pop culture fans, and all of us that just love cinema. Like I said, I grew up in the 80s with Sam Raimi. My favorite filmmakers are also Darren Aronofsky, Nicholas Winding Refn, Danny Boyle – these are the filmmakers that get me by.

I just wanted to make a fun, adventure romp; a check your brand at the door Gonzo movie. And I feel like we did it. On the set, everybody was so excited to be working on this movie, and to make it was a joy. Everybody would show up with smiles on their face at the beginning of the day, and they would leave with them at the end of the day. What a great crew we had, it was just exciting. We were all on the same page. Everybody saw the vision, it’s just great that it’s getting love. I went to a drive-in screening and to see people honking their horns at the right spot and flashing their lights. Wow, what a cool drive-in experience.

It’s unfortunate with theaters still being closed, because this really does feel like a Midnight movie to watch with a packed crowd.

Kevin Lewis: That was the deal, it was supposed to be like a Toronto Midnight Madness at the festival or a Comic-Con kind of thing. I was looking forward to slapping high fives with all the fans, talking about it, and just seeing the reactions. But, you know, the watch parties have been really cool. I’ve got four kids, two are teenagers and they’ve had like 30 friends and people on their watch parties and seeing that is just fantastic. I know it’s not the theater, but it’s what we got.

With the future looking a bit bright for theaters, I would still hope to eventually see this with a packed audience.

Kevin Lewis: That would be great, I would love that too. That’s who we made it for, you know? It feels like a Midnight movie.

Going from your inspirations, I’m a big Raimi head myself. A lot of those movies are only as good as their villains or monsters. With the animatronics in this movie, each one is like a scene-stealer in their own right. Can you talk about how important it was to make sure they all felt different?

Kevin Lewis: So Ken Hall created the creatures, and he and his team did an amazing job. There were eight of them and Ozzy is a puppet, so you have a puppet and seven suits, and stuntmen were in the suits. It was very important to make everyone unique and different. Nic [Cage] loved reptiles and so we changed some of the creatures into reptiles. It was fun because one was a dog and we turned him into Arty Alligator. If you look at the movie, everyone has their little scene. Knighty Knight has got his, Arty has got his, Siren Sara got hers, Cammy Chameleon got hers, right? It was in the script that way.

I just wanted to make sure that everybody had their little moment, their 15 minutes of fame. I would love it If Willy and the gang would be in the Horror lexicon with Chucky. I know that’s a lot, but I would love it man. I would be so happy. It’s still really hard when you’re juggling eight villains basically, and I think they’re all unique and different. I treated them with reverence. A lot of people will be like, “Oh, it’s just a bunch of goofy kid mascots.” No, they’re not. I really treated them like Citizen Kane. I know it sounds crazy, but I did and I loved every one of them. We only had one suit. so once one suit was destroyed, it was over. So we had to be very careful about that. I’m just really happy how they turned out.

I love the artwork that Frank Gabriel did for the posters and pinball machines. If you look at Chuck E. Cheese and Showbiz Pizza, the cartoons are very key and it’s great. I wanted this Hanna-Barbera, Woody Woodpecker look to them. Then when you see them in real life, they look nothing like the drawings. It’s all kind of an inside joke. So if you look at Willy – the mascot suit and the creature – and then you look at Willy the cartoon, they look nothing alike. I always laughed at that because if you look at Chuck E. Cheese and Showbiz Pizza, it’s the same and that’s what I was going for. So it’s kind of an inside joke. I’m glad that people are loving it and doing fan art – everyone talks about who their favorite creature is and why. It’s just cool.

Was it always imperative to put a big focus on practical effects? You do use CGI when necessary but as you just mentioned, you only had one costume of each character.

Kevin Lewis: Absolutely. Practical effects were my number one thing. Again, I was trying to make a vintage movie from the 80s. Not that it takes place in the 80s, but it has the look and practical feel of the 80s. What’s funny is, I talked to a lot of my friends and would ask him, what do you want to see out of Willy’s? And they always said practical effects. A lot of people are tired of CG and I knew we had to do CG to accentuate some of the stuff, like Nic’s glasses would reflect the crew. So to wipe that out, we used CG on stuff that you wouldn’t even think about. Then we did CG on some stuff like you said, like Cammy’s tongue and things you can see, but practical effects were the number one thing.

I have to bring up the scenes where where Nic is just… cleaning. For some reason, I’ve seen people call those scenes their favorite from the whole movie, with the way its edited with the music. How did you put those together?

Kevin Lewis: I want to credit Ryan Liebert, my editor. He was great. That sequence where Nic cleans, it was like a Breaking Bad vibe that we wanted. It’s funny because in the beginning we had ‘Taking Care of Business’ playing when he started cleaning and it gave it a fun vibe. But we changed it and wanted to make it a little more Horror and intense because he’s in this place by himself, but it’s just fun to watch. He’s just so interesting, I mean, what other actor, to just put a guy on camera to start cleaning and you find it interesting? So that montage of the bathroom was a lot of fun.

Nicolas Cage in ‘Willy’s Wonderland’ courtesy of Screen Media

And the montage when he finally cleans up the joint, makes it sparkly and clean, was fun too. It’s the little pieces of him, and I was always obsessed with that when I was shooting. I had a 70-page shot list that I created, and I got probably 85 to 90% of it out of the movie. So every shot was detailed, but I was always obsessed with like, “We need more cleaning!” because I knew we would need that as montages or just for cutaways and stuff. So I’m like, “Nic, let’s get a bump over here. Okay great, and now let’s do that here.” It turned out really well.

You mentioned being a fan of 80s horror, and I felt like you were trying to use their tropes on purpose. Aspects like horny teenagers, the pothead, you know, “Let’s go into the suspicious room!” What’s your take on that?

Kevin Lewis: Oh, you nailed it. That’s exactly what I wanted. I used these tropes, and they’re tropes that movies even use now but modernized. Like I said, this movie does not take place in the 80s, but I wanted to have that vibe. It was in the script too. Two kids going at it and someone’s watching them, it’s like, how stupid can you be? But they’re only teenagers, man, it makes sense. So yes it’s all the tropes and this movie I feel is very self-aware. I call it my Citizen Kane, it’s self-aware sure, but I took the movie seriously.

I think every movie you make, that you are going to direct, you have to take it seriously. Every movie takes a piece of your soul. This one took a piece of mine. I treated this like Citizen Kane. It’s funny, I treated it like it was the last movie I was ever going to make, and dealing with COVID and what I went through weeks ago, it could have been. So you’re right, I took the tropes and highlighted them because a lot of movies now don’t have them. They want to be more modern and that’s great, but I wanted to go back to those days. I wanted to do something fun and just put a smile on people’s faces when they watched the movie.

We’re huge Nicolas Cage fans here at DiscussingFilm. He has two other films coming out in 2021 that sound f*cking crazy in their own right and a trend I’ve noticed whenever we report news about him online is that people comment with stuff like, “Wow, he’s just saying yes to every project nowadays huh?” There seems to be a wide misconception as to why Cage is taking on all of these chaotic roles. Some even go as far to say that he’s just cashing a quick paycheck. Having just worked with him, what are your thoughts on these type of comments?

Kevin Lewis: That’s such a mean, kind of vicious thing to say. I’ll tell you right now, Nic is three things. He’s an amazing actor. We all know it. Second, he’s an incredible partner to make a movie with. We didn’t have one creative disagreement on this movie, we saw eye to eye. He had a passion for this movie. I mean, he would work with the second team. I would be working with second team setting the shots and stuff, and he would just walk in and take it from the stand-in and hold the soda pop can. He wasn’t in his trailer. We saw this movie eye to eye, and he was such a great person and a great human being. That’s the third thing, Nic is a great soul. He really is, you just know it when you meet him.

I mean, the last day of his shoot at lunch, he was on set and signed all the cast and crews’ posters and blu-rays. He signed it all on time through lunch. And there was a line wrapped around the building, by the way. He’s an icon. He’s a genre to himself and for people to come out and say those vicious things – they don’t know. He doesn’t say yes to everything. Trust me. And you know what? He’s loyal. He was on this movie for almost a year before we shot it. He doesn’t deserve that kind of hate. The cage fans and all that, that’s what he deserves.

‘Willy’s Wonderland’ courtesy of Screen Media

These guys say who say these things, they’re so wrong. They don’t know. He gets scripts every day. He gets offers every day. People want to work with him constantly. I can’t tell you, when I wrapped this movie up to now, how many people I know who want to take scripts and offers to him. He gets a lot, okay? So he doesn’t say yes to everything. He only says yes to things he really enjoys and with Willy he had a passion for. I just was so delighted to work with him.

Totally agree. I think he’s genuinely operating on a level all to his own, but because the things he does now are so “out there” people just assume that he’s in desperate need of of money or something, which is not true.

Kevin Lewis: I love that in this movie, he doesn’t talk. He’s known for like Vampire’s Kiss, which is my favorite Nic Cage movie. I also love, of course, Wild at Heart, Leaving Las Vegas, and I can go on. He’s known for the wild and crazy monologues, and the bug eyes and all that stuff, you get memes on it! But I love that in this movie, he’s totally taking that and just turning it on its head. And he was channeling Charles Bronson from Once Upon a Time in the West. It’s his favorite movie. He was channeling Bronson, but he’s a genre to himself. And when you say you got Nic Cage, you got to see that movie. No one could have played the Janitor like Nic. He was the only person we had in mind, the only person we went to, and I’m so fortunate that he said yes and wanted to make this movie with me.

Willy’s Wonderland is now available on blu-ray!

Our review – Nicolas Cage Kicking Animatronic Ass

Follow Managing Editor Andrew J. Salazar on Twitter: @AndrewJ626

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