'Nic Cage is into reptiles...': The insane, behind-the-scenes story of Willy's Wonderland
How an unknown actor and a luckless director teamed with Nicolas Cage to create 2021's first cult movie.
Is a film in which Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage battles a series of giant animatronic creatures just the thing to raise spirits as we head into the second year of the pandemic? Judging by the online reaction of to the new action-horror movie Willy's Wonderland since the film was released on VOD over the weekend, the answer is a definite "Yes!"
"All the horror fans are digging it," director Kevin Lewis told EW of the film, which costars Emily Tosta and Beth Grant. "So many amazing reviews and watch parties. The college kids are loving it. People watching it three, four, five times. That's what I wanted, man, especially with what's going on in the world and the pandemic. We have an 81 percent audience review on Rotten Tomatoes. It's really kind of cool. I'm old school, so I'm about Siskel and Ebert. But now it's like power to the people. Audiences speak, and they've spoken, and they dig it, and it's awesome."
In Willy's Wonderland, Cage plays a mysterious gentleman called The Janitor, who's forced to spend the night cleaning out the titular restaurant. Inbetween getting handy with the disinfectant, the character drinks a lot of soda, plays a lot of pinball, and, oh yes, systematically demolishes one possessed monster after another — all without saying a word.
"You can't take it seriously," screenwriter G.O. Parsons told us. "You have to be able to mock it and say, 'This thing just attacked him and now he's cleaning a stove? What's going on?'"
The release of the film follows a traumatic period for Lewis who was recently diagnosed with COVID.
"I was very close to not making it," said the director. "Those nurses and doctors are the real heroes. I'm doing a lot better. Every day I'm getting stronger and feeling more like myself. It was a life-changing experience for sure. I was very close to not making it. I'm here! I'm talking to you! And it's awesome!"
Below, Lewis and Parsons talk us through the making of Willy's Wonderland — and tease a possible second adventure for Cage's Janitor.
G.O. PARSONS: I was writing and acting in a bunch of plays, trying to make a break for myself. It started out like La La Land, where you do a play and one person's in the audience, or two people and they're on their cell phone the whole time. So, I started making the plays events, where you could bring drinks and your friends. That was really fun. I was doing that and this person comes up to me afterwards, and says, "This stuff you're doing is fantastic, but it's not going to advance your career, because the play only lasts as long as the play." He's like, "If you want to do something good, you're going to have to make a movie." That was the very start of it, me talking to him in that parking lot that night.
I was like, well, I don't have any money, so I'll keep it a low budget horror movie. There's probably just going to be me doing this, so I'll keep it in one location, and then, if I'm running the camera and doing all this other stuff, I probably shouldn't give myself a lot of lines. I'll just have the character be silent the whole time. I'd grown up on the border of California and Nevada and there was this place called Boomtown, outside of Reno. People would go and gamble and they'd drop their kids off at Boomtown, to be babysat while they played craps. And Boomtown had all these animatronics. I was like, okay, that'll be it, this guy who has to go clean this place up and these things attack him, but the twist of it should be, they messed with the wrong person. I wanted a movie where they just picked the wrong dude and he mopped the floor with them the entire time.
KEVIN LEWIS: I hadn't directed a movie in a while. I worked on a movie for a couple of years that looked like it was going to get green lit and and then it just collapsed.
Parsons: Kevin is one of the hardest working people I've ever met in my life. Kevin and I come from similar backgrounds where we both felt like we hadn't been given our due yet. Kevin had made some movies in the early 2000s and he just felt like he did not get a fair shake with those movies.
Lewis: A producer friend of mine, Jeremy Daniel Davis, brought me Willy's. We just loved it. We saw the same vision. We worked on it and we got to Nic.
Parsons: I had given the script to a casting director whose name was Venus Kanani. Venus said, "Listen, I know you're trying to make your break, but if you give this to somebody of some stature, you could have a real movie here." She was the person who stuck her neck out for me, for all of us, and knocked on Nicolas Cage's door, and was able to pitch his manager, Mike Nilon. Mike read it on a Friday morning, he gave it to Nick on a Friday night, I stared at this pink wall behind me for like 48 hours while Nick read the thing. On Monday morning I got a call: "Yeah, Nicolas Cage wants to make this movie." That's how miraculously this happened.
Nic is into reptiles, he is into amphibians, and he's into dinosaurs. He was the one who was like, "Hey, make this thing an alligator, make this thing a chameleon. Let's get a turtle instead of a regular mammal."
Lewis: Nic loved that it had no dialogue. That was one of the draws for sure. In fact, in the original script, there was one piece of dialogue at the end. When he's going to fight Willy, he says a line.
Parsons: When I originally wrote the script, I put in one line, which was "Come at me, bro." He and Willy are staring at each other, he goes, "Come at me, bro."
Lewis: I was really struggling with that. You've got to make that an iconic line if he's going to say one line in the movie. We would go back and forth with G.O. I always picture it something like what Bruce [Campbell] says in the Evil Dead: "Groovy!" It's got to be something. But what is it? Nic and I decided, no lines.
Parsons: The next stage was really Nicolas Cage defending the script while we took it out to try and get financing for it. A lot of people would read it and be like, "Why is he cleaning? Why isn't he running and hiding for his life? This is unbelievable, this would never happen. Nobody is going to watch this thing." And Nicolas Cage was just sitting there going, "No, this is exactly the kind of movie which needs to be made."
On October 31, 2019 — coincidentally Halloween, which was so cool — the movie gets greenlit. However, Nicolas Cage has only got a month, from February until March of 2020. If we can't get it done in that time, movie ain't going to happen. It was all hands on deck, everybody go-go-go during the holidays — find the sets, find the crew, build the animatronics, storyboard the entire movie, get everything ready to go before February 1. Had something gone wrong, one thing to delay us a week or 10 days or whatever, it would have absolutely ended the film.
Lewis: We shot it at the beginning of the year in Atlanta. I did a 70-page shot list. It's not one of those films where you show up and it's like, "What are we feeling today guys?" Everything was on the shot list. Because I knew, with Nic not speaking, visually I have to make it entertaining and interesting. That was a challenge, but it was a fun challenge.
You've got Willy and his gang. I call it the Psychopathic animatronic misfits. You've got Willy the Weasel and Siren Sarah, Ozzy the Ostrich, Artie the Alligator, Cammy the chameleon, Gus the Gorilla. There's eight of them. Ken Hall was the one who built all the costumes. Ozzy was a puppet. We only had one puppet and that was Ozzy — Ozzy the ostrich. That was a puppet. We had a couple of puppeteers in green smocks manipulating Ozzy. But the rest were stunt people in suits.
Nic was a great partner. The guy worked tirelessly, man. He did not hang out at his trailer, he hung out by the set, right by the camera, knew what we were doing, went in, and did it. It was funny because I said, "I only have time to do probably two-to-three takes Nic." And he goes, "Well, Kevin, I like to do it in one!" I was like, "Sounds good to me."
Parsons: Nic added that dance at the end. Where he's dancing and doing the pinball stuff? That was Nic.
Lewis: Oh, that was fantastic. I had like three cameras set. The idea was that him playing pinball was like leveling up in a video game. He'd beat Gus and after he beat Gus, he'd go and play pinball. Anyway, we let the cameras roll and he did all that himself, man. It was just incredible. The crew was applauding him at the end. I called him that night and said, "Seeing your work today, that's why I make movies."
We wrapped right before the pandemic hit. It was crazy. We wrapped, and then I came home, and within two weeks we were in lockdown. Crazy.
Parsons: The reaction is over the moon. I never expected it to be as positive and cultish as it was. It's so so cool. If somebody is nice enough to say nice words, or talk about the movie, then I put them officially on staff, because you want to be the Janitor and you want to be part of the experience. If the creator hits you up on the internet and goes, "Hey, you've got to clock in for work, because you're the Janitor!" it adds that extra level.
Lewis: I'm down for a sequel. I'm very excited. I would love to see more adventures with the Janitor. I was thinking you could go to different amusement parks or you could go to a circus. I have this great vision of a Frankenstein Willy patched together and going for revenge. You could do a John Carpenter-Assault on Precinct 13 where like maybe the Janitor gets caught in jail and the electronics are coming for him and it's a big fight in a jail. You could do a Mad Max vibe where he's in the car driving, maybe he's got some homemade weapons. There's so much cool stuff you could do.
Parsons: That is a giant boulder that falls upon me to figure out. Like, how do you tell the same joke twice? Does he take on somebody new? A new bad guy? A new monster? Well, yes, that would be great. But, then, what about the stars of the show, which are the animatronics? You've got to bring them back. My wife pitched a team-up where he and Willy have to fight a new foe together. I have an idea — but it's only an idea at this stage.
Willy's Wonderland is currently available to watch in cinemas (where a mask!) and on VOD.
Watch the film's trailer below.