It’s only been a few weeks since WILLY’S WONDERLAND was unleashed on an unsuspecting public, but it has made a hell of an impact! I was fortunate enough to talk with the man behind the madness and monsters, Kevin Lewis. Discussing everything from his career, to the production of the movie, working with puppets and animal suited stunt actors and more below.
Jacob Davison: Can you into your background? What got you interested in filmmaking?
Kevin Lewis: I grew up in Denver, Colorado and I’ve loved movies since I was a little kid. I grew up in the 70’s, so of course Star Wars like every kid. And similar stuff like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Black Hole and I was always into sci-fi. Then the 80’s I see The Evil Dead and Raiders Of The Lost Ark was the first movie I ever saw where I really noticed what a director did. Star Wars and other movie Is just thought were handed down by God (Laughter). But Raiders, I saw shots, I saw cutting, I saw pacing. With Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 I could really see what a director could do with what Sam Raimi did. Of course, there was the VHS boom and A Nightmare On Elm street and everything so at that point I was hooked. I started making movies, I had a VHS camera. I was making movies in bothVHS and Super 8. Just went along through high school, kept at it and I made another VHS movie after school called The Real World and we sold tickets and had a big party. I did it with friends and even turned that movie into a channel in Denver that was doing a scholarship. So I turned it in and I got the scholarship three years in a row! Then I went to USC Film school and then did my first feature, The Method. We shot it with Patrick Flannery and Robert Forster and Natasha Grayson. That was at Slamdance. So, that was kind of the evolution, y’know.
JD: I see! And what led you to being involved with Willy’s Wonderland?
KL: I made The Method and I made a couple other movies including one called Malibu Springbreak. It was a T&A movie with Crown Entertainment who did My Tutor and Galaxina. I wrote the script in three days and shot it in nine. It was crazy, we actually shot it on 35mm actually. I did it, it was a challenge, but it was fun. I met this actor named Jeremy Daniel Davis. It was his first acting job on Malibu Springbreak. On the last day, we were a little behind schedule but I promised him an improv and he had acting scene. The producers wanted me to cut him and move on but I said “No, I promised him and we are going to do it.” And we did.
Flashforward to years later and I’m working on another project and this producer is helping us who wanted to bring a friend onboard named Jeremy. And it was Jeremy Davis! He helped me on that and things got pretty far, but alas things don’t always happen. Especially in Hollywood. (Laughter) We kept in contact and down the road he brought me the Willy’s Wonderland script. What was cool was that Siren Sarah, Jessica Davis, she was in an acting class with G. O. Parsons the writer of Willy’s Wonderland. She loved the script, she brought it to Jeremy, he loved it and he thought of me. He thought of me because of Malibu and that I was a man of my word. It was really cool. Things that happened a decade or so before paid off. If I had never done Malibu Sprinbreak I wouldn’t have done Willy’s Wonderland. I credit Jeremy, he worked on this project tirelessly for days and nights for years and he’s the one who brought it to me.
JD: Yeah! You just never know what will happen with the butterfly effect.
KL: Right, you never know.
JD: When you got the script, what was it that appealed to you? Did you discuss it with the writer, G.O. Parsons?
KL: Yeah, the script was great. First of all, having a character who doesn’t speak was so interesting. And I thought how unique and original it was. I’m a big pop culture fan so I collect comics, action figures, that sort of stuff, and I grew up with Showbiz Pizza and had a lot of birthday parties there. I just identified with it. I saw ‘eighties’, I saw vintage in it, I saw retro in it, eighties horror. I did talk to G.O. and we hit it off really well. We all developed the script together. He would send me pictures of animatronics and things he was thinking about. Demented Easter Bunnies from Hell, that sort of thing. It was a good partnership.
JD: Sounds like it! Then how did Nicolas Cage become involved as both a producer and an actor?
KL: We got a casting director and made an offer. Nic was the only one we wanted. I just felt like he was going to get this. A lot of actors would shy away from a part where their character doesn’t speak. I knew he would be up for the challenge. We got it to his manager, Mike Nylon and he liked it a lot and passed it to Nic, Nic liked it. He said “They don’t makes scripts like this anymore.” He was onboard. Because of his passion about the movie, that’s why they came on as producers. They really wanted to see it happen and get made.
JD: Sounds like he was really into it. What was it like directing him like that?
KL: It was fantastic. There’s three things about Nic Cage. He’s a world class actor, we all know that and an award winning actor. He’s basically a genre in himself, in his own right. Number two, I would say an amazing partner to make a film with. Stood by us and worked tirelessly like everyone else. Number three, I would just say what a decent man he is. He’s a kind soul, he really is. We didn’t have one creative disagreement, we saw eye to eye on this movie. He worked so hard, he never was sitting in his trailer or whatever. He was there. He was amazing.
JD: It shows on the movie.
KL: Oh yeah. The cast and crew had a smile on their faces from they started to when they left. I do feel that shows on the movie.
JD: Speaking of, how did Emily Tosta become involved with the movie and what was it like working with her?
KL: Emily was great. And it was actually Mike Nylon, Nic’s manager who referred us to Emily. We hd a meeting with her, it went fantastic. She got we we wanted to do. It was a delight to work with her.
JD: Let’s talk about the other stars of the movie, the animatronics and company. What went into the initial concepts then making them a reality?
KL: Ken Hall was the one who created them and there was seven creature suits. We only had one for each. And then Ozzy’s a puppet, so eight creatures total. We talked about different things, but I knew we were going to have people in the suits and we decided to have stunt men and women playing them, and they were fantastic. They were in the suits and we had pulleys in there because when you look at animatronics like Chuck-E Cheese and stuff, it’s the eyes and the mouth. So we had pulleys for the eye and the mouths to give you that feel.
I wanted it to be very organic and feel real. These animatronics exist. Started in November and it was really weird because when you start preproduction on a movie that’s when you start the work. But he had to start way earlier than preproduction did, so that was November and we did preproduction in January. Then he delivered the creatures for the first week of shooting. First week of shooting we did as much work outside of Willy’s because we had to give him as much time needed. I tell you, when those creatures arrived on set in these big, huge crates, it was like Christmas! Everyone was just so excited to see them. Hats off to Ken Hall. Amazing job.
JD: Oh yeah, I was definitely impressed with that. On that note, what was it like choreographing the fights between Nic Cage and Willy and company?
KL: It was cool! I wanted to do something different so every fight would be insane. And Charlie Paris is my stunt coordinator and he is fantastic. So I worked with Charlie to make the fights feasible but also grounded and dirty. There were different ways I could have approached it, at one point I was thinking of doing a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon thing especially at the end. But we have 20 days so that’s not going to happen. This movie was grind house, this movie was punk rock, it was a rave at 2 am. Those were the things I kept saying to myself.
That’s what we’re doing. So that’s why the fights were so down and dirty. But they were very different. My DP and I, Dave Newbert did a fantastic job. We developed a thing we called “Rage Cage” or “Cage Rage” where when Nic gets angry and starts going to town on the creatures we shoot it like 18 frames per second we’re shaking the camera. Then as we’re doing that we’re taking flashlights and shining them in the lens to get that cosmic lens flare look. We wanted to do something unique to show that off.
JD: I loved how it was so optical! And the movie got a lot of attention because of the use of practical fx. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately because they just put The Muppet Show on Disney Plus and everyone’s been talking about it. I feel that especially in the horror community there’s an appeal for that kind of practical fx, costuming, and animatronics. Why do you think that is?
KL: It’s kind of cool, because before I left, I asked a bunch of friends “What do you want to see in WILLY’S WONDERLAND? Give me five things you want to see.” They were like “Let Nic Cage be Nic Cage” but they would all say practical fx. I think it’s because there is so much CG now, we rely on it so much for everything. It’s amazing because, I saw the behind the scenes video of Mindhunter that Netflix David Fincher show. You see CG but it’s the CG you expect. Adding little street signs and stuff. And that’s cool CG but you wouldn’t know it, it looks so good.
But I think there comes a point where we rely on CG too much. I love the Marvel movies but they’re full blown green screen stuff. I think a lot of people are getting tired of it and they can see through it. Just because you can imagine ti doesn’t mean you should put it on. Like Jaws think about what Spielberg did and if it was a CG shark. That shark probably would have shown up within the first 15 minutes of the movie but it doesn’t. And why? Because of Bruce the mechanical shark. Poor Bruce. We’re an indie film, not a big budget film. I also just felt that the practical fx needed that vibe to feel authentic. And Chuck-E-Cheese or Showbiz Pizza they’re there. You can touch them. You can feel them. There is CG in the movie. It’s funny because some of it is wiping Nic’s glasses. Stuff you wouldn’t even think.
I mean, there’s stuff with like Artie’s tongue or Siren Sarah jumping around like that. So, there is CG in the movie. But very limited amount. We wanted to keep it as real and as practical as possible. It’s funny, the scene with Knighty Knight when he stabs Aaron. I shot that and it was a trick of the lens. It was a campy with a drain snake that we did on that. What was funny about the Knighty Knight one was that we did stop and use a CG sword. And that took a lot of time, it took a couple of hours. And I had to think about Tim because we only had 20 days so I decided to keep it as practical as possible. I think it shows on it, the way of the look of the movie.
And Ozzy, who I said was a puppet so we had puppeteers who were all dressed in green and erased them. What was interesting with that is when you do that you have to shoot plates, shoot your elements. You shoot Nic fighting Ozzy then you have Nic leave and Ozzy fighting then you take the puppeteers out then you shoot a plate with this empty and that takes time. When you’re on an indie budget and stuff like that, you’ve got to push. When we finished with Ozzy, the First AD was like “Man, I was so sick of that bird!” Because even pans of showing him you’d have to do a plate without Ozzy so it was extra steps. So, even if we had all the money in the world I still would have done practical. That’s what I felt Willy’s was. A throwback to the 80’s and that’s what they had. So I’m happy it worked out.
JD: And I really think it did. There’s been a wave of animatronic or mascot horror over the last several years with this, and Five Nights At Freddy’s and The Banana Splits horror comedy movie. Why do you think particularly recently that it’s been such a trend?
KL: It’s interesting you say that. When I met my DP Dave Newbert. We started talking about it and he said “You know what, Kevin. I think this is a genre unto itself. Go on google or whatever and type ‘dark animatronics’ ” And you start seeing all kinds of crazy stuff. So I drew on older movies like Magic and Dolls. The movies in the 80’s for this film. I do think there is a fascination with it. Look at IT, too with clowns. IT was an amazing book, then a TV Miniseries, then two amazing movies. I think it’s the fascination with the ambivalence of these creatures, these things that are supposed to be great with kids but there’s something sinister or dark about it. You know, a guy with white makeup. Same thing with the animatronics. When you’re a little kid and you’re looking up at this huge, furry monster.
It should be nice, like a muppet. But it’s funny, I was thinking about Kermit The Frog and you brought up The Muppets. I loved The Muppet Show growing up but you take Kermit and put him in a dimly lit hallway with a light above him or something and he takes on a whole different vibe… but it’s Kermit. I think it’s taking a kid’s trope and turning it on its head a bit. In terms of animatronic movies, there’s more of them. I’ve heard talk about a Five Nights At Freddy’s movie and they’ve got some amazing people on that with Jason Blum and Chris Columbus. I know that movie will probably be different than ours. But I think we all can co-exist. I think people watching Willy’s Wonderland will watch all of these or vise-versa. I don’t believe there needs to be only one. It’s like Star Trek and Star Wars, you can like both.
I really thought about what the interest was with these animatronics and the psychology behind it. In the pandemic, so many of these types of places are shut down right now. I guess Chuck-E-Cheese is going out of business which is sad. I have four kids. Two teenagers and two boys at 5 and 7. All of them have gone to Chuck-E-Cheese. I think it’s kind of sad because this new generation of kids Arne’t going to be able to identify with that. It’s going to be a vintage kind of thing. I was thinking about that too before I left, I was doing reconnaissance at Chuck-E-Cheese and brought my kids and even at that point you could tell it was changing to digital. They were doing stuff with phones and animated shorts. So I think the animatronics are kind of becoming passe. The next generation may not even understand what these things are. So it was cool to get this movie out there for people like you and me who grew up with this stuff.
JD: Oh yeah. Had plenty of birthday parties at Chuck-E-Cheese as a kid and even then they kind of creeped me out. With his big robot eyes!
KL: Totally! The eyes and the mouth, that’s the scary part. And I think it’s also when the audio doesn’t match but they’re playing their songs, it’s just weird. Off-putting and something isn’t right.
JD: Very uncanny. Going off what you mentioned with the pandemic, I’d seen you wrote about your own severe experience with Covid. With the timing and close to the release of Willy’s Wonderland why did you feel the need to talk about it?
KL: That’s a great question. I was in the hospital and I was getting better at that point. Some friends told me I should talk about this when I felt right and when I was ready. Willy’s WonderlandS is such a fun movie and I didn’t want to detract from that. I didn’t want to have the spotlight on me and portray myself as some kind of poor victim director. I didn’t want that. But the more I talked to my friends and people I trusts hey encouraged me. I came home and seeing my wife and kids and seeing what I went through… I was close to a ventilator, pal. I was one step away.
And the nurse told me they could count on both their hands on who gets out of ICU alive. I was one, thank God. I got home and I couldn’t sleep that night. The whole article just hit me. I just typed it and I sent it out and my publicist really liked it and told me it needed to go out to people. Within 10 minutes, Indiewire wanted to publish it. And I thought “Okay, if it’s going to be inspiring.” I checked with the producers of Willy’s Wonderland because I didn’t want to take away from the movie and the movie is so different. They were very supportive of the idea. I just said “Maybe it’s meant to be. If I can inspire even one person to put on a mask, stand six feet apart, just think that this is not a hoax and that it is real, just one person, then you know what? It’s worth it.” So, I put it out.
JD: I thought it was an amazing article.
KL: Thanks, buddy. We’re all The Janitor, man!
JD: I loved that, it was very inspiring. Two last questions. Do you have any projects lines up, or anything in the pipeline?
KL: Yeah. I’ve got a couple of cool scripts. I’ve got a kind of horror/action script I’m working on. A Halloween movie I’m working on. Genre movies fitting the same style of Willy’s Wonderland. I want to make fun movies for people. I want to put a smile on their face and enjoy. I think with everything that’s happening with Covid, the political landscape and everything, man we just need fun movies. I just want to keep making movies like that and I enjoy talking to people like yourself.
JD: Thank you! And last question, where can I get Willy’s Wonderland staff gear? Everyone wants a Willy’s Wonderland staff shirt?
KL: The shirt, I know they ran out of them but they ordered more. It’s out there, though and you can order it. The hat was a crew hat that was given to me but I think they’re going to have those. Hey, man if they get the Punch Pops or I know this was crazy but wouldn’t it be cool if we had Funko Pops of Willy and The Janitor and the funked up Janitor? How cool would that be?
JD: Funko Pops, action figures, the whole shebang.
KL: NECA action figures, whole birthday pack? Sweet! I love it.
Willy’s Wonderland is currently available on VOD and digital.