Nicolas Cage is the Janitor — a quiet drifter who strikes a deal to stay overnight and clean the condemned and mysterious animatronic restaurant, Willy's Wonderland. In the middle of his cleaning duties, he discovers that the restaurant's eight animatronic mascots are alive and dangerous, so the Janitor has no choice but to fight them to survive. In a recent Q&A with Borrowing Tape, Willy's Wonderland Director Kevin Lewis discussed his experience filming the horror movie, which is now available to watch via Amazon.
How were you approached to direct Willy's Wonderland?
A good Producer friend of mine named Jeremy Daniel Davis sent me the script to see if I would be interested in directing it. I read it and fell in love, and together we partnered up on working to get the film made.
How did you find the process of working with Screenwriter G.O. Parsons?
It was great. G.O. and I immediately hit it off and we were championing one another on our shared vision of the movie.
What was casting like — how was Nicolas Cage cast as the lead, The Janitor?
Nick was the only choice for the lead. We all felt that he would get the project, and he did.
Can you tell us about your experience working with Nicolas Cage?
Amazing. Nick and I saw the movie the same way from the start. We never had one creative disagreement. Nick worked so hard on this movie, first to set last to leave, and not only is he an incredible actor and partner to do a film with, he is a world-class human being.
How did you approach the directing process? Which scenes from Willy's Wonderland were your favorite to film?
I only had 20 days to shoot so I knew I had to be ultra prepared so I created a 70-page shot list that detailed every shot, camera angle and lens we were going to use for the movie. This wasn't a movie where you can just show up on the day and say "Hey guys what are we feeling today"? We were dealing with puppets, stunt performers sets, so it was a very planned shoot. I also shot to cut. I knew I didn't have a lot of time so I only did 2-3 takes and I had to move on. I remember Nick telling me "I like to get it in one". I loved every day filming "Willy's". I was a kid in a candy store really.
How long did production last? Where was the movie filmed?
We had 4 weeks of prep and 20 days to shoot and we shot in Atlanta and wrapped right before the pandemic.
How were visual effects and stunts executed in Willy's Wonderland? Can you tell us how animatronics came alive in the movie?
I wanted this movie to have an 80's feel so I really wanted to do as many practical effects as possible. All the black gunk and fights were on the set practical. We had stunt performers in suits but Ozzie was a puppet. We used some VFX work to sweeten some scenes and to clean up some stuff and even when we did that I wanted the VFX not to be too clean and neat, this is a love letter to the grindhouse B movies and I wanted it to look that way.
What was it like collaborating with Cinematographer David Newbert? Can you tell us about how you achieved the final aesthetic for Willy's Wonderland?
Pure heaven. Dave and I hit it off like we were best friends in elementary school. He and I shared the same vision and were always aware of what we needed to make the creatures come to life in this movie, and it is a grindhouse movie. Our mantra was " Punk Rock." We did camera tests together, worked on the shot list together, and basically, we had such a great shorthand that we knew what each other were thinking at all times. We used these amazing Kowa lenses from japan that bends the end of the frame. We designed "Rage Cage" or "Cage Rage" when Nick would fight the creatures we would shoot the film at 18fps and shake the camera to get that messy, grungy look, and we loved our lens flares.
Which films/directors have influenced you as a filmmaker, including Willy's Wonderland? What are some of your favorite movies from the past decade?
Sam Raimi is my favorite filmmaker so I felt I was channeling his energy through the film. One of my favorite movies is "Drive". Nicolas Winding Refn and Christopher Nolan can do no wrong in my opinion. I also love Darren Aronofsky and Danny Boyle. All of these filmmakers inspire me to make movies.
Which themes and subject matters interest you as a filmmaker?
I love genre movies. I think we are in a tough time right now with the pandemic and I just want to make fun movies. I have 4 kids, 2 of them teenagers and 2 younger boys and I want to make movies for them. Watching them with their friends have like 30 or so on a "Willy's Watch Party" has been a highlight of my life.