ST. LOUIS — On the first day of shooting, Nicolas Cage turned to Kevin Lewis on the set of "Willy's Wonderland," and told the director that "they were in it, now." But if you would have asked Lewis if he would be making a sadistic action/horror/comedy with one of cinema's most versatile stars 20 years ago, he may not believe you. But fortune can favor the bold on occasion in the entertainment industry.
Sometimes it just goes to the guy who keeps his word.
Back in 2003, Kevin Lewis directed a film called "Malibu Spring Break" that he would define as something that people would like the filmmaker to be run over by a truck for making-but a connection was made with a young actor named Jeremy Daniel Davis.
Davis had asked to shoot an improv scene and even though Lewis was already behind schedule, he obliged and gave the guy his moment. Many years later, the two men would come together professionally again, but this time, Lewis may have finally gotten his moment. For the Denver, Colorado native, the goal has always been simple: Make movies that are fun, worthwhile, and try new things all the time. Doing all of that with Cage is an obvious plus.
"He's amazing. He's a genre to himself. When Jeremy and I had the script, we knew there was only one guy for the Janitor."
The title of the film harkens to the Chuck E. Cheese-type pizzeria that targets kids and their families for an afternoon of substandard pizza, arcade games, and weird animatronic oversized creatures singing crazy songs. But in Lewis' world, the animatronics are possessed by demonic spirits and bad souls, which collides with Cage's Janitor and a small group of teenagers. If you can't smell the Bruce Campbell vibe, your scent is off. For the director, a film graduate of USC who had seven low-budget films under his belt, the homage here was clear.
"I wanted to make a movie like 'Evil Dead'. Bring back that vibe again," Lewis said. "Guys like Sam Raimi, Darren Aronofsky, and Danny Boyle are the reason I want to get up and make movies in the first place. Making movies is hard, man. Those guys inspire me every day."
If there was one skill Lewis took away from USC and carved into his own niche, it was shooting quickly. Lewis shot "Malibu" in nine days, and that came after writing it in just three days. It's a badge of honor that has been enriched with experiences of all kinds. He has worked with John McTiernan on "The Last Action Hero" and with Renny Harlan on "Cutthroat Island," even joking that he was bad luck.
For the record, the Arnold flick is a guilty pleasure, good time if you can find the will to suspend belief and have a good laugh along with the Austrian, who is so in on the joke. But that's a conversation for another day. Lewis learned a lot from both directors, but his real muse was the guy who set the standard for punk rock campy horror flicks: Sam Raimi, who happens to be Lewis' favorite filmmaker. But while the aspirations are still sky high for the 50-year-old Lewis, he just wants to make movies and do it his way. He's also never stopped learning.
"When I made 'The Method', it was beg, borrow, and steal," Lewis recalled. "We had this giant camera, and no one could move it around. I had to shoot it a specific way. But with 'The Drop', I was one of the first people to do digital on a Panasonic. I've learned a lot."
But experience earns a filmmaker rewards, and part of the allure of a Lewis set is everything being mapped out before day one of shooting. When Cage got to set, the director took him through the whole schedule so he would be comfortable. During the film, the Janitor synchronizes his watch to remind him to pound an energy drink, one of the many odd characteristics Cage's unlikely hero brings to the table.
In order to shoot the sequences where he goes into the small fridge in the kitchen effectively, Lewis had to shoot from inside the fridge-which means taking off the back of it. On a Marvel set, they have 75 refrigerators waiting for you. On an indie set, you do it yourself. Instead of this potentially being done on the fly, Lewis had it all stripped and prepped before the cameras even rolled. He does it right and never hesitates to give thanks and appreciation to the people who inspire him. The ones who helped him along the way never forget either.
The script for "Willy's Wonderland" came to him via that same actor that he allowed the moment. Davis, now a film producer, had optioned it, sending Lewis' way. Due to him sticking to his guns and giving a young creator the time of day to shoot a quick improv moment, the favor was returned all those years later. Due to G.O. being in the same film class with Davis' wife (who is in the movie as well), Lewis got his big break. When they say the little things add up, a lie isn't being told.
"All these years later, he (Davis) remembered that. We had our adventures in Hollywood on our own, but he came back to me with this script. Finding people in Hollywood who are loyal, it's a sweet deal. Nic was loyal. He was in it from the beginning. We just had a lot of good people involved."
Parsons' script struck that fun chord with Lewis, who just had to make it.
"I loved the script when I read it. It was such an original idea. A fun script. G.O. and I hit it off right away. I went and got some art work done, some key frames for the film. We designed Willy. It helped the process along," Lewis said.
It was in that very script that found Cage's Janitor slugging a large, animatronic weasel twenty minutes into the running time and chugging a mysterious drink afterwards, the same beverage he keeps pulling out of that reworked refrigerator. While the drink was "Punch Pop, an energy drink" according to Lewis, it was also a metaphor for his goal with "Willy's."
"I wanted to make a movie that was an adrenaline rush," Lewis said. Fast-paced, like punch pop! Quick and exciting. It's the kind of movie you should check your brain at the door. It's also one you can easily go back and watch twice. With everything going on in the world, we need more movies like this."
His plan after "Willy's Wonderland" will be making movies that his kids can appreciate and get a kick out of.
"I have four kids, and two of them are teenagers. I want to make a movie for them. That's what was so cool about the 'Willy's (Wonderland)' watch parties. 30 kids watching. It was awesome," Lewis said.
Certain film productions-the cast, crew, and producers-can't be replicated. It's just not possible. You couldn't come in, replace everyone, and get the same movie in the end. It's the personalities, both in front of and behind the camera, that make the movie what it is, as much as the source material. There's a certain vibe that doesn't get disrupted. Without that synergy, I think art and the idea of crafting a movie gets very boring very fast.
From the moment a movie star told him they were in it now, Kevin Lewis knew "Willy's Wonderland" was going to be special-or a film with real personality.
It's currently streaming on Apple TV+, Amazon Prime Video, and Vudu. Expect more from my interview with Lewis via my website, doseofbuffa.com, here in the coming weeks.