Evil Dead’s Ash, with his chainsaw hand. Phantasm’s ice cream-dealing, four barrel shotgun-toting Reggie. They Live’s ass-kicking, bubblegum-lacking Nada, with his special, alien-revealing sunglasses. Vampire-hunting Van Helsing, zombie-killing Alice, werewolf-slaying gunslinger Selene.
Last weekend, a new contender looked to join the pantheon of iconic horror heroes and win the hearts of fellow genre nerds the world over with the release of Willy’s Wonderland, director Kevin Lewis’ zany, bloodsoaked neo-grindhouse B-movie popcorner that introduced Nicolas Cage’s Janitor, a silent drifter who runs afoul of murderous, possessed animatronic animals while working after hours as a one man cleanup crew in the titular, Chuck E. Cheese-esque children’s restaurant. With his quick-thinking resourcefulness, shocking capability for brutal violence, and unending supply of caffeine in the form of “Punch Pop”, the Janitor allows Cage the opportunity to play to his strengths, providing the actor with a range covering everything from quiet intensity to outrageous, violent outbursts. Both actor and character make one hell of an impression in the film, somehow managing to overshadow the film’s potent mix of threats both supernatural and all-too-human.
With its solid scoring with critics, impressive audience ratings and raves on social media, it would seem that Willy’s Wonderland is poised to become a cult hit, if not a bonafide franchise starter. Now, just in time for the film’s sophomore weekend outing on VOD and in a limited amount of theatres, Willy’s Wonderland writer/creator G.O. Parsons was kind enough to chat with Bloody Disgusting about this film’s origins, its stoic lead character, and the potential future for both.
“I was doing plays,” Mr. Parsons reveals, describing how Willy’s Wonderland first came to be. “They weren’t going super successfully. I’d get like one person there, or two people. I decided I needed to make them events, so I would do an ‘event play’. Like one play every two to three months, and get a hundred people in there, and make it just this fun thing. And everyone was responding to it! Well, after one of these plays, a friend comes up to me and goes, ‘It doesn’t matter how much fun you’re having with these. In order to advance your career, you’re gonna have to make a movie.’
“’But I don’t have any money, and I don’t have any experience in making a film.’ So I thought, ‘I have to make it as practical as possible.’ So, what things are practical? One location is practical. A horror movie is practical, because everyone’s naturally drawn to a horror movie. And a horror movie is a little bit more forgiving if the budget is a little lower. Third, it needs a character that everyone can relate to. And that was the Janitor.”
It’s here that Mr. Parsons reveals that one of the Janitor’s more noteworthy traits was born of that same practicality. “Why doesn’t the Janitor talk? The honest answer is that I thought I was going to have to be doing all of the cast and crew basically by myself. I thought I was going to have to set up the camera, and then play the role of the Janitor, and I didn’t want to learn that many lines! That’s the true origin of it!
“The twist of the movie that I knew going into it … it was like, I knew it can’t just be a horror movie. It had to have a twist. In every horror movie that you and I have seen, we have a villain who is all-powerful, who is able to bully the heroes or the heroines or the victims in the movies from start until almost the finish, and then our heroes always figure out a way to beat the villain. Or at least stop them for a little while, until the next sequel. Well, I wanted to go the complete opposite direction. I wanted a movie where the villains, who are super-powerful, just get their asses kicked from the start! And I wanted it to be so absurd, that the objective of the character is just that he has to clean a restaurant. I thought that would be so funny, to just have it be this guy that only wants to clean the place and leave. He has no other objectives, he has no backstory, you don’t even know his name. He just wants to clean and leave, and everything that happens is just more of an annoyance than anything else.”
Mr. Parsons notes here that the creation of the character and the process of writing the screenplay, while constrained by his budgetary limitations, were otherwise unimpeded by anything that might stifle his creativity. “Because I wasn’t beholden to anyone while writing the script, I could write whatever I wanted, because the only judge of the script and movie was going to be me. So it didn’t matter how wacky or crazy or absurd it might sound, I was going to be the only judge of it. So I’d written that script – the script everyone saw last weekend – and I had raised a little bit of money to make the movie, but I didn’t hit my goal. I’d only made enough to make a short film. So I just shot the short film, and made it in a garage. It’s that scene that’s in the trailer, the scene that everybody now knows, where Nic Cage is mopping the floor and Ozzie Ostrich comes up to him. You think that something scary is going to happen, and then Ozzie just gets obliterated.
“Then I started passing that script and that short out to whoever I could. Didn’t matter who, didn’t care, I’m just e-mailing everybody, y’know? ‘Hey, James Wan! Wanna see a short? Check this out!’ It didn’t matter to me, because I was just going for numbers. LIke, somebody’s going to see this, and somebody’s going to recognize that it’s good. Of all those numbers – I probably sent it out to three hundred people – one person got back to me. Her name was Venus Kanani. She was a casting director who was a friend of mine, and she said ‘Hey. Listen. I know you’re doing this for yourself, and I know you’re trying to advance your career, but I think you could have something very special here if you gave it to Nicolas Cage.
“At the time, I didn’t have the power to do that! You don’t just go knock on the dude’s door and hand him the script. That just does not happen. But she had the keys to the castle, in that she could call up his manager and producing partner and give him the script. So she did that! She put her neck out there and pitched the script to Nicolas Cage’s manager, a gentleman named Michael Nilon. He read it, recognized that it was pretty cool immediately, gave it to Nic on a Friday night. I remember staring at a wall for forty-eight hours while Nic read the script. Then, on Monday morning, Nicolas Cage said ‘I’m one hundred percent in! This is gonna be fun and fantastic, and I want to be this Janitor.’”
One of the more interesting aspects of the film is the fact that, for all of the craziness on display, the Janitor is still somewhat relatable. He’s just a guy stuck in a blue collar job, trying to do his work while avoiding distractions. “That was really important to us. In horror movies, in comic books, in that kind of lore, we always want to associate ourselves with a hero and with a villain. If you can have a great hero and a great villain, you’re going to have a great movie. So if you have this Janitor, who wears the Willy’s Wonderland shirt, and has the duct tape on his face, you can automatically become that person by just putting on [the T-Shirt and duct tape], and just staying quiet. I think that what drew the ‘employees’ [fans], as I like to call them, to the movie, and what drew Nic to the movie. This character, the Janitor, he has so much emotion in him, and such personality in him, and he has to get all of that across with a look, with a smile. With a nod of the head, or the roll of an eye. Nicolas Cage has done ninety-eight movies prior to this one. He saw it like an acting challenge. He’s never done a silent role before, and this was his opportunity.”
Given the film’s popularity and open ending for its lead character, one imagines there is definitely the possibility for more adventures with the Janitor down the line. “It’s definitely something I ponder. We’ve already told the joke once, right? We’ve seen the joke once. So, in order to tell the joke again, and do another movie, you have to find a new challenge for the Janitor.
“So would it be at Willy’s Wonderland? Well, it probably should be, right? Because that’s the title, but you have to give the Janitor a new monster to face. I’m just spitballing here, but you need Willy’s Wonderland, because it’s the central location. You need the Janitor, because he is an awesome character. He needs extra challenges, because we can’t just see him doing the same thing again. But we also have eight great villains that need to come back into this thing. How do we put all of this back together?! So I’m currently brainstorming how to do that. I think this first one was such a surprise and so fun, that it would not behoove anyone to just retread it. We have to see something new, a new adventure, but we have to have all the old hits. It is an interesting challenge that lays in front of us, but I think everyone that was involved in the movie wants to go again. It’s like a rollercoaster! You go through the loop-de-loop twice, you look at the ride operator, and you’re like ‘Hey, let’s do it one more time before anybody else gets here!’”
Looking beyond any potential film follow-up, one wonders if the Janitor could possibly make the leap to other media as well. It isn’t a stretch to imagine Janitor comic books or video games. “You could branch the Janitor out into further stories, and the animatronics as well! The Janitor would also be a perfect character to insert into other situations. Whether it’d be a haunted house, or a sea monster, or a zombie apocalypse. That would be so cool to see how the Janitor would handle those kinds of situations. He is the antidote to the acid. He is this guy who finds himself in the most chaotic situations, but somehow always gets the job done. He is the cleaner, and the villains are the germs. I would love to see him in a comic book! I would love to see him branch out across different media. Same with the animatronics. A lot of our fans are young, and they do all of this fan art on Instagram and different social media. There’s so much artistic talent drawing these characters. It would be fantastic to see the animatronics have their own kind of world that they live in. Sometimes they’d cross paths with the Janitor, and other times they’re off on their own adventures. There’s a world that we’ve opened that people have responded to, and I really think it can be expanded upon.”
It’s here in our conversation that Mr. Parsons drops a tantalizing bit of info regarding a scene that didn’t make it into the final film. “One of the things that I put in my short film, and then I cut it – after he leaves Willy’s Wonderland, I had him pull out a journal. He opens the journal, and in it are all the most haunted places on Earth. Places like the Winchester Mystery House, and so on. Then he takes this Sharpie and crosses out ‘Willy’s Wonderland’. But the cool thing about the Janitor – if you don’t know anything about the Janitor, then you can know everything about him. The way I picture the Janitor, the way you picture the Janitor, and the way Nicolas Cage pictures the Janitor are all distinctly different, but they’re all right, as long as you never know the truth. He’s always going to be your hero, and he’ll always have your backstory, because there is no one to tell you you’re wrong. And I think that’s pretty cool.”
In closing out our conversation, Mr. Parsons was nice enough to answer this interviewer’s burning question concerning the most fascinating aspect of his creation … just what in the hell is the deal with the Janitor and his soda?! He laughs. “He just really likes it. We all have our vices, and his is Punch Pop.”
Very special thanks to G.O. Parsons for his time and insights.