Ever since the trailer for the new horror film, Willy’s Wonderland, was released a few weeks ago showing Nicolas Cage massacring demonic animatronics, the internet has been buzzing about this film. Directed by Kevin Lewis and written by G.O. Parsons, the film’s official description reads: A quiet loner (Cage) finds himself stranded in a remote town when his car breaks down. Unable to pay for the repairs he needs, he agrees to spend the night cleaning Willy’s Wonderland, an abandoned family fun center. But this wonderland has a dark secret that the “The Janitor” is about to discover. He soon finds himself trapped inside Willy’s and locked in an epic battle with the possessed animatronic mascots that roam the halls. To survive, he must fight his way through each of them.
After watching the trailer, one of the many things that stands out is the music, especially the eeriness of “The Birthday Song”. It turns out that the film’s composer, Émoi, not only composed the score, but also wrote the music for the songs and performed on them too (including The Birthday Song). He also provided the voice of Willy. I’m not sure a composer has worn all these hats since Danny Elfman in A Nightmare Before Christmas, which is quite impressive. To learn more about how Émoi creating the sounds of Willy’s Wonderland, we spoke to him exclusively below.
How did you get involved with Willy’s Wonderland? What was the initial appeal for you?
My good friend Grant Cramer who is a producer on the film, knows what a cult horror movie fanatic I am. He sent me the script, I read it, then I called him back and said “I don’t want to score this movie…I have to score this movie!” I just loved the script so much. It is totally reminiscent of Evil Dead, Return of the Living Dead, Killer Klowns From Outer Space, etc. But at the same time, it is its very own thing.
How would you describe your work on the film?
There are the character songs, which are fun and kid-friendly, but you can tell something is ‘off’ about them – there is little darkness hidden in the notes and lyrics. Then there is the score, which at times is very orchestral, channeling Bernard Hermann and giving a nod to vintage horror, and at other times becoming very modern and synthesizer heavy. But when The Janitor has to get down and dirty, it’s rip-roaring rock with the volume turned up to 11!
Willy’s Wonderland was filmed in February 2020, right before the shutdown. So you had to do all of your work remotely in lockdown. How did this change your approach to the film?
This is a great question because 2020 presented such unique conditions for film scoring. Everything was video chat, and I couldn’t bring in any studio musicians or have the director sit behind me. Because of this, I had to record, engineer, and mix all the original music myself. It was kinda spooky actually. I also became the music editor because I couldn’t meet up with a music editor, and that’s not something you can easily do over video chat. So there was a lot more work than usual, but if I were to be completely honest, I was also given more freedom than usual. And that was kind of amazing. We always laugh that the entire music department of Willy’s ..is Émoi.
You scored Willy’s Wonderland, wrote and performed original songs and also voiced the animatronic character Willy. It has been brought to my attention that not many composers have filled all these shoes, the only other one that comes to mind is Danny Elfman in A Nightmare Before Christmas. Creatively, what was the best part of working on this film?
That comparison is very flattering, thank you! Wow. Well, I grew up just a few miles from the original Chuck E. Cheese, as well as Bullwinkle’s. So to say I spent a lot of time at those establishments would be an understatement. To have the opportunity to go back into that world, is one of the most exciting things about Willy’s. I was able to sew into the music so much of what my own childhood felt like (horror films and Chuck E. Cheese). The music references on Willy’s were actually my memories, and recreating what that world truly felt like back then, was my primary objective.
The director, Kevin Lewis, has said that he wanted the film to have a vintage 80s feel. Do your musical contributions match that vibe?
Definitely. I think one of the things that makes Willy’s Wonderland stand out, is that so many films today are going for that vintage 80’s vibe. But they rely too heavily on nostalgia (i.e. characters wearing 80’s shirts, listening to 80’s music, having The Goonies poster on their wall, etc.). Willy’s is not trying to be an 80’s movie. It is an 80’s movie philosophically. Just made in 2020. There is no pop culture nostalgia, it’s completely the kind of script that would typically never get green-lit other than in the 80’s. And the music follows suit.
Where did you get the inspiration for Willy’s voice?
When I was watching the dailies and saw how Willy looked and moved, He reminded me of Christian Slater. You know how Christian Slater often plays that dark comedy psychopath with his hands in air? But also, Willy lures these kids into his Wonderland, a lot like a Pinocchio type thing. And Willy is orange. So I decided to make him a cross between Christian Slater and Lampwick from Disney’s Pinocchio. He looks and sounds furry and friendly – but again, something is ‘off’.
By the trailer, many people are comparing Willy’s Wonderland to Five Nights at Freddy’s. What do you think of this comparison?
Honestly, I never heard of Five Nights at Freddy’s until Willy’s was well into post production. No one working on the film ever mentioned it once. In my opinion the real father of this genre is actually Chuck E. Cheese himself / Showbiz Pizza. Anyone who grew up going to those places knows that even though they were a lot of fun, they were spooky. Chuck always seemed to have a broken eyeball that stared right at you, or one of the other characters would malfunction and start singing the wrong lyrics. And how many narratives can you really create for this concept? A janitor? A night patrol person? Who else might be in one of these places in the middle of the night? I’m actually surprised the killer animatronic family event center genre didn’t happen sooner. But ya, I’m sure Freddy’s is great, but give the credit to Chuck!
How involved was Kevin Lewis in the scoring process? What were his main notes about what he wanted the score to sound like?
I was brought on before filming to write the character songs that the animatronics would sing. When Kevin and I got on the phone for the first time we just hit it off like old friends. We turned into cult film nerds together, and have been on the same page ever since. We agreed early on that while we wanted the film to feel 80’s – we also wanted it to be very original. If there is one thing I am most proud of, it is not the music by itself, but how we (as a team) created a very unique world that is super fun to play in. Willy’s is a one of kind film in so many respects thanks to the vision of Kevin and the incredible producing team behind us.
There are many demonic animatronics in Willy’s Wonderland. Which one was your favorite? Why?
I’m a little bias towards Willy, so let’s skip him for a second. I’d say Siren Sara because she’s a sexy, tricky, vicious little thing. If Willy is the king, I’d say Siren is the queen.
Many thanks to Émoi for taking the time for this interview.
Willy’s Wonderland will be available on VOD February 12th.