The set-up for Willy’s Wonderland is wild. Directed by Kevin Lewis, the film centers around a defunct Chuck E. Cheese-type entertainment center called Willy’s Wonderland. However, it’s not an economic slump or lack of interest that has caused Willy’s to become boarded up. Oh, no. There’s no logical explanation here. The true story behind Willy’s closed doors is much darker, much more murderous than that. Ensnaring the entire surrounding town in it’s bloodthirsty web, the animatronic creatures existing within Willy’s walls have become as dangerous as they are hungry. After years of feasting on hapless tourists and stupid teens, the town’s power dynamic finally begins to shift when a mysterious, quiet stranger (Nicolas Cage) begins to clean up Willy’s for good.
Bonkers from beginning to end, premise to execution, Willy’s Wonderland required a composer with a specialized set of skills and a keen sense of humor. Luckily, the production found a composer who not only fit the profile but had been patiently waiting for this exact type of absurdity to cross his desk. Known professionally as Émoi (pronounced /e.mwa/), Willy’s Wonderland marks the killer feature film debut for the talented California-based composer. I recently had the extreme pleasure of chatting with Émoi and we talked all about Willy’s Wonderland, how he became the voice for Willy the Weasel and of course, scoring Nicolas Cage. For even more information on the film, make sure to check out Kimberly Elizabeth’s review of the film, HERE!
“I’ve told everybody and I mean this with the most sincerity, there is no other movie on the planet Earth I would have rather scored. That’s how much I love this script.”
Rachel Reeves for Nightmare on Film Street: Tell us a little bit about how you first got involved with Willy’s Wonderland and why you wanted to tackle it for your first feature film score.
Émoi: The way I got involved was through Grant Cramer and he’s the guy who plays Mike Tobacco in Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Years ago I met Grant at a production company. He walked in and had a camera over half his face, but he started talking and I instantly recognized his voice. It’s creepy I know. (laughs) So I said, ‘Wait a second. Are you fucking Mike Tobacco from Killer Klowns from Outer Space!?’ He just lowers the camera, he’s beet red, everyone starts laughing and I’m just like, ‘Oh my god!’ I’ve probably seen Killer Klowns 7,000 times. We ended up chatting, really hitting it off and became friends. I’ve been doing commercial composing, some short films, but I’ve always talked to Grant about how awesome it would be to do a feature film, if it was the right feature film.
When I work on commercial music, a lot of times there’s a certain sound that commercials are going for. It has to be very aspirational, anthemic. These are the adjectives typically thrown around in the commercial world. Little do these clients know that even though I can create that stuff, my true passion lies in the more dark, whimsical world of music. So I told Grant, ‘If a horror movie ever comes your way, or any really weird, cool, trippy thing, let me know.’ A while later he calls me up and says, ‘Hey. Are you ready to score your first film?’ So he sends me the script, I read the script and instantly I just knew, this is the dream. I’m not even joking. I’ve told everybody and I mean this with the most sincerity, there is no other movie on the planet Earth I would have rather scored. That’s how much I love this script. I feel so lucky for this to be my first film out of the gate. I actually told Grant, ‘I don’t want to score this.’ He was like, ‘What!?’ And then I go…’I have to score this.’
So, Grant brought it up to the team and they started thinking about it. And when I read the script, there’s a song in there with a lyric that says, ‘It’s your birthday, and we want you to have fun. It’s your birthday and let’s party everyone.’ I then took those lyrics and I did a demo without them asking for it. I put together ‘The Birthday Song’ and ‘Willy’s Jingle’ and I did Willy’s voice and everything on it. And when I sent it to them, they just loved it. It’s hard when a composer hasn’t scored a film before. It’s a big commitment to go with a composer who’s never scored a full length feature. The workload is so immense and you have to know that someone can actually do it. So, when Grant showed them that, Kevin the director became the first massive champion of ‘The Birthday Song.’ He ended up actually using it on set before I even signed my contract. It kind of locked me in that way.
NOFS: On top of the film’s score, you also do the voice of Willy throughout the film. Did that kind of happen organically? Or did you know that going in once you signed on to the project?
É: It was really organic. I of course didn’t think they would cast me as Willy. I thought they’d end up getting Gary Sinise or something. Some big character actor like Steve Buscemi or something like that. But on the demo that I sent them, I was thinking about my childhood and how at Chuck E. Cheese, the characters always interacted with each other on stage. So just for fun I added, ‘Hey kids! Do you know what time it is? It’s birthday time!’ Then it went into the music. And they loved it! When it came time, they just weren’t casting anyone for Willy. So I sent them an email just saying, ‘Of course I know you’ll replace the voice and I’m sure you’re looking at actors.’ I just wanted them to know that, even though I’d been singing the songs for months, I understood if they wanted to get a pro for it. But I got an email back saying, ‘Nope. We fucking love what you did with it.’ That was it. I couldn’t believe it. I was so stoked.
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“[The music] needed to make it feel 80s, but organically. Not trying to copy anything or anybody, but more making you feel like you are in that vibe.”
NOFS: The premise of the film is so wild I feel like it could have gone a lot of different ways sonically. What were some of the early conversations like with Kevin Lewis regarding the score’s direction?
É: The initial conversation I had with Kevin, I was actually standing exactly where I’m standing right now talking to you. (laughs) We jumped on a call and it was our ‘Get to Know You’ conversation. He figured out really quick that I knew a ton about cult movies and that this genre was my genre. We just turned into two little fanboys, going back and forth about all the movies we grew up watching. The one thing for Kevin and I that was mutually important was that it feel 80s, but that we also wanted it to be original. Because of that, there wasn’t really much reference. It was more how we wanted it to feel.
When you look at a lot of the movies that have come out in the past 5 years or so that are 80s spin-off movies, they rely so much on nostalgia. But if you take out that nostalgia, there’s often not a great premise. They’re trying to recreate that 80s feel, but they do it by having Cyndi Lauper posters on the wall and stuff people will react to other than making the film feel truly 80s. Willy’s was a script that never would have gotten green-lit in any other decade. I don’t even know how they made it happen. I know it was very, very tricky. It almost got killed many times and it took a lot of work to get this movie over the finish line.
But there’s no nostalgia in the movie. No nostalgia at all. In fact, he [The Janitor] drives a modern car. He’s wearing a leather jacket. Nothing is a direct reference to the 80s, so that became a big thing about the music. It needed to make it feel 80s, but organically. Not trying to copy anything or anybody, but more making you feel like you are in that vibe. So that’s what we did. I ate a lot of Reese’s Pieces while I was working on it, ate pineapple pizza and tried to see if there was still an Icee machine somewhere. Maybe a roller rink. I tried everything I could do to put myself back in that place again.
NOFS: In the film, Nic Cage doesn’t utter a single word. Although he’s still undeniably charismatic, this character choice created a heavy dependency on visual and auditory cues to fill in the gaps. So I’m curious, how did you approach The Janitor character and develop his signature sound?
É: That’s a great question. Nobody has asked me that question yet and I was hoping somebody would! That was something Kevin and I discussed because he doesn’t talk in the movie. The music has to be his voice. One of the other things that Kevin had said in the beginning was that, Willy’s is punk rock. I don’t know if he meant that as a musical cue, but more so as an overall vibe for the movie. And on top of that, the movie is a western. If you really think about it, at the heart and soul of Willy’s, it is a western. This guy who doesn’t talk, shows up in town and cleans the place up. Even though she’s not a damsel in distress because she’s a badass herself, The Janitor kind of rescues Liv (Emily Tosta) from her horrible situation and they take off in the horse, aka the Camaro.
Also, Ennio Morricone had died right around this time and he is one of my absolute favorite composers. I’ve never said this before, but in a way, that Janitor theme was an ode to Morricone. And The Janitor theme is sewn throughout the whole movie, but it takes on different personalities depending on how he is feeling. So in that whole thing about giving The Janitor a voice, when he first shows up The Janitor theme is a western sound with a little distorted guitar, just to let you know this motherfucker will fuck you up. (laughs) Also just a little bit of edginess, a little punk rock vibe just to let you know this guy is cool and he’s slick, but he can do some damage.
“[Nicolas Cage] doesn’t talk in the movie. The music has to be his voice […] I’ve never said this before, but in a way, that Janitor theme was an ode to Morricone.”
The next time The Janitor theme pops up is when he discovers the pinball machine. So the pinball romance song is actually The Janitor theme, but a jazzy, sexy rendition. This is because when he pulls that tarp off, you see in his eyes that he is now looking at something from his past. It means a lot to him or meant a lot to him. Every time he cleans it he’s gently caressing it. This pinball machine was his era, this was his arcade game and it’s where he gets to be a kid again. When he fights Knighty Knight, The Janitor theme takes on more of an epic Excalibur type of sound and we’re really starting to see how badass this janitor is. And then at the end, The Janitor theme is also part of the Willy battle. But now it’s more of this epic, over encompassing theme will all of the kid voices.
The kid voices to me represented the spirits of the ghosts that haunt Willy’s. It’s like these kids are now cheering him on as he fights Willy. All of the souls that must have been lost in that place. When he drives off with Liv, it kicks off again but is the rockabilly version that lets us know, we’ve beaten it and this is just fun. We’re driving off into the sunset and you can exhale now. It was a very important theme because there were two themes that were going to thread the whole movie together. One was The Janitor’s theme and the other was Willy’s theme, The Birthday Song.
NOFS: I don’t know if you’ve really thought about this, but by doing this movie you’ve entered a very special group of composers. You’ve now scored a Nic Cage improvised dance scene, multiple Nic Cage montages and multiple Nic Cage fight scenes. With animatronic creatures no less! What was it like scoring these classic Nic Cage moments? Did you ever just…
É: Pinch myself? (laughs) It was surreal! Honestly, surreal. I’ve always loved Nic Cage and it was just surreal scoring these moments. And just looking at him! Some of the critics have come back and said, ‘Oh, it’s just an easy paycheck. He doesn’t have to talk through the whole thing.’ But gosh, I couldn’t disagree more with that. I feel like he gave everything to this movie. I feel like the fact that he didn’t talk, the subtlety that he put into his body language, every look and every stare. I mean, I know it so well because I’ve been looking at it for the past year and it never really got old. Every time I looked at it I was just like, ‘My god this guy is good.’ Who else can do this? Silently! You really can just watch Nic Cage exist and feel fulfilled. It’s unbelievable. I had to pinch myself quite a few times.
“I’ve always loved Nic Cage and it was just surreal scoring these moments […] I had to pinch myself quite a few times.”
NOFS: Not only was this your first feature film score, you had the COVID curveball thrown at you too. Did that affect your job at all?
É: Hugely. It hugely affected the job. It was such a trip. They got really lucky because they finished shooting a week or two before the pandemic was announced. And this is something we’ve never dealt with in our lifetime. So, how do we really navigate it? We had to make it up as we went. I actually made this demo that I sent in. When you’re on Zoom, it’s hard. When you’re conveying super creative thoughts like music, nothing beats meeting in person. You just can’t. It’s not just what’s said, it’s the energy of the person in the room that you have to read. That way you know if you’re on the right track or the wrong track and how they’re really feeling about it. Not only that, but they can sit behind you for several hours and say, what if we tried this? What if we tried that? To do that over a chat, then go back to your desk, post it and then wait for them to respond, it would take forever. Because of that, they had to put a lot of trust in me and give me a lot of freedom. It was tough. I couldn’t have any studio musicians.
There’s a couple of the actors that sing on the child songs, so we had to have them recorded separately without a click track and then send it in. Then I had to sync it in. Typically, in the real world, I’d just have them come to the studio, they’d know exactly where the start and end point is and life is so much easier. This was totally different. I had to sing on the song, and they had to try to match me the best they can. It was very challenging. Of course, every movie has a music editor which edits the music as the movie is edited. And on this, I was the music editor as well. It was insane and so much work I can’t even tell you. So on the next project, I hope to have a little bit of a team which will help everything just move faster. The one good thing coming out of it of course was the amount of control that that affords you. When you’re the editor, you get to choose where your music is cut and how everything flows.
NOFS: Moving forward, would you like to do more work in the horror scoring arena? Any filmmakers that you’d been keen to work with?
É: I would definitely love to stay in the horror genre for a bit. I love fantasy film and I love horror films that are in the vein of Willy’s Wonderland. I’m not so much a gory, slasher-y fan as much as I am a fun, comedic, dark comedy horror fan. So that’s more the realm that I’d like to stay in. Any of that stuff would be amazing. As far as other filmmakers, I had such a good time working with this team, I think the next film will probably be with them to be honest. I really loved working with everybody and they’re a bunch of weirdos. But it takes a bunch of weirdos to make a movie this weird. (laughs)
Willy’s Wonderland is now available to stream on VOD. You can also learn more about Émoi by checking out his website here. Have you checked out Willy’s Wonderland yet? Have a favorite Cage moment from the film? Let us know over to Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook, and get more horror delivered straight to your inbox by joining the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.