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5 Screenwriting Takeaways from Nicolas Cage vs. animatronics horror film: 'Willy’s Wonderland'

April 23, 2021
4 min read time

There are very few movies in which the protagonist does not utter a word for a period of time. What makes Willy’s Wonderland truly unique is that the film's star, Oscar® winner Nicolas Cage, does not say a single syllable throughout the 88 minutes of the movie.

Willy’s Wonderland is about a man who is tricked into becoming a janitor at the local abandoned kid party place to pay off the debt on repairs needed for his car. Determined to tackle the job and get his car back, he goes about cleaning up the joint while also fighting a constant wave of evil animatronics.

Willy’s Wonderland turns horror tropes on their heads, offers the meat to satisfy an actor’s appetite for a challenge, and engineers a lot of fun in a familiar setting. Here are five screenwriting takeaways from writer G.O. Parsons’ Willy’s Wonderland.

1. Horror movies need horror tropes

Whether or not the intention is to twist tropes or use them to your advantage, every genre has them. Horror films often have the most recognizable ones. With movies like The Cabin in the Woods, the filmmakers took horror tropes and spun them in both comedic and surprising ways.

Willy’s Wonderland is no exception.

Modern horror films start with something terrifying; it’s the glimpse into what faces the protagonist. This film does that so we both hear music that frequently prefaces an act of violence and the screams of horror as two individuals are brutally murdered. Now the audience knows the possible fate of upcoming characters before those characters do.

Other tropes seen in Willy’s Wonderland include the mysterious and evil past of a location; young teens going into places they shouldn’t  often confidently  and even two teens escaping to have sex, which 25 years ago in Scream was listed as a death sentence in a horror film.

Screenwriters must look at the tropes within the genre they're writing and understand them in the context of their story. It doesn’t make your story less unique to embrace these tropes and it’s important to know them within the genre.

2. Embrace limitations

Willy’s Wonderland was designed around limitations. Parsons had a goal to write a film he could shoot and act in and was limited to the space in his friend’s garage. Along with limits on his locations, he had a specific reason to have the lead character, The Janitor, remain silent.

On Final Draft’s podcast, Parsons admits, “The reason The Janitor doesn’t have any lines is because I thought I would have to fight these things [demonic animatronics] and I would shoot it myself, and wouldn’t have time to learn the lines.”

These limits boosted Parsons’ creative thinking and forced him to consider budget, location and the talent available to make his film. Screenwriters should consider these factors as well when writing. Producers are always thinking about budget and fewer dollars spent means an investment that is less risky.

Character limitations are also good for enticing talent. Parsons sent this script to as many people as he could and it eventually found its way to Cage. He read it, appreciated the challenge of playing a silent character, and signed on.

3. Establish loneliness

A horror movie must find ways to trap the characters in scary circumstances. Sometimes it’s a demon in a little girl’s body, her mother who wants to save her, and the priest who must exorcise the demon (The Exorcist) or trapping a group of 20-somethings in a cabin in the woods in the aptly titled The Cabin in the Woods.

The start of Willy’s Wonderland has The Janitor rolling over spike strips while traveling on a rural road in a town with no Internet. He then gets conned by a mechanic in on the malicious plan to trap him at the play place when the mechanic informs him he must pay $1,000 cash. The Janitor doesn’t have that kind of cash around and because of no Internet, there are no ATMs. The only alternative is to pay off this debt by cleaning the condemned Willy’s Wonderland.

Screenwriters can see the benefits of giving the hero no option to move forward other than the bad one.

4. Flip the script

There is no arc for The Janitor; in fact, he has no backstory. He is the exact same person in his first scene as he is in his last. A character without an arc is truly rare but can work. In fact, there are several main characters in films in multiple genres that don’t have much of an arc at all, including (until recently) James Bond, Forrest Gump and arguably, Ferris Bueller.

Also, most characters in a horror film are running from something trying to kill them and are on the defensive throughout most of the movie. Not in Willy’s Wonderland. The Janitor doesn’t run or even freak out when the animatronics start coming to life and attempting to kill him. He stops cleaning, kicks some ass and then returns to his duties.

Both of the concepts play on the expectations of the audience. What other ways can screenwriters flip the script?

5. Don’t forget the supporting characters

A silent Cage beating up animatronic killers is good fun but would get old fast if it weren’t for the characters that surround him. Each one has a specific reason to be there, and it’s not just to be killed (okay, maybe that’s the case for a few of them).

The supporting characters are critical in this type of film. They become saviors and human villains. They have goals and desires. When the hero of the movie is a bit elusive, these characters give the viewers a connection and a purpose for watching.

Screenwriters should note the importance of defining major supporting characters and how they interact with the lead and within the context of the movie. Liv, played by Emily Tosta, plays a pivotal role and her desire to rid her town of Willy’s Wonderland is crucial to driving a secondary plot.

For screenwriters struggling to create their next body of work, Parsons shares one of many ways he keeps writing and churning out new content.

“Write one page a day," he said.

"After 90 days, you have at minimum a script you can work off of.”

Willy’s Wonderland is now streaming.

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