Three Weeks Ago Director Kevin Lewis Thought He Might Die From COVID, Now He’s Promoting ‘Willy’s Wonderland’

Reading Kevin Lewis’s first-hand account of being a COVID patient in the ICU on a ventilator is a harrowing experience. And with all due respect to his new film, the Nicolas Cage thriller Willy’s Wonderland, his film can’t come close to the terror Lewis experienced himself. As Lewis tells it, it was his publicist who suggested Lewis go public about what had happened. That maybe his story could help others experiencing something similar, or as a warning to still remain diligent and safe. Way down the list, though, it’s certainly a unique situation to be a director who came to the brink of death, only to recover just in time for the release of your breakout movie. (I’ve been doing this a long time and, yes, this is a new one.)

In Willy’s Wonderland, Nicolas Cage plays the Janitor, a character who doesn’t speak for the entirety of the film, who takes a job as a local clean-up guy at a local kids pizza parlor to pay off some auto repair charges. But it turns out the Chuck E. Cheese-type animatronic characters are possessed by demons. Again, this film is, finally, Lewis’s big break as the director and almost wasn’t around to see it.

How are you doing?

I’m alive, buddy. I’m alive.

Yeah, that question wasn’t politeness.

I love it. I’m getting better and stronger every day. My wife is a nurse, so that’s really great. She really keeps me on track and I’m here, pal. I’m talking to you and I’m very happy.

Your publicist was pretty worried.

He’s amazing. You know, he said something really chilling to me. When I got out of the hospital he’s like, “You know, I was going to write an email and tell all the industry about you,” basically, if I didn’t make it. And he said, “I’m glad I didn’t have to write that email.”

You wrote about this experience. It’s pretty harrowing.

You know I came home and I just, man, I wasn’t even home 24 hours and I just sat down and I wrote this piece. So the article got out there and it’s just, it’s been great. And if I can inspire people? And I don’t want to take away from Willy, because Willy is like the exact opposite, right? It’s a fun, leave your brain at the door movie. You know, it’s just a gonzo crazy movie. And I was like, “God, the director gets COVID and depressed.” But then I was talking to some friends and they’re like, “I think you should totally do that.” And like I said, when I got home, I just wrote that piece. It just poured out of me. Probably I wrote it like 15, 20 minutes. Just, bam.

Have you got any blowback from the “hoax” crowd?

Oh, it’s crazy. It’s crazy. I would talk to the nurses and doctors and they’d say the same thing. They’re like, “We’d like to drag these people in here and have them see.” But you can’t go in when it’s COVID. So I’m in the ICU, my wife and kids can’t even come visit me. Nobody can come. So it’s just, you’re isolated there, right? And so they said the same thing. My roommate was Ronald, he’s like 80 years old. He’s out of it, he had a feeding tube and I was hearing the FaceTime calls with his kids and the grandkids, and then his sister saying, “You’re the best brother.” And I was hearing the goodbyes. I was telling him to fight. He can’t even hear me, he’s out of it. I’m telling him to fight. I’m fighting. And then I get the good news from the doc a week later, and I feel guilty for Ronald because I don’t think he’s going to make it. And I know he’s older than me and all that, but then you do feel guilty because I do feel for people. And then getting wheeled out and seeing the other people in the ICU. And the nurse, when he said he can count on two hands the people in the ICU who make it. And when you hear that and they’re talking about you and you can’t really do anything, it’s really the most vulnerable spot you’ve ever been in, you know? But I’m here and I’m talking to you. And the movie’s doing well. The audience is really responding to it. Critics, some critics are great. Some critics…

Well, you even called it a leave your brain at the door, gonzo movie. There’s always going to be a split with that type of movie.

Oh, totally. You know what’s cool? In the hospital I was showing the trailer to everybody and even doctors and nurses from other floors were coming in to see the trailer. And what was cool, too, was people already were planning to see the movie. I’m getting my IVs in and they’re asking about how was it working with Nic.

Yeah, I bet you got asked that a lot.

My son was turning 16 on that Thursday, and then Friday the movie was coming out. I said, Doc, I got to be home, man. That’s the goal. Get me out of here. That really kept me going, too. In the nights thinking about Nic beating the tar out of Willy, and just how we shot it and the images of the Janitor with my head cranked at a 90-degree angle with that tube up your mouth and nostrils. And I’ll tell you when you can’t breathe, it’s a scary, scary thing.

When did you know things weren’t right?

So, two days before I went into the hospital I had like four interviews and I did a couple of podcasts. And I was coughing and coughing and coughing. And so I was guzzling this honey tea and popping lozenges. But I was spent, I was exhausted. Then I did this phone interview and same kind of thing. I didn’t cough. And I talked a lot about COVID and it was, I don’t know, subconscious because I was feeling sick before. And the thing is, Mike, I didn’t know that COVID was killing me at that time.

I see your point about talking about this and the movie. Because if this were like on the radio or something, you hear that story, then, “Well, go see Willy’s Wonderland. A great time at the movies!”

[Laughs] I know. And I didn’t want that to take away from Willy’s. I want everyone to have a good time. But my publicist was like, I really think you should talk about it. And he’s the maestro. When he says something to me, I’m listening. This is my first real PR.

This is a very unique situation. Most directors don’t fight death off to come back just in time for their movie to come out.

I know. Isn’t that weird?

It’s very weird.

I know.

Nic Cage doesn’t talk in this movie. Was there ever a thought to let have him say something clever at the very end or not?

Well, in the original script there was. He says one line. And my whole thing was, he’s not speaking this whole movie that one line has to really be impactful, right? And it has to be something iconic and worked really hard on that. But then when I talked to Nic he said to me, “The Janitor speaks only when he needs to and he doesn’t need to.” And I was like, I agree. So no lines.

You know, in retrospect he could have looked at the camera and just said, “Wear a mask,” and then credits.

[Laughs] Well, he does wash his hands.

You mentioned earlier the critics who didn’t like it. Do you even care? Like how can you care?

It’s funny you say that because I remember on one of my movies, somebody wanted to hit me with a car because they hated it so much. So I’ve had my fair share of bad reviews. But no, I don’t care. I care that the audience likes it.

Well, you almost died. I feel once you go through something like that review, it doesn’t sting quite as much as a ventilator.

No, I agree. I mean, you know what’s funny, it does put things in perspective because I’ve worked in this industry for a long time and I’ve had my share of big battles and I’ve had my share of little wins. But I’ve been so close to the brass ring on so many movies of getting them financed or greenlit or whatever with some pretty big talent and all that … and it never happened. And finally, I get this movie and it’s the biggest budget I’ve worked with. And then, like you said, I go get COVID and go into the hospital and it’s just all out the window. So, yeah, I mean, I’m feeling better and I’m here. I’m alive and it’s great. And I love talking to you.

‘Willy’s Wonderland’ is available to stream via Amazon Prime, iTunes, and other VOD platforms. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.