Willy Wonka director Mel Stuart on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
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What do you get when you take a popular children’s book, manufacture an adult-friendly screenplay, sprinkle in a handful of inspired songs, and wrap it up in a movie produced by a food conglomerate for the purpose of launching a new chocolate bar? Of course, you get Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the classic 1971 film that has become one of the most popular movies of all time. Despite its legacy, Willy Wonka wasn’t a hit from the get-go. Much like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz, it took television to turn the film into a popular and commercial success. In “Pure Imagination” (St. Martin’s Press), director Mel Stuart tells the inside story of the making of Willy Wonka and provides his personal take on what’s right and wrong with his timeless good-versus-evil morality tale.
According to Stuart, his 12-year-old daughter Madeline was the person most responsible for Willy Wonka. “I would have never read ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ [by Roald Dahl], but Madeline liked it and asked me to make it into a picture,” he recalls. “Otherwise it would have never been made.”
While Madeline had no idea how difficult it was to get a feature film produced, Stuart—director of If it’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium and the documentaries The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Four Days in November—was acutely aware of the challenges. Stuart showed the book to producer David L. Wolper, who by chance, had a meeting scheduled with the Quaker Oats Company, which happened to be looking for a vehicle to introduce a new chocolate bar. “He never quite read the whole book,” remembers Stuart, “but he knew what the story was and he told them, ‘I’ve got the perfect thing. It’s a movie about a man who has a chocolate factory and makes Wonka bars. Give me the money to make this picture.’”
A Fistful Of Dollars
Despite having no experience in the movie industry, Quaker Oats bought the rights to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and agreed to finance the film. “The whole picture was supposed to be a tie-in—the first of the tie-in’s on a grand scale,” says Stuart. But aside from strictly enforcing the film’s $2.9 million budget, Quaker left all the creative decisions to Stuart, Wolper and co-producer Stan Margulies, a dream situation for filmmakers accustomed to meddling from Hollywood executives. “Since it wasn’t being made for a studio there was no interference with our dream,” notes Stuart. “A great deal of the success of the picture came about because there were no executives telling us how they thought things should be.”
The first challenge for the filmmakers was to come up with a workable screenplay. As part of the financing deal, it was agreed that Dahl would handle the adaptation. “There were a lot of elements we had to change,” recalls Stuart. “For instance, in the book Charlie didn’t have any test of his honesty. We added that with the Gobstopper. Also, Dahl didn’t have any menace in the book so we got Slugworth to come aboard and threaten Wonka’s project.”
Do The Right Thing
Meanwhile, Stuart felt compelled to address a pair of racially motivated concerns that arose from Dahl’s book. In the illustrations for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” the Oompa-Loompas were depicted as black, pygmy-like Africans, brought over to work for Mr. Wonka. “Some prominent black actors [Stuart declines to name names] came to see me and questioned me about having black Oompa-Loompas working for a white boss,” he says. Already uncomfortable with the slavery-like portrayal, Stuart suggested making the Oompa-Loompa’s an unusual color. “Right on the spot I said I would give them orange faces and green hair, and that’s why they look that way,” he says.
A second concern raised by the African-American actors was the title Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as “Charlie” was a common black expression for a white master. Potential controversy aside, Stuart preferred the title Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but that change had to be sanctioned by Dahl and Quaker Oats, among others. As an alternative, Margulies suggested The Candy Man, but that was rejected because “candy man” was slang for someone who deals in illicit substances. Much to Stuart’s relief, all parties eventually agreed on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Another critical pre-production decision involved adding comic interludes to the script, which provided opportunities to add sophisticated humor and made the film more accessible to adults. In regards to the comedic bits Stuart has only two regrets. “When the South American newscaster holds up the photo of the fifth Golden Ticket winner—who we know is a fake—it’s a picture of Martin Bormann. The joke was that Bormann was Hitler’s right-hand man and Bormann, in theory, escaped and wound up in Paraguay. But people don’t know who Martin Bormann was and that was my mistake,” laments Stuart.
The other regret concerns the music that opens up the factory. “When Wonka plays the little tune it’s the overture to The Marriage of Figaro. I should have played Beethoven’s Fifth [symphony] and then when she [Mrs. Teevee] says ‘Rachmaninoff’ it would be funny. Most people think it is Rachmaninoff. That was a conceit on my part and I shouldn’t have done it. For the people that get it it’s funny and for the people that don’t it’s not on long enough to make them uncomfortable,” he says.
The Sound Of Music
Ironically, when the movie was first conceived, Stuart wanted to avoid doing any musical numbers. “I didn’t want songs,” he says. “I was very afraid of it being like a Disney movie and I’m not particularly fond of Disney movies.”
But ultimately he agreed to bring in the songwriting team of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, who used Dahl’s first draft of the script to deliver “The Candy Man,” “Pure Imagination,” “I Want It Now,” “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket,” “Cheer Up Charlie” and “Oompa-Loompa-Doompadee-Doo.” Their efforts earned them an Academy Award nomination for Best Scoring, Adaptation and Original Song Score.
Although Stuart concedes he was wrong about including music, he remains glad he didn’t bow to pressure “to do a big scene like in Oliver when the whole town starts running up and down the streets yelling, ‘I’ve got a Golden Ticket.’ You have to believe that somebody might sing a song. If we went out in the street with a thousand people, goodbye reality,” he says.
Of course, Stuart was well aware that casting the right actors would be especially critical for a movie like Willy Wonka. A few of the bit parts were easy. Stuart cast Madeline as a student in Charlie’s classroom (she was paid $50), while son Peter was tabbed to play Winkleman (he was paid in Wonka bars). But, obviously, Willy Wonka was the key role. In “Pure Imagination” Stuart notes, “I needed someone with a commanding presence who could walk the line between seeming madness, and innocence, someone you could trust and fear at the same time.”
Although it has been a long-standing myth that Fred Astaire was considered for the part, Stuart says the production team never pictured Wonka as an old man (Astaire was 72 at the time), and couldn’t have afforded him anyway. In reality, the first actor considered was Joel Grey, a Broadway star who could sing and dance with the best, but wasn’t physically imposing enough for the role.
According to Stuart, the producers had been auditioning actors for a solid week at a suite in New York’s Plaza Hotel when Mr. Wonka finally presented himself. “Gene [Wilder] walked in and I knew he was Willy Wonka,” says Stuart. “We didn’t have to go any further. His look, his persona, his ability to be bad yet in control was a vital part of the picture.” The producers’ choice was validated by critics when Wilder was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Actor in a Musical/Comedy. Wilder would receive $150,000 to play the part.
Meanwhile, the producers worked with casting directors in New York, London and Munich to find children who could play Charlie Bucket, Violet Beauregarde, Mike Teevee [film credit spelling], Veruca Salt and Augustus Gloop. They found Peter Ostrum (Charlie) in Cleveland, Denise Nickerson (Violet) and Paris Themmen (Mike) in New York, Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca) in England and Michael Bollner (Augustus) in Munich. Most of the group already had significant acting experience before arriving on the set.
The Parent Trap
For the adult roles, Stuart cast Jack Albertson (Grandpa Joe), Roy Kinnear (Mr. Salt), Diana Sowle (Charlie’s mother), David Battley (Mr. Turkentine, the schoolteacher), Aubrey Woods (Bill, the candy man), Günter Meisner (Mr. Slugworth), Leonard Stone (Mr. Beauregarde) and Dodo Denny (Mrs. Teevee). In hindsight, the most interesting thing about the adult cast was who didn’t appear. Jim Backus—best remembered for his role on Gilligan’s Island—was considered as Veruca’s father, but Stuart felt he was too recognizable to be a part of the ensemble. And, just a few weeks before filming was to commence, Stuart found the actress he wanted to play Mrs. Teevee, offering her the part on the spot. She told him she needed a day to consider her options, for she had just been offered the female lead in a new television series. The actress, Jean Stapleton, called the next day to decline, instead accepting the role of Edith Bunker in All In The Family.
Last but not least came the challenge of finding Oompa-Loompas. “That was very difficult,” recalls Stuart. “There’s not that many little people around—dwarfs or midgets—and we had to go all over Europe to find them. There was one from Turkey, one from Malta and one from Germany. Some of them didn’t speak English. The first time I met them four of them came in and sat on a couch. I felt kinda weird so I sat on the floor so I could be at eye level.”
But the leader of the group—a British actor named Rusty Goffe—was instantly identifiable. “As soon as I knew he had played in Shakespeare I knew we were in good shape,” says Stuart. Today, Goffe is one of the few Oompa-Loompa’s still alive. “He has been married twice—both times to tall, beautiful blonde women—and is still active in the theater,” notes Stuart.
Looking back. Stuart considers himself lucky that the Oompa-Loompa’s were patient and always willing to work hard. Between the elaborate makeup—an hour to put on and an hour to take off—and intricate dance routines, the Oompa-Loompa’s had some of the most demanding parts. “It took a lot of rehearsal,” recalls Stuart, “because you can’t do great dance steps with little arms and little legs.”
Nevertheless, like the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, the Oompa-Loompa’s knew how to have a good time off the set. “Our construction engineer, Hank Wynands, told me that when he would go out with them he couldn’t keep up with their drinking. They would go into town and drink and carry on and have a wild time,” remembers Stuart.
The town to which Stuart refers was Munich, chosen as the locale because it was well suited to accomodate Wonka’s factory. Munich was significantly less expensive than Hollywood and also had one of the biggest soundstages in Europe, an important consideration when your set includes a chocolate river. But an equally important consideration was that the location would not be instantly recognizable, so as to give the film a timeless quality. “I was very careful that you don’t know what city it’s in and you don’t know what time it’s in,” notes Stuart.
A River Runs Through It
With the location secured the crew began building the set, the centerpiece of which was the Chocolate Room. The set designer, Harper Goff, was charged with creating Wonka’s fantasyland during a time period when computer-generated effects were still a distant reality. “People have asked me, ‘Wouldn’t you like to do it today with all the special effects?’ And I say, no. You believe because there isn’t anything in there that you can’t believe could actually be. I think special effects would have hurt the film in the long run,” reports Stuart.
Naturally, no portion of the set presented more challenges than the two-foot-deep chocolate river, which was created by adding buckets of chocolate ice cream mix to 150,000 gallons of water. However, the sour smell that arose from the water permeated the entire soundstage and required the crew to add salt conditioner and a variety of other chemicals to control the odor. Meanwhile, the impact of the chocolate waterfall caused a foaming effect that turned the river white. “The water was foaming so much it would mess up the scenes,” recalls Stuart. “So we sent the construction manager to Hamburg to get an anti-shampoo bubble formula, and put that into the water.”
After that the river looked great, except to Michael Bollner (Augustus), who had to dive headfirst into the cold, chocolate-flavored chemical mix half-a-dozen times while shooting his exit scene. Bollner was further punished for Augustus’ gluttony by being stuffed in a pipe filled with the muddy mixture.
The Color Purple
Fittingly, all of the child actors except Peter Ostrum (Charlie) suffered for their characters’ misbehavior. Denise Nickerson paid for Violet’s incessant gum-chewing by spending her last day on the set inside a Styrofoam blueberry ball, her face covered with purple makeup. “When she first turns purple, that was done with lighting gels,” says Stuart. “But when she was rolling around I couldn’t possibly follow her with the light so we had to put makeup on her face. Since getting her into the Styrofoam ball was a 45-minute procedure she had to remain inside all day, rotated a quarter-turn every fifteen minutes to ensure good blood circulation. However, the Styrofoam didn’t provide much protection from outside shocks. The Oompa-Loompa’s—too short to see exactly where they were pushing her—repeatedly rolled her into the metal door frame while attempting to relocate her to the Juicing Room, leaving her body covered in black-and-blue marks.
For Nickerson, the trials didn’t end there. Less than two days later she was back in school in New York City when her classmates began pointing and exclaiming that she was turning purple. “Some of the makeup may have still been in her skin. We couldn’t get it all off,” concedes Stuart. “She jokes that she was never asked out on a date at that school because the boys were afraid she was going to change colors.”
The Kids Are Alright
On the whole, Stuart reports that everyone involved with Willy Wonka was professional, patient and a pleasure to work with. “It was one of the easiest movies I ever made. Nobody had any tantrums and all the kids were marvelous,” he says. But Paris Themmen (Mike) got his comeuppance for his TV addiction when he couldn’t resist toying with the beehive on the set (a prop from the Imagination Room). Themmen was stung when several of the bees escaped.
Ironically, the child who had the pleasure of portraying the nastiest and most obnoxious character may have gotten off the easiest. But Julie Cole (Veruca) was also party to perhaps the film’s ultimate irony. “She didn’t like chocolate at all, so she had to fake her enjoyment in the scene where she eats from the chocolate-filled pumpkin,” laughs Stuart.
Today, in the age of eBay, Stuart wonders how valuable Wonka props would be if they were still in existence. The day after filming was completed all the sets were destroyed. “My son Peter somehow saved Gene Wilder’s hat. It was in my garage for 30 years, all the way in the back,” recalls Stuart. “I saved a Golden Ticket and I saved a lot of [wooden] Wonka bars, but I gave them away over the years. I began to realize that the film might be important when Steven Spielberg asked me to donate something for a Director’s Guild cause. I said, ‘Take a Wonka bar. See if you can get anything for it. It’s just a piece of wood.’ They got a thousand dollars.”
Sweet Smell Of Success
For better or worse, as the film’s release date approached it became clear that Quaker’s chocolate bar wasn’t going to materialize. “They didn’t quite get the ingredients right and abandoned the idea of selling a Wonka bar,” claims Stuart. Without a big marketing campaign from Quaker and without a cohesive promotional strategy from Paramount (the distributor), it seemed doomed to stumble at the box office. Not surprisingly, when the movie was released on July 7, 1971 the box office figures were underwhelming. It ended the year as the #53 film, grossing approximately $4 million. “Maybe it wasn’t time for a family picture,” ponders Stuart, who reminds us that Dirty Harry, Carnal Knowledge and A Clockwork Orange were some of the most popular movies released that year. “In 1971 it was at the end of the Vietnam crisis and all the pictures were really tough.”
Still, signs of future success were evident from the very beginning. For one thing, the reviews were mostly positive, with a young Roger Ebert calling it “the best family film I’ve seen in four years on this job, and probably the best film of its sort since The Wizard of Oz.”
By the mid-‘70s Willy Wonka was occasionally being aired on television, but Paramount wanted no part of the film when its seven-year distribution deal expired in 1977. “There was no money to be made so it went back to Quaker Oats and Quaker owned all the rights. Not being in the movie business Quaker sold the picture to Warner Bros.,” recounts Stuart.
For A Few Dollars More
Of course, when the boom in videocassettes and cable television took hold, Warner Bros. found its $500,000 investment turning into a gold mine. “During the ‘80s it really started to take off and when VHS came in people began to buy it for their kids,” says Stuart. A twenty-fifth anniversary laser disc gave way to a thirtieth anniversary DVD and sales seemed to grow exponentially.
In the ‘90s, the film’s success even led to a Wonka line of candies, as Nestlé licensed the Willy Wonka name and began churning out Wonka bars, Wonka Runts and other chewy candies.
Not surprisingly, all the money now being made has led Hollywood to explore the possibility of a re-make. “I’m honored that they want to try,” says Stuart, “but I don’t see the point. I think Warner [Bros.] could make just as much money selling the videos. Maybe they feel there’s an audience for another take [on the story]. But I think it’s going to be very hard to find another Gene Wilder.”
From Here To Eternity
Ultimately, Stuart believes Willy Wonka’s level of accessibility can be traced back to its conception. “The key is that it was never made for children—it was made for adults and an adult sense of humor. Deep down I think it caught on because it’s cynical and it’s not a kiddie film,” he says. “Almost everybody in the picture—the parents, the kids, everybody except Charlie and Grandpa Joe are rather rotten people. But that’s the attraction.”
Stuart is also quick to credit its escalating popularity to television. “In a strange way, the final test is television because if people want to see it again and again you know the networks are going to put it on for them,” he says. Of course, it also helps that young parents now pass it down to their kids because they like the simple moral message: “Everybody gets their just due,” notes Stuart. “If children act badly then they will be punished and if children act nobly then they will be rewarded. I don’t know if it always works that way in life. But the idea was that if you behave and are honest good things will come to you.”