Tim Burton’s eccentric and lavish 2005 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” starring Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka, earned good reviews and more than $475 million worldwide. But the version that still gets a big, sweet conversation heart from fans after 40 years is the 1971 “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” which was made for about $147 million less than Burton’s.
Directed by Mel Stuart from a script by Dahl, the first “Willy Wonka” stars Gene Wilder as the mysterious candy man and Peter Ostrum as Charlie, the poor young boy who gets a golden ticket to visit Wonka’s chocolate factory. The fantasy also features a score written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, which includes the hit tune “The Candy Man” and the song “Pure Imagination.” (The latter recently served as the backdrop of a recent “Saturday Night Live” sketch, in which Andy Samberg impersonated Wilder, offering guest host Ben Stiller not a colorful array of candy but rather a magical world of deli food.)
Warner Home Video recently released the Blu-ray/DVD pack “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition,” which features extras such as the documentary “Pure Imagination: The Story of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and “Mel Stuart’s Wonkavision.”
Stuart, now 83, is a recipient of four Emmy Awards, a Peabody and an Oscar nomination. Besides directing “Wonka” and such features as 1969’s “If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium,” he has directed numerous acclaimed documentaries, including 1964’s “Four Days in November” and 1974’s “Wattstax.” He’s currently at work on a new documentary, “Shakespeare in Watts.”
He took time out from his schedule to chat with Hero Complex contributor Susan King about “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”
SK: What was the genesis of “Willy Wonka”?
MS: It’s very funny. I have always made documentaries and serious films. The reason this came about is that my daughter insisted at dinner…. She said, “Daddy, I just read a book called ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and you have to make a movie about it.” She was 11. I said, “Sweetheart, I don’t make movies about children’s books. I make serious documentaries like ‘The Making of a President’ or ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.’ ” She said, “I don’t care, Daddy, you have to make this into a movie.” She kept going at me about it, so I read the book. By a very lucky incident, we were doing documentaries for Quaker Oats, and Quaker Oats wanted [to manufacture a] chocolate bar. We said we have a great picture all about chocolate. You [can call them] Wonka bars. And they gave me $2.8 million, and we went and made the movie.
SK: Why wasn’t the film a hit at the time of release. What went wrong?
MS: The studio that distributed it, Paramount, really didn’t get it. In fact, Radio Music City Hall in New York wanted to take it, and they turned them down. So they put it in the Bronx and a few places, and it sort of died. The distribution was very bad. They didn’t get behind it.
There was no cable in those days. There were no VCRs. No way to distribute a film except in a movie theater. Suddenly, cable came in and somebody got the brilliant idea — let’s put it on some cable station — and they put it against the Super Bowl. Kids [who watched it] wanted to see it again. Then you had VCRs, and everybody could get a hold of it.
SK: How did you choose Gene Wilder?
MS: It’s interesting. They wanted Fred Astaire, and I thought he was too old and too elegant. Then they wanted Joel Grey, who is a great actor, but he wasn’t tall enough. And he didn’t have the majesty that you needed for Wonka. We cast Gene at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Gene walked in and read a few lines from the book. He walked out of the room, and I [told executive producer David Wolper], “Dave, he is Wonka. We got to have him.” I raced to the elevator and I said, “Gene, you’ve got the part.”
SK: Peter Ostrum, who plays Charlie, never made another movie.
MS: Peter came from Cleveland. He was going to a school for actors. He came in, and he had that innocent face. After the movie, he was offered of a lot of jobs, but he became a veterinarian. A lot of people get affected by the glamour of movies…. I have great respect for people who really know what they want to do and are good at it.
SK: Wilder’s performance is quite remarkable — he’s funny, touching, crazy and a bit ruthless. You don’t really know until the end if he’s really evil.
MS: We deliberately did that. We wanted you to not know what he was going to do next. It is all set up in the very opening. Gene and I talked about it — how is he going to come out of the factory? I think Gene came up with the idea, and I loved it, that he would come out with a cane…. He looks disabled, and it’s just the opposite of what he’s [really] like in the movie. Everybody was shook up a bit.
Both Gene and I felt that this was a movie for adults. I will give you one of my favorite examples: The gum-chewing girl becomes a bubble, and the father goes up to Wonka and says, “What are you doing? You made my daughter into a bubble of chewing gum.” Gene looks at him and says, “Tell me where is fancy bred, in the heart or the head?” First of all, it’s a very deep thought. It comes from “The Merchant of Venice.” It was a mature comedy as far as we were concerned.
SK: You shot this in Munich, Germany.
MS: We didn’t have a lot of money. We did the whole movie in Munich for two reasons: We could afford it, and I didn’t want anybody to know where and when the movie was made. You can’t tell me what year it’s made in, and you can’t tell me where it’s made, because nobody knows what Decembers in Munich look like. So the whole movie keeps fresh.
SK: How did you choose Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newly to do the music?
MS: I got a call from David Wolper, the executive producer, and from Quaker Oats — this is after everything is in the works — saying we have to have music. My first thought of it was, “Oh, my God….” I wanted to make this very realistic, so that you would believe it. Well, I was wrong [about not wanting music]. I am so glad that they all wanted music.
We began to look for a composer. I knew Hank Mancini, but he wasn’t able to do it at the time. Someone got the idea to get Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley to do the score. I was still here in Los Angeles, and they came [to my house], sat down and Anthony Newley starts singing “Pure Imagination.” I said, “My God, it’s fantastic.” The whole thing was so gorgeous, I really knew it was really going to help.
SK: What did you think of the Tim Burton remake, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”?
MS: Dear sweetheart, I don’t want to go and knock it. I always say, “What do you think of it?”
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