40 Scrumdiddlyumptious years: Celebrating ‘Willy Wonka’Written by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Hold your breath. Make a wish. Count to three.
“I’ve produced or directed approximately 170 films,” director Mel Stuart said in an interview with Toledo Free Press Star. “But I started in the documentary world. One of my first jobs was as a film researcher for Walter Cronkite’s program ‘The 20th Century,’ which goes back about 55 years.
“By accident, I met a man named David Wolper and he gave me my first job as a director. It was easier in those days to get a job as a documentary filmmaker than as a feature filmmaker, that was one thing. And I knew I wanted to be in films. I’m not a writer, but I do like to direct.
We have so much time and so little to see. Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it.
“I managed to meet so many people and be in so many situations that I would never, ever be able to reach in normal life,” Stuart said of his documentary work. “I’ve had the chance to be with presidents of the United States. I’ve been with scientists, I’ve known Einstein. I’ve been with football players and baseball players and everything under the sun, and was able to enter worlds that were not part of the normal person’s life. That’s why documentaries can be a very attractive way of making a living.”
“On the other hand, I’ve done many movies-of-the-week and some features. And that’s another world where your imagination can go to work, like in ‘Willy Wonka.’ And you create a world of
fantasy or whatever you want,” Stuart said. “And that’s also fun — they’re both fun. But in my life, I’ve done more documentaries, nonfiction films, than fiction films.”
“‘Wonka’ came about in the strangest manner,” Stuart said. “The reason ‘Willy Wonka’ was made into a picture is because my daughter Madeline, then 11, came up to me at dinner one night 40 years ago and said, ‘Daddy, I want you to make a picture about this book I just read. It’s called “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”’
“And I said, ‘I don’t do children’s books, Madeline. I do serious work, documentary, etc.’ And she said, ‘Daddy, I don’t care. I want you to make a picture of this book.’ I said, ‘Stop it.’ She said, ‘Daddy, I want you to make a picture of this book!’
Invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% butterscotch ripple.
“I took the Roald Dahl book to the man I worked with, David Wolper — I was the president of the company, he was the executive,” Stuart said. “And he said, ‘What’s it about?’ He didn’t want to read it, he didn’t want to bother. I said, ‘It’s about a man with a chocolate factory, and there are five kids, and the kids come in. And one of them is a good kid, and the four are bad kids. And the good kid gets the factory.’ That’s all he knew about it.
“And a few days later — and this is our business, where luck is so important — we went to Quaker Oats to talk about some documentaries that they were doing. And one of the people said, ‘What have you got about chocolate? Quaker Oats wants to make a chocolate bar.’ And Dave Wolper went into this insane pitch. ‘We’ve been working on this picture for two years! This is dear to our hearts,’ blah blah blah blah blah. And before you knew it, Quaker Oats had given us $3 million to make ‘Willy Wonka.’”
“If you ask me now, I can’t tell you,” Stuart said when asked how such a richly imaginative movie was made on such a small budget. “One thing we did do, we didn’t have all the money that we could have used. So one of the things we did was, I did it in Munich, Germany, I didn’t do it here. Because Munich, in those days — we’re talking about 1971 — was much less expensive than doing it in the United States. So we got a lot more for the buck than we would have here.
“And then, I had brilliant, brilliant, brilliant — Harper Goff, our designer, who was a genius, and he did ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,’ and many other pictures. And he was the man I knew would be perfect for it,” Stuart said.
“I didn’t want you to know where the factory was. I didn’t want you to know what time it’s in. You’ll notice there are no automobiles in the movie. I wanted it to be forever, so I didn’t want to date it in any way.
“So since most people don’t know what Munich looks like, that was a good start,” Stuart said.
The suspense is terrible … I hope it’ll last.
“We started to think — the most important part, of course, was Wonka. And Wonka, we were thinking about — we were offered Fred Astaire, but I thought he was too old at that time, and he wasn’t quite right. Somebody else offered us Joel Grey, who was a great actor but a little bit short — we needed somebody who was more commanding than the kids,” Stuart said.
“And one day, Gene Wilder, who had just finished ‘The Producers’ but wasn’t that well-known yet, walked in and he read a couple of lines from the book. And in my heart, and my brain, everything, I said, ‘He’s Willy Wonka.’ We were casting him at the Plaza Hotel in New York. And I’ll never forget, I ran out and said, ‘You’ve got the part!’ before he could leave.
Oh, you should never ever doubt what nobody is sure about.
“We finished the movie, and we liked it, and thought it was very good. And I was very happy with everything in it,” Stuart said. “And we put it in the theaters, it was being distributed by Paramount Pictures. But Paramount Pictures at that time, I forget who was in charge but had a very stupid person in charge. And the Radio City Music Hall wanted to play it, to open it. Which you couldn’t do better. And this person, whoever it was, said, ‘Nah, it’s only a kids’ picture, we’ll put it in the Bronx and just drop it out.’ They didn’t think it had a future. And it died.
“And it started playing on cable, and it got bigger. And you must remember, in those days, that VCRs were coming in and eventually the DVDs. And then cable took it up, and we were playing somewhere in the country every week; you’d find ‘Willy Wonka’ somewhere. And it caught on with children.
So shines a good deed in a weary world.
“And I think one reason why it did was because they could see it, it was in their homes. And I made it for adults — the most important thing. I did not want to make a Disney movie, I don’t like Disney movies. I wanted to make it as well as for an adult,” Stuart said.
“Then, when they grew up, they would like it and show it to their kids.”
But Charlie, don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.
He lived happily ever after.
A 40th anniversary Blu-ray package of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” will be released Oct. 18, featuring a copy of Stuart’s book “Pure Imagination.”