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‘Wonka’ Director Paul King Talks Gene Wilder References and Why It Was Time to Let Go of Paddington

Paul King’s road to Wonka began with a tough choice between marmalade and chocolate.

After two beloved films about a marmalade-loving bear named Paddington, King opted to take on a prequel to Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) instead of completing a Paddington trilogy of sorts. With Paddington having such extensive source material, King believes that the bear’s story wouldn’t necessarily feel complete after three films, so he took his feel-good sensibilities to the world that Roald Dahl originated in the 1964 children’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

“It was the right thing to do,” King tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And because there’s so much Paddington source material, you could make 50 Paddington movies. I’d be a hundred years old and still doing Paddington. If you could only make two or three films [out of the source material], then it might’ve been different. But by the end of the second film, I was really pleased with where we’d left him. It was time to let go and give somebody else a shot.”

Together with star Timothée Chalamet and co-writer Simon Farnaby, King created a young Willy Wonka that isn’t quite the Gene Wilder version of the inventor and chocolatier that generations of viewers know so well. Willy, at this point, is an optimistic stranger in a strange city, and he faces some unexpected obstacles in trying to start up his chocolate business. Knowing the future that’s to come in the ‘71 film, King and co. reverse engineered a number of seeds that would eventually sprout.

“There’s loads of little gestures that we use. Willy says, ‘Scratch that, reverse it,’ which is a line that Gene Wilder has in the [1971] movie,” King says. “Because it’s such a visual performance that Gene Wilder gives with the cane and suddenly hitting a banister when he’s walking down the steps at the beginning of ‘Pure Imagination,’ we use all of that and lean into it.”

In 2022’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Nicolas Cage’s fictional Nic Cage bonds with Pedro Pascal’s Javi Gutierrez over King’s Paddington 2, and King did, in fact, receive word about the story point. However, as is common with most British people, he has a tough time accepting the flattering gesture.

“I was sent a page of the script, and I was so completely embarrassed,” King admits. “I struggle with anything like a compliment, but it was very funny, I thought. It was too wildly exciting to cope with, and I still can’t cope with it.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, King also discusses casting Chalamet in the role of Willy Wonka, as well as the inspiration behind the uplifting tone in all his films.

So the assumption is that you had to make a very difficult choice between completing a potentially flawless Paddington trilogy and doing something new with Wonka. Did you actually toss and turn over this decision? 

Yes is the answer, but I’d made my peace with not making Paddington [in Peru] first. It was really difficult, because I’d spent eight years with the bear and I felt such incredible love for him. He’s an animated character, and the design and the love that went into every single follicle was labor intensive and done with such heart. So it’s kind of like sending your kid off to school and going, “I hope you’ll be okay!” But I also know it was the right thing to do. And because there’s so much Paddington source material, you could make 50 Paddington movies. I’d be a hundred years old and still doing Paddington. (Laughs.) If you could only make two or three films [out of the source material] and that’d be the end of it, then it might’ve been different. But by the end of the second film, I was really pleased with where we’d left him. He was in a really happy place, and it was time to let go and give somebody else a shot. 

Paul King Wonka

(L to r) Timothée Chalamet as Willy Wonka and director Paul King on the set of Wonka Jaap Buittendijk

Apparently, Timothée Chalamet had his own decision to make between Willy Wonka and Edgar Allan Poe. 

Really!?

Yeah, that was reported at the time. 

Wow!

Did you have to pull out all the stops to sway him, or was his casting relatively straightforward?

It was relatively straightforward, I think. I’d seen him in Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird, and I was a huge fan. So I was lucky enough to meet him that year [2018] when he was in London, winning an award [London Film Critics Circle’s actor of the year], and we got on well. That was about the time that the idea of Wonka was beginning to be mooted. So, right from the start, I thought he could be incredible. He has the spirit and the comedy chops and the extraordinary acting ability to be the heart of the movie. So, once we had a script, it was really a question of sending it to him and hoping that he responded, and I’m happy every day that he did. 

Willy and Paddington both bring out the best in the people around them. One uses chocolate and the other uses marmalade, but they both make people feel good, much like your films. Thus, with joy being in such short supply these days, are you consciously trying to fill that void? Is your work a response to the state of the world?

I’ve always really responded to movies that tug at the heartstrings and look at what the world is and what it could be. I’m a huge fan of Frank Capra, and I just think he made some extraordinary movies. Charlie Chaplin as well. Their films are often about little people in a big world. We send kids out into the world with hope and optimism that everything will be fine if you work hard and do your best, but it doesn’t always work like that, and that’s a heartbreaking lesson. But what those Capra and Chaplin characters do is they stick at it and they try to change the world. There’s that amazing line in “Pure Imagination” that says, “Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it.” It’s ten syllables, and it’s so extraordinarily strange and profound and brilliant. So the endings of something like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or It’s a Wonderful Life just speak to my heart, and I’m certainly interested in that sort of story.

Paul King Wonka

(L to r) Olivia Colman as Mrs Scrubbit and Timothée Chalamet as Willy Wonka in Wonka. Jaap Buittendijk

I love prequels because they recontextualize the connected films we’ve already seen. They can add new depth or dimension to even the smallest of moments. In the case of Wonka, we see where Willy got the idea for the fine-print contract in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Right! (Laughs.) 

So did you pinpoint anything else from the 1971 film that you wanted to flesh out in some way?

Oh yeah! It wasn’t so much about recontextualizing the [1971] movie, but I certainly wanted this to sit alongside that. So there’s loads of little gestures that we use. Willy says, “Scratch that, reverse it,” which is a line that Gene Wilder has in the movie and I don’t think it exists in the book. And a lot of the movements …  Because it’s such a visual performance that Gene Wilder gives with the cane and suddenly hitting a banister when he’s walking down the steps at the beginning of “Pure Imagination,” we use all of that and lean into it. They’re just little senses of, “Oh yeah, don’t forget that he’s going to become that character.” So there’s probably a bunch of them. The Big Night Out Chocolate is a little bit like the three-course meal in a stick of chewing gum [that Violet Beauregarde consumes in the ‘71 film]. We were interested in the idea that a chocolate could be a night on the town with 12 different drinks.

Every director would love to have Nathan Crowley design their films, so what was the process of getting him on board as production designer?

Well, I’ve been a huge fan of his through the Christopher Nolan movies that he did. He also made The Greatest Showman look beautiful on a really tight budget, so he did an extraordinary job. He has a great eye and a great vision. So I was just lucky that he responded to the material, and I think he was interested in doing a sort of world building and fantasy thing. It’s a storybook world that he built. It’s not a replica or something entirely realistic. It’s got one foot in a children’s book illustration, and that was a fun carrot to dangle before him.

You have a few of your Paddington actors in the film as well: Sally Hawkins, Hugh Grant and Tom Davis. Of course, they’re incredibly talented and would make any film better, but does good luck or superstition factor into it at all?

(Laughs.) Yeah, if Sally Hawkins isn’t in the movie, I worry deeply for it. I was blessed with the cast on Paddington, and because I worked with these actors already, I knew how they worked and that I liked to work with them and that they would elevate this material. It’s difficult and rare to find those people, and when you find them, you want to hold onto them. So that’s why I wanted to work with Hugh and Sally again. Tom Davis, who has a small role in Paddington 2, has a much bigger role as Bleacher in this, because I saw who he was and how he could perform in Paddington 2. So he’s great in Wonka, and it was lovely to watch it with an audience last night. Every word he utters gets a laugh, and I was so proud of him.

Paul King Wonka

(L to r) Timothée Chalamet as Willy Wonka, Mathew Baynton, Paterson Joseph and Matt Lucas in Wonka. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

I’ve loved Paterson Joseph for a long time, and I’ve always wondered why he hasn’t received more of these studio opportunities. What was your frame of reference for him during casting?

Well, I knew him mostly from Peep Show, which was a great sitcom that Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong made about 20 years ago. So I always thought that he was wildly funny in that great show, and so he just seemed like a really good fit for Arthur Slugworth. I had worked with him on Paddington, but to my lasting regret, the sequence just didn’t quite come together, so it ended up not making it into the movie. But I’ve wanted to work with him for a long time, and it was nice to be able to put him in a part that was completely uncuttable this time.

Slugworth’s chocolate cartel is actually following the corporate consolidation playbook that’s quite prevalent in most industries today. A few big companies eliminate their competition and keep prices and profits high that way. 

Yeah, it’s a savage indictment of contemporary capitalism with songs, so what’s not to like? Bring your kids! (Laughs.) Joking apart, it really is. Willy Wonka runs this huge chocolate factory, but he also seems fundamentally opposed to any sense of greed. He doesn’t like the greedy kids who come and tour the chocolate factory, and they’re greedy in different ways. Some of them are greedy for the chocolate, and others are spoiled and want the squirrel. Or they don’t listen and want to play with the machines that they shouldn’t touch. So he doesn’t seem to have a great deal of sympathy for those kids. And what he’s doing is this extraordinary act of generosity. He’s giving away his life’s work in the factory, and we obviously only learn that at the end, but he’s the antithesis of greed and he’s all about generosity. So I was really interested in how that works with a young man trying to build a business and how he can get in a lot of trouble, because the world is not always kind to those altruistic impulses. I thought that was a really nice way of exploring the book’s themes of greed and generosity, but in a more corporate space.

Paul King Wonka

(L-r) Calah Lane and Timothée Chalamet in Wonka. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

My favorite sequence is Noodle’s (Calah Lane) song that begins at the zoo. 

Aww, me too! 

What’s the story behind that number? 

Well, the way “Pure Imagination” works in the 1971 movie is so great, because you feel that Gene Wilder is not really singing to the people and that he’s sort of singing to himself. You feel that he’s made this world, and part of this world of pure imagination is the song and the spirit of it. So I was interested in the idea of these songs being little windows into the character’s lives and inner imaginations, and Noodles is this long-suffering character, who’s had so little joy in her life and she’s just beginning to get a glimmer. So I wanted to see her slowly begin to melt as joy comes into her life.

We tried to find this vision of what pure happiness felt like, and it felt like dancing on the rooftop in the city. There’s a great sequence in this Fred Astaire film, The Belle of New York, which was sort of compromised by the technology of the time. Obviously, Fred Astaire had the most extraordinary visual imagination that there probably ever has been, and the choreographer and I loved the idea of doing a weightless rooftop dance sequence. It felt like something that hadn’t quite been done before and that it could be an expression of pure happiness.

Lastly, I try to avoid low-hanging fruit, but one cannot ignore fictional Nic Cage and Pedro Pascal’s character’s devotion to Paddington 2 in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Did the producers of that film give you a heads-up about their tribute to your film?

I was sent a page of the script, and I was so completely embarrassed. (Laughs.) I struggle with anything like a compliment, but it was very funny, I thought. It was too wildly exciting to cope with, and I still can’t cope with it.

Wonka opens Dec. 15 in movie theaters.

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