Paul King on Timothée Chalamet as Wonka: “This movie allowed him to scratch an itch that he’s probably had for a long time”

From Frank Capra to Charlie Chaplin via Bugsy Malone and Charles Dickens, Paddington 2 director Paul King gives us the low-down on Wonka, his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory origin story starring Timothée Chalamet.

Timothée Chalamet and Paul King on the set of Wonka (2023)

Following his much-admired Paddington films (2014 and 2017), Wonka sees British director Paul King adapt another story focusing on an eccentric yet beloved character from children’s literature. In this new story, King reveals how a young Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) becomes the famous, flamboyant chocolatier we know from Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and its two filmed adaptations, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005).

This new film, a lavish musical spectacular more of a piece with the off-kilter 1971 version than Tim Burton’s 2005 take, looks at Wonka’s lowly origins as the new choc-maker on the block in a town in which a corrupt chocolate cartel – comprising Arthur Slugworth (the excellent Paterson Joseph), Prodnose (Matt Lucas) and Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton) – already has punters eating from the palm of their hands. Willy has a tough time dealing with this salty trio and his underhand landlady Mrs Scrubbit (delightfully played by Joseph’s fellow Peep Show alumnus Olivia Colman) but gets assistance from others who fall foul of Scrubbit and a thieving Oompa-Loompa (Hugh Grant).

We sat down with cheerful, cardiganed King who’s keen to explain why Frank Capra, Charlie Chaplin and even Chalamet’s high-school musical performances inspired his new film.

Why did you choose to make Wonka?

I was finishing up Paddington 2, angling for work as you do and asked producer David Heyman if he had anything else cooking that he thought might be interesting for me. He went, “I’ve got two words. It’s ‘young Wonka’.”

I was intrigued, because I’d grown up loving Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It was one of the first proper-length books I read to myself. I had this old copy with the Quentin Blake illustrations that I read so many times the pages fell out the spine. I went back to the book and remembered Willy Wonka and the Oompa-Loompas and the extraordinary colourful characters.

I’d forgotten how incredibly moving it is. It’s got this amazing Dickensian story of poor little Charlie Bucket and this terrible, impoverished place where he lives. One of the early chapters is called The Family Begin to Starve, and it’s got this really surprisingly gritty edge to it. By the end of 150 pages or whatever it is, when he inherits the Chocolate Factory, I was completely in tears and went, “Oh, wow! Roald Dahl was doing everything that I’ve been trying to do with the Paddington stories.” It’s got these big, larger-than-life colourful characters, but it’s also got a really strong beating heart and a real sense of emotion. That’s what made me think maybe this is an area that I could explore and hopefully not mess up too badly.

It seems everybody wants to milk that franchise cow with an origin story these days. How did you go about really making it something worthwhile that people would really want to see?

That’s part of the nerves of doing it, because there are some origins stories that work brilliantly and you think “that’s amazing”, and it enhances your understanding of the character and deepens it; then, there are sometimes movies you watch and go, “I’m not sure I needed that.” It was hard to find the angle that felt right.

Our movie’s set 25 years before the events of the chocolate factory, and before Willy’s retreated from the world and become this reclusive, strange, mysterious figure. For us as writers – I mean my partner Simon – the key was looking to who he is. In the centre he’s almost like a chocolate, because he’s got this quite brittle exterior, and you’re not quite sure who he is and what his attitude is and why he has invited these people? It’s all quite unnerving.

You know Grandpa Joe likes him and Charlie likes him so you’ve got a suspicion that he’ll turn out all right in the end. But then, at the end when he gives Charlie the chocolate factory you realise what he’s been doing all along is this extraordinary act of generosity, that it’s somebody reaching the end of his career or his life. He talks about that and how what he wants to do is give everything away to a child. We were really intrigued by that spirit of generosity and kindness and thought, “Well, what does that character feel like before they’ve had all the kind of slings and arrows of life in the world of big business?”

This character began to come into our heads. One of the first images I had was this guy appearing out of the mist, and you can feel who he’s going to be. He’s got his top hat, but it’s all messy and battered and his boots are leaking and his clothes are tattered. He felt to me like a Charlie Chaplin innocent character, almost like the immigrant tramp figure coming to this world for the first time, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and completely naive – with this childlike wonder but none of the street smarts that he’s going to develop over the next 25 years.

You mentioned Simon Farnaby, one of your regular collaborators. Could you tell me a little bit about working with him?

I’ve worked with Simon pretty much since my early twenties, and we made many entirely unsuccessful, unproduced scripts. When we got a chance to work together on a larger scale, we leapt at it. It’s really a dream come true for both of us. Simon’s incredibly funny, not just a writer but brilliant comic performer, and I never like to tell that to him because he’ll get all conceited. But, when we’re working on scripts we read them backwards and forwards to each other all the time. He’s the first performer I ever get. He gives me great confidence in the material that works, because you go, “Well, I laughed when Simon said it.”

I always feel the only quality I necessarily have as a director is that I can remember really strongly laughing at something the first time, and I try and keep that alive. I think it’s quite a difficult thing. Because you hear it a million times and it’s read out by different actors, sometimes hundreds of audition scenes. It can just wither on the vine. To remember that first laugh is so important to keep your faith in it. So, yes. Simon’s my absolute right-hand man all the way through.

Why make a musical?

Well, because you can! It’s like being given the keys to a magic kingdom. We really wanted to make this as a companion piece to the 1971 movie. Obviously, music is at the heart of that, and it’s how they express Gene Wilder’s innermost hopes and dreams with ‘Pure Imagination’. And, there’s the Oompa-Loompa song. It would seem crazy to me to have an Oompa-Loompa come on and not hear the Oompa-Loompa music. That’s what God intended. We were inspired by their choices.

Dahl used music in a huge amount of what he did. In his books there’s always songs or verses and poetry that’s supposed to be a song, and the Oompa-Loompas are singing all the way through it. I think he’s such a precise rhythmical writer that music sits very comfortably with his work, whether it’s in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang [Dahl wrote the screenplay of the 1968 film adaptation of Ian Fleming’s novel].

It was clearly very important to him. We had the Anthony Newley, Leslie Bricusse standards that are so beloved, but we wanted to add our own as well. We were lucky enough to get Neil Hannon, who’s been one of my absolute heroes since a teenager and those early Divine Comedy albums. I think he’s a great, great songwriter. He’s funny, and the songs are emotional, which is a very rare combination. He’s a contemporary songwriter, for sure. But I feel he also has one foot in the past. That always sounds like an insult, but there’s a timeless quality to what he does. I think he was able to channel the spirit of those songs and build his own world, which is what we were all trying to do.

My favourite musical is Oliver! (1968). To me you captured that hilarity and mischief. I wondered if there were any musicals that inspired you while you were getting stuck in?

Good choice. Oliver! was absolutely a reference because of that Dickensian quality the story has. Lionel Bart is obviously a genius. There’s a little bit of Annie (1982) in there. There’s a little bit of Bugsy Malone (1976). ‘So You Wanna Be a Boxer’ feels a little bit like some of ours. There’s quite a lot of Cabaret (1972) in there as well, things like ‘Sweet Tooth’ feels like it’s got that pit band swing to it.

I think because we’re 25 years before the ’71 movie, we were going, “Well, that takes you into the late 1940s.” It’s entirely coincidentally, the golden age of the Hollywood musical. I love my postwar musicals. It didn’t take much to convince me to go and spend some evenings researching those old movies.

Olivia Colman as Mrs Scrubbit in Wonka (2023)

To what extent was Dickens’ work an influence?

I have no idea if this is true, but I felt that Roald Dahl was channeling some of those things when he wrote the story. There is a sort of Oliver Twist element. He’s not an orphan, Charlie, but he’s got that feeling somehow. Certainly he’s the little boy in rags and everyone around him seems to be in top hats and tail coats. You go, “It’s a strange choice of costume for Willy Wonka.” But I feel that he was referencing that older world, and I think that’s why it’s such a brilliant creation, the world of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, because you feel it’s got this timeless story quality. Yet, it seems also grounded in the real world, or at least enough for the emotion to completely ring true. It’s not a fantasy creation, but it feels like this perfect Christmas card of a city.

I read that you offered Timothée the part after seeing him perform in high-school plays on YouTube.

Call Me by Your Name (2017) is where I first saw him. He’s completely hypnotic in that movie. Then I saw him in Lady Bird (2017), and he’s funny and playing this absolutely ridiculous, pompous character. He’s got the funnies and he’s got the emotion and he seems to be able to do it all. He’s done a huge amount since then, but he hadn’t done much with singing. I think he sings briefly in the Woody Allen movie he did, but I wasn’t quite sure. There are songs a go-go in this movie, so I knew he needed to have those chops.

With the 21st century being the ridiculous place it is, his high-school musical performances are available on YouTube and have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times, which brings me out in a cold sweat, because I think if anyone had seen me at 15 in the school play, I don’t know if I’d be able to show my face in public again.

Timothée, of course, is just a smidge better than I am at acting. There he is in Sweet Charity and he’s fantastic. I wouldn’t say I offered it because of it, but it was nice to know that he had that talent. I don’t want to denigrate what he did. When he came on this, he went through months of singing and dance training to get up to movie standard. But I think it’s something that’s in his blood. His mother’s a dancer and he has that performing arts background. I think this movie allowed him to scratch an itch that he’s probably had for a long time.

Left to right: Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton), Prodnose (Matt Lucas), the Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key) and Slugworth (Paterson Joseph) in Wonka (2023)

Did he look at at any other characters or any other films for inspiration?

Some pretty good actors have had a crack at Willy Wonka, which I imagine is quite daunting for him. It certainly was for me. I know he knew the movies anyway, but he went back and watched them again. I mean because ours is a younger character at a very different stage of his journey I think there was enough of a difference for him to be able to make it his own character.

But we’re certainly doffing our hat to the Gene Wilder performance at many points, just like, “Scratch that. Reverse it,” which is a big line. Some of the choreography as well, the way he dances and uses his cane and the little moves Timothée would look at and move with.

The biggest reference that I gave him, though, was probably Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Those Capra movies, they’re very dear to my heart. The little guy in the big, scary world that Capra did so brilliantly was really the feel I was after in this movie. I think some of Timothée’s work is brilliant, but he’s often played these brooding, slightly troubled characters. To get that sense of hope, optimism and joy was something that, strangely, was the biggest challenge for him, to open himself up to somebody who’s completely uncynical, unjaded and unsceptical. Capra was a great way of unlocking that.

Could you tell me about how you developed the film’s visual identity?

We started from the 1940s. We worked with this brilliant production designer, Nathan Crowley. I think your idea of that time can sometimes be quite influenced by the fact that it’s mostly photographed in black and white. The first thing he did, which I thought was a stroke of genius, was to get all these old 1930s and 1940s chocolate bar wrappers. They’re so colourful, beautiful and ornate – they’re hand-painted and so exquisite. That really started the aesthetic ball rolling.

We wanted to create a city that was real and felt grounded but also had that storybook flavour that Dahl has. Dahl’s really specifically non-specific. The ’71 movie was filmed all in Germany to give it this middle European vibe. We were trying to channel some of that spirit. He ended up building this enormous world of buildings. Nathan’s so great, because each building had its own history. It’s so easy for those cities to feel like toy towns and they’re off-the-shelf models. But his cathedral would have a medieval base and then the idea was that it had been knocked down and then it was rebuilt. The work that went in is just phenomenal to me.

Wonka is in cinemas, including BFI IMAX, from 8 December.

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