In 'Wonka,' director Paul King serves up sweetness and magic
In Wonka, a new musical prequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, director Paul King tells the origin story of a young Willy Wonka long before he became the sour fantasy chocolate-maker from Roald Dahl's books.
Wonka, played by Timothée Chalamet, gets tricked into forced labor for a basement wash house, but he quickly dreams up an invention to give himself and the others trapped there a break. He ultimately enrolls the washhouse crew for an underground chocolate-making operation and the opening of his first store.
Morning Edition host Leila Fadel spoke with King about his inspirations for the film, which is now out in theaters.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Paul King: Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is a book I adored growing up. And, you know, I have this old battered copy I read cover to cover until the pages fell out of the spine. And I love the Gene Wilder movie and the Tim Burton movie as well. So when David Heyman, the producer, mentioned the idea of making a young Wonka, I felt apprehensive, I suppose. And I went back and read Charlie again as a grown-up. I'd kind of forgotten how incredibly emotional a story it is. And you're really following this almost Dickensian little impoverished child who stops outside the factory to sniff each day. And at the end, when he inherits the factory and receives the greatest of all imaginable gifts, I was weeping like at the end of A Christmas Carol or something.
Leila Fadel: I grew up on these books too, and I came out of the movie just so charmed. It was so uplifting. It's not like Roald Dahl doesn't deal with pretty dark themes, but you created something that overall felt empowering and positive and fun.
King: We remember the darkness, and we remember the sort of saltiness, but there's a huge sweetness, and I think that's why Roald Dahl works so well. It's got this sort of brittle exterior, but there really is a beating heart of joy and love to his stories that makes them endure.
Fadel: But this is an imagined pre-life for Willy Wonka. If you could just talk about making this magical dream come true on film for this character.
King: Our movie is set 25 years before the events of The Chocolate Factory, and I was interested in taking that spirit of generosity that exists at the heart of Willy Wonka. And there's these lines in "Pure Imagination" that really spoke to me where he goes, "Want to change the world? There's nothing to it." And I thought that was a very empowering journey to take a character on. I was really interested in the way we tell young people that if you dream and you've got talent and you work hard, it's all going to come true. But the world is not always like that, and it doesn't always reward that. And I think what's so lovely about Timothée's performance is seeing somebody discover that the world is a harder, tougher place than they'd imagined and then getting the courage to do something about it rather than being beaten down by it.
Fadel: I've got to ask, though, because Roald Dahl in 2023 is viewed kind of differently than he was in the 1980s and 90s. It was just this year that Puffin removed words in some of his stories around race, mental health, physical appearance. His family and the Roald Dahl Story Company apologized for anti-Semitic remarks he made in life. How did you wrestle with the demons of the man who created Willy Wonka as you crafted a movie based on his work?
King: He's not somebody I ever met. I came to him through the stories, which seemed to me funny and enchanting as a child, so I didn't have to really wrestle with that. One of our producers was Luke Kelly, who's actually Roald Dahl's grandson and was running the Roald Dahl Story Company. So I know for him it's a much more personal thing, whereas for me, I was fortunate enough just to be able to enjoy the books and the stories and immerse myself in his writing without having to wrestle with Dahl, the man.
Fadel: But the film does wrestle with really important themes: race, poverty, hypocrisy. But it does it in this childlike, innocent way, if you could talk about that approach.
King: I always felt that Charlie And The Chocolate Factory was really a book about greed and generosity, and it always seemed to me that the bad characters are really different aspects of greed. All the baddies are greedy in different ways, and Charlie is, of course, the opposite of that. We've got a sort of three-headed villain. There's Slugworth, Fickelgruber and Prodnose, a sort of hat off to the Boggis, Bunce and Bean of Fantastic Mr. Fox, and they're characters that Dahl has in Charlie that he briefly alluded to as rival chocolatiers. And then we've got the chief of police, played by Keegan-Michael Key, who just loves the candy and can't get enough chocolate. And I feel closest to him spiritually.
King: And what I love about the way Keegan plays it is he knows how wrong it is at every stage. His eyes are wide open to what is happening. He knows what he's doing. He knows he shouldn't be doing it. It's going to end badly. And he just can't resist it at all. It's hilarious.
Fadel: What about the actual magic of what this looked like? I mean, I understand a lot of the chocolate that was being made was actually edible.
King: We had this incredible chocolate-maker called Gabriella Cugno, and I was so honored to work with her because she's sort of an artist in miniature. And there's really no need for the chocolates in the film to really even be edible or certainly to taste good, but she's such an amazing artist and everything tasted incredible. It looked incredible, and I just felt blessed to work with her.
Fadel: I mean, I'm not saying I'd leave Morning Edition, but the next time you make a movie with all this chocolate, I'm available.
King: Will you come and be a taster?
King: It's the dream job.
Fadel: Yeah, it sounds great.
King: It's bad for the waistline, though.
King: I have to say. She's got a stronger backbone than I do. I would just eat, eat, eat.
The radio version of this story was edited by Olivia Hampton and produced by Julie Depenbrock. The radio version was edited by Treye Green.
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