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The golden ticket
More than 30 years after its release, director Mel Stuart reflects on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the movie that made his career ó and a legend

WEíVE ALL SEEN it. Most of us, in fact, have probably seen it more than once. Weíve seen it as children, and weíve seen it as adults. Weíve seen it through naive eyes, and weíve seen it while under the influence of illegal substances. Itís Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, arguably one of the most iconic and widely popular films of the 20th century ó despite the fact that it went virtually ignored when first released in 1971.

Now, with a book, Pure Imagination: The Making of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (St. Martinís Press, 2002) and a 30th-anniversary DVD, complete with behind-the-scenes footage and a making-of documentary, fans of the film will go where theyíve never gone before: into Wonkaís factory, alongside his Oompa-Loompas, and down that fabled chocolate river. Itís a trip that the filmís director, Mel Stuart, who wrote Pure Imagination with Entertainment Weekly scribe Josh Young, is happy to lead.

Q: Whyíd you decide to write the book?

A: Well, one reason is that my son is a pretty good literary agent, and he said, "Pop, why donít you do it?" And number two is, I sort of wanted to set the record down. If the picture had disappeared, I wouldnít have written it. But this for some reason became a cult picture, and [Warner Brothers] asked me to do a documentary about it for their DVD. And I began thinking about it, and people have always asked me all these questions, "How did the Oompa-Loompas get their hair," and blah blah, and I thought people might be interested. And St. Martinís thought it was a good idea, so thatís how it came about. After 30 years, I began thinking, why did it become sort of a cult classic? And then I tried to analyze it, and then the more I got into it, the more interesting it was to do. I guess one of the [other] reasons I wrote the book is it was probably the happiest time in my life, and the most fulfilling.

Q: Why do you think itís become such a classic?

A: I think there are two reasons. One, it was a story about five obnoxious, terrible children, and a man whoís a little bit manic, and maybe nuts, for all the audience knows. But the key was combining that with a very adult sense of humor in all their lines. I never wanted to make a picture for children. I wanted to make a movie for adults. I never changed my aim on that. This was not a Disney movie; thatís the last thing I wanted it to be. No singing chipmunks with human faces, and all that nonsense I feel Disney does a lot of, you know, trying to make animals cute. These people were not cute. But all their lines, if you look at it, are very sharp and adult. You know, these kids are talking naturally, but they sound ó all the wit and the twists, are all adult. And thatís why I think when kids see it, they enjoy it, because they like to see the obnoxious kids get their just deserts. [Kids] like to see that honesty and decent virtues work, and that if youíre spoiled and youíre bratty, something happens to you that isnít too nice. Itís a sophisticated film verbally; there are more quotes from Shakespeare in it than most other things ... Oscar Wildeís in it, Shakespeareís in it. Kids listen to it and itís great, they get it, theyíre not worried that itís Shakespeare, and adults get it because if theyíre sharp, theyíll get all the nuances in the picture.

The second thing is, itís much deeper in the society, and deeper than people think. [Willy Wonka] plays on television almost once a week somewhere. Now let me give you an example: one of these pictures, like Star Wars, Signs, something like that ó they make $200 million. Wow. Willy Wonka was a disaster. In came in number 53 [in 1971] or something; it made seven cents. But, thatís only 20 million people, out of a population of 275 million. Now, Star Wars may play again, but theyíll make it as a big screening, and itís a big event once every three years, and another 20 million people see it, half of them the same people who saw it the first time. Willy Wonka goes on [television] every week; I daresay itís probably been seen by almost more people than most films. See, if you talk about a great film, thatís 8 1/2, by Fellini, the master, or Double Indemnity, by Billy Wilder. But how many people have seen them? And both as a kid, and then as parents with their kids? If it wasnít sophisticated and funny, and with a basic moral value delivered straight, then they wouldnít keep watching it, and then the advertisers wouldnít keep playing it. Thatís the secret of its success.

Q: Tell me about the Oompa-Loompa controversy.

A: Some actors, black actors, came to me when [producer] David Wolper first made the deal, and they said, "What are you doing here?" Remember it was the í70s, and [people were] very conscious of these things, as they are today. I said, "I havenít even thought about how Iím going to do the book; all I want to do is get it." And they said, "Well, do you know that the Oompa-Loompas are a bunch of black pygmies from Africa working for the white man?" And I said, "That doesnít sound too good." I couldnít even imagine, after Iíd thought about it for one second, how I could do that. What were they going to be, in loincloths or something? I thought about it for, seriously, about a half a minute, and I said, "Supposing I give them orange faces and green hair ó how would that be?" And they said, "Great." And I said, "Gentlemen, youíve got it." It happened that quick.

Q: What about Wonkaís famous boat ride down the chocolate river?

A: Oh, itís funny, because people will say to me ó especially during the crazy í70s and í80s ó "Hey, man, we know what that was ó that was a psychedelic trip." And I said, "Why?" And they said, "Because she ate the mushroom! The mushroom, peyote ..." And I said to them, "Are you out of your mind?" First of all ó not because Iím good or bad, but Iím nutty enough as I am ó I donít take drugs. So that was the last thought in my mind, that someone whoís eating a marshmallow mushroom, that it was peyote. But theyíre convinced that this is a psychedelic trip.

Q: And itís also been said that a lot of people do drugs while watching the movie.

A: I think thatís very possible. I canít control the population; [people] can do what they want.

Q: Has it been hard, having directed a movie that became so popular? Did it put more pressure on you to do something else thatís equally adored?

A: Only in my own mind. I mean, I made a few movies after that; I did a movie called One Is a Lonely Number, which I think is really just a wonderful, small, romantic movie, and I think maybe a little too far ahead of its time. And after that I did a lot of movies-of-the-week, which were very successful, but see, thereís a magic about films. Films last; movies-of-the-week donít last. Thereís only one important thing: youíve got to keep working till you die. I have no choice: I donít play golf, so Iíve got to keep working.

Q: You wrote in the book about going to a Willy Wonka trade show a few years ago and being reunited with the cast. Do you ever think that the people who attend these trade shows are maybe a little too obsessed with Willy Wonka?

A: No ó itís my movie!

Q: Is it true that Marilyn Manson is a big fan of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory?

A: Yes ó itís absolutely true. I was stunned. Number one, I was stunned that he made a trip down the river ó he made a video [of "Prelude (The Family Trip)"]. They built the damn chocolate river, and heís there with a hat floating down the river singing that song.

Q: So Marilyn Manson loves Willy Wonka; what do you think of Marilyn Manson?

A: Well, Iíll tell you what: Iíve seen some interviews with Marilyn Manson, and heís a very sensible guy. [The video] is all a shtick, although I think he really does love the movie, because [otherwise] he wouldnít make a video out of it.

Q: What about the rumors that the film might be remade someday?

A: Theyíve tried twice already to remake it, and it hasnít worked. Good people were asked to come in and rewrite it, but after a while, they just quit twice.

Q: Would you go to see it, if it were remade?

A: No. I mean, Iím really not interested. Number one, itís not Hamlet. Iíve seen 12 Hamlets. I donít know if I want to see 12 Willy Wonkas. People have asked me, "How do you feel about it?" And all I can say is, I donít feel about it one way or the other. If they want to make it, theyíll make it. You know, itís like, people want to redo Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz. I donít see the point. If youíre a filmmaker and you really care and youíre good, then why would you want to redo something thatís got a good enough status to be redone? I mean, if you want to remake Snow White, I donít see the point. It was tried twice, and itíll probably be tried thrice, and four times, and 10 times, and good luck to them, but I donít have to go see it. Iím happy; Iíve got other things to do. Iíll go bowling.

Q: Why do you think no oneís invented an Everlasting Gobstopper yet?

A: Thatís like turning lead into gold. The very process of making a piece of candy that lasts forever is against all rules of Einsteinian physics, I guess. It would be fun to have a piece of chewing gum that gives you a good taste for four hours, but at some point, itís like Zenoís Paradox: you have to reach a point of no return where you reach nothing. And actually, everybodyís too spoiled anyway; they donít need chocolate goodies for that long. Mr. Wonka would be the first one to say that thatís wrong.

Tamara Wieder can be reached at twieder[a]

A complete archive of our weekly Q&As
Issue Date: November 21- 28, 2002
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