Mel Stuart reflects on directing 1971′s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”

Mel Stuart is the director of the original “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” from 1971. Besides “Wonka” has worked on over 180 documentaries, TV, and motion pictures. As we approach the 40th anniversary of “Willy Wonka”, Movie Mikes had a chance to talk to Mel about him working on the film and reflecting on the impact the film has had today.

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Mike Gencarelli: Was Gene Wilder your first choice for the role of Willy Wonka?

Mel Stuart: When we were casting Willy Wonka there were many suggestions.  Someone suggested Fred Astaire but we felt he was too old.  And he wasn’t really what I was looking for.  I interviewed other actors in New York, including Joel Grey.  He was fabulous but…he wasn’t tall enough.  I wanted somebody who had more presence over the children who were in the picture.  Luckily Gene Wilder was asked to come in and as soon as he came in I knew he was Willy Wonka.  We were at the Plaza Hotel in New York City and, as he left to get on the elevator I ran after him.  Now I had no idea what the deal was going to be…how much money or anything…but I told him that as far as I was concerned he had the part.  They made a deal with him and I think he got $150,000.  In those days that was good money.  The budget was very small anyway to begin with.

Mike Gencarelli: What was the most difficult challenge you faced making the movie?

Mel Stuart: (laughs) This is going to sound funny but I don’t remember anything hard about the movie.  It was the most pleasant experience I’ve ever had on any film I’ve made.  I’ve made 190 films and I’ve never had such a good time.  If I had to pick something it would be trying to get Charlie and Grandpa Joe to fly around on wires.  We needed to make sure they were invisible.  The wires were painted black and we had to be careful that the lights didn’t reflect on them.  It was quite a task to have them move around in the air and seem graceful.  That was laborious.

Mike Gencarelli: Did you ever interact with Roald Dahl (the author of the book) during the making of the film?

Mel Stuart: We worked with Roald Dahl before the film, of course.  He wrote the script.  He visited the set once.  But once the film was done I didn’t connect with him afterwards.

MG: Was it your decision to add music to the story?

MS: That is a great question, I must be honest.  When we started the project I didn’t plan to have any music.  I wanted the film to be as realistic and as adult as I could make it.  Because I never planned to make a children’s film.  This was a film for adults.  I wasn’t a big Disney fan.  And I wanted the film to be as adult and realistic as it could be.  Then David Wolper (the executive producer) and some people from Quaker Oats, who were putting up the money for the film, brought up the fact that “the ‘Wizard of Oz’ made money…’Oliver!’ made money…’Mary Poppins’ made money.”  And since they all had music maybe we should have music.  And to be honest with you I was opposed to it at first.  So they went out and spoke to Richard Rogers and he turned it down.  Hank Mancini, who I had worked with before, would have liked to do it but he was busy.  And thank God somebody contacted Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.  They were signed to do the score.  And I remember very clearly…there was a living room with a piano at Dave Wolper’s house and we waited for them to come in.  They come into the room and Anthony Newley begins to sing “Candyman.”  And I knew we had it.  I was a musician before I was a filmmaker.  And just from the chord structure…the melodic line…I knew the score was going to be fantastic.  Then they played the Oompa Loompa song and I knew it was going to be great.  And it was.  No doubt it’s a very important part of the movie and it’s contributed greatly to its success.  So in that respect I was wrong at first.  But that’s how you make movies.  You twist and turn and make a lot of decisions.

MG: The film wasn’t very successful during its original theatrical run but it’s very popular now.  How do you feel about the enduring quality of the film?

MS: Number One, when you make a film you do the very best you can, whatever the film is.  I was very disappointed when it came out because Paramount Pictures, which was distributing it, did a very poor job of distributing.  Radio City Music Hall in New York wanted to open the film but, for whatever reason, the man in charge of Paramount at the time decided to just do a scattering of theatres and the picture, I must admit, did not do well at all.  I think it came in 53rd for the year.  And it disappeared.  Goodbye picture!  And I felt badly.  I felt it was my best work.  But that’s what happens with audiences.  But after seven years the contract with Paramount as distributor ended and it was brought over to Warner Brothers by David Wolper.  He had taken his production company to Warner Brothers and they bought the film for $500,000.  And then something happened that changed everything.  Cable television came in.  And, above all, VCRs came in.  And people don’t realize it now, but in the old days there weren’t too many ways to distribute a film.  Suddenly everyone had a VCR and they could buy the movie. They could also see it on television easily.  It didn’t have to play on the major networks.  I remember the first time it played on one of the networks…someone had the brilliant idea to put it up against the Super Bowl!  Of course, we didn’t do very well.  But enough children and adults saw it and they wanted to see it again.  So they began to ask for it.  And it began to do well, especially with the VHS sales.  And then suddenly it was appearing on cable all over the United States.  And the kids who had seen it originally were now adults and they wanted their kids to see it.  And slowly it multiplied and multiplied until now it’s one of the most seen pictures ever in the United States.  It just caught on.  And I think people now realize it was an adult picture and they watch it.  And the kids enjoy it for the story line and they watch it because it meant something to them.

MG: Was there a reason the film was shot in Germany?

MS: The budget was only $2.9 million. And that wasn’t even enough in those days. Today you couldn’t do a movie for that price. So we began looking around the world to find the best facilities for the money. I know we looked at a brewery in Ireland thinking we could do it there. And then we went to Spain. And finally we went to Munich and we found this huge stage at a studio where we could put the chocolate river. And the price was the best we could find. So we decided to make it in Germany. I also liked the idea of making it in Munich because no one really knows what Munich looks like. Therefore part of my plan was to make a movie that you can’t tell the year or the place. Munich turned out to be a very good location.

MG: In 2002, you authored “Pure Imagination: The Making of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, what was it like revisiting the film for the book?

MS: “Willy Wonka” was very dear to me. I was very proud of having made that movie. I wanted people to be able to share all the behind the scene stories about the making of the movie. I was fascinating going back and revisiting my past and remembering all the stories that occurred during the shoot. I spoke to the cast and the crew. Hank Wynanas in particular was very helpful. He was the construction master on the film. So I really enjoyed writing that book.

MG: Did you keep any of the props from the film?

MS: The day we left they began to tear down our sets and building the sets for “Cabaret”. We made a great mistake. We never thought the movie would have the attraction it eventually had. We left everything. All the Wonka bars we just threw away. We didn’t realize that it would have some unique value. 25 years later, I was in my garage and my son actually found Willy Wonka’s hat. So I still have that and I did keep the original golden ticket, the one that Charlie had. Nothing else. Big mistake. I could have gone crazy on eBay.

MG: Lastly, How do you feel about Tim Burton’s remake of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, titled “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”?

MS: I knew you would ask me that [laughs]. I am not going to get into it. You can just say I do not want to go there. Let me just say people will always remember Willy Wonka as Gene Wilder not Johnny Depp.

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