A nuttier ‘Chocolate’

Times Staff Writer

Tim BURTON manages nearly every possible filmmaking trick in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”: a candy palace that melts, a single Oompa-Loompa who’s cinematically cloned into a fleet of miniature workers and specially trained squirrels that crack walnuts on cue. There’s just one thing the director can’t control on this fall morning: the dreary English weather.

Burton and “Charlie” star Johnny Depp have been working inside Pinewood Studios for four months on their version of Roald Dahl’s children’s masterpiece, and now the production has relocated outdoors to the studio’s back lot. The day’s scene calls for 500 extras to watch the five lucky winners of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket giveaway run into his secretive candy factory.

The day dawned clear, but by midmorning clouds are barreling across the sky, yielding in the span of a minute either brilliant sunlight or dark gloom. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot nervously eyes the scattered skies, looking for an opening to film the sequence in even light.


“We have three minutes,” he calls out, as the sun emerges.

Burton orders his cast and crew to their places, and the scene begins. But before the gates to Wonka’s factory have had time to open, a huge cloud blocks the sun. For the fourth consecutive time, Burton can’t complete the take.

The director slams his microphone to the ground and storms off, swearing. A few people look at the cursed cloud, but most stare down, as if investigating their shoelaces. The sunlight vigil begins again.

As it turns out, clouds are only a portent of their problems. Minutes later, it starts to pour.

“It’s so frustrating. We were all about to kill each other,” Burton says later, having regained his composure and moved on to a scene that doesn’t require sunlight. “You go through so many weather patterns that one day feels like about a week. But I’d rather go through that sort of torment than other types of torment.”

That Burton is even making the movie, weather problems and all, represents a triumph of sorts. The pairing of Burton and Depp, the director’s leading man in four previous collaborations, including “Ed Wood” and “Sleepy Hollow,” would seem a no-brainer. But it has taken forever for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” due in theaters July 15, to get this far.

Its evolution spans nearly a decade and includes numerous false starts, protracted negotiations, a contemplated and postponed Broadway musical, half a dozen screenwriters, and here-today, gone-tomorrow Wonka casting ideas, with prospects including Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler.

At the center of the film’s twisted journey stands Dahl’s widow. Much as J.K. Rowling guards her “Harry Potter” books, Liccy Dahl was determined to protect her late husband’s literary legacy. But unlike Rowling, Liccy was able to bargain for explicit approval rights with Warner Bros. over all of the film’s key creative talent and exercised that power repeatedly. She personally interviewed screenwriters, dined with actors and once blocked a directing choice proposed by the studio, “Bruce Almighty” filmmaker Tom Shadyac.

“It was a long fight,” Liccy says from Buckinghamshire, England, where Roald’s writing hut still stands. “But it pays to wait.”


It’s not as simple a question as whether you like your chocolate with peanuts or without: Was the first “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” a movie landmark? Or a muddled misfire?

People inside Hollywood are divided over Mel Stuart’s original adaptation, and the negative sentiment runs particularly deep on the set of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Burton has called the 1971 movie “sappy,” and his principal screenwriter, John August, says the film’s relation to Roald’s book is akin to “seeing ‘West Side Story’ after reading ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ ”

Roald was “disappointed” by the film, Liccy says. While not originally a box-office hit, it nevertheless has proved remarkably enduring. “It’s loved worldwide, and it’s become a cult hit,” she says.

That lasting appeal is mostly because of its celebrated performance by Gene Wilder as a mercurial Wonka, which continues to cast a long shadow.

“Regardless of what one thinks of that film, Gene Wilder’s persona, his character, stands out,” Depp says, relaxing in a candy store set, watching the skies. “It was brilliant but subtle. So that scares the crap out of you. Those are big shoes. So the only way to go is back to the book and try to figure out what Roald Dahl had in his head, and then make a series of left turns. And those left turns were to go as far away from Gene Wilder’s interpretation as possible.”

Burton wants to make his own kinds of departures too, and they are not limited to his dreaming up a Viking motif for Wonka’s chocolate-river-navigating boat. More than anything else, the director wants to get as much of Roald’s book as possible on screen.

“Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” undeniably left a fair amount of its source material behind. There is neither a visit to the book’s whangdoodle-infested jungles of Loompaland, nor a glimpse of Prince Pondicherry’s melting chocolate palace. With only $3 million to spend, Stuart also ditched Roald’s nut-cracking squirrels, opting instead for a golden egg-laying goose.

Without the financial constraints faced by Stuart (thanks to European production credits, the film’s net budget is about $150 million), Burton and his production team not only visited Loompaland and Pondicherry but also taught each of 40 squirrels how to sit upon a little blue bar stool, tap and then open a walnut, and deposit its meat onto a conveyor belt. In a regimen that would exhaust even Hilary Swank, the squirrels trained every day for 10 weeks before filming commenced. They began their coaching while newborns, fed by bottles to form relationships with human trainers.

“When we first read the script, we had our doubts, as Tim was very specific about what he wanted the squirrels to do,” says animal trainer Michael Alexander. As Alexander speaks, several dozen of the film’s squirrels jump somersaults in their cages. “They’re not really good at taking verbal commands. And you have to acclimate them to a stage, and lights, and hearing things. They tend to panic.”

By the time the cameras rolled, however, Alexander’s schooling had taken, and the squirrels were ready for their close-ups.

Yet faithfulness to the book proved to create almost as many problems as it did opportunities. Roald’s unsentimental 1964 novel tells of a poor boy named Charlie Bucket who is among a handful of children who find tickets inviting them to tour the cloistered Wonka’s factory. Once admitted, the children and their parents witness all variety of wonders, including the diminutive Oompa-Loompas, but they also encounter any number of misfortunes under the guidance of their sometimes derisive host.

The novel is both a wild fantasy and a fable about greed, gluttony and pride. “It was not necessarily a politically correct book, which is what I and other certain kids liked,” Burton says. “It was one of the first times you had children’s literature that was a bit more sophisticated and dealt with darker issues and feelings. It’s become a bit more commonplace now, but back then, when it was more of ‘See Jane Run,’ it felt like more of a rarity.”

There are narrative issues, though. Charlie triumphs in Roald’s book not by doing anything virtuous; he is merely the only kid who fails in doing something bad. Roald furthermore offers only fleeting character information, with just a quick clue about why Wonka became a Howard Hughes-style recluse. In Hollywood speak, Wonka has no “character arc.”

Stuart’s movie made one key departure from Roald’s plot. It greatly expanded the character of Slugworth, who enlists the film’s children as candy spies, urging them to poach Wonka’s most important creation yet, the Everlasting Gobstopper. When at the end of the 1971 film Charlie returns his Gobstopper to Wonka, the candy maker, quoting Shakespeare, says to the young boy, “And so shines a good deed in a weary world.” Charlie has restored Wonka’s faith and has won his factory.

Burton and August didn’t want to copy that embellishment. Indeed, they had to simultaneously disassociate themselves from the earlier adaptation, try to remain true to the book and, says August, “figure out how Willy Wonka got to be who he got to be.”

Their answer had something to do with dentistry.


“PEOPLE don’t cross the street like that! What are they doing?,” Burton complains to one of his assistant directors. It’s earlier on the same day that Burton fights and loses to the clouds, and now he’s battling a different force of nature: disorganized background performers.

For all the film’s artificiality and style, the 46-year-old director wants some of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to be anchored in reality. For instance, the clothes for Charlie Bucket, played by Freddie Highmore, Depp’s costar in best picture nominee “Finding Neverland,” don’t fit and are filled with holes. That’s how a poor person would look. And when Burton’s extras cross the street, the director reasons, they should walk like real people, not automatons. “It’s unbelievable,” he mutters.

There’s but one background player whose performance is winning the director’s heart: his year-old son, Billy, who sits in a pram pushed by his mother, Helena Bonham Carter, who costars as Mrs. Bucket.

After staging the scene a number of times, Burton finally gets his extras to walk the proper way. Then he’s off to the gates of Wonka’s factory.

“You wouldn’t think it would be that hard,” producer Brad Grey, who after filming was completed was named the new chairman and chief executive officer at Paramount Pictures, says during a break in shooting. “It’s such a simple book.”

Grey’s not talking about the background players. He’s referring to the movie’s lengthy itinerary. Warner Bros. spent half a dozen years sewing up “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” rights, and Liccy spent an equal length of time supervising the development of its script.

“Always my main concern in making any film based on Roald’s books was the screenplay,” Liccy says. “I think definitely the skeleton of the script must stick to the book, but [the failed scripts] almost tried too hard to stick to the book. It’s a terrible task for a screenwriter.”

Roald’s movie track record is more mixed than his publishing performance. Despite some good reviews, 1996’s “James and the Giant Peach,” which Burton produced, wasn’t a big hit, and neither was that year’s “Matilda.” Wes Anderson, the filmmaker behind “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” is now developing a movie based on Roald’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

Among the people who tried but ultimately were unable to adapt “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” were screenwriter Scott Frank (“Minority Report”) and director Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit”). They at least got a chance to try; others never met with Liccy’s approval. Warner Bros., she says, “would suggest a director, and we would say, ‘No, no, please, no.’ And then up came Tim and Johnny, and that was it. Tim was the first and only director over whom we were all happy.”

One person close to the production says Liccy was “reticent” to approve the 41-year-old Depp but was won over after meeting him at a charity dinner. Burton similarly almost didn’t get the gig.

Warner Bros. wanted a filmmaker with a light, populist touch. Unlike the millions of young readers who buy every “Harry Potter” installment, there is not a huge core Roald Dahl audience waiting for one of his movies to land in the multiplex.

Warner Bros. President Alan Horn wanted “Bruce Almighty’s” Shadyac to direct the film. His movie comedies, especially those starring Carrey, are consistently successful, and the studio believed Shadyac could make “Charlie” relevant to teen audiences. Only after Liccy nixed that choice did the studio turn to Burton.

Burton faced his own obstacles. While usually a favorite of critics, his movies are not reliable blockbusters. His 2001 remake of “Planet of the Apes,” while all the rage with ticket buyers, was savaged by critics and killed off 20th Century Fox’s plans to revive the franchise. What’s more, Horn feared Burton might be too dark for Roald’s words.

A meeting between Horn and Burton was arranged, and in walked Burton, dressed in his trademark outfit: black pants, black shirt, black coat, black sunglasses and black beret. Burton nevertheless got the job.


“IN a way, it’s like ‘Edward Scissorhands,’ but with a more industrial look,” says production designer Alex McDowell (“The Terminal,” “Minority Report”).

Burton’s creative team has tried to marry the book’s suggested designs with the filmmaker’s peculiar sense of style, including his signature curlicues. The architecture of the Bucket family home was influenced by Burton’s visit to Roald’s writing hut.

Like the book, the film is not set in a specific time, nor a specific country: It might be Philadelphia, or it might be London. “We’ve tried not to pinpoint it to any place,” McDowell says. “The cars, in fact, drive down the middle of the road.” The town, whose design was shaped by the black and white urban photography of Bill Brandt, is arranged like a medieval village, with lord Wonka’s estate on top and the poor Bucket shack below.

The boat, on the other hand, floats down a realistic chocolate river filled with 192,000 gallons of faux melted candy. “Having seen the first film, we wanted to make the chocolate river look edible,” McDowell says. “In the first film, it’s so distasteful.” The production first considered a computer-generated river, but Burton was sold on the artificial goo when he saw how it clung to his Viking boat’s oars. Nine shades of chocolate were tested before the filmmakers settled on the proper hue.

The art department also invented a blend that was nontoxic, so that Augustus Gloop could safely make his fateful plunge, although a camera that fell into the stuff didn’t come out as unscathed as the young boy. (After a while, the concoction began smelling -- “a cross between a sewer and a spoiled refrigerator,” Burton says -- and had to be siphoned off.)

The Oompa-Loompas remain, although their songs, spanning a variety of musical genres, are new, written by screenwriter August and frequent Burton composer Danny Elfman (“Mars Attacks!,” “Sleepy Hollow”). All of the Oompa-Loompas will be played by one man, Deep Roy, who costarred in Burton’s “Big Fish.” Roy’s performance will be reproduced through various movie tricks to create a mass of similar-looking factory workers.

While their third act departs from Roald’s work, Burton and August believe their adaptation is more faithful than the first film. “I’ve adapted a lot of books,” says August, whose credits include “Big Fish” and who as an 8-year-old wrote a fan letter to Roald (which the author answered). “And this is the only book were I could highlight en- tire sentences and say, ‘I can use that exactly as it is.’ ”

All the same, Burton and August realized they had some scenes and characters to invent. “The book didn’t give a place for [Willy] to go in the end,” August says. “We needed to see where he came from in order to see where he wanted to go.”

The two thus created a back story about Wonka’s domineering dentist father. Dr. Wilbur Wonka DDS outfits his young son in torturous orthodontics and burns his son’s entire bag of Halloween sweets in the fireplace. Willy’s forbidden fruit, not surprisingly, eventually becomes his passion. And while he now has all the candy in the world, Willy has grown estranged from his dad.

“This is not meant to be a tear-jerker or an emotionally enveloping story,” says producer Richard Zanuck. “It does have those elements, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s pure entertainment, great visuals, Tim Burton at his imaginative best.”

Perhaps the most jarring choice of Burton’s “imaginative best” is Depp’s appearance as Wonka, which has caused the most reaction in previews. With his oversized teeth and bobbed hair, he looks a bit like an asexual Anna Wintour, with a touch of Oscar Wilde.

“I did not know what the character was going to be, fully, until after the first take. You don’t know what the thing is going to look like,” Depp says. “I knew what I wanted him to sound like, to be like. But you don’t really get the chance to be it until you’re in the ring.”

Although he appears relaxed, Depp is nonetheless nervous about his interpretation. “I don’t want to do any damage to this great character Roald Dahl has created and have his widow say, ‘Johnny Depp has ruined it!’ ”

Burton betrays no such anxiety. He says that while he knew he was in dangerous waters remaking “Planet of the Apes,” which he calls a “classic,” he feels less concerned tackling “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

“There are people who love [‘Willy Wonka’], but it’s such a different type of movie. It’s not to me a classic. That will upset some people, because they love that original movie, but that’s fine. It’s available on DVD at your local video store.”