Talking to Mel Stuart is like chancing upon the grandpa you always wished you had. That is, if your grandpa had directed one of the most imaginative and highly whacked out films ever made, “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” Back in 1971, when the film was released, it was considered an utter flop by all accounts and relegated to vault life. With the advent of cable television and the VCR in the mid 1980s, though, came a resurgence of Stuart’s masterpiece that pushed the film to an almost cultlike status. There remain few of our generation who have missed the flowing chocolate rivers, bloated Augustus Gloop and Everlasting Gobstoppers that are sprinkled within Mr. Wonka’s silver screen chocolate factory.
This Friday, the Santa Barbara Film Society has wrangled Mr. Stuart into screening the film and sharing some “Willy Wonka” secrets, as well as the process of screen adaptation. Though he snugly fits more than 200 documentaries and television productions under his belt, Mr. Stuart proudly extols the virtues of being credited with making one of the most delectable films ever made.
“I never made it for children,” Stuart said, complete with gravelly East Coast accent. “I only made it for adults. I don’t believe in Disney movies and I don’t believe in chipmunks with funny faces singing.”
Stuart makes no apologies for his film or its intended audience.
“I believe that children should be treated like adults,” Stuart said. “I feel very strongly about that. And that’s why I purposely put as many quotes from Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and other poets into the picture. The language is all mature. I mean, when Violet Beauregarde is being taken away and her father is getting hysterical, Wonka says to him, ‘Tell me where is fancy bred, in the heart or in the head?’ It’s actually from [Shakespeare’s] The Merchant of Venice. People hear it and they may not even know quite but it means, but they will when they get older.”
Unlike today’s film infrastructure where scripts are shopped around the “industry circuit,” Stuart’s involvement in “Willy Wonka” sprung from an unlikely source.
“My daughter came to me with the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory [by Roald Dahl] and said to me, ‘Daddy, I’d like you to make this into a movie,'” Stuart said. “She was 11 years old, she knew I made movies and she thought it’d be very easy to do.”
In fact, Stuart’s filmmaking expertise lay in documentaries (for example “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” and “Four Days in November”), and “Willy Wonka” stood as his first foray into feature film.
“Shooting documentaries happens to be an incredibly good training to become a feature director,” Stuart said. “You have to make something out of nothing. You go into the jungle, and if you’re needing lions or you’re doing a political film in Bosnia, it doesn’t matter. You have to create the shape of what you’re seeing because no one’s written you a script. [In features] you only worry about getting a good performance. I don’t have to ask the cameraman where the camera should be. I know where it should be because I’ve done it enough times and made that decision myself.”
The famed children’s author Roald Dahl, who is also credited with adored gems like Matilda, The Witches and James and the Giant Peach, was involved in the film’s early drafts, which another writer polished up. Even still, Stuart lent a hand in the adaptation process.
“You see, there’s a rule in life that you must know,” Stuart said. “You can never film a book. You can film a screenplay, but you can’t film a book. If I filmed the book the way it was written, I would’ve had black pygmies as oompa-loompas. And we don’t want that, do we? African-American actors came to me and said, ‘Do you know the oompa-loompas in this book are black pygmies working for the white man?’ and I said, ‘If I give them orange faces and green hair is that okay?’ And of course, that made the oompa-loompas.”
And what about working with stage and screen delight Gene Wilder, who played the crazed Mr. Wonka? Spouting off nonsensical verses while dressed in a purple tux, Wilder’s Wonka so perfectly treaded the line between delightful and deranged.
“He’s marvelous,” Stuart said. “We both knew we wanted Wonka to be seemingly mad so that you’d never know if he’s nuts or not. When [Wonka and the tour group] enter the inventing room, he and I decided right on the spot that he’s going to invite them in, in German. Nobody understands it. Including the audience. In a Disney picture you would never get anybody talking in German. But that’s what makes it.”
Filmed in Munich over a period of almost two months, Stuart specifically chose a nondescript city and was careful not to give away the film’s exact time period by avoiding automobiles or other distinctly technological devices. It is the interior world of Wonka’s chocolate factory, created by set designer Harper Goff, that tends to resonate most in the memories of those spoon-fed Stuart’s film since childhood. Amidst lollipops and munchable teacups, Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde and Mike Teevee were slowly crossed off the guest list until only poor Charlie Bucket was left.
Of course, Artsweek could hardly let go of this filmmaking legend without asking the most relevant, investigative and wholly pertinent of all questions: How much of the set was actually edible?
“A couple of the candies were real, like the whipped cream in the mushroom, but as for the chocolate river, you did not want to drink that,” Stuart said. “Most of the candies had to be fake because otherwise they would melt.”
In the end, the children’s gluttony, combined with oblivious parents, cuts short their magical factory visit and becomes the underlying moral tagline of Dahl’s book and Stuart’s film. Even so, Stuart’s mature themes and images remain ingrained in viewers’ memories, moreso maybe than later, fuzzier adaptations of Dahl’s other books.
“When Wonka goes down the river and is reciting this crazy poem, I mean, this isn’t kids’ stuff,” Stuart said. “And it was never intended to be, because I don’t make kiddie movies. The reason this picture succeeds is that it’s very literate and you’re dealing with four funny, bratty kids that you want to see go down the chute and a man who’s off his nut. Otherwise, it’d be a very dull picture.”