Director Paul King Talks Bringing Wonka To Life

Paul King is best known for directing the Paddington films – and if you meet him, you’ll quickly come to realise that they turned out as well as they did because he is Paddington Bear personified, warm, polite and friendly whilst a tiny bit awkward in an ever-so British way.

Those movies helped him get the gig to direct Wonka, the blockbuster Charlie And The Chocolate Factory prequel, which he sees as a companion piece due to how it subverts the formula of his two previous films. As he explained to Zavvi: “They’re both very vulnerable characters, who arrive in this country not knowing anyone, but Paddington is greeted with warmth and there’s a fuzziness to his story, whereas the world of Roald Dahl has a darker edge.

“Willy Wonka arrives in a world where everyone around him seems to be completely evil, there’s no Brown family to look after him – anybody who looks like a guardian wants to take advantage of him and abuse him, which is common in the Dahl universe, but not in the Michael Bond universe! I was interested in how they respond to their different circumstances, as Wonka is like Paddington in many ways, he’s just hiding under a Timothée Chalamet suit…”

Dahl is one of King’s biggest influences as a writer, and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory was his first gateway into the author’s blackly comic world as a child, as well as one of the first books he ever read by himself (“I read it cover to cover so many times, the pages fell out of the spine!”). But for years, the novel remained just that: a childhood memory, one that he didn’t return to until he was offered this directing gig.

Chalamet and King on set – Warner Bros.

“The things I remembered were the crazy, larger-than-life aspects; this chocolate factory that was a huge adventure playground, basically the funny side to the story. Going back and reading it as an adult, I’d forgotten there was a great emotional story with a Dickensian flavour to it – a poor child who’s so hungry, he walks past the factory and breathes in the smell of chocolate as he can’t afford to buy any, it’s completely heartbreaking.

“With the Paddington films, I always wanted to mix comedy and intense emotion. Seeing that this book had always had that combination was when I realised this was a match that could work.”

Wonka was in development long before King got on board, of course, with the likes of Ryan Gosling and Donald Glover at different points being suggested during that early pre-production stage. They were no longer in contention by the time the project finally found its director, which is when talks shifted to considering Chalamet.

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“I’d wanted to work with him ever since seeing Call Me By Your Name and being completely blown away, but when you see that performance, you can’t tell whether it’s just an unnaturally perfect bit of casting, whether that was just the right role at the right time. But then I saw him in Lady Bird the same year, where he got a chance to play this completely funny, utterly different character, which confirmed he was an incredible actor.

“As soon as he was mentioned for Wonka, I knew he’d be perfect; he’s got a slightly unknowable personality, where you’re not quite sure what he’s going to do next, as well as a good sense of mischief and fun. Plus, he can also sing and dance!”

Yes, the brooding star of Dune gets a chance to try out some other talents here, with his first movie musical putting his song-and-dance skills their first proper workout since the viral videos of his high school theatre performances (which were also, King has revealed, crucial to why Chalamet ended up getting cast). However, musical ability was far from the main skill the director was looking for in his lead.

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He explained: “The Willy Wonka you’ve seen in previous adaptations is like the Wizard of Oz, a great showman behind this tour of the factory. But this Willy is the heart of the movie, and he has to hold it together emotionally, and guide the audience through the emotional journey.

“Timothée has a really rare gift where he can draw on these depths of human emotion, whilst being incredibly precise and funny at the same time. I genuinely don’t think anyone else could play it like he does.”

The story is about Willy Wonka’s struggle to make a name for himself as a chocolatier, with his attempts to open a shop thwarted by the “Chocolate Mafia” – a villainous group of shop owners led by Arthur Slugworth (Patterson “Johnson off of Peep Show” Joseph) – and that’s not even the worst of it. Two sinister hotel owners, played by Olivia Colman and Tom Davis, soon imprison him after trapping him with the small print in his room contract, sentencing him to nearly 30 years scrubbing bedsheets in their basement.

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One of the nicer acquaintances is Hugh Grant’s Lofty, an Oompa Loompa who keeps coming back to Willy’s bedroom to steal his chocolate, a relationship that reveals how they became crucial to building his chocolate empire. More importantly, for fans of Paddington 2, King once again ends the movie with a Grant-led musical number.

“I really should end every movie I make with once, he’s really good – and so far, it’s not broke, so why fix it? He dances in this film with a degree of hostility, which I’ve never seen in a musical sequence before; it’s probably the angriest dancing ever committed to film.”

Despite setting up relationships crucial to Dahl’s original tale, King is quick to highlight that he doesn’t consider this an “origin story”, as he perceives it to be more a tale of finding yourself through overcoming adversity, rather than a beat-for-beat account of how Willy built his choco-empire.

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“We wanted to make something that was a companion piece to the 1971 movie, which is very dear to my heart. We worked backwards from that, as we didn’t want to go to the point where he retreats behind the walls of the factory and turns away from the world; we wanted to introduce a more open, enthusiastic soul discovering that this world isn’t the lovely place they hoped it’d be.”

You could argue that it has the feeling of Willy Wonka’s urban legend being written in real-time, a conscious decision to connect it to how he’s initially presented in Dahl’s novel, which King feels would be the best approach if he was ever asked to make a sequel.

“The great thing about the book is that Grandpa Joe tells various stories of Willy Wonka from when he was younger, which leaves room for more stories should the world be interested in them, but honestly, I just want this to work as a movie in its own right and be enjoyed as such.”

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I point out that King sounds like he’s on the verge of pitching a Grandpa Joe prequel as well.

“That would be very niche”, he laughs. “Before he was a Grandpa: Grandson Joe. Or maybe just: Joe”.

With the three-quel Paddington In Peru currently in production via a different director – “I’m worried he’s going to show me up!” – don’t be surprised if King returns to the Wonka-Verse very soon.

Wonka is released in UK cinemas on Friday, 8th December.

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Alistair Ryder

Alistair Ryder


Alistair is a culture journalist and lover of bad puns from Leeds. Subject yourself to his bad tweets by following him on Twitter @YesItsAlistair.