Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory: Untold Stories From Munich, '71
In 1971, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder, took audiences into a world of pure imagination. The sinister children’s story has become a cult classic among kids and adults alike, many of whom are intrigued by Wilder’s turn as the strange candy man Willy Wonka. In order to make this odd vision of factory life back room deals had to be brokered, Wilder’s demands had to be met, and the heart of a very fickle writer was broken.
We’ve spoken about the Oompa Loompas elsewhere on the site, as well as the snotty children who threaten to bring Wonka’s factory to its knees, but these behind the scenes stories of Willy Wonka and Chocolate Factory have yet to be revealed.
The Film Was Shot In Munich
Charlie Bucket is a down on his luck young man who lives with his grandparents in a rundown shack in England just down the street from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Even though the film is filled from credits to credits with English accents, it was actually filmed in Munich, Germany. Rather than film in England or Los Angeles, Munich was chosen because of the film’s low budget of $3 million.
Since most of the film takes place inside of Wonka’s factory there aren’t any overtly Bavarian overtones to the film, but eagle-eyed viewers might notice that early in the movie some of the street signs and billboards are in German, something that didn’t bother Mel Stuart who later explained, "Nobody knows what Munich looks like."
Most Of The 'Candy' Was Inedible
The sets and special effects of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory look so delectable that viewers are envious of the children who get to take a tour down the chocolate river - even the kids who eat it for being absolutely horrible. As good as all that candy looks, most of it’s not real. The wall paper that tastes like fruit? It’s just wallpaper. The cup that Wonka eats? It’s made of wax.
The biggest set piece in the film is the chocolate river that Wonka claims is pure milk chocolate. In reality it’s just water and food coloring. Michael Böllner, the actor who plays Augustus Gloop, explained, “At one point, they poured some cocoa powder into it to try to thicken it but it didn’t really work. It was dirty, stinking water.” The rule of thumb in the film is that if a kid eats it, it’s real.
The Size Of The Set Made The Film Nearly Impossible To Shoot
In order to show the full scope of Wonka’s factory, a massive set had to be constructed that actually had giant cream filled mushrooms, a platform for dancing Oompa Loompas, and a chocolate river. As beautiful as the set was, getting it on film was a nightmare for the crew. According to a letter to producer Dave Wolpe from director Mel Stuart:
We have had a lot of trouble in the Chocolate Room as far as our schedule goes because of two reasons. First, the incredible size of the set has made every turnaround, even for a close up, a lighting nightmare. I’m constantly tempted to put my actors up against the wall in order to get a quick lighting job, but I feel the picture would lose a great deal of quality I do.
Willy Wonka Almost Had A Dead Parrot On His Arm
Before Gene Wilder was cast as Willy Wonka there were several well regarded English actors who wanted to take on the role - and most of them were members of Monty Python. All six members of the group -- Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin -- said they wanted the role of Wonka, and Peter Sellers supposedly reached out to Dahl in person in order to ask for the role.
In the end, casting came down to who would had the biggest box office draw, and, at the time, Monty Python had only been around for a couple of years and were yet to be the cultural touchstone that they are today.
Gene Wilder's Vision For Willy Wonka Is What We're Seeing
As interesting as it would have been for the members of Monty Python to appear in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Wilder imbued the character with an eerie calm that’s both enticing and frightening, and would have been hard to top. Wilder agreed to take the part, but only if he could do things his way. He even detailed the sequence where he was introduced as a crippled old man who does a front flip in a letter to the film's director. He wrote:
When I make my first entrance, I'd like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I'm walking on and stands straight up, by itself; but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.
The reason? Wilder thought that by establishing Wonka's deceptive and playful nature right off the bat, the audience wouldn’t be able to tell if he was telling the truth or lying throughout the rest of the film.
Wilder Helped Design Wonka's Outfit
Rather than only have a hand in Wonka’s actions and reasoning, Wilder was insistent that he have input on the way the character dressed. It shows that Wilder really loved the character and that he wanted his strange actions to be as effective as possible and not just weird for weird’s sake.
During pre-production Wilder dictated what kind type of pants the character wore, the color of the clothing, and even where the pockets on his clothing were located. At one point he told the costumer, “The hat is terrific, but making it 2 inches shorter would make it more special."
Director Mel Stuart Never Told The Kids What Was Happening In Any Given Scene
If you’ve watched this film recently then you’ve noticed that the children genuinely look excited when they see the main room of the factory for the first time, and that they’re terrified when they get on the boat. That’s not because they’re great actors, it’s because the director didn’t tell them everything that was going to happen in scenes where he needed genuine reactions.
In a DVD featurette Peter Ostrum (Charlie) says that none of the actors were warned about what Wilder would do from scene to scene, even during the famous “you lose” speech. The same goes for the boat trip. Ostrum explained:
Gene just kind of went off and we had not seen that side of him. I wouldn’t say it was disturbing — but it was, ‘Whoa, Gene is really getting into it today.’
Roald Dahl Wrote The Book And Screenplay, But Hated The Film
One thing that was necessary to getting Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory off the ground was to convince Dahl that the film needed to be made. First, the producers optioned the film for $300,000, which is a pretty good paycheck for the rights to the book. On top of that, Dahl was promised a chance to write the script for the film.
While he adapted the film and receives credit, a second screenwriter was brought on to punch up the script and make it more kid-friendly. Dahl, a notoriously ornery fellow, hated the rewrites and not only refused to watch the film in its entirety but refused to grant the studio the rights to the sequel.
The Movie Was Funded As A Promotion For A New Line Of Candy
After reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the 10-year-old daughter of Mel Stuart came to him with a proposition that he make it into a film. After devouring the book, he agreed and went to his producing partner David L. Wolper. It just so happened that Wolper was in conversation with the people from Quaker Oats, who were looking for an inventive way to introduce a new candy bar to the market.
Wolpner loved the idea of using a movie to sell a candy bar, and convinced Quaker Oats to front the entire $3 million budget, this included the rights to the book and the marketing for the new Wonka Bar. Even though the whole deal was put together to sell a new candy bar, Quaker Oats hadn’t perfected the recipe for their Wonka Bars by the time of the film’s release, and instead had to offer Super Skrunch Bars and Peanut Butter Oompas.
It’s likely that the film never would have been made if it weren’t for the ongoing talks between Wolper and the Quaker Oats Company. Sometimes commerce and art do make good bedfellows.