From Paddington To Spirit Of Roald Dahl — How Paul King Makes Instant Classics
Paul King, the director of both Paddington movies explains how the Wonka magic works.
Paul King — the man who made both Paddington movies — was, like so many of us, influenced by the blockbusters of the 1980s. “The first movie I saw in the cinema was E.T.,” King recalls. “I also saw Return of the Jedi and Back to the Future in theaters, so I'm aging myself very literally here. I grew up in Scotland, in a rural area, so visits to see something on the big screen were few and far between. Whenever I went, it was a special moment and it changed my life. I knew that's what I wanted to do from a very early age.”
What King wanted to do was write and direct movies and television, and direct stage plays. Now 45, the Brit has done all of that and more with tremendous success. BBC aficionados still tout the zany series The Mighty Boosh, while families worldwide found themselves charmed by the film Paddington and its sequel. So, what did King want to do next? Arguably the year’s best family film: Wonka. And what did he want to do with Wonka? Not screw it up. Remember, generations of readers love Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory books, legions of moviegoers cherish the 1971 adaptation starring Gene Wilder as the enigmatic chocolate maker seeking an innocent child to take over his factory, and some folks even like Tim Burton’s far darker iteration that featured Johnny Depp in the lead role.
“It's a beloved classic, especially the book and the Gene Wilder movie, for people in my generation, anyway,” King told Fatherly during a recent exclusive interview via Zoom. “The challenge is always when you're diving into something that is held very dear to people's hearts, which I felt with the Paddington movies as well. They hadn't existed on the big screen, so I feel with this even more so, the visualization of it is so dear to people that it's a nerve-wracking and daunting experience to take something they love and run with it. The blessing, though, as a filmmaker, is that you have these incredible people, and wonderful performances, writing, ideas, set design, and all the extraordinary pleasures that they've given you to play with. It's like you're getting into their toy box and playing with their ideas. That's a complete privilege.
“We worked very closely with the Dahl estate, which was run by Luke Kelly, one of our producers, who's actually Roald Dahl's grandson,” King added. “For him, as well as the professional anxiety I felt, there's a huge personal responsibility to do something that his nearest and dearest relations would feel inhabited the spirit of Dahl. It was great to have him there because we could talk about the spirit of the writing and other ideas. The happiest times on the whole film were in the early days when I was just reading everything Dahl had written. I was lucky enough to get into the archive and read not just the published stories, but other stories and versions of Charlie. It was bliss.”
Rather than remake Willy Wonka yet again, King and co-writer Simon Farnaby teamed up to tell an origin story, crafted as a full-on musical. Now in theaters, the film in large part lives up to its tagline: How Willy became Wonka. And so, we meet the very sweet, very young Willy (Timothee Chalamet), an aspiring inventor, magician, and, of course, chocolatier. Hoping to make his late mother proud, Willy tries to establish himself and his wares, along the way alienating several established chocolatiers (Matt Lucas, Paterson Joseph, and Matthew Baynton), becoming indebted to a nasty laundromat owner (Olivia Colman), encountering a cranky, thieving Oompa-Loompa (Hugh Grant), and befriending a group of fellow debtors (Calah Lane, Rakhee Thakrar, Rich Fulucher, Jim Carter). The youngest of the group, a young girl named Noodle (Lane), also proves to be its bravest, smartest, and most mature, as well as Wonka’s confidant.
Chalamet’s Wonka already uses a cane and sports a top hat and purple coat, but he’s otherwise quite different from the Wonkas depicted in the books or embodied by Wilder and Depp. King and Farnaby chose to work backwards from near the end of the Wilder film, specifically when Wonka turns to Charlie and shouts, “You get nothing!,” much to the boy’s disappointment and his grandfather’s ire.
“It's so awful because you love Willy Wonka so much,” King said. “Then when he does this extraordinary act of generosity and gives (Charlie) the whole factory and gives away his life's work, it’s completely devastating. For us, it was interesting to take that spirit of generosity that you get, the ‘Ah! That's who he is!’ You're not sure all the way through. Is he this spiky, weird recluse or is he a kind man and a genius, and just playing with that all the way through? At the heart, he's got such warmth, love, and generosity.”
King deems Chalamet “a tremendous talent,” suggested that moviegoers keep an eye open for Easter Eggs, and shared that while he’s open to telling more of Willy’s story, if Wonka merits it. He also said that Chalamet’s energy helped to bring another element of the film to the fore; a sense of found/chosen family. So, how important was that theme?
“Enormously,” King replied, “and I'm so glad you picked up on that. Willy Wonka, obviously, is kind of strange, and reclusive. He lives all alone, as far as we know from the book, just with the Oompa Loompas. We were interested (for the film) in how family works with that. Obviously, he's somebody who's lost his family. It feels like he has this moment where he has this found family. That's the moment of pure happiness and creation for him. I don't want to give anything away, but the idea that you have this found family and they come together just for a moment, then … I love that slight bittersweetness that we can feel.”
Wonka is out in wide release now.
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