Wonka director Paul King: ‘I only wanted to do something Roald Dahl would be proud of’

The Paddington 2 maker’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory prequel stars Timothée Chalamet as the budding chocolatier – plus Sally Hawkins as his Irish mother

“When I was a kid I wanted to find a golden ticket and go to live in Willy Wonka’s factory,” says the Roald Dahl fan and film director Paul King. “Of course, I also wanted ET to come and live at the bottom of my garden.”

Roald Dahl, who died in 1990, aged 74, couldn’t be more voguish. In 2021 Forbes ranked him the top-earning dead celebrity. Earlier this year Puffin Books, Dahl’s UK publisher, came under fire for editing and altering hundreds of references in the British author’s work deemed offensive on grounds of race, gender and weight. In September, Wes Anderson unveiled The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, the first of a planned quadrilogy of Dahl adaptations.

And now King, director of the outstanding Paddington 2, is bringing Wonka, a prequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to the big screen.

It’s a journey that began, for King, at primary school. “I think I was about seven or eight, and I had the 1980s paperback edition,” he says. “It was one of the first books I read to myself. It was the discovery of really good comedy. And: oh, books can be really funny. It’s not just learning. That was what I really responded to. I loved the creations and the ghastly children.

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“When David Heyman, the producer I work with, mentioned the idea of a Willy Wonka movie, I went and read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory again. I realised that it’s also an amazing emotional masterpiece. I really wasn’t expecting that. Or maybe I had forgotten how incredibly touching it is. Poor little Charlie suffers so much. And you’re so rooting for him. I found myself in tears at the end of it.”

King began his comedy career alongside his Cambridge contemporaries Richard Ayoade, Alice Lowe and Matthew Holness. He oversaw Garth Merengi’s transfer from Edinburgh Festival Fringe to cultural cornerstone and scored small-screen hits with David Walliams and Matt Lucas’s airline mockumentary, Come Fly With Me; and The Mighty Boosh; before his first theatrically released feature, Bunny and the Bull, failed to set the box office alight. His second feature, Paddington, made more than $280 million worldwide.

“I think the good thing about that is that more people watched Paddington than Bunny and the Bull,” says King. “But I think of the making-of as the same. I still love diving into the details. And, obviously, I’ve done lots of comedy, especially on TV. I just enjoy laughing and seeing things that make me laugh. I think what was nice about that journey was going to Dahl. He has always been there. He helped me realise that you can be two things at once. You can be a real artist and funny. You can be terrifying and heartwarming and ridiculous and magical. And they can all be funny. That shouldn’t be a caveat.”

Back in 1970, producers considered Fred Astaire, Ron Moody and Jon Pertwee for the role of Willy Wonka. Spike Milligan was Roald Dahl’s personal choice; Peter Sellers reportedly begged for the role that ultimately went to a twinkling Gene Wilder. Arriving in a series of collaborations that stretch back to the 1987 film Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was, conversely, crafted around Johnny Depp. King’s choice was similarly emphatic. Warner Bros was courting the likes of Donald Glover, Ezra Miller and Ryan Gosling to play Wonka before the director plumped for Timothée Chalamet.

“I read about that after the fact, because the film had been in development before I joined, so I don’t know to what extent these were serious conversations,” says King. “We were pretty open to looking for the right person. But, for me, it really was a list of one. I thought Timothée was so captivating in Call Me By Your Name that I wondered if he wasn’t one of those miraculous right actors for the right role.

“But then he played a diametrically opposed smug, irritating character in Ladybird, and he was brilliant. He was in the back of my mind as an actor I really would like to do something with. But I wasn’t sure he could sing. And our film has singing. So I went on YouTube and his high-school musical is there, because it feels like he has been famous since he was about six. And that was that. He was perfect. It feels like he embodies it, but then I feel like that with him playing every part.”

King was even more certain about his Oompa Loompas. Back in 2019, Hugh Grant (quite reasonably) informed Vanity Fair that Paddington 2 “might be the best film I’ve ever been in”. Some $230 million in box-office receipts and many record-breaking positive notices later, King dug deep into Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and found that Dahl’s cynical, wickedly funny orange-faced labourers reminded him of a certain collaborator.

“I love Hugh,” says King, who wrote the script with long-time collaborator Simon Farnaby. “I just always thought that [he was] the funniest person I could see in movies. It’s very nice to work with him twice. Long may it continue. I can’t get enough.”

King’s Wonka, which has been almost as fiercely guarded as the title character’s secretive production line, stars Chalamet as a budding chocolatier who finds his ambitions to sell imaginative confections thwarted by the sinister and elitist Chocolate Cartel. Chalamet is joined by an impressive ensemble cast – Keegan-Michael Key, Sally Hawkins, Olivia Colman, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and Rowan Atkinson – in a film that King pictured as a companion piece to the Gene Wilder-headlining version from 1971.

“The two films are so good in their very different ways,” the director says. “I suppose because I grew up with the Gene Wilder film more deeply in my consciousness, that was the one that would pop into my head, because it has remained iconic and I love music so much.

“When I was doing this I wanted to find some rules to kind of live by. And, obviously, the big one was: what would Dahl do? But I also wanted to make sure that nothing happens in our film that isn’t consistent with the Wilder film. I wanted to live alongside that. And if you chart out of a vague timeline, as we did, you can suddenly find young Willy Wonka in a postwar world.

“They shot the first movie in Germany, mostly, and I was really interested in a European grand city of chocolate that was a melting pot of different people from different countries, and a sort of postwar reserve, so that Willy Wonka could come along and blow their socks off.”

The Dahl fanatic Wes Anderson recently voiced concerns about tampering with the author’s original wording while simultaneously praising the Dahl estate’s generosity. Adding to an existing Dahl canon, says King, was a carefully considered business.

“Luke Kelly, one of our producers, is Roald Dahl’s grandson,” King says. “So, as well as a professional interest in maintaining the brand, there was a very deeply personal desire to not annoy Grandpa and the rest of the family. I think this is the first thing they ever authorised that was not an adaptation of one of the books. They were justifiably cautious. But luckily, from my point of view, I only wanted to do something Roald Dahl would be proud of. We were all going for the same thing, and that made it very straightforward.”

There’s some local interest to consider. For one thing, Sally Hawkins plays Wonka’s Irish mother. For another, the first images from the film were accompanied by a quote from Oscar Wilde: “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.” And, third, seven of the songs for the soundtrack were written by Neil Hannon – who, by coincidence, attended the same school as Wilde.

“I’ve loved Neil’s music forever,” says King. “I’ve been on the Neil journey since Casanova, in 1996. He’s written so many great songs. And we sing them in our house a lot. I think what’s so great about him is not only that he writes great tunes but also that his songs are really moving. And some of them really make you laugh.

“A song like The Summerhouse brings a tear to the eye. That’s so rare in contemporary songwriting. We’re not in the age of great wits and Noel Coward any more. For a Roald Dahl adaptation we needed a brilliant wordsmith with a sardonic turn of phrase. He has that in bucketloads. Plus yearning, soaring melodies and a lump in the throat. I had to lure him away, across the sea!”

Wonka opens in cinemas on Friday, December 8th