Charlie and the Chocolate Factory : An Interview with Tim Burton
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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory : An Interview with Screenwriter John August and Producer Richard Zanuck
By Wilson MoralesJohnny Depp called producer Richard Zanuck as "The Legend" during interviews for the upcoming "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and he so got the title right. The name "Zanuck" goes back to the time when "The Sound of Music" and "The French Connection" won Best Pictures. Zanuck has had his hand on a number of successful films that's too long to mention all of them, but Jaws, The Sting, and Driving Miss Daisy are just a few to name. John August is a screenwriter who most recently wrote Big Fish for Tim Burton and also wrote the screenplay to Charlie's Angels and its sequel, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. Together, both Zanuck and August spoke to blackfilm.com about their roles in making "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" come to the big screen.
Whose idea was it to add the flashbacks?
JA: Tim and I, probably our second conversation, the second time we sat down and talked about it, was how we wanted to frame the entire movie, because the book ends really abruptly -- in the book they shake hands, Charlie gets the factory, and it's done, and that wasn't going to be a satisfying for a movie. We wanted a resolution that made you feel like you had gotten through the whole movie. um, actually, one of the very first things we sat down and talked with Tim about was, my recollection of the book was not really about the kids going on a tour of the factory, it was about Charlie bucket in his little house that was falling down with all -- basically everyone he loved was in this little house, and how lucky he was to be surrounded by his grandparents and his parents and he didn't really have any money, he was the luckiest kid in the world; and how could we use that and sort of parallel that with Willy Wonka, who has all this stuff but didn't have a family. So we knew from the start we wanted to cross paths like, Charlie gets the factory and Willy Wonka gets the family; and the flashbacks were a way of showing what Willy Wonka was lacking. So the relationship with his father, to how he became who he became and the price that came with it.
The first movie is so well loved, why remake it?
RZ: We never considered this a remake -- this was a standalone version seen through Tim Burton's eyes of the Roald Dahl book. The first picture, which is revered by people who saw it when they were 5 -- and it wasn't a hit, actually, theatrically, not a hit at all -- it became a big seller for Warner Bros in cassette and in its afterlife. One of the biggest sellers that they have in their library, but it was called WW and CF, so it didn't even have the same name. It was based, although it took great liberties, with the original Roald Dahl story. Tim's idea was to do a version, and he so told Jon to write directly from the book. I don't know if he even saw the -- I don't even know if Tim has re-seen the original picture, he may have seen it when he was a kid, I never went back and looked at it again. Because what we were doing was not a remake of that picture, it was a stand alone of the Roald Dahl book, using what he had written, his title, and no music, in terms of one actor singing to others.
How were Brad Grey , Brad Pitt , and Jennifer Aniston involved?
RZ: They had the rights. They had control of the rights -- Brad, when he was at Brillstein Gray, before he even was at Plan B, he controlled the rights to a series of things which wouldn't be important to you. So he had the rights. From that point on, when Tim came on and then I came on, he was present in a general sense, not on the set specifically -- he made visits, but he didn't work with John or Tim or do any of the casting but he was , he oversaw the project and that was his contribution.
Can you talk about in the script, the film is visual? Did you leave that to the designers?
JA: The challenge of screenwriter is figuring out where to stop, because you could describe the color of the paint on the walls and it doesn't really help anybody out. A good script should make you feel like you've seen the movie even though you haven't -- you should evoke in as few words as possible the feeling that you're going to get when you see the movie. So, with this I came on board the project and Tim was already on board and Johnny was already on board, so there were certain things were I could just sort of say, okay, how is Tim gonna want to do this, and I could write it very much sort of in his kind of vision. But I didn't describe the chocolate factory, sort of, you know, I didn't describe what the factory looked like exactly, but I sort of stated it as an aside. There's a sequence where we sort of push through a hole in Charlie's attic and you can see all the bicycles coming out and the stuff being handed out, and that sort of stuff I would describe, because that's part of the story. But you don't put in stuff about what the characters are wearing, because those decisions aren't mine to make -- they're Tim's and Johnny Depp's and a host of other really talented people. Tim is great about surrounding himself with really really -- people who are at the top of their field. Alex XX, the production designer, was amazing, and I think partly because I didn't you know, from the page sort of tell him what he was going to do, he was great about including me. So all the newspaper articles that are up on walls and stuff like that, he would send out to me all the copy that they had put into the newspaper articles for me to just double-check so if the camera got too close and you could read it, or if you hit freeze-frame it on DVD, it would actually make sense.
So, even all that stuff is fact-checked. Did you write specifically for the actors?
JA: There was nothing I wrote, there was no particular thing that I wrote sort of like, That would good be for Johnny Depp. There was stuff that, after the first table reading he had gone back to the book and found 3 or 4 more lines that he really wanted Wonka to say and we got those in, and he had some really great ideas for -- the sense that Wonka had his whole presentation planned and has his little notecards? That was all Johnny, because he wanted the sense of he's terrified of having people come into his factory, but he's gonna have a plan, and then he sort of screws up and backtracks and starts saying all the same things again and everything gets thrown into a loop, and that's really I think one of the main things we tried to invent in this version was, how do we fit in that this factory is bringing back all these memories of sort of why he's sequestered himself here years ago, that would motivate his flashbacks.
Why make it contemporary?
JA: I don't think --I mean, Tim and I would say that it's not contemporary. I mean besides the fact that Mike TV plays video games there's nothing in the movie that should feel like it's exactly happening today. We didn't want to stick with any one place, as in is it happening in the US or the UK, or exactly what era it's taking place in. So the cars are from kind of strange periods of time, all the technology in the movie is a little bit off -- i mean, the cars in the movie drive down the center of the street so you can't tell if you're in the US or the UK. We were very deliberate because we wanted it to be timeless and the story, the underlying story was timeless.
What about the references to the 60's?
JA: The references that Wonka makes like "hep cat" and stuff like that -- we wanted Wonka to use sort of updated language, but if you watch it again it's not entirely clear when it could have taken place. Um, so it's outdated by our time, but it's still kind of off based on where we are now. It's well known that Dahl hated the Wilder version. Would he like yours?
RZ: Felicity Dahl, who is his widow and takes handling the estate very, very seriously and who had a lot of conditions in her contract with Warners, who is the director, who is the writer, who's gonna play Wonka, all the other cast, she called me up -- she saw it a few days ago and she called me up and she is thrilled by it, and she is really the voice of Roald. Um, it is my understanding that he wasn't, although he got a credit for some of the writing, a shared credit on the first film, that he wasn't pleased with it, that they'd changed the title to Willy Wonka, instead of Charlie, they made it into a musical where one character sings to another, and there were a lot of things I think that he felt were liberties taken away from what he originally intended when he wrote the book. So my answer to your question is that he, through her, would love this picture.
Was your Willy based on Michael Jackson?
RZ: You know, I think that's really stretching it; I haven't seen Michael Jackson wear a tophat recently. Here's a character who's been cloistered in a factory for 20 years. When you see him in the flashbacks, in the jungle and so forth, he's not as pasty. He got that look he hasn't been outside in 20 years. The hair we talked about, and we were thinking of more of a Prince Valiant look. Not once was there any discussion of let's pattern this character in any way after Michael Jackson, because Willy Wonka is kind of terrified of children -- as you see right off the bat, he doesn't want to touch them, or for them to touch him, as opposed to Michael Jackson, who is open arms to children. So I think, I don't know what it is, why people -- and this isn't the first time that it's been brought up -- have got the impression that Johnny patterned it after that character. You'll have to ask him, but it was a subject that we never talked about.
Are you worried other people will perceive it this way?
RZ: No, because it's just an ill-founded perception, it's not based in reality. If one thinks it through, about what kind of person Willy Wonka is compared to the impression of what kind of a person Michael Jackson is, they're at polar opposites. And I can't, nor can anybody help what kind of impression that may be created, but this is not like him copying somebody as he did in Pirates, not at all. How did you keep the script under wraps?
JA: Yeah, I mean, we didn't do anything crazy in terms of, you know, printing it on red paper or having couriers and secret codes and such -- and when people ask me, 'oh what happens in the movie', it's like, "exactly what happens in the book, and a little bit more". And the stuff that was a little bit more... you feel some responsibility to keep that stuff a surprise, so we tried not to talk about Willy Wonka's father a lot at the start, um, we didn't want to talk about the squirrels because we knew the squirrels were going to be really cool and we wanted to keep that a bit of a surprise, but what's great about working on something that everyone's familiar with is that it's like telling a fairy tale everybody sort of knows the basic elements, so what you're getting into in the new stuff is sort of How you're doing it and the different ways you're exploring. To me, my touchstone was always the Bucket house, and Charlie and his little family. And so you've all seen the movie? Okay, so that image of the Bucket house in the chocolate river room at the end with the sugar shakers coming down on it, that was one of my first images, and so i wanted the movie to earn that moment. And so that's the kind of thing you'd hold back a little bit so it's still a surprise. So there's always going to be something you sort of talk about in the marketing...
What do you do when you and Tim disagree?
JA: We honestly don't disagree much. If Tim said no, my first question is, trying to figure out what he actually needs or wants. Because my job especially in this role, is to get him the stuff he needs to shoot the film. So you never sort of, the challenge is figuring out what I can do to help -- and that pretty much works with anybody in any department, sort of what does Tim need. RZ. One of my main roles is accomplishing and either in terms of construction, what Tim's vision is. It's no a question of saying, No this won't work, it's How do we make this work. When you buy on to a Tim Burton picture, you expect Tim Burton's vision to be up there on the screen. So it's never having to say "No" -- he's a very practical person. Sometimes I'd point out to him that something was going to cost a prohibitive amount, and he's the first one to say, no, I'll think of something else. But it's not, saying yes or no, my job is to populate the picture with a crew and surround him with one goal: to give him within the parameters of the budget and the story, the ability to put his vision on the screen. And that's not always easy. Particularly when he said, "I want to use real squirrels, you've gotta train real squirrels. It would have been easy to say no -- it's easier to train a gnat than train a squirrel. But what we did was form a school for squirrels, we trained them for 5 or 6 months before we had to use them, and what you see for the most part -- certainly all the close-ups and medium shots -- are real trained squirrels. So we try to give him what his vision calls for.
How does writing for actors like Albert Finney and Christopher Lee change how you write?
JA: With the case of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the only person I knew I was writing for was Johnny Depp. And he was onboard before I was onboard, and I knew that he could do anything that would ever be asked to do. And so, him being younger, forced some good decisions in terms of showing Wonka at a younger age, that could snowball through. But generally as a writer you don't know who you're writing for, so you just try to create the best character you can. And if the person cast in that role has a certain situation that you need to tailor to a little bit differently, then you do that. You know, with Albert Finney, you know, not a word changed, and the same with Christopher Lee. You know, I thought that Johnny Depp was going to play his father, I thought he was gonna play both roles until literally I came back to London and it was like, "Oh, I cast Christopher Lee" and I was like, "Great", Christopher Lee is terrific and he's scary in just the right way.
But I thought Johnny Depp was playing that part. Did the script change once you started?
JA: No, Tim doesn't like the script to change once production starts. So during preproduction and those last few weeks before we started shooting, I would do all of the sort of last tweaks, like Johnny incorporated a few more lines, and few more things, but no, we don't rewrite, we shoot when we're there. Would you be interested in being involved in a sequel?
RZ: I wouldn't like to speculate, really on that, but I think that that book doesn't have nearly the merit of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, so as for my being involved, particularly if Tim wasn't around there to turn that story into something, I wouldn't be in favor of it. JA: I really like Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, but it's a very different style of book than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and one of the sort of things that would come up is that the events of the Great Glass Elevator actually happen during the course of the movie that we made. Our movie goes on a bit longer, but GGE literally starts right at the moment that they shake hands, in the factory. Some of that would be different. I love the characters in the story and I'd want them to be well taken care of, but I think I'm really happy with this movie and would stop here.
Did you have to tone anything down for the PG rating?
RZ: I think the only area that we were a bit careful with was the squirrel attack, and we want to make that scary and as realistic as you saw, but we didn't want to endanger the rating. So that's about as far as we could go, really. We did have one test in Chicago with young people, and it went very well -- they love to be scared a bit, everybody turns out fine in this picture -- a bit.. altered... to say the least, but nobody is killed and there's no brutality. So the most frightening part of it for a child would probably be the squirrel room sequence, the most frightening. So I think children of all ages will find their own level of interest with this picture. And it it's scary for them a little bit -- they like to be scared. JA: The one thing I always felt safe about was, you know nothing's gonna happen to Charlie Bucket, you know he's gonna be fine. And so if rotten things happen to the rotten kids, you're sort of okay with it. I mean, the movie makes you feel safe, I think Tim especially makes you feel safe, and the kid you care about is gonna be just fine. And you feel that way because we spent a lot of time setting up how great Charlie is and how great his family his and Grandpa Joe is there for him, and so even through scary stuff happens, you never really feel, it's more fun scary than terrifying scary.
Did anything dear to your heart not make it to screen?
JA: Not especially dear to my heart -- the only room that got dropped out was from Dahl's book there's a room of square candies that look round, And it's basically a long, you know, verbal gag. They're like, "These are square candies that look round," and, "no, they're square" but they look -- and they have eyes that can look 'round, and it was fun, and I desperately tried to find plot that could happen there so that would justify it existing, but that was one of those things where it really wasn't a necessary scene, and the realities of the budget and getting the story told were much more important so I dropped it out. RZ: We actually built the candy itself, the square candy and it had eyes in it and everything, but we never photographed it. The candies turned around.
Whose idea was the puppet show?
JA: I wrote it because I knew Tim would love it. When Tim and I sat down, one of his first things was that he didn't want Charlie to be sort of a classic Disney hero, sort of a scrappy kid who's a little smarter and a little more clever than all the other kids, and he's not -- we actually say that at the start of the movie, that he's not any greater or cleverer than any of the other kids. And I knew Tim would recoil against sort of that Small World After All, so seeing the puppets burn was really important. And so I was delighted when I finally got to see it.
You have a script for Tarzan?
JA: There's a script , we need a director, and we hope it gets made -- that's a lesson learned that coming to a project like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that has an amazing director and amazing actor on board really gets the ball rolling -- and we have a good script and now we need all those other elements and I don't know if it's going to happen.
Do you have anyone in mind for Tarzan?
JA: I don't know - -I don't have a choice for that. Director first, and then... Can you tell us about "Prince of Persia"?
JA: That's mine, actually -- a movie I'm producing for Jerry Bruckheimer's company, and it's an adaptation of a really amazing video game. It's the first project that I've been on that I haven't written -- I sort of supervised the writing but someone else is doing it and it's great. Are you directing?
JA: Oh, God no -- it's gonna be one of those insanely expensive "Pirates of the Caribbean" kind of movies.
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