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A nuttier 'Chocolate'

Tim Burton thinks the 1971 'Willy Wonka' was too sweet. So the cranky filmmaker is revisiting the book of Oompa-Loompas and Gobstoppers while bringing along walnut-cracking squirrels.

February 06, 2005|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

London — Tim BURTON manages nearly every possible filmmaking trick in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory": a candy palace that melts, a single Oompa-Loompa who's cinematically cloned into a fleet of miniature workers and specially trained squirrels that crack walnuts on cue. There's just one thing the director can't control on this fall morning: the dreary English weather.

Burton and "Charlie" star Johnny Depp have been working inside Pinewood Studios for four months on their version of Roald Dahl's children's masterpiece, and now the production has relocated outdoors to the studio's back lot. The day's scene calls for 500 extras to watch the five lucky winners of Willy Wonka's golden ticket giveaway run into his secretive candy factory.

The day dawned clear, but by midmorning clouds are barreling across the sky, yielding in the span of a minute either brilliant sunlight or dark gloom. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot nervously eyes the scattered skies, looking for an opening to film the sequence in even light.

"We have three minutes," he calls out, as the sun emerges.

Burton orders his cast and crew to their places, and the scene begins. But before the gates to Wonka's factory have had time to open, a huge cloud blocks the sun. For the fourth consecutive time, Burton can't complete the take.

The director slams his microphone to the ground and storms off, swearing. A few people look at the cursed cloud, but most stare down, as if investigating their shoelaces. The sunlight vigil begins again.

As it turns out, clouds are only a portent of their problems. Minutes later, it starts to pour.

"It's so frustrating. We were all about to kill each other," Burton says later, having regained his composure and moved on to a scene that doesn't require sunlight. "You go through so many weather patterns that one day feels like about a week. But I'd rather go through that sort of torment than other types of torment."

That Burton is even making the movie, weather problems and all, represents a triumph of sorts. The pairing of Burton and Depp, the director's leading man in four previous collaborations, including "Ed Wood" and "Sleepy Hollow," would seem a no-brainer. But it has taken forever for "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," due in theaters July 15, to get this far.

Its evolution spans nearly a decade and includes numerous false starts, protracted negotiations, a contemplated and postponed Broadway musical, half a dozen screenwriters, and here-today, gone-tomorrow Wonka casting ideas, with prospects including Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler.

At the center of the film's twisted journey stands Dahl's widow. Much as J.K. Rowling guards her "Harry Potter" books, Liccy Dahl was determined to protect her late husband's literary legacy. But unlike Rowling, Liccy was able to bargain for explicit approval rights with Warner Bros. over all of the film's key creative talent and exercised that power repeatedly. She personally interviewed screenwriters, dined with actors and once blocked a directing choice proposed by the studio, "Bruce Almighty" filmmaker Tom Shadyac.

"It was a long fight," Liccy says from Buckinghamshire, England, where Roald's writing hut still stands. "But it pays to wait."


It's not as simple a question as whether you like your chocolate with peanuts or without: Was the first "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" a movie landmark? Or a muddled misfire?

People inside Hollywood are divided over Mel Stuart's original adaptation, and the negative sentiment runs particularly deep on the set of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Burton has called the 1971 movie "sappy," and his principal screenwriter, John August, says the film's relation to Roald's book is akin to "seeing 'West Side Story' after reading 'Romeo and Juliet.' "

Roald was "disappointed" by the film, Liccy says. While not originally a box-office hit, it nevertheless has proved remarkably enduring. "It's loved worldwide, and it's become a cult hit," she says.

That lasting appeal is mostly because of its celebrated performance by Gene Wilder as a mercurial Wonka, which continues to cast a long shadow.

"Regardless of what one thinks of that film, Gene Wilder's persona, his character, stands out," Depp says, relaxing in a candy store set, watching the skies. "It was brilliant but subtle. So that scares the crap out of you. Those are big shoes. So the only way to go is back to the book and try to figure out what Roald Dahl had in his head, and then make a series of left turns. And those left turns were to go as far away from Gene Wilder's interpretation as possible."

Burton wants to make his own kinds of departures too, and they are not limited to his dreaming up a Viking motif for Wonka's chocolate-river-navigating boat. More than anything else, the director wants to get as much of Roald's book as possible on screen.

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