This year marks the 40th anniversary of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” possibly the finest children's film of the 20th century. Based on the children's book by Roald Dahl and directed by Mel Stuart, it's the story of a young boy named Charlie (Peter Ostrum) who wins a tour of a magical chocolate factory owned by the mysterious Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) after finding a golden ticket in a candy bar wrapper. Also along for the ride are four other children, the gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner), gum-chewing Violet Beaureguarde (Denise Nickerson), spoiled Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole) and TV fanatic Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen).
Initially, it wasn't a box-office success. But over the years it's earned a cult following that even led to a (lesser) remake from director Tim Burton in 2005.
Today, the film is being released in a special Blu-ray edition with never-before-seen special features, a 144-page making-of book and a few other treats. The film is iW’s small screens pick of the week. indieWIRE spoke to stars Ostrum and Cole about being kids on a film set, lessons they learned and what they are up to now.
When was the last time you two saw each other before today? Do you see each other often?
Peter Ostrum: This year because of the 40th we’ve seen each other —
Julie Dawn Cole: A lot.
PO: I wouldn’t say “a lot!" But several times throughout the year.
JDC: From finishing the film, we finished shooting in 1970. So from 1970, we then didn’t see each other until 1997.
JDC: So it was about 27 years.
Did they not have any type of press stuff back then?
PO: When they opened the film, I was in Cleveland. I went to the opening and I received the keys to the city, I recall. And nobody else was there from the film. And that was it. And it showed in the movie theaters for a couple of weeks and it died. (To Julie) And you were in London with…
JDC: Well, I went to the London premiere. I didn’t get to go to the American premiere. I think they figured it wasn’t going to be a box office smash by then, so they didn’t want to spend on the airfare. So I went to the London premiere in December ‘71 with Roald Dahl, and Roy Kinnear and Patricia Neal were there.
PO: New York was Gene and Denise, I think. And I don’t know what they did in California.
JDC: It wasn’t a critical success at the time. I remember one of the reviews in London was “It’s fun, but not very funny.” But at the time, all of the family films were Disney. They were all Walt Disney. And along came this film where you kill off children. It was later as we’d all gotten kind of nastier, when we found that more acceptable.
It was probably ahead of its time. I mean, you couldn’t do that to children! You couldn’t kill them off and do all of these terrible things. So I think people didn’t know quite what to make of it. And it was also just prior really to Gene Wilder’s fame. He wasn’t huge. He certainly wasn’t well known in the UK. It was on the cusp of things changing for him.
PO: Right after “Willy Wonka,” then his work with Mel Brooks, “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein.” And then his career just…
So what was the experience like shooting in Germany and making the film?
PO: Working in Germany was one of the highlights of doing the film. It wasn’t in California. It wasn’t in New York. To go to Europe as a 12-year-old youngster was incredible.
JDC: And it was lovely and I look back and think “How great,” but also, I was away from home, from my family. I didn’t have any family with me. (To Peter) You had your father and your mother…
PO: Right, my father initially went over with me for a couple weeks, got settled. My sister was getting married, so he had to leave. And then my mother came back after the wedding and then she finished up.
So did the cast bond? Since it sounds like a lot of you were alone, basically.
JDC: We did.
PO: We all lived at the same hotel.
JDC: The kids. Well, the three of us really. Because Michael Bollner who played Augustus didn’t speak English. He was German. He lived locally, so we didn’t really mix with him. And Paris [Themmen], aka Mike Teevee, was two years younger, so he was annoying. So it was Violet/Denise [Nickerson], Peter and myself. And the assistant director’s son, because there were some other [crew member's] kids hanging out, too.
Do you have any specific memories that you’d say are your favorite while shooting or getting to know each other on the film?
PO: When I first got to Munich, I immediately started working on the song, “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” with Jack Albertson. I’m not a singer. But they said, “Don’t worry. We’ll dub your voice.” Which they ended up not doing [the dubbing]. But I was a horrible singer. They cringed when they heard me. But Jack helped me through that.
So we working on getting that ready, but then we did all the running scenes when I first got there. I didn’t have to speak or anything with Charlie delivering the papers. You know, I had never done any film work before, so it was kind of a nice way to ease into the role so to speak. And I can remember Gene finally came probably a week, maybe two weeks later and he saw a lot of the footage that had been shot and he goes, “If I see you run one more time… All you do is run!”
We were all 12, 13 during the film. Yes, we were kids, but we were expected to work as adults and be very professional. We had a job to do and we did that. There wasn’t a lot of messing about.
JDC: There were no allowances made for being kids.
PO: We were there for a reason and we had to pull it off. That’s one thing that if you’re not involved with the industry you have no idea the amount of time and preparation that goes into any production. For any one person in front of the camera, there’s 50 people behind the camera. And you can’t let those people down. And that really made a huge on impact on me.
JDC: You’re right. I think it’s that discipline that’s probably stayed with me throughout life. You ask me to be somewhere, I’ll be ready and punctual. I’ll come prepared. I learned that lesson then. You had to do it. You would get shouted at if you didn’t. There were so many people behind it. The other thing as well, I mean… the boredom of hanging around on film sets, which is again something if you’re not in the industry you don’t quite get. We had to go to school. We had to do classroom lessons as well.
How much of your day was shooting versus school?
PO: We’d arrive at the studio around 7, get there, 7:30, do makeup, which for me was fairly limited, and then we would be on the set by 8 and we’d shoot till 6 and we’d take an hour off for lunch but somewhere during that period, you had to cobble together three hours of school. So if you weren’t on the set you were in school.
JDC: We’d always used to compete to see who could get their three hours done first. So one they’d rehearse the shot, then they’d have to go and light it, and they’d say, "Kids, go off to class." And we’d run off and you’d hit your desk and the stopwatch would start and you’d say “Ohhh that’s another hour done.” And then you’d run back for the next shot. I mean probably not the best way to get an education. Five minutes of geography, then on the set again, five minutes of math, then on the set again. And then the relief when you’d done your three hours, you’re like, “Now I can hang out on the set with Gene and Jack and Roy and everybody else!”
So when you were making the film, was there any moment that you just thought yourself this might be a big deal some day or did you just go, “This is a fun job!” Did you have any idea that years later people would still be talking about it?
JDC: I’ve just written a book about my life on the set called “I Want It Now.” It couldn’t be called anything else, could it? The basis for the book is that my mother kept all the letters that I wrote home. Back in those days, it wasn’t email, it was the old fashioned way. And I’d forgotten that. And she’d kept all these letters. So if you asked me that question, I’d have said no.
But in one of the letters that is in the book I said, “Dear Mummy, Leonard Stone’s (“Mr. Beauregarde”) wife says that this may be another ‘Wizard of Oz’.” So I obviously had that in my head or somebody had said it. And I’d seen “The Wizard of Oz” but I thought my mom might be impressed by that. You’ve got no concept of 40 years when you’re 12.
Why do you think the film has stood the test of time for 40 years? Why do kids and parents still watch it today?
PO: Everybody can watch it and I think that’s one of the draws. Everybody can watch it together and everybody takes something from the film on a different level. The kids like it because of all the candy and what’s going on. The parents like it because of the messages about parenting, good parenting, bad parenting. There’s a lot of subtle humor that goes on in the film that adults really like and kids like, too.
The boat ride. I remember watching that scene when I was younger and I was just like “This is the most insane thing I’ve ever seen.” It was terrifying for a kid’s movie to have that in the middle of it.
JDC: You’d be afraid to let your children watch that movie. Of course now we’re more used to that kind of thing. And I do sometimes wonder whether the chemistry, because you can’t fake that, maybe the chemistry of everybody and everything created… (To Peter) I mean, I liked your phrase. “Lightning struck and we just happened to be there.” If you could bottle it, you’d make successful films all the time, but what is that? It’s indefinable, isn’t it? Maybe there’s something in the chemistry, the timing…
This one’s for Julie, specifically, but how do you feel about being the poster child for spoiled brats everywhere?
JDC: (laughs) Marvelous, isn’t that? I’d never thought of that. It’s a good phrase isn’t it? I’d like to say I’m the definitive brat. And it makes me smile sometimes when I hear somebody in an interview say, “I want it and I want it now!” And I’m thinking, I know where that came from! If I can at least help some parents parent their children, maybe that’s a good thing.
And Peter, you’re not acting anymore, correct? So what are you doing?
PO: I’m a veterinarian.
So what made you decide to be a veterinarian and not continue acting?
PO: I liked working on the film, but I didn’t know if that’s what I wanted to do the rest of my life. There was a point in high school when I was a senior and I was living in New Jersey close to New York and had the opportunity to audition for “Equus” when Richard Burton was coming into the role. And I came close to landing the role but didn’t get it. Had I gotten that, my life probably would have taken a different direction.
But I was always interested in horses and farm animals and had been exposed to veterinarian. And I could picture myself doing that. And when you find that, whatever it is with your life, there’s something that says this is what I want to do and push my talents in that direction. And I think I made the right decision for myself. I loved being in the film and it’s wonderful to be able to come back to events like this, but I think I made the right decision.
(To Julie) And then you’re still working as an actress?
JDC: No, I’m not. I did carry on working, but my career was kind of a career of two halves almost. I had an adult career. When I was 17, I went into a television series in the UK and people in the UK would have known me as an adult and “Willy Wonka” was forgotten. Then they kind of meshed together and I became a daytime presenter and I did Shakespeare and I did this and I did that.
And then after 40 years I, too, decided, and it had been coming for a while. I thought, "I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life." I want to do something that’s important to me. So I studied and I gained a degree and I am now a psychotherapist. I’ve done a postgraduate in childhood bereavement and I work with children at a hospice. So now I’ve said good-bye to that and now I have a grown-up career.
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