If ever an actor can do it – Gene can

In October of 1970, with production underway on the set of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the film’s director, Mel Stuart, sent a progress report to producer David Wolper in the form of the following fascinating memo. Delays in the Chocolate Room were obviously frustrating the filmmaker, however it seems the acting talent on display — in particular Gene Wilder‘s “extraordinary performance” — was keeping him very enthused.

Related: Gene Wilder’s wonderful letter to Mel Stuart, regarding Willy Wonka’s costume.

(Source: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition); Image via PRLog.)




19th October 1970

Dear Dave:

Progress report? I wish I could say everything is coming along on schedule, but I can’t say. However, what I can say is that everything is coming along very well as far as the quality of the picture is concerned.

We have had a lot of trouble in the Chocolate Room as far as our schedule goes because of two reasons: First, the incredible size of the set has made every turn-around even for a close up a lighting nightmare. I’m constantly tempted to put my actors up against the wall in order to get a quick lighting job but I feel the picture would lose a great deal of quality if I do. The other problem has been the boat. I don’t know how in God’s name we ever figured one day in the schedule to board the boat, send it down the chocolate river with a page of dialogue aboard and take enough beauty long shots to enable us to open up for a minute and a half of music and for all this scheduled one day – ONE! – EIN! – ONE! On top of everything, it takes twenty minutes to remove the wheels on the boat and get it back into starting position. And double on top of that, after I had finally spent an hour and a half lighting the set for my super master shot, the waterfall conked out for four hours on Friday morning.

I want you to know that I’ve tried everything – wearing my green sweater with the blue jacket then switching to the brown sweater with the blue jacket, then I tried wearing tennis socks with a blue top instead of the red top and, finally, the only thing that seems to have worked is to take my peace symbol from under my sweater and put it outside of my sweater. As a result of this, on Monday morning I think I’m about finished with the close ups on the boat and with a few master shots this afternoon that should be done with the Chocolate Room save for the second unit work on Gloop going up the pipe. Gloop definitely has been a problem in the pipe but we are going to try and shoot him up four or five different ways and I’m sure one of them will work.

Now for the good news: I think – and this feeling is shared by everyone who has seen the rushes – that the Oompa-Loompas are going to turn out marvellously well. Because of the makeup and the green hair there is nothing grotesque about them. They just look like very cute little gnomes running about. The best part of it is that Howard’s choreography for them is very simple and to the point, and – it just works, that’s all I can say. I’m convinced they will be an enormous plus value for the picture and should definitely be thought of strongly in the publicity campaign. Three or four of them have very engaging personalities and could really be used for tours, etc.

Now for the biggest plus of all. I think Gene Wilder is going to give one of the most extraordinary performances ever seen in a fantasy musical. What we are both trying to do now is to make every scene as unusual and telling as the opening crippled routine. Everywhere in each scene there has to be a moment of paranoic behaviour, of something unusual happening – a moment to throw the audience off balance and if ever an actor can do it – Gene can. Another big plus for this part is the comedic element. Roy, Leonard and Dodo are bringing the screen alive with looks, double takes and perfect readings on all the one-liners. This will contrast greatly with the seriousness of the first four reels and give the picture that much more drive towards the end.

I’m also getting sensational performances out of Julie and Denise who now battle with each other in every scene, both as characters and as “actresses”. So, all in all I feel very very good about what we’ve got up to this point, save for the fact that we’ve lost a good deal of time in the Chocolate Room because of the technical difficulties. But that’s your problem … I can only give you a good picture. You worry about the money.