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How 'Pure Imagination' became “Wonka”'s guiding light

How 'Pure Imagination' became “Wonka”'s guiding light

Director Paul King, producer David Heyman, and chocolatier Gabriella Cugno explain how they took their cues from a Willy Wonka staple.

The name Willy Wonka instantly conjures up whimsical visions of edible teacups, a stout child drowning in a chocolate river, orange Oompa Loompas dancing over said child's misery, and, of course, the zany chocolatier behind it all. For the filmmakers of Warner Bros.' big movie musical Wonka, a prequel tale to the original 1971 movie classic, the name also evokes a particular song. You already know the one.

"Pure Imagination" maintains a firm presence in the film, opening in theaters Dec. 15. Not only does star Timothée Chalamet perform his own rendition of this power ballad for dreamers as a younger version of Roald Dahl's storybook candy man, but excerpts of the number are sprinkled throughout the entire film. Even the story itself feels like a reflection of those lyrics first performed on screen by cinema's original Wonka, Gene Wilder.

"Definitely that music of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was the launchpad," director Paul King tells EW. "We worked with this great songwriter, Neil Hannon, who's in this band The Divine Comedy. There was an idea that if this is the story of Willy beginning to take his first steps in the world as a chocolate maker and coming slowly to the idea of a chocolate factory, it's also the idea of letting his imagination take flight. There's the great line in that song that really stuck with me: 'Want to change the world? There's nothing to it.' The song had some of the clues for the story we wanted to tell."

<p>Warner Bros. Pictures</p> Timothee Chalamet's Willy Wonka sings atop a chocolate tree in 'Wonka'

Warner Bros. Pictures

Timothee Chalamet's Willy Wonka sings atop a chocolate tree in 'Wonka'

Years before he is to become the world-renowned chocolatier, the young Willy arrives at the Gallerie Gourmet, the metropolitan epicenter of chocolate, with dreams of opening his own chocolate shop. But even though his magical treats, like the Hover-choc and the Thundercloud-choc, are instant hits with the locals, the "Chocolate Cartel" — made up of Mr. Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton), Mr. Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), and Mr. Prodnose (Matt Lucas) — are determined to squash the competition. "This is a more innocent Willy," says producer David Heyman, who worked on Barbie, the Harry Potter franchise, and King's Paddington films. "His sense of naivety and optimism hasn't yet been corrupted by the Chocolate Cartel, which is what leads him to lock himself away in the factory."

Chalamet's Wonka always keeps a chocolate bar on his person, the same kind of treat in which he would one day hide golden tickets. It's a physical reminder of his mother (played by Sally Hawkins), who used to cook up her own chocolatey sweets, to always dream big — the same mantra of "Pure Imagination." "It's kind of like that perfect taste of childhood," King says. It was up to Gabriella Cugno, a chocolatier based in Cardiff, Wales, to actually make the chocolate for the film. "The highlight of the prep for me was our weekly chocolate tastings," King agrees.

Cugno had to rely on her own pure imagination. "At the first show and tell, I showed [King] about 10 different chocolates from the script, but I would make maybe five different variations of one chocolate," she recalls. "One of the variations would be a really wacky version or a really soft version. I would look at Paul and what's he gravitating towards for this particular scene? Each chocolate is so different. I would slowly understand what his vision is."

<p>Warner Bros. Pictures</p> Mathew Baynton as Mr. Fickelgruber, Paterson Joseph as Mr. Slugworth, and Matt Lucas as Mr. Prodnose in 'Wonka'

Warner Bros. Pictures

Mathew Baynton as Mr. Fickelgruber, Paterson Joseph as Mr. Slugworth, and Matt Lucas as Mr. Prodnose in 'Wonka'

Many of King's daydreams of Wonka came from King's time perusing the Dahl archives in Great Missenden, England. "Of all the characters that Dahl wrote, this was the only one where he tried to write a sequel," the filmmaker says, noting how "there are lots of stories of Willy Wonka when he was younger" among the author's unpublished material. "It was really just trying to inhale the pipe smoke of his genius and spit it out in a different way." And not just with the mythology of the original book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

King points to a moment in Wonka, which sees the young man tricked by Olivia Colman's Mrs. Scrubitt, who forces him to work off his debt. "That whole thing of trapping people in a house is sort of inspired by one of his short stories," the director says of Dahl. Another moment sees Willy and his righthand pal Noodle (Calah Lane) having a magical flight around the city with balloons, which King says "is a little bit like the swan in the Henry Sugar stories."

<p>Jaap Buittendijk/Warner Bros.</p> Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) shows his friend Noodle (Calah Lane) a world of pure imagination

Jaap Buittendijk/Warner Bros.

Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) shows his friend Noodle (Calah Lane) a world of pure imagination

But the 1971 movie was always his "guiding light," according to King. It's the reason why he decided to make Wonka a full-fledged musical. He already felt Dahl's characters spoke more in poetic verse — "as if the characters are singing," he says — but he also used the film's 1940s setting as a springboard for Wonka to pay homage to the Hollywood movie musicals that were populating the screen in that decade. (It explains why King compares Chalamet's performance to Bing Crosby.)

But when you're creating a Wonka musical, "Pure Imagination" looms large over the songs. "Of course, there wasn't a thought that we could compete with the iconic 'Pure Imagination,'" Heyman acknowledges. "But we knew we wanted to have it. It was about finding the right place for it."

Chalamet's rendition comes at the end of the movie, which King found appropriate. "Willy starts the film [wanting] to fit into somebody else's world," King says. "He's very much rejected by that world. So then he realizes that he's going to have to carve his own route forward."

Wonka says it best: "There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination."

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