The visionary, shaggy-haired genius that is Tim Burton has made many a cinematic feast, but none more scrumptious, more tasty, more full of chocolatey goodness than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We tracked down this man himself (in the Bahamas; it's a hard life) to ask him about weird children's TV presenters, his fear of squirrels, and the joy of Depp . . .
How far back does this project go for you?
I loved the book as a child. It’s one of those projects that has been floating around for a while and I think the studio has been developing it. I’d heard that there were other people attached, but when they offered it to me, I was a fan of the book so I was very excited to do it. For my generation, there weren’t many writers like Roald Dahl who, you might say, were adult writers for children. It captured the weirdness and subversive nature of childhood. And it’s a book you can read as a child or a teenager and an adult and get something from it. We actually added stuff that wasn’t in the book.
How did you decide what to put in and what to leave out from the book?
His back-story isn’t in the book but we felt that, in a film, we needed a sense of why he is an eccentric character; otherwise he is just a weird guy. Then anything that is in or out from the book is just down to the nature of film—even in a children’s book you can’t put in everything. So our goal was just to be as true to the spirit of the book as we could be.
Does the collaboration with Johnny just pick up where you left off?
Each time is different because, from Scissorhands on, it actually gets better. For me anyway, because he likes to be something different each time so you get to see that process, which ages like a fine wine, you know what I mean?
With a character like this, how much does Johnny come up with?
I don’t know; we kind of speak in abstract terms and yet can still understand each other. We’ll never try and pick like one inspiration, like I’ll never say to him, “Make it like this . . .” But we like the same kind of things. For instance on this, we talked about growing up and how every city in America had weird children’s show hosts. They always had weird kind of names or weird hair cuts or weird costumes. As you get older you think back and go, “That guy was really strange . . .” [laughs], but as a child you watch them and accept it. And we talked about other things. There is never one reference that we use; it's kind of an organic journey, but it obviously concludes through him because he is the one doing it.
Why do audiences respond so well to Johnny Depp?
Because he is an interesting character. The amazing thing about Johnny’s career from the day I met him, from Edward Scissorhands on, he has always stuck to what he wants to do. And finally, after all those years, I think people get it with him. Certainly the success of the Pirate movie helped because in Hollywood they see that as meaningful. He’s always been known as a good actor but Hollywood, they always think he is a good actor but they are also a little worried because he likes to transform himself. I think that audiences see an integrity to him and—except in my movies—they like the way he looks. [laughs]
You are famous for sketching out your ideas. Where do you start: with a few ideas or the whole world you are about to create?
Well, since we wanted to go back to the book, that’s where we tried to go from. The good thing about the book is that it is weirdly descriptive, but at the same time leaves a lot of room for interpretation. That was great; it felt like that you had the nut room and the chocolate river room and the inventing room and the TV room but at the same time there was a lot of room for interpretation, so that was fun. You didn’t feel constricted by that. And it was very experimental even trying to come up with the right consistency for the chocolate so that it didn’t look like brown water. Each room had its own particular thing, but there was always the structure and basis of the book that we were trying to capture.
What about the songs?
We didn’t want to make the movie a musical, but at each kid’s demise there’s a sort of poem. We felt the Oompah Loompahs were musical people and therefore, you know, we wanted to represent those poems or songs and give each one a different genre. Again, that was an important part of the book, I thought.
In Gotham City would Willy Wonka have been a villain?
It’s funny; we did build the Chocolate River Room on the James Bond stage, and I kept thinking, “Visitors walking into that would be going, ‘What kind of James Bond movie is this? What kind of whacked out villain do they have in this movie? Have they gone insane?’”
What was your attitude to the first film?
I know some people consider it a classic but for me, it’s it just didn’t register as much. I didn’t feel daunted by that necessarily. Again our goal was to be as true to the spirit of the book.
Would you consider a sequel?
No, I don’t think this is a Star Wars or a Lord of the Rings type movie. [laughs] I know there was a second book, but I don’t see it personally.
After Big Fish were you hesitant to jump back in and down another big studio movie?
Yeah. [laughs] It’s become much more of a business. I still enjoy the processes of making the film, and it was great to go back to Pinewood. But the process around it has got to be more businesslike and that I don’t enjoy.
How important was your working relationship with Felicity Dahl (Roald's widow)?
It was very important because she is the keeper of the flame. It’s her baby, so to speak. She is great, and the family were nothing but supportive from the beginning to the end. It was a major relief when they saw it and were cool with it. She is very smart and very protective of the material and I was a little daunted by that, but I’ve kind of known her since James and the Giant Peach so I knew she was a cool person.
How did you come up with the idea of using Deep Roy for all the Oompah Loompahs?
I felt there were two other options—either hire a cast of Oompah Loompahs or make them all CG. But I just felt the human element was important. I’d worked with Deep Roy before and to me he is an Oompah Loompah. [laughs] I thought that replicating him would have this weird quality to it, which I felt was again kind of Dahl-esque. It gave us an opportunity, certainly, as a cost effective thing. Building sets where he could actually be there; we could shoot certain angles where he could interact with Johnny and the other characters and not always have to be added in later. It was an important element, especially working with the kids because some of them hadn’t done any movies at all, to have as much live stuff and squirrels and everything on set, to put you in the environment and not just in a blue room for six months.
Did he get paid a hundred times his normal rate?
[Laughs] He probably should have been paid more because I think he had the hardest job, truthfully. I don’t think he realized what he was in for. [laughs] I mean you give him the book and he reads the book and he could probably open a Las Vegas show with all the things he’s learned—on his resume he can say ‘singer, dancer, newscaster, television host, cook, therapist;’ he’s got it all.
Is it true that you were working on Corpse Bride at the same time?
Yes, and that was a bad idea. [laughs] Animation's a slow motion process, and I certainly couldn’t have done two live action films at the same time, especially one like this one.
You haven't really directed children before and here you are with five of them. How was it?
I was lucky because they were all really good. Freddie obviously is an amazing actor, not as a child actor but as any kind of actor. He was one of the best I’ve ever worked with. It almost helped that the other kids hadn’t done anything before because they hadn’t turned into little monsters. Even though they had to play little monsters they were basically all good kids.
Was there a particular part of the film that was harder to get right?
Each room had a particular challenge. The squirrels . . . that was tricky, they freak me out. If I see one in my garden or in the park I kind of flinch. They're like rats on speed, you know, so quick and strange. But that makes it fun too, because something that freaks you out is good, so that was a challenge. The chocolate river room was a challenge just because it was a difficult set to shoot on. But the pleasure was building 360-degree sets. It kept visitors off the set too, which was nice; you had to crawl through a hole, a little Oompah Loompah door, to get into the thing. Or remove a wall and stick it back in so it was great to be in those environments.
There’s a very funny reference to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 in the film. Where did that come from?
I don’t know. The monolith and the Wonka bar there seemed kind of [laughs] appropriate. When we started to build the room it kind of had a 2001 quality. We didn’t do it consciously to begin with, but it kind of felt that way.
Do you have a favorite Oompah Loompah?
Well, they all have their charm. The psychiatrist kind of reminded me of a psychiatrist I had—didn’t say anything, just nodded his head for an hour and then charged me a hundred dollars.
Would you ever do a musical?
Yes, if the right idea came up I would love it, because I love music and it would be fun to do with the right project.