Tales of Writing Heroism: David Seltzer and The Chocolate Factory

Roald Dahl was a lunatic.

Beyond being a Fighter Ace, diplomat and spy, he also wrote several children’s classics. Many of these have been adapted into beloved films like Matilda and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. If you’ve seen these, you may have noticed Dahl had a peculiar idea of how a book was supposed to end. The ending of Charlie and Chocolate Factory, for example, has the titular character and the most brilliant pedophile who has ever lived Willy Wonka in a glass elevator bursting through a glass ceiling faster than Marissa Mayer.

(Warning: spoilers in the preceding sentence.)

These endings pose a real problem for screenwriters trying to adapt these works. What may have worked on the page after being bewitched by Dahl’s prose simply did not work on film. In the words of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory director Mel Stuart “It ends with the word, yippee? That’s not a screen play. That’s not a movie. You can’t do that.”c1e1e2de52f538e9e4dfd466e56c4cc7-willy-wonka-gif

Seltzer’s response to this is the stuff of legend. After a long shoot in Germany, he returned to America and went to an isolated town to fish. The place was so remote only a single phone worked in the town and it was attached to a single post near the lake. One morning, while going out to fish, the phone was ringing, and since no one else was around, Seltzer ansered. It was Stuart! The director was in a panic becuase they had no ending for the film they were almost done filming. When he complained you can’t end a movie with yippee, and Seltzer needed to write one right now, the writer said:

Let me think about it. You know, how long do I have? He said, how long? We’re standing here. It’s $30,000 an hour. You tell me. And, I said, well, give me a second. And I think it was about 6 in the morning. And I walked down, literally, looked over the lake in Maine. I thought, what the hell am I going to do? My head space was totally out of this movie. I could barely remember what had led up to this but I thought, OK, it’s a fairy tale. It’s a children’s story, and how do children’s stories end? I don’t know. How could – how do they end? They end with, they all lived happily ever after. But that’s not good. That’s not what a screenwriter writes. And so I took a deep swallow and I went to the phone. I said, Mel, OK, listen carefully. They’re going up in the spaceship and looking at the ground disappear. And Willy Wonka announces to Charlie that the chocolate factory is his. Then, Willy Wonka looks at him and he says, but Charlie – in a very cautious voice – you do know what happened to the little boy who suddenly got everything he ever wanted, don’t you? And fear comes across Charlie’s face and he says, no, what? And Willy says, he lived happily ever after. And it was a long pause, and I thought my career as a screenwriter is over.

There was a long pause.  He suspected the producer was listening in on the call. But then, Stuart says: “Fantastic!”

For the full interview on NPR go here. What I love the most about this story is how helplesss all the “creatives” on set were. Production had to be delayed as they searched to the ends of the earth to find the only person with the skill set to say happily ever after.


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