Willy Wonka and the real Dreamer of Dreams

Aired on NPR. I love this story because it calls back to a time when Hollywood acknowledged that if it wasn’t on the page it wouldn’t be on the screen. Now the producers and directors seem to scribble the screenplay in crayon on the back of a cocktail napkin while the crew unloads the cameras. Note the lengths they went to to reach the writer. David Seltzer had left shooting in Germany, thinking his job on set was over, when the hapless director and producer called…

There were no phones up there except for one pay phone that was literally tacked to a tree. And when somebody needed somebody in the area, chances are no one would be around to hear it. Early one morning, I was going out fishing, and I happened to be walking by that spot. The phone is ringing, and I picked it up. It’s Mel Stuart in Munich. He said, where the hell are you? We need you. We need to talk to you. I said, why? You can talk to me but I’m kind of way far away, Mel. And he said, we don’t have an ending to the movie. And Mel said, are you kidding me? All this trouble we’ve gone to, to make this movie – all the money that’s gone into it, all the talent, the musical numbers, the choreography, the Oompa-Loompas…It ends with the word, yippee? He said that’s not a screen play. That’s not a movie. You can’t do that. I said, well, 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. I said, Mel, are you there? And he said, fantastic. And that was it.