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Fri March 20, 2009
Interviews

The Writer Who Gave 'Willy Wonka' His Ending

The film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was plenty strange. But the tale of how the ending for the movie was written is every bit as weird. Screenwriter David Seltzer tells Alex Cohen the story.

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Transcript

ALEX COHEN, host:

And now a story about one of my favorite endings ever. It's from the 1971 film "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," like the Roald Dahl's book it was based on, the movie tells the story of five kids who win a chance to tour Willy Wonka's amazing chocolate factory. At the very end, just one child, Charlie, is left on the tour.

(Soundbite of movie "Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory")

Mr. GENE WILDER: (As Willy Wonka) How did you like the chocolate factory, Charlie?

Mr. PETER OSTRUM: (As Charlie Bucket) I think it's the most wonderful place in the whole world.

Mr. WILDER: (As Willy Wonka) I'm very pleased to hear you say that because I'm giving it to you.

COHEN: Mel Stuart directed the film. He hired a young documentary maker named David Seltzer to write the screenplay. Seltzer had never written a script before, so he flew to Munich, where they were filming, and over the course of a few sleepless weeks, he furiously cranked out a screenplay. In its first draft, David Seltzer kept the ending just as it was in the book. And then, utterly exhausted, Seltzer left Germany and went to relax for while in a tiny cabin tucked away in the woods of Maine.

Mr. DAVID SELTZER (Screenwriter): 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.

COHEN: Because at that point, the ending was what's in the book, which is where - Willy Wonka and Charlie and Charlie's grandfather in this glass elevator, shooting up, and I think the last word was like, yippee.

Mr. SELTZER: That's correct.

COHEN: Yeah.

Mr. SELTZER: That's exactly how the book ended. 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...?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SELTZER: It ends with the word, yippee? He said that's not a screen play. That's not a movie. You can't do that.

COHEN: So, what did you do?

Mr. SELTZER: 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SELTZER: I said, Mel, are you there? And he said, fantastic. And thatwas it.

COHEN: And that's it. That's the end of the movie.

Mr. SELTZER: That's the end of the movie.

COHEN: David Seltzer, since then, you have written plenty of other films and TV shows. I'm curious, you know, when you go about writing an ending now, is there anything that you take from that experience into your writing now?

Mr. SELTZER: Well, I do. Number one, an ending is possibly the most important thing because the exit polls, how an audience feels leaving the movie, will either encourage or discourage more box office. I learned the hard way on a couple of movies that audiences don't want to be bummed out. Characters they have come to know and love and root for, they don't want to see them lose at the end. And so, I do apply a lot of thought as to how not to totally sell out but at the same time, leave the audience with an experience that's uplifting, that's positive, that they want to go home and talk about, that they want to bond over, that they can really get to know each other better by discussing.

COHEN: So, with that in mind, we're not a film. We're a radio show. But we are coming to an end. But we do want to leave our listeners with a happy ending of sorts. Can you offer some advice about how to write an ending here?

Mr. SELTZER: Obviously, that's why you brought me here today. But I have only the same thing to offer. They all lived happily ever after. That's you. That's your crew. That's everybody who does all this good work in spite of this particular moment in time. You shall.

COHEN: David Seltzer wrote the screenplay to "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." Thank you.

Mr. SELTZER: Thank you.

(Soundbite of movie "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory")

Mr. GENE WILDER: (As Willy Wonka) But Charlie, don't forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.

Mr. PETER OSTRUM: (As Charlie Bucket) What happened?

Mr. WILDER: (As Willy Wonka) He lived happily ever after.

(Soundbite of music from the closing credits of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory")

COHEN: More to come after this.

(Soundbite of Day to Day theme music)

BRAND: Next time on Day to Day…

(Soundbite of tape rewind)

BRAND: Oh, right. Well, it's probably a good time to thank someone who doesn't get much credit.

COHEN: He's Rob Wood. He's the guy who makes our promos every day.

BRAND: Rob is among those joining the ranks of the unemployed today.

COHEN: He's an incredibly talented producer.

BRAND: And he does the best promos ever. I love those promos. So thank you, Rob, and thanks to everyone who supported us these past five years on Day to Day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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