Crafting the whimsical world of Wonka: Production Designer Nathan Cowley in conversation
Film musicals and re-imaginings of familiar characters can be equally tricky beasts in my book, so when watching Paul King’s Wonka I kept anticipating the moment when it would annoy me. But it didn’t. In fact quite the opposite: Timothée Chalamet‘s portrayal of Willy Wonka exudes charisma and grace, the music is exceptional and the film sets are magical. Intrigued by the fantastical design, I reached out to production designer Nathan Crowley to find out more about the design of the whimsical world of Wonka.
The Wonka story
While not an official prequel, director Paul King describes Wonka as a companion piece to the 1971 Gene Wilder film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, inspired by Roald Dahl’s children’s story.
Set before the Chocolate Factory era, the film follows Wonka’s journey from growing up on a boat with his mother to arriving in a European city as a young man. Armed with chocolate recipes passed down by his late mother, Wonka aspires to become the finest chocolatier in the world. His dream is to open a chocolate shop inspired by his childhood memories.
Finding the perfect yet ambitious location in the belle époque shopping arcade, Galeries Gourmet, Wonka encounters challenges as the existing chocolatiers, forming the ‘Chocolate cartel,’ oppose his plans. Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Prodnose (Matt Lucas), and Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton) are formidable adversaries who strive to thwart Wonka’s vision.
The heart of the film unfolds within the picturesque Galeries Gourmet as well as the main square with a dramatic fountain, the cathedral with a hidden lair, Mrs. Scrubitt’s (Olivia Coleman) laundry warehouse (where Willy works off his debt), and a series of cobblestone streets lead to various locations including the docks – all meticulously constructed for filming over an eight month period.
Twelve shops, two restaurants, outdoor dining areas, a food market, and a florist bring the Galeries Gourmet to life and it’s design draws inspiration from the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, the world’s oldest active shopping mall. Featuring glass-vaulted arcades with cast-iron roofs intersecting in an octagon, the design pays homage to 19th-century arcades like the Burlington Arcade in London. The central glass dome adds a breathtaking touch.
Nathan Crowley’s impressive list of credits as Production Designer include Dunkirk, The Dark Knight, The Greatest Showman, and First Man. Creating King’s joyous Wonka musical was an exploration of “whimsical, nostalgic, and romantic” visuals inspired by Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory book.
Paula Benson: How did you start the process of creating such a whimsical world? Was the script very descriptive about the film sets – did Paul King give specific directions – or did you let go with your imagination? Did you read the Roald Dahl book and see the Gene Wilder film as a kid, and if so, did you draw on these memories when designing the film?
Nathan Crowley: The journey began with Paul’s captivating script and the timeless magic of Roald Dahl’s children’s classics. My childhood memories of being swept away by stories like James and the Giant Peach, Danny the Champion of the World, and, of course, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, ignited a burning desire to translate their essence into a film. It was this peculiar blend of realism and whimsy, existing just beyond the edges of a child’s imagination, that I sought to capture.
To achieve this, I embarked on a visual pilgrimage through the most whimsical towns of Europe. Each charming cobblestone street, whimsical archway, and quaint square whispered the secrets of Wonka’s world. This tapestry of inspiration led me to the audacious decision of constructing a “Whimsical Europe” backlot set, a meticulously curated amalgam of Europe’s most enchanting elements.
Building tangible sets, reaching at least 35 feet in height, has always been a pillar of my design process. This commitment to physicality strikes a crucial balance; it allows the audience to truly inhabit the world, fostering a sense of tangible reality. CGI, while a powerful tool, can risk undermining this essential connection. This approach also embraces the dynamic nature of art direction, allowing for organic evolution and refinement throughout the construction phase.
With Paul’s script as our narrative compass, I meticulously curate a “visual script,” a room adorned with images that weave a visual tapestry mirroring the story’s arc. Concepts, locations, and evocative imagery guide us through every stage of design. This ever-evolving space serves as a shared sanctuary for the crew, offering a tangible glimpse into the film we aspire to create.
PB: The locations and exact period in which the movie is set feels Victorian/Edwardian. When and where is it set, or is it a time and place of imagination?
NC: It is a place of imagination loosely based on the 1930’s /40’s
PB: The Galeries Gourmet is a beautiful shopping arcade where Wonka finds the dream location for his chocolate shop. Can you tell us about this shopping arcade, how you designed it, the details of the architecture, the enchanting shop windows, the mosaic floor, what references and influences you sought, what your intentions were with the design, and why you decided to build this rather than shoot in a real location? It must have been an epic build!
NC: Inspired by grand European shopping arcades, we envisioned housing renowned chocolatiers in a captivating setting for our film. While Milan, Budapest, and London offered intriguing possibilities, none fully captured the desired whimsical aesthetic. To meet both aesthetic and practical demands, particularly for intricate dance sequences, we opted to construct the Galleries Gourmet ourselves. This allowed us to arrange the four chocolatier shops facing each other, creating a visually dynamic space. As a designer, the opportunity to seamlessly connect this elaborate set to the existing Town Square was a true dream, establishing a clear hierarchy from the bustling square below to the elegant shops above.
PB: How did you approach the design of the interior of Wonka’s chocolate shop – eg. the design and making of the tree, the chocolate river, the bridge/walkway, the flowers, and the chocolate!
NC: The Wonka Chocolate shop design began with the simple idea that it is a reflection or memory from his childhood based on the landscape where he and his Mother lived on a canal boat. An enchanted garden on a river bank with a weeping willow tree, a magical place.
He recreates this childhood setting out of candy and chocolate. The centerpiece is a chocolate tree that rotates with the music. The shop is low-tech and mechanically run by the Laundry Gang. A theatrical blue river with a canal boat also rotates to simulate river flow all made of candy rather than chocolate. Everything edible and a delight to be in.
The shop’s design consciously avoids replicating the iconic factory, instead serving as a prologue, offering a glimpse into the imaginative landscape that inspires Wonka’s whimsical creations. Stepping into the shop feels like stepping into the enchanting world envisioned by the nostalgia of Wonka, whetting appetites for the fantastical journey ahead.
PB: Can you tell us about the design of the cathedral and the underground lair with it’s elaborate crypt, the details of the set decoration and how they serve the story and atmosphere?
NC: The design of this sequence commenced with the final element, The Chocolate Tank. We strived to avoid a sterile, metallic structure that would clash with the whimsical essence of Wonka’s world. Instead, we opted for a tiled tank reminiscent of a Victorian subway tunnel, drawing inspiration from the decorative bathhouses of Budapest. The cool blue and green tiles serve to make the setting ominous and secret. The circular architectural layering outside the tank transitions into the chocolatiers’ subterranean haven. This sumptuous hideout, built into the catacombs below the church protected by a vault door, is virtually impenetrable.
All sets are constructed on sound stages, interconnected by an elevator and shaft that leads to a fully functional moving confessional booth. This booth, built and operational within the sound stage sets. A dummy elevator disguised as a confessional was dressed into the real St, Pauls Cathedral interior set. The main doors of St Paul’s Cathedral are copied and built within the town square backlot church design. This intricate blend of constructed sets and scaled architectural pieces hopefully blend seamlessly with the vast interior of St Paul’s itself, creating a multifaceted and immersive cinematic experience.
PB: There is a reoccurring theme of arches – in the shopping arcade architecture, the shop facades, the roof of the Galaries, the interiors of the chocolate shop, the cathedral, the crypt, the cartel offices, with gold detailing, the windows in the basement workroom of Scrubitt and Bleacher, and the street scenes. They bring an interesting design detail and a visual lyricism. Is this a visual design choice and/or do they help with framing scenes and characters?
NC: The use of arches throughout the film design was a deliberate and intentional choice. It serves as a unifying architectural theme, both aesthetically and functionally. On an aesthetic level, I find that framing shots with arches creates a beautiful sense of perspective and depth between spaces. Furthermore, it allows for seamless transitions between set builds and locations by subtly transferring the focus at an archway. From a practical standpoint, when constructing large-scale exterior sets on the backlot, employing arches allows for the separation of painted backdrops and foreground elements, mitigating parallax issues and the need for blue screens.
Watch out for Wonka’s magical chocolate-making travel case (with all the many mini drawers and test tubes, a mini chemistry-lab-cum-kitchen, and a touch of Heath Robinson), the office scene with with art deco chairs and décor, slightly reminiscent of a room in Eltham Palace, and the beginnings of the chocolate factory in the derelict castle with brightly coloured pipes which links Wonka to previous films in the Chocolate Factory universe.
Other scenes were filmed in Oxford (chosen to remain faithful to the original Roald Dahl story) and Bath (the famous Bath Colonnades were covered in artificial snow and are seen when Wonka goes to confront Scrubbit and Bleacher). Many will recognise the distinctive cobb of Dorset’s Lyme Regis harbour (which also famously appeared in The French Lieutenant’s Woman) which stands in for the dock where Wonka’s ship arrives at port.
Wonka is still showing in select cinemas and streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Sky Store and Apple TV, from 22 January 2024
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