Wonka and its location pizzazz

Our city has a reputation as an elegant, atmospheric location for dramas of note. Most recently it was used as a filming location for the fantasy musical Wonka starring Timothée Chalamet, which opens in cinemas on 8 December. We discover more about the locations used, the massive island city that was constructed and the filming in Bath.

Bath and its fine Georgian and Victorian architecture have always been a go-to location for the filming of period TV dramas and movies. The big news this month is that there are some new names to add to Bath’s roll call of visiting stars. That includes the one-and-only Timothée Chalamet who turns quirky, anarchic, fun and free-spirited as Wonka in Paul King’s musical fantasy film by Warner Bros – a prequel to Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – which is released in cinemas on 8 December.

This big screen spectacle introduces audiences to chocolate-maker Willy Wonka’s origin story. The film starts as he returns from seven years travelling the world perfecting his skills in the making of chocolate, now looking to find a new home to start his candy empire. However, he finds that he faces many challenges, mostly from the so-called Chocolate Cartel who refuse to let anyone else sell chocolate in shops in their town. “You can’t get a shop without selling chocolate and you can’t sell chocolate without a shop,” says Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter) definitively in the trailer. However Wonka is not willing to bow down to such bullies and pursues his dreams, as you’d expect from any feel-good fantasy movie. In Paul King’s words, “I wanted to bring to the world a Wonka, back when he was young and wide-eyed and full of hope and optimism, before he became the Gene Wilder version of Willy Wonka that we all know and love. Somebody who didn’t have a penny to his name, but had a dream of a brighter tomorrow.”

The plot finds Wonka meeting his first Oompa-Loompa, Lofty (an orange-coloured miniature Hugh Grant), as well as introducing his magical candy, including the ones that make people fly, to the public. Keegan Michael Key is Chief of Police in the town Wonka sets up in; Olivia Colman plays Mrs Scrubbit, a shop owner who warns Wonka of the town’s strict rules; newcomer Calah Lane is Noodle, Willie’s new friend who helps him on his mission; and you’ll find Rowan Atkinson playing a Mr Bean-style vicar and Matt Lucas an unpleasant chocolatier called Prodnose. There is also reference to sadness with Wonka’s backstory involving his mother (Sally Hawkins) whose memory he carries with him on this grand adventure.

To realise the world director Paul King had imagined, art, set decoration, construction and props crafted a romantic, fairytale city at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden, and built on and adapted beautiful locations in and around England – ranging from a small village in Oxfordshire to a 1950s ballroom and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Filming at Leavesden began in the autumn of 2021 and took place for 21 weeks on more than 50 sets built across three sound stages, a massive backlot and an aircraft hangar, and also involved shooting at more than 10 locations, including Bath.

Production designer Nathan Crowley says, “The film’s setting is a fictional city that is flavoured with many familiar elements of different European cities, but Willy Wonka’s influence changes that city into a magical place where anything is possible. The design helps to create a truly unique and unforgettable visual journey for the audience.”

King described the city in Wonka to his creative team as “the best of Europe,” and that’s what they fashioned, a charming urban location with a mix of Belgian, Czech, Dutch, French, German and Swiss architecture. The resulting combination of set builds (borrowing from real-world structures) and location work augmented the scale of the town and authenticated the vision. The lightness of the limestone in the Bath and Oxford locations was emulated through the builds, enhancing the romance of the newly constructed.

Filming in Bath took place in the autumn of 2021, and centred on the glorious Gothic construction of Bath Abbey in the heart of the city. Here, as with many of the locations, artificial snow was spread as scenes were shot in the pillared Colonnades next to the riverside, Parade Gardens and Orange Grove. Pulteney Bridge was also given a foggy aura to build the mystical atmosphere, while further scenes were created around the walls of the Abbey.

Filming in Oxford had a particular focus on the historic Radcliffe Camera, part of the Bodleian Library. Other sites included a trio of locations: The Goring Gap, a picturesque valley occupied by the river Thames; a riverbank in the Chilterns; and on the other side in the North Wessex Downs. These provided the backdrop where young Willy performs magic for his mother on the narrowboat that is their home on the river. Scenes with the narrowboat were also shot at Sutton Bridge, a picture-perfect stretch of the Thames with weeping willows and a beautiful stone bridge. Lyme Regis’ harbour offered the location for the town’s docks and where the boat carrying Willy lands. The Cobb, Lyme Regis’ historic harbour wall and the seaside town with its period buildings tied in with the overall look of the film. Other locations included London’s original 1950s The Rivoli Ballroom and Eltham Palace, an English Heritage property with a beautiful 1930s Art Deco interior.

Wonka will feature musical numbers, with some going back to the Gene Wilder original (Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), although director Paul King sees the movie as a film with songs: “Wonka isn’t a musical in the same sense that Les Misérables is a musical, where every moment is sung. It always felt like a movie which happened to have some great songs in it.”

Fortunately Chalamet can sing and dance, which King established by checking out his high school musical performances that went viral on YouTube. Timothée Chalamet remembers, “There was a lot of dance training with Chris Gattelli, a fellow New Yorker and a fantastic choreographer. Then, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition. It was smart, because by the time the movie started, the physical stamina was there. I have to say that this was the most physically challenging project I’ve ever been on. This was every scene. There’s the enthusiasm of the character coupled with the fact that there isn’t a scene that’s really static.”

He continues: “I did feel the classic thespian challenge – the singing, the dancing. But when I think about the main theme of this movie, when I think about its raison d’etre – it is to bring joy into the world. It’s to encourage dreaming; to encourage the dreamers to continue dreaming; to encourage declaring yourself as you are, who you are, without question.”

There’s no doubt Wonka will be a fantastical and spiritually uplifting cinema experience. And the people of Bath will have an extra focus as they watch, distinguishing the familiar shapes of their city in the background.

Wonka is released in UK cinemas on 8 December by Warner Bros. Pictures.