- Film And TV
- 08 Dec 23
Neil Hannon was the man charged with supplying the original songs for Wonka, the blockbuster origin story that’s coming your way in time for Christmas. Steampunk vibes, putting words into Timothée Chalamet’s mouth, superstar Oompa-Loompas, Band Aid and exploding fingers are all up for discussion as the Divine Comedy mainman talks to a wide-eyed Stuart Clark.
“I ought to say, ‘Oh, it’s because he directed The Mighty Boosh’ but actually it’s the Paddington films he did. I loved that little bear growing up – and still do.”
Neil Hannon is telling us why he immediately said “Yes!” to filmmaker Paul King asking him to supply the original songs for Wonka, his Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory origin story which hits big screens on December 8 with Olivia Colman. Timothée Chalamet, Sally Hawkins, Hugh Grant, Matt Lucas, Jim Carter and Rowan Atkinson among the A-List cast.
While there have been no press screenings ahead of the red-carpet London premiere – more of which anon – the preview clips and insider reports suggest that the $125 million Warner Bros. stumped up for Wonka has been extremely well spent.
Asked how the new film compares tone-wise to the original Willy Wonka, which had a distinctly trippy feel and cleaned up at the box-office in 1971, Mr. Hannon says: “Like everybody of our generation, I adored Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory which, yes, was extremely trippy. Especially that crazy scene where they’re all on this boat and suddenly it turns into like an Italian Mondo movie with horrible creepy crawlies everywhere. It very much freaked me out as a sensitive child.
“Rather than being acidy like that, the new film has more of a steampunk vibe and lives in a sort of 1940s and ‘50s that never happened,” he continues. “Location-wise, it’s Middle Europe… ish. Bavaria perhaps. It looks stunning.”
And far truer to the spirit of Roald Dahl’s 1964 source novel, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. Is Neil a Dahl fan?
“Oh, I was absolutely entranced by him as a kid,” he replies. “Going back to the first film, there were so many scenes like Augustus Gloop falling into the river of chocolate and Violet Beauregarde turning into a blueberry that became a part of popular culture. The spoilt child, Veruca Salt, going, ‘I want the world, I want the whole world!’ and being thrown down the chute because she’s a bad egg really tickled me. I thought, ‘Yeah, she got her comeuppance!’ That’s what Roald Dahl’s all about – it’s not very touchy feely, it’s… vengeful!”
As for this Christmas’ blockbuster-in-the-making, I almost got repetitive strain scrolling through the rollcall of Visual Arts people listed on Wonka’s IMDB page.
“I’m the first to complain about too much CGI, but in Wonka it’s used to build a world that I personally love looking at,” Neil enthuses. “The creative process and how the film evolved was fascinating. They changed their minds about certain things, and re-shot scenes that appeared to be perfect but are even better now.”
Would I be right in saying that it’s the biggest budget project he’s been involved in?
“Oh, times a hundred,” Neil nods. “I spent a day on set in glamorous Neasden, which is to the north of London. I keep calling him Willy, but I met Timmy Chalamet who’s the primary singer in the film. He’s of a generation that wouldn’t know The Divine Comedy regardless of which side of the Atlantic they’re from, but he was so charming and professional. He threw his everything into not only the acting, but also the music for which I’m deeply grateful.”
Indeed, Chalamet spent several month working on his song and dance routines before shooting proper started.
“I had a lot of singing and vocal training with our head of the music department, the British James Taylor, not the other James Taylor,” he smiles. “Also, 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. And 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. That’s not only great for the story, but it was also a great lesson as an actor. I was grateful to have that run up because of the shape I was able to get into.”
Judging by the snippet of ‘Pure Imagination’ we get to hear on the trailer, the American French actor is more than capable of carrying a tune, with another of Neil’s Wonka compositions, ‘A World Of You Own’, being talked about as a possible Oscar contender. While scoring 10/10 in the childlike wonderment department, Wonka also has some important things to say about the Culture War-ravaged world we live in.
“This is a joyous movie,” Chalamet notes. “This is about bringing a light into a world that is in desperate need of it, at least that’s how I read it. As a young actor, the things that were most attractive to me were things that were emotionally challenging. Either from some sense of vanity or perhaps from some sense of needing to express what I was feeling, those were the things I was most attracted to.
“When I read Wonka, 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. It’s to declare that to share in kindness and enthusiasm is to paint a way forward, not only for yourself, but for those around you. It’s about community, and it’s about community surviving in spaces of erosion. It’s about light and love. I’m so proud to have been a part of that.”
Meanwhile, back in Neasden…
“I was sad Olivia Colman wasn’t there when I visited the set, but Hugh Grant who plays Lofty the Oompa-Loompa was,” Neil Hannon resumes. “He looked at me like, ‘Who are you?’ which froze my blood, but he was very charming too and steals pretty much every scene he’s in.
“I also met Jim Carter who was the gentleman’s gentleman in Downton Abbey and Natasha Rothwell who I was able to congratulate for her role in the first White Lotus: I loved that!”
Neil spoke to us in April about being invited to write the ‘Nazi pop songs from the future’ for Lola, the micro-budget World War II sci-fi romp, which is one of the Irish Films of the Year and available now on VOD. What was the brief this time?
“It was three years ago so it’s a little hard to remember” Neil laughs. “Paul literally emailed me and said, ‘Do you want to write some songs for our Wonka film?’ and without seeing the script or chatting to him about his ideas, I said ‘Yes!’ because I knew who he was and that it sounded amazing! Normally I’d be nervous about going into something of that magnitude blind, but Paul being a bit of a Divine Comedy fan I thought, ‘He must have some idea what he’s going to get!’”
From the amply girthed ‘National Express’ trolley-dolly to his Cote d’Azur-residing ‘A Lady Of A Certain Age’, Neil’s songs have always tended to be very cinematic and character-driven.
“A lot of people were saying that theatre and film was the obvious next step for me, but it’s a very different kettle of fish when you have to start fulfilling other people’s criteria and not just your own crazy whims,” he reflects. “It was a long process. Some songs I didn’t get right the first time… or the second time! Others disappeared, never to be spoken of again.
“There was no looking at the daily rushes or anything like that. All I had to work off of were these little storyboard animations that Paul sent me, and his and the co-writer Simon Farnaby’s attempts at lyrics, which they said were rubbish but weren’t. Although I changed the lion’s share of them, it was a great jumping off point and got the creative juices flowing.
“What I was mainly reliant on, though, was my imagination which became part of the overall Wonka world. I may be overstepping the mark, but I feel like I contributed to the vibe of the film.”
Wonka is something of a Divine Comedy reunion with his former right-hand man Joby Talbot taking care of the orchestral score.
“There’d been a lot of talk about who should do the soundtrack,” Neil recalls. “To begin with Paul said I should, but I was like, ‘You know what? I’m not going to do that because I have zero experience, especially with a full symphony orchestra. That would be vastly beyond my capabilities. I do have a few friends, though, who are pretty good at that type of thing…’
“Without me having to strong-arm them they went for Joby and I was so pleased, not least because it’s such a big operation with thousands of people involved in making it, and suddenly I had an ally!”
Knowing each other inside out, both personally and musically, Hannon-Talbot proved to be a formidable team.
“Joby did me the ultimate favour of saying, ‘This twentieth version of the song you’ve done is great, but can I listen to your very first demos?’ He picked out things I’d done at home, but which had either consciously or subconsciously been discarded but were actually rather good. I’m really grateful for his persistence in trying to bring my initial vision to fruition.”
Is Neil a bit frustrated that it’s young Mr. Chalamet who gets to sing the songs and not him?
“I’m not in the least frustrated that my voice doesn’t appear at all, Stuart,” he laughs. “It’s nice to have that distance. You’re literally just the songwriter, and I’ve always been a fan of songwriters.
“Excitingly, there is a soundtrack album – my first – which we’ve been finishing up these past couple of weeks: mixes, artwork, all that stuff. I have to say it’s looking and sounding rather cool.”
Turning to other matters musical, it is now 19 years almost to the day since Neil lined up alongside the likes of Bono, Chris Martin, Paul McCartney, Daniel Bedingfield, Dido, Justin Hawkins, Robbie Williams, Róisín Murphy, Gary Lightbody, Ms. Dynamite and The Thrills for the recording of ‘Band Aid 20’.
“How I got the gig was that Nigel Godrich, who’d just done our Regeneration album, was also producing Band Aid 20,” he explains. “It felt like everybody was re-living their childhood. It was the complete opposite of the original, though, when nobody had any idea what was going on or that it was going to be as epoch-defining as it was. On this one, everybody knew what was going on and thought it would be epoch-making… but it wasn’t!
“Tim from Ash, Dougie Payne from Travis and myself ganged together because we were a bit afraid of everyone else. At the end of the evening, I was walking down Highgate Hill, saw Midge Ure on the other side of the road and drunkenly shouted out, ‘Midge, I love you! ‘Vienna’ was my first single.’ He went, ‘Er, right’ and kept on walking. It’s one to tell the grandchildren…”
Amidst his Lola and Wonka soundtracking, Neil also got to pen a new piece, ‘As The Sun Brightens, The Shadow Deepens’ which he performed in May with the Ulster Orchestra.
It was partly inspired by A City Solitary, the 1963 short film about John Hume and Derry, which was narrated by his father, the future Bishop Brian Hannon, who sadly passed away last year.
“To be honest, that all feels like a bit of a dream now,” he reflects. “I was so busy that I didn’t get to fully take it in and enjoy it. Also, after the premiere, we were in the hotel bar across the road and Cathy (Davey, his partner) bust her finger up in this big heavy door. It literally exploded and we had to go to A&E, which is what I remember most from that night!”
While a new Divine Comedy album is still at the planning stage, fans desperate for a Neil fix can hear him contributing to The Rest Is History, the debut solo album from his old Duckworth-Lewis Method mucker Thomas Walsh.
“It’s probably the first – and last time – you’ll find Joe Elliott from Def Leppard and me on the same record,” he says of his fellow guest star. “It’s Thomas’ first solo album at the tender age of 54. I bought it the other day in Tower Records and it’s a fine-looking piece of psychedelia. I really love it!”
Given him and Mr. Walsh’s shared passion for The Fab Four, what does Neil make of ‘Now And Then’?
“I knew somebody would ask me this,” he grimaces. “I’m a massive Beatles fan, which is why it’s traumatic for me. I can see why it’s exciting to people, but I heard it, and it just seems a bit wrong. I wish they’d leave it all alone.”
Let us end on a positive note by looking forward to Wonka’s imminent London Royal Festival Hall premiere. Does Neil have his frock sorted?
“I was just buying more items of apparel in town,” he concludes. “I’m going to be looking even more like myself than usual! I’m not overly into red-carpet occasions, but I’m looking forward to this one because it’s such a genuinely fantastic film that families are going to love watching together this Christmas and for decades to come.”
Wonka is in cinemas now.