Interview: WONKA Choreographer Christopher Gattelli Says Timothée Chalamet is 'The Real Deal'

Gattelli shares insights into his creative process and how he brought his vision to life through dance.

By: Jan. 02, 2024
Interview: WONKA Choreographer Christopher Gattelli Says Timothée Chalamet is 'The Real Deal'

Christopher Gattelli is a Tony Award winning, Emmy nominated choreographer, best-known his work on Broadway, including the revival of South Pacific, Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Godspell, Newsies, the revival of The King and I, and much more. 

Gattelli's recent work has brought him over to the big screen! He was the choreographer for the film Wonka, out now, starring Timothée Chalamet and Hugh Grant, and both seasons of Apple TV+'s Schmigadoon!, for which he is currently nominated for his second Emmy Award. 

BroadwayWorld spoke with Gattelli about his choreographic process, working with Timothee Chalamet and Hugh Grant, and much more. 

How did you find your vision for the choreography of Wonka? I would love to hear about the early stages of your choreographic process. When it’s all still in your head, where do you begin?

I definitely took the lead from the director Paul King and his vision for the piece, in combination with the original. Because it’s not a remake, it’s a prequel, so it was nice to know where this character was heading, into the 1971 version with Gene Wilder. There was this physicality that Gene brought that I kind of wanted to infuse into Timmy, in a younger, more innocent, eager, excited young man who wanted to conquer the world with his chocolate.

And the period, Paul wanted to set it in the 40s. Paul kind of chose me because I did a little snippet in Hail Caesar, I did a number in that with Channing Tatum that was based on the Golden Age, and he appreciated the way that I was able to deconstruct style, in terms of not making it look contemporary at all, really trying to flesh out and make it feel really authentic to the period.

So, it was a combo platter of all of it really. It was Paul’s vision of the 40s and the Golden Age, and wanting to feel true to that time, in combination with the wacky, unique person that Willy is. From the very start of the film, one of the first ideas is there is this galleria he walks into, and all of the elite are there, and everyone is walking in time with their canes and parasols to this rhythm of this city. And he enters it off-rhythm, because he’s just different. Even down to that we tried to make him his own unique individual who has his own quirks and things.

What was it like working with Timothee Chalamet and Hugh Grant?

Oh my god, they were both dreams. Hugh was much quicker, it was very short with him, only an hour or so, but it was really fun. I didn’t want to let Paul King know too much what a fan of the original film I am, I am a superfan, I didn’t want to scare him, but I knew with the Oompa Loompa that I wanted to pay homage to that because you have to! [laughs]. I was like, ‘Let me put a couple of flecks in there that the fans will love’ and give it that vocabulary so that if people do watch it in order, it’s like, ‘Oh, right, that’s how it moves.’ So, his time was a lot shorter, and we had a really good time putting that together for him. He’s hilarious.

And Timmy was great. He’s such a hard worker. There was a bunch of stuff, like in every film, that was cut, but he had to learn how to tap dance, he had to learn how to waltz, he had to learn how to do swing, all these different things. And luckily he had a performing background from LaGuardia [High School], which was amazing. He does contemporary really well, and he has an amazing sense of rhythm. I told him we were going to be tapping and he was like, “Uh oh,” and I was like, “You are going to be fine.” And he was. He was great. He worked so hard. It’s like that hard on yourself in a good way, he’s a perfectionist, he wanted to have the moves in his body so that he could act. You don’t want to be thinking about steps while you’re performing it, you want to just be able to have your character ride on top of the steps, and he knew that. He was great, and disciplined, and I truly cannot say enough great things about him, he’s the real deal.

Interview: WONKA Choreographer Christopher Gattelli Says Timothée Chalamet is 'The Real Deal'

If you can do a musical, you can do anything!

He would always say that. He gets it, his mother was a dancer on Broadway, and his grandmother was a dancer on Broadway, so he comes from that lineage. So he knows, he knows that in film you just have to get it right once. And he respects performers, dancers, singers, because he’s like, “Wow, my family had to do it eight times a week.” And he knows that’s really demanding, and really hard, and you have to have the skill set. He worked so, so hard and would Zoom in with his mother and grandmother, and show them how he was doing, and it was so sweet. Again, I can’t say enough nice things about him.

You put all of this together during Covid, how did that influence the process?  

First of all, it was such a blessing to be working during Covid. It was an oddly guilty feeling. I did both seasons of Schmigadoon! and Wonka over the pandemic, which was crazy the way it worked out. Very grateful. But it was definitely stressful. Just the fact that if you caught Covid you could shut the entire film down. The stress of that alone, this multi-million dollar film! It was dancers dancing with masks on, and we had scenes with hundreds of dancers in this big town square, and you could never really rehearse them all together because you could only allow 25 to 50 people max in a room at the same time, but they still all had to be distant, and we had partnering. It was like the list of how to make things really hard [laughs]. The director would come in to see things, and it was hard to really show him the vision. Luckily he understood it, but you wanted to impress him and give it it’s best shot to be seen and understood, and hopefully work, but it was just so tricky to manage that.

I got Covid during the process. When the second wave hit I got Covid, and luckily I was isolated, but I had to direct one of the scenes from my flat that I was in, they piped in internet, and I was able to watch the playback monitors from my room. It was the weirdest time to try to create things. I’m grateful to the studio for being so vigilant about it and making sure everyone was safe and protected. They gave us everything we needed, masks, tests twice a day, they were relentless about trying to keep everyone healthy, and they did for the most part. Hats off to the studio and all of the workers there for keeping everyone as healthy as possible.

How did it feel when you finally got to see the finished product?

It was amazing. The first time I was almost crying through the whole thing. Because it’s so fantastical, a lot of it was done on blue screen, or the buildings were built two stories when they were actually four stories, or there’s a giraffe in the movie that is absolutely not there [laughs]. So we were choreographing around where this giraffe might be, and to see it all there, I was a fan of it while being moved by what we accomplished in that time. It was very complex, I’d really never felt like that before watching something back.

I did that just to get it out of the way, then I saw it with family the next day, watched it as a regular audience member, and I loved it. We were working the whole time, we were either in the studio rehearsing, or we were on set, same with ‘Schmigadoon!’ where you never see the scenework. I never get to see all of the great scenes, all of the great comedy. I worked with Olivia Colman for literally an hour, so to watch all of her scenes that I didn’t get to see, she’s genius! To watch all of the other parts come together was mind-blowing to me. I’m pinching myself that I’m a part of it.

Interview: WONKA Choreographer Christopher Gattelli Says Timothée Chalamet is 'The Real Deal'

Does your process change depending on if you’re choreographing for the stage versus the screen?

Definitely. I liken it to two different boxes. Onstage you have a box to play in, but you have hundreds or a thousand or so people watching the same box, and you have to make sure that with the choreography you’re able to tell a story and have the audience look, and follow, and gather information while you’re doing the numbers, that you’re continuing the storytelling. For example, you could have a stage full of people, but you might want angles, or you might want a person wearing a red purse, and you might see this red purse get passed off. It’s more sculpted that way in a bigger space.

Where on film you can say “I want a tight on that red purse.” There are a lot of different tools. Or, “I want to see this from overhead because I want to see that pattern.” So, patterns are different, and the way you see people is different. Luckily I love working with the camera, and I love really being in tandem with the director about, 'I can move through the crowd this way, and have this be one shot.' I love being a part of that part of the storytelling too, the camerawork of it all.

It's cool to have that specificity in film and also that you can go between the two, it just allows you more creativity in more mediums.

Oh yeah. I haven’t done as many films, I still feel new to it, but Wonka especially, with this fantastical world, you could literally do anything. Years ago I did a project for Disney, they were celebrating Walt’s 100 birthday, and they were doing a lot of things at the park. We were in these teams, and one of their phrases was, “Blue sky it.” And I was like, ‘Huh?’ And it essentially was like, ‘Anything in the sky, just open your mind to anything. Anything is possible.' Yes, some things have limitations, but the idea could always lead to something you can do. So when I’m working I always go, ‘Blue sky it.’

But with this, it was literally blue skying it. They’re doing this beautiful dance that’s on top of this roof that’s lit from underneath with hundreds of colored balloons, and you could literally not do some of these things on stage. So, especially with a project like this, it really got to all parts of my brain, how to create, and what we could accomplish, and what we could do. Because of the fantastical nature of it, there were things we could do, while also keeping it slightly real. There’s nothing I feel we did that’s like, "Oh, that’s impossible." Even the way we used the giraffe, the giraffe didn’t start tap dancing, but the way we danced around it, and the way we used things, it was really exciting to be a part of that thought process.

You brought up Schmigadoon!. You are currently nominated for an Emmy for your work on Schmigadoon!, how did it feel to be nominated again for your work on that show?

Oh my gosh, beyond amazing. It’s funny because the first thing I ever did as a professional choreographer was the Rosie O’Donnell show, which was her series on TV, and I got to know cameras that way. After that, I hadn’t worked on TV in a long, long time, because it was all theater. So to go back to TV after all that time, with a show that honored theater, and movie musicals, was a dream come true. It was the perfect way to come back. It was such an honor to be a part of the show. I feel a bit of a baby in that pool, so, just the fact that they recognized the work is so exciting.

And to me, I always feel like I share that with the performers, because they worked so hard on all the numbers that we did, the numbers that got seen, with Jane [Krakowski] doing that phenomenal tour de force number, and the one with Kristin [Chenoweth], and Alan [Cumming], and all the kids, they were tumbling on tables and tossing plates to each other! Then we had Dove [Cameron], Ariana [DeBose], and Cecily [Strong] tap dancing with their feet taped together. And this was all during Covid with so little rehearsal. And so, I look at it as not just a nod to me, but a nod to the performers, because they rose to the occasion of having to take their amazing talents during Covid, in this limited amount of time, and nail these numbers in really quick takes, and getting it in a few shots. So, I’m proud of all of us, really, I’m really excited.

Interview: WONKA Choreographer Christopher Gattelli Says Timothée Chalamet is 'The Real Deal'