In 2010, a limited engagement of a musical version of Ronald Dahl’s Matilda opened at the Royal Shakespeare Company in England. This led to a transfer to the West End the following year, where it still plays to this day. In 2013, the show went to Broadway, where it played until 2017. This led to productions and tours all throughout the world. Basically, it had a life far beyond what anyone could’ve predicted, including Tim Minchin.
Tim Minchin came on the scene in the mid-2000’s as an Australian comedian who broke out at the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. By 2010, he was playing his comedy shows with a 52-piece orchestra. But Minchin found a shift in his career with Matilda, that has parlayed into him stepping away from comedy and doing his own thing as an actor, musician, composer, and whatever the hell else he wants to do. He’s currently starring on the Australian series, Upright. And if you’ve been on TikTok in the last month, there’s a good chance you seen one of his songs from Matilda going viral on there.
On Christmas Day, he’s checking off another box in his long career when the new film adaptation of Matilda lands on Netflix. The film has gotten rave reviews from critics and audiences alike in the U.K. and Australia, and is poised to be met with much of the same here in the states. It is far darker than the 90’s film directed by Danny DeVito. Therefore, it probably follows a lot more closely in line with what Dahl intended with the source material. For our money, it could be one of the best film adaptations we’ve seen of his work yet.
We recently spoke with Minchin about Matilda, his involvement in the process, what he felt translated the best to the screen, his song going viral on TikTok, and his song Thank You God.
I absolutely loved the moved. I saw the show in London and then the movie, and really enjoyed how well it translated to the screen. It’s been over 10 years since you did the stage musical. Is it surreal to still be talking about Matilda all these years later?
Yeah, it is. Well I guess it’s surreal if I step back. But it’s been such a consistent part of my life since I wrote it, because I guess I’m sort of the face of it because I have a profile outside of Matilda and I’m very relaxed speaking and stuff. In the end, so much of the publicity of it over the years has been me talking about it. I flew to Florida and I’ve flown all over the world, with the Australian production, I flew around. So it’s been a consistent topic for me.
But interestingly, I never get sick of it because there’s a reason why it’s sort of become a classic. It’s because it’s got all this sort of depth to it. It’s got so many great ideas in it. Not specifically talking about my score, which also stands up to time okay. But just the ideas, the themes are sort of universal. What is odd about talking about the film is I had so little to do with it. Obviously I was very involved in the decisions about the cuts in the songs and I wrote the new tune. But really, I didn’t make the film. Matthew [Warchus, the director] made the film, and Chris Nightengale did all the music and all the orchestration and the scores. So really, I’m just a recipient of the film, just like you are.
I think it’s an incredible thing. Not only do I think it’s the best movie musical of the century, I think it’s kind of the first proper big, big movie musical that I’ve seen in many, many years. It’s got the scale of those old musicals, like Oliver! and sh*t. It’s got the scale and the depth and the score. Just how many songs there are, and how much the songs are part of telling the story. They’re not just ‘Let’s stop and sing a pop song about love.’ The songs are properly incorporated to help drive the narrative, and make you feel what you’re meant to feel.
Absolutely. And because you were sort of removed in that way as things were going on, what were your feelings when you sat down to watch it for the first time?
I’m a huge fan of Matthew Warchus’. I love him as an artist. I think he’s an incredibly intelligent, very good artist. I was friends with him while he was making Pride, which was his last film, and I think he did a beautiful job on that. I was absolutely adamant that he be the film director, to the extent which I had a voice in that conversation. It’s by no means inevitable that the theater director will direct the film. In fact, it’s very unusual. But we all pushed very hard for that.
So I was confident. I was involved to the extent that I was getting rushes, I was getting dailies. So I started to see shots and started to see choreography. When he first sent Alisha and Lashana – I wasn’t involved in their casting – but when he first started sending footage of them or recordings of their singing, I was like ‘Okay. Here we go.’ Then you get to see an assemble of the whole film months and months later, after watching just these single shots of stuff. You get to see an assembly of the film. And at that point, it’s nerve wrecking. It’s nerve wrecking when I see a first assembly of my own TV show. It’s always hard to watch an assembly, because it’s not there yet. It’s the bare bones of the thing. I didn’t realize how good it would be at that stage. I was like ‘Oh, I think this could be good.’
When I finally saw it… in fact, it’s really only fairly recently… I saw it at the London Film Festival, but there was so much hoo-ha… it was great, but it was only actually a couple of weeks ago at the opening in Australia when I first saw it in a cinema with full cinema sound, when I didn’t have 100 people asking me press questions, it was just a little opening. And I went ‘Oh my god, this is good.’ It really is a special thing, I think. It’s quite bonkers and full of heart and complex and meaningful and a very beautiful film.
It absolutely is. And of all the songs in the film, which song pleases you the most with how it translated to the big screen?
It’s a good question. I’ve always thought Quiet was the most special song in the musical, and I thought ‘How’s he going to do it?’. Then I saw that initial assemble of that scene with the balloon, which is all CG obviously, and it was just a pencil sketch. And they sort of plopped Matilda in this pencil sketch. And I was like ‘Oh, she’s going to be in a balloon? What’s that about?’. But now when I watch it in the film and I look sideways and all these grownups are just crying… It’s quite hard to explain why they’re crying. I think I know. There’s lots of stuff going on there musically… But that piece in the middle of chaos is something that adults crave.
And the other really big one for me is My House, which is the next song along. They walk home to Miss Honey’s cottage, and Miss Honey’s trying to explain why she lives in such a modest house. But really, she’s talking about herself. In My House, she’s talking about this small but stubborn fire. This burning survival that she has, despite her terrible past. But it’s only during that song that it finally lands that this story that Matilda’s been telling her is actually Miss Honey’s story. And in the middle of that song, during that key change, she starts singing that B-section, “When it’s cold and bleak, I feel no fear,” and it cuts back to the escapologist coming down and picking up this girl in his arms that previously was Matilda, and inserting herself into her own story, that now we realize is the young Miss Honey. And I just sob every single time. I think it’s beautiful filmmaking.
It really is. And I also have to bring up, within the last few weeks, you’ve had a song going viral on TikTok.
I know, right? Who would’ve thought! It’s so weird.
What was your initial reaction when you saw that? Also, that 30 second clip does not do justice to what Matthew did with the scene, that is probably one of the best choreographed songs ever in a movie.
Yeah, I think it is. They shot that for days and days and it was so good. And hopefully a good percentage of people who watch that TikTok clip will watch the film. That’s what you hope. And that’s the upside to Netflix. Apart from the fact that Netflix allowed us to make this film at this scale, I want everyone to see this on the biggest screen they have with the best sound possible. The fantastic thing about Netflix is that people can all watch it in their homes. Hopefully 100 million people will see this film. And hopefully TikTok will have been one of the gateway drugs to this film.
Part of you is like… There’s all these people doing this dance like “Oh my god, red beret girl. Oh my god she’s just so hot right now. POV when you’re red beret girl,” and all this. And it’s like Ellen Kane took 25 years to accumulate the skills to be able to choreograph this. It’s not like a dance that appeared in the world. Someone made it. There’s this weird thing about the TikTok generation that it doesn’t cross their mind that someone made this sh*t. It must, but it’s just not in the way in which they communicate their admiration. So I was partly like going ‘God you people are weird.’ Partly it’s just pure joy. Watching people like learn a dance, with all that energy, and to really admire something.
You’re right. They’re not getting the tiniest percentage of even that song, let alone the complexity of that story and what it means and what that revolution means. Most of them wouldn’t even have been getting the ‘revolting’ pun, the most simple pun that anyones ever made in a song. They’re just not hearing it. And I think none of that matters one jot. I think what matters is people getting a kick out of something I helped make. It has done a huge job of raising people’s awareness of this film. So no complaints from me.
I definitely think it will help. And I’ve got to ask you about something comedy related, your song Thank You God. And what I’ve been curious about is onstage you tell that story of Sam and this whole 11-minute elaborate story that goes into the song. But from that story, what’s the genesis of getting it to the song? Where you hear something most of us would just roll our eyes at and think ‘I’ve got to dedicate 11 minutes of my show to that.’
(Laughs). I think it’s slightly more upside down than that. Because I have a couple of specialities. One is the ability to articulate a lot of words in a short space of time. It’s the same skill that rappers have, but I’m way too white and middle class. So I do this patter and I’m able to articulate ideas with words and I can do it very quickly and I can write songs in that genre. And I also am quite knowledgeable about logical philosophy and religion. It’s partly I studied it, and partly I’m autodidactic. I read a lot about belief and psychology and philosophy in my 20’s. And it sort of intercepted with me being known as a comedian. So I talked a lot about those subjects.
And when I was writing for the orchestra show, I was like ‘What’s this show going to be? I’m writing for a symphony orchestra,’ which is where the origin of that song is from. And I had written The Good Book for the show before. And The Good Book is a similar thing. It’s like a satire of the idea of a literal interpretation of the Bible. And I was like ‘I want to write another song like that, but this one is kind of like Occom’s Razor.’ What are the more likely explanations than God did it? It’s quite brutal, but it’s actually just the beginning of logical reasoning. Occom’s Razor is a central idea. Occom’s Razor is actually the argument of the least true assumptions is most likely to be correct. And so I thought ‘If I apply Occom’s Razor to Sam’s claim, what would I say?’. I realize that there’s dozens of better explanations. So I thought ‘I better say them as fast as possible.’
Surprisingly, it became one of my best known songs, because of its ruthlessness. It is ruthless, or at least it’s eviscerating. It is its own razor. It slices and dices. And then I built the story around it, because the story of course is not very true. There was a guy called Sam who did say ‘Well, my mom’s…’. But telling the story slowly to make people think I really did have this moment is how you set up the fall of the song.