Matilda on Netflix
Matilda on Netflix

Behind the Making of Matilda The Musical on Netflix

Matilda the Musical won five Tony Awards back in 2013. Now, a decade later, the Broadway show has hit the big screen with a movie-musical adaptation in select theatres and streaming on Netflix beginning December 25.

The film is based on Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel, not the 1996 movie starring Mara Wilson. Matilda stars 13-year-old Irish newcomer Alisha Weir, who beat out thousands of other kids for the title role. The story follows Matilda, born to awful parents (Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham), who discovers she has a superpower that can help put an end to her horrifically mean school principal, Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson). She finds happiness in the end with her sweet teacher, aptly named Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch).

Emma Thompson as Miss Trunchbull in <i>Matilda The Musical</i> on Netflix. Photo courtesy of Dan Smith/Netflix.
Emma Thompson as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda The Musical on Netflix. Photo courtesy of Dan Smith/Netflix.

The movie, shot in the U.K. during the shutdown, boasts more than a dozen musical numbers and features an extraordinary 250-person dancing ensemble and 150 chocolate cakes for “Bruce.” It’s one of the story’s most famous scenes, where Miss Trunchbull makes one of the schoolchildren eat a gargantuan cake as a punishment.

The creative team — director Matthew Warchus, screenwriter Dennis Kelly, and composer Tim Minchin — who brought the book to Broadway has been working on the film for the last decade.

Broadway Direct spoke with the three of them over Zoom — and there were plenty of laughs, jokes, and sarcasm.

Where did you find 250 dancers to be in the film?

Matthew Warchus: Lots and lots of auditions for nine months. Some of them are great dancers. Some of them are tumblers, gymnasts, and parkour people.

Tim Minchin: Some of them are talentless. We just did it as a favor.

Is that a joke?

MW: Yeah.

TM: There might be more of that. I warn you.

MW: Thousands of kids did auditions for speaking roles and for the singing and dancing ensemble. They rehearsed for an unprecedented amount of time. In fact, for a couple of months of rehearsal on a scratch version mockup of the set. I think it was something like 12 weeks of rehearsal. Then the rehearsals continued under the shooting. So when they weren’t being used and we were filming other things, they were on location or on a soundstage elsewhere, still rehearsing. Ellen Kane, the choreographer, was able to work with them in such detail. I think the impact in the finished version of the film is something that a lot of people won’t have seen anything like before.

Matilda The Musical
Alisha Weir in Matilda The Musical on Netflix. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

What stood out to you, Matthew, that out of thousands of kids, Alisha was the one?

MW: The first thing was the singing voice. I saw this tape she made from home in Dublin. I heard her singing and I thought [she had] a really unusually impactful voice. She was singing a song from Mary Poppins, not particularly close to anything that she would be singing in Matilda. She had a look about her. She looked kind of small. I know that sounds silly, but that’s really important for Matilda. She had a kind of maturity and ease about her as well. However, she was smiling all the way through her song. The stage-show Matildas had this rule in which they’re not allowed to smile in the entire performance until the bows at the end, which is unusual. Kids are usually employed in shows for their smiling and for their sunshine effect. Matilda is a different character. She’s a very thoughtful and quite intensive character. You have to be pulled into her. She’s not performative. I did a Zoom with Alicia and I asked her to do it again, but this time don’t smile. Instantly, I thought we found her.

TM: They made her do “A Spoonful of Sugar” without smiling. That was awesome.

I need to know, is that factual?

MW: It was.

Tim, what stood out for you about casting Matilda?

TM: Matthew has been casting Matildas for 12 years. I’ve never been involved in any of those castings. He always understood what he was looking for. And then he accumulated 12 years of experience in spotting that. I heard her sing and I just couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. There’s not just vocal quality and the ability to hit the notes. It’s about honesty and storytelling, honestly, which is what I care about. It’s what my songs are good for.

MW: Next, we Zoomed a lot and did some of the scenes. Then, she came over to London and we did another audition session with the camera. This is the first time for us, having done the stage show over the years, we were able to get the audience right up close to a performer. We haven’t seen that before in the stage version. So I needed to know what that was gonna look like, and she had exactly the right face and the right eyes. I quickly taught her the word inscrutable, which means that you can’t tell what [someone’s] thinking. It’s an interesting way of performing, to hide some of your emotions. Matilda does that, and Alicia was really good at that.

Where were 250 kids housed and kept off the set when they weren’t filming?

MW: This was during COVID, remember. We took over a whole entire hotel near the studios for kids and their chaperones. When we were out on location, there were buses to bring them in and out. Then, there were big tents: one for the COVID testing and all the COVID nurses, and another huge tent for [the kids’] tutoring. You’ve got to remember, these kids can only do a certain number of hours filming every day. They’ve also got to get an education every day.

Dennis, is there another movie musical that inspired you for this screenplay?

Dennis Kelly: No. It’s a very easy answer. When we came to do the stage play, I really didn’t know what I was doing. That was kind of OK, because Tim didn’t know what he was doing either. Matthew does know what he’s doing, so that kind of helped. There are a lot of rules in making musicals. We were very lucky that we didn’t know any of them. I’m being flippant, but those rules are there for good reasons, and they work most of the time. We were allowed to ignore them. Instead, we tried to make the story to the best of its ability. I suppose what I really wanted to do when I came to do the screenplay is not do the same thing, but follow the philosophy of trying to find out how to tell the story rather than how I should tell the story. Does that make sense? 

<i>Matilda</i>'s revolting children. Photo courtesy of Dan Smith/Netflix.
Matilda‘s revolting children. Photo courtesy of Dan Smith/Netflix.

How did you film the “Bruce” cake-eating sequence that needed 150 cakes?

MW: The tricky thing about the cake sequence is that the cake has to progress from being almost complete to less cake. You can’t obviously film it in real time as the cake reduces. So you have to do different setups with a complete cake, a smaller cake, and a smaller cake. Then you spend three hours, four hours with that cake. And then you move the camera to someone else. And then you say, “Reset the cake back to complete, please,” or partial for a different angle. So every time you move the camera, you have to work out which part of the timeline of cake-eating you’re shooting.

Tim, how much of the cake did you eat?

TM: My involvement in this movie was sitting in Australia. I had nothing to do with this film, really. I had a lot to do with decisions about the music and I wrote a new song. But unfortunately, because of COVID, I couldn’t get out of the country. That’s been the case with this musical ever since its inception. I wrote the songs and handed them over. I’ve always been on the end of the phone, adding a bar here and there and adding a lyric. I wasn’t involved in the initial production. I’ve never been involved in casting. I’ve never been involved in any of it. The other way I am heavily involved in this musical is that I’ve sort of been the face of it for 12 years. Which means I’ve been doing publicity for this musical for 12 years. I love talking about it. And I’m honored to represent it. I would have been maybe a distraction on set, but I certainly would have been a good cheerleader in what sounded like an incredibly difficult shoot. I wasn’t even able to get there for the recording of the music. This film is using my songs from 12 years ago. The other two guys in this interview made this film.

But now more kids will hear your songs.

TM: It’s completely amazing. I mean, here I am, 12 years after I wrote “Revolting Children,” and it’s going viral on an app when there weren’t even apps when I wrote the thing. It is an extraordinary thing.

Photo courtesy of Dan Smith/Netflix.