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Matilda & Me: A family affair

Nel Minchin delved into the family archives and turned the camera onto her brother Tim, her family and herself for Matilda & Me.

Tim and Nel Minchin

Imagine over 20 years, seeing your brother go from piano-playing teen, to struggling actor, to comedy success, to the Olivier Award-winning composer of smash-hit musical Matilda.

Well for Nel Minchin, that’s pretty much what happened.

The co-director of Matilda & Me says that realisation came during an interview for the ABC documentary, which charts the journey of her big brother Tim from his childhood to becoming beloved performer and composer ‘Tim Minchin’.

“You find yourself sitting there interviewing Andrew Lloyd Webber about your brother and you remember we had bloody Starlight Express on tape and sang Jesus Christ Superstar start to finish around the piano in childhood. And Andrew Lloyd Webber is saying, ‘oh Tim’s a great new voice on the West End’,” she says.

“That’s pretty surreal.”

Minchin, who is nine years younger than Tim, is no stranger to comedy herself (just don’t ask her to crack a joke).

The recent Enterprise People recipient has helped produce video content for comedy troupe Aunty Donna for the past two years, working on the Fresh Blood television pilot and online series 1999.

It was also several years ago when Minchin first heard Matilda the Musical was coming to Australia after its enormous success on the West End.

Initially, Minchin had envisioned doing a behind-the-scenes documentary following rehearsals as the Australian production headed toward opening night. But as she developed the idea, the film began to take on more and more of a more biographical edge.

“The other side of the story was how big a deal that was for Tim in a personal sense… so this sort of then became the part-bio, part-lead up to opening night film that it now is.”

It wasn’t until after the 25-day shoot had wrapped and they were into the edit, that co-director Rhian Skirving (who also made Rock n Roll Nerd, the 2008 doco about Tim) suggested Nel Minchin actually narrate the documentary, giving it even more of a personal feel.

The result is an intimate look at the journey of Tim Minchin, as well as Matilda the Musical, and how the two have been entwined much longer than most realise.

Some would argue it must be easier when the subject of your documentary is your brother, but Minchin says it’s not necessarily true.

Sure, the access is great. Aside from Tim, a number of the interviews in Matilda & Me are with Minchin’s own brothers and sisters. And finding archive footage from Tim’s youth only required a trip into the vault of old family photo albums and videos.

Even interviews outside of Tim’s colleagues and families didn’t present too many challenges. Felicity Dahl (Roald Dahl’s wife) loves the musical, while former child actor Mara Wilson, who starred in the 1996 movie, was aware of Tim through Twitter and had also seen the show.

But Minchin says it’s just easier to navigate interviews when there is some distance.

“You always have to really respect who people are (in interviews) and try to get the right message across from each person, but when it’s your own family and also the colleagues of your brother, you sweat what you’re saying a lot,” she says.

However the interviews with all these “really bright, creative interesting people”, from Felicity Dahl, to Eddie Perfect, to Matilda the Musical writer Dennis Kelly, also taught Minchin something.

“It taught me the importance of taking a creative risk and sticking to your guns,” she says, adding it’s a mentality she’s used in her approach with something like Aunty Donna, which is different and more niche, but “so so good”.

With Matilda the Musical, Minchin says the Royal Shakespeare Company and director Matthew Warchus could have chosen someone safe. Instead they went with the writer of violent, darkly comic Channel 4 series Utopia to pen it and a clever, eyeliner-wearing wordsmith musician from Western Australia to compose.

“You’re like what the hell, how is this going to be a hit kids show?” Minchin says.

“(But) they just brought in exactly the right people and took a lot of risks, even though it wouldn’t have been easy.”

Matilda & Me airs on ABC on Sunday April 3 at 7.40pm.