11 Jul 2017

Tim Minchin: the difference between truth and bollocks

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 11 July 2017

Australian composer, actor and comedian Tim Minchin talks about the lessons of Roald Dahl, the unhelpfulness of hope and his addiction to trying new things.

Award-winning composer of Matilda the Musical, Tim Minchin.

Award-winning composer of Matilda the Musical, Tim Minchin. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

The Perth native, who first had international success as a provocative singing comedian in the early 2000s, was recently in the country ahead of the NZ premiere of Matilda the Musical –​ the wildly successful stage adaptation of the Roald Dahl story.

Minchin hadn't written musical theatre before Matilda, but he had strong feelings about the 'dark-light' tone of Dahl's story and how easy it would be to muck that up, he says.

"Dennis [the playwright] and me and Matthew [the director] just wanted to make something that we would love."

They didn't have to think about creating a show for children because the whole point of Matilda (and all of Roald Dahl's work) is that the child in all of us is still alive, he says.

"That's kind of what Matilda is about, not letting adulthood turn you into a cynical despot."

As a kid he was much 'thicker' than the character of Matilda, Minchin says.

"It's really fun thinking what would a five-year-old genius feel like? And the way you can access that is because as a 35-year-old – as I was when I wrote it – I had years worth of reading books and thinking. So I could go 'Imagine if you had all my knowledge and you were only a five year old?"

Roald Dahl himself was a "damaged, sad adult with a burning imaginative child within", he says.

"Matilda has this moral clarity. And I think Dahl craved that, he wished humans weren't so corrupt. I always felt like he thought adulthood inevitably corrupts you."

Dahl railed against anti-intellectualism and Minchin does the same thing in his comedy, he says.

Some say the Matilda song 'Loud' predicted the rise of Donald Trump.

"What you know matters less than the volume with which what you don't know's expressed" sings the character Mrs Wormwood.

But Minchin says the slide towards informational relativism – "this idea that experts aren't to be respected" – was happening long before he wrote the song and long before Trump's presidency.

"Half of America believes completely barmy conspiracy theories. Trump is an outcome of a pattern, he didn't invent it."

The digital revolution has meant that part of parenting now is teaching children to discern between real and fake news, he says.

"Bad information and good information kind of look the same on the internet and we have to figure out how to educate our kids to parse all that information and figure out what the difference between truth and bollocks is."

Minchin is also interested in the idea of hope and the faith we have in it.

Telling someone to 'never give up hope' can be trite and unhelpful, he says.

"Hope doesn't help, particularly. Also when people are in quite hopeless situations saying 'Don't give up hope' feels condescending and rather mean."

Something he's given up hope on is his "animated Australian outback musical" Larrikins ever making it to the screen.

Four years ago Minchin moved his family to LA to make the film with the animation company DreamWorks.

But $40 million and tens of thousands of hours' work later, the film was canned when Universal Pictures bought DreamWorks.

Universal Pictures are not really interested in making new stuff, he says.

"I had lunch with them the other day and I said 'You've chucked it in the bin and it's a tax write-off. It's a zero-dollar thing to you so if another studio wants it can't you just sell it to them for a few million dollars and license them the software?"

They said no.

Production was three-quarters done and the animation was half done when Larrikins was dumped, he says.

"These were living creatures voiced by the best actors – Jacki Weaver, Naomi Watts, Margot Robbie, Ben Mendelsohn, Ewen Leslie, Hugh Jackman was the lead. And these things were alive, they were fully animated, the best animation in the world, singing songs co-produced by Hans Zimmer."

"It was crazy… crazy. It's unbelievable for me, incomprehensible. There's obviously a lot of worse things in the world, but that loss of time and art makes my brain… I didn't sleep for a month after it happened. I just couldn't get past the anger.

'It just feels like the biggest error of my life, just because of the things I could have been doing in those four years. I could have done world tours and made albums and I refused acting roles. I don't expect anyone to pity me, I have the most wonderful career, but you do spend a bit of time lying awake thinking 'What a waste'."

The past year hasn't been all bad for Minchin professionally, though.

He wrote the music and lyrics for a stage version of the movie Groundhog Day which opened on Broadway this April and he plays Friar Tuck in the new Robin Hood remake Robin Hood: Origins coming out later in the year.

The movie Groundhog Day had always 'screamed theatre' to him, he says.

"The idea of a human trapped in a metaphysical conundrum, the perimeters of which they don't understand. It's much more like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – my favourite Stoppard play."

At the end of the year, Minchin and his family will leave LA and move back to Sydney – "for the sake of the kids and family and beach and schools and getting the hell out of that crazy broken country".

Next year, he says he might record an album and get back on tour.

'I'm so addicted to trying to do new things."

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