Interview: How Ellen Kane Made MATILDA Dance on the Big Screen

Kane shares what she thinks about that viral 'Red Beret Girl' Tiktok, and much more!

By: Dec. 28, 2022
Interview: How Ellen Kane Made MATILDA Dance on the Big Screen
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The movie adaptation of the smash hit stage show Matilda the Musical is now dancing its way across screens, thanks to the genius creativity of the film's choreographer Ellen Kane.

Associate Choreographer for the stage show, the Tony & Olivier nominated Kane's credits also include, Choreographer for West Side Story at the Curve in Leicester; Co-Choreographer of Groundhog Day The Musical at Old Vic Theatre London and the August Wilson Theatre Broadway; International Choreographic Supervisor and Associate on Billy Elliot The Musical for London, Broadway, Chicago, National US tour, Australia, Holland and UK tour; Associate Choreographer for the Original London Production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane; Associate Choreographer for Sister Act at London Palladium; Associate Choreographer The Lord of the Rings at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and much more.

BroadwayWorld spoke with Kane about her creative process, what it's like choreographing for 300 kids, and more!

You were the associate choreographer for Matilda on stage, and you are the choreographer for the film. In choreographing for the film, where did you start?

Matthew [Warchus] and I, a lot of our initial conversations, we'd just been locked down, it was during the pandemic, so we were doing them on Zoom actually. The plan was that we would talk through these sequences so that once we opened back up the sets could get built, rather than us picking up those conversations then, and then we're another three months down the line. Matthew and I talked a lot about each of the numbers and what that might be, and how to bring it to life for a film, taking the reality of real sets, and real locations, as opposed to a stage show.

So, that's where it began, really, and then once we decided on the locations, we went about lightly story boarding, and trying to work out where certain sections of the song might take place. And then I would go away and try to imagine, in my office, on my own, what might happen in these locations. And knowing that it starts with 'Miracle' and it ends with 'Revolting Children', how do I go through this story and make it feel like it's building all the time to this epic song that is very well-known?

So that's the process I went about, and I did a lot of trying to go back to the story, back to Tim's [Minchin] lyrics, and going, "How will this information translate into real locations with the scale of having 200, 300 kids?"

Is there any choreography from the stage show that directly carried over into theInterview: How Ellen Kane Made MATILDA Dance on the Big Screen film?

No, Peter Darling is the choreographer of the show, and I have been his associate/co-choreographer, we started working together on Billy Elliot, so we've known each other for probably about 19 years. There is a way of understanding stories, and understanding musicals that, of course, I guess will be similar just by sheer nature of we speak a lot of the same language. We see things in a certain way. So I guess that will bring a similarity. There is a Matilda pose, that is from the show, with Pete's blessing, and the essence of the songs are the songs, so there will be stuff where, hopefully, if you're a fan of the show you won't be let down by the film, and if you're a fan of the film and you see the show, it's there to walk hand in hand. But there isn't a direct taking and putting it into the film, it's all made for the film.

And what was it like choreographing for and working with 200/300 kids?

I've worked with kids for a very long time! I started working with children on Billy Elliot, I've done Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I've done Matilda. So, for me, yes, there were far more of them, but one of the reasons I actually wanted to do it is because I feel like I know how to get children to do extraordinary things. I've worked with them for so long that I feel like I've built up my own way of communicating, and getting these children to do things sometimes I don't even think they know that they're actually capable of doing.

The organization of that amount of children is immense, there is no denying that. Trying to work out how we schooled them, and they can only work for a certain amount of time each day, and they can only concentrate for a certain amount of time each day. But, I had people with me on my team, each person was there for a very different reason, and I had an amazing assistant called Gemma, who worked with me also on the show, and she knows how I work, and she's used to scheduling with me. So, between her and I, we came up with these eye-bleedingly complicated schedules and how if this child was in 'Bruce' they could be in 'Revolting', but then they couldn't be in anything else because we'd need them to rehearse the anything else in the evening, and then we'd run out of their hours.

So we started compartmentalizing these mini towns of children. And those children would do certain things in the film, and these children would do other things. And that's how we began, it was like mathematics. And then, once we had all of that, and we'd made sure that it was doable, and they could still school, and rest, and travel, we then started going, "Okay, how do we actually rehearse these huge numbers?" Some of them 225, 250, the 'School Song' is probably the only one that's got a very concentrated number of children in it, everything else is huge scale.

But what I know to be true for myself, is that I'm very clear with the children. I teach them how to rehearse, I don't expect them to know that. I teach them how I need them to learn in this environment, and then I also tell them what I expect from them, and what they can expect from me. And we keep that bond, that's our understanding, and that's how we work, and I find that actually, for me, that brings amazing results.

That little snippet from 'Revolting Children' went completely viral on TikTok, what did you think when that happened?

We're revolting! ?? Roald Dahl's Matilda The Musical Only In Cinemas From Friday, November 25! (Netflix UK & Ireland Summer 2023) #MatildaMovie #MatildaTok #FYP

♬ original sound - Sony Pictures UK

I have to say that I feel like now I know more about TikTok than I've ever known, or will ever know in the future, because I don't do social media, really. So, for me, my son does social media, and not even to a huge extent, but he was the one that was like, "Oh my god, mum, they're all talking about the 'red beret girl', Meesha [Garbett], and they're all doing this dance!" I was like, "Oh, god!" And he was flicking through, and they're all there, doing my choreography, and I was like, "Wow, that's incredible." Pentatonix were doing it in a stadium, it was almost out of body, really, I couldn't quite grasp it! But he was keeping me up to date with the fact that the momentum for it was going crazy.

And I kind of felt like, I love dance, and so, for me, to be able to do something that has connected to that generation, using something that they all communicate with, that in itself is something I feel very grateful for, and very proud of. To be able to connect, and touch people in that way that they're doing that, they're dancing, that's a joy for me to see. Not even that it's my choreography, just the dance is inspiring these next generation of people to really go for it! That was moving.

Two part question, did you have a favorite number to choreograph, and what ended up being your favorite number in the film after seeing the finished product?

Interview: How Ellen Kane Made MATILDA Dance on the Big Screen

I don't think I did. Directors will say that there job is to not have a favorite thing, and I think when you're working with that much scale, that my job was to love them all equally. I was trying really hard to find new ways to tell each of those numbers, to watch that film and really feel like you are watching a story through musical choreography, as opposed to watching something that I just think looks cool. So, I loved equally all of them in order for me to feel like I immersed myself back into that story, and tried to pull out what it would feel like being in that moment, in that situation.

Which one do I like the most, or am I most proud of? Well, to be honest, for me, 'Bruce' has three moving revolves, and, for me, the first time that I saw those children do that sequence in its totality, and their passion, and their celebration of achievement, was probably up there with one of the most moving things I experienced, just because it was so extraordinary to watch 65 children come together and really tell this story in a way that I could really relate to.

In terms of complication, I think 'Miracle' was incredibly complex for so many different reasons. The Covid nature of filming it, there was a huge birthday cake sequence which is tiered, it meant that I had to work out a way... there's a section before it that has this patterning that comes out, and it crawls up into this cake, but in reality, I could only film 66 people at a time because of the Covid rules that we were working under. So I had to work out how to make that pattern work without people crossing over a certain line, because then I couldn't put the next set of people together with them, because then you would just see a half-body going. So, in terms of achievement, when I saw that happen, with my team, and the gratitude and relief that it all worked, that was immense.

And 'Revolting' is just, who doesn't want to feel like that? Seeing those kids living their best lives, they were living their best lives. When we were rehearsing that number, yes, we're drilling, and we're cleaning, and we're getting precision, and all of that, but you're not asking them for more energy. They're going for it. So many different, amazing moments to take away.

Revolting Children makes me tear up! I feel so much joy!

And watching that many young people dance, and express like that, and really go for it with such passion, that is gold, for me.