Roald Dahl was a literary genius who knew how to create the most fantastical worlds for children. From the delightful adventures of Fantastic Mr. Fox to the incredible characters in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl had a way of spinning words into imaginary tales that continue to be enjoyed by readers of all ages.
Over the years, a number of Dahl’s works have been adapted for the big screen, and while many have brought his famous books to life in wonderful ways, there’s one in particular that certainly stands out as an enduring kids' classic. That, of course, is the 1996 movie Matilda. Released over twenty years ago, this tale about a neglected young genius who channels her frustrations through telekinesis continues to capture the imaginations of audiences to this day. Directed by funnyman Danny DeVito and starring Mara Wilson, Matilda gave hope to every young child who loved to read, and showed that with determination and inner strength, you can achieve anything.
Matilda is one of those movies that has a timeless quality to it, and although it has since been adapted into a Tony award-winning musical, there has yet to be a remake of the film. If you’ve ever watched Matilda and wondered what the Trunchbull is really like, or been puzzled over the way Mara Wilson channeled Matilda’s powers, than you’ll be fascinated by these behind-the-scenes facts about the making of this beloved film.
With that in mind, here are 20 Crazy Details Behind the Making of Matilda.
20 It was almost banned
Matilda has not only become one of the best-loved children’s films of all time, it has also achieved the legacy of being one of the most successful film adaptations of a Roald Dahl book ever. Despite its universal appeal however, the film was almost stopped from being made in the first place.
According to Thrillist, the Dahl estate’s bitter disappointment with both the 1971 version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as well as The Witches from 1990 made them initially bar the idea of a Matilda movie.
However, as the film’s screenwriter Robin Swicord states about her correspondence with Liccy, Dahl’s widow: “My husband and writing partner Nicholas Kazan and I] said, 'How about we write this for free? If you do like it, we'll go out together as partners.'" Liccy approved the screenplay, and the rest is history.
19 Danny DeVito Was Really Married to His On-Screen Wife
Danny DeVito not only directed Matilda, he also starred in it as Mr. Wormwood. Every child and parent will remember the Wormwoods as being the most loathsome family around, whose complete neglect and disregard for their daughter Matilda is enough to want to phone up child services even if it is just to complain about this awful, fictional family. As bad as Mr. Wormwood is, no one can forget how terrible his wife Mrs. Wormwood acts as well.
Funnily enough the actress who plays Matilda's mom is Rhea Perlman, DeVito’s real-life wife at the time.
Perlman and DeVito have been married since 1982, but in 2017, they decided to separate for good, according to The Sun. Despite the split, the two are still good friends, and we will always remember their very unique chemistry as the Wormwoods.
18 Pam Ferris is Nothing Like Miss Trunchbull
Miss Trunchbull is without a doubt one of the scariest characters in children’s literature and film, and she is likely to have sent shivers down the spine of many a kid watching Matilda. Every child’s nightmare was going to a school with a Trunchbull at the helm, and it’s thanks to Pam Ferris’ incredible acting talents that this menacing character came to life.
However, if you thought Ferris was drawing from her own awful personality for the role, you would be sorely mistaken. When speaking to Thrillist, Matilda actress Mara Wilson said: “People don't believe me, but Pam Ferris is the kindest, gentlest human being you will ever meet.” Kiami Davael, who played Lavender, told Uproxx: “Some were scared of her, I will say that. But she’s just a gentle soul. She’s so sweet.”
17 Matilda's practical magic
Watching Matilda as a child is truly magical. The way she can make objects move at will is a power all audiences would love to have, especially kids. If the film had been made in more recent years, it’s certain that many of the fantastic special effects that were used would have been done using CGI. However, it was made in 1996 when technology was not as advanced as it is today.
Most of the effects in Matilda were achieved thanks to good old fashioned ingenuity using strings, pulleys, and levers.
DeVito told Uproxx: “The only scene we did with green screen was the carrot [flying]. And we do most things… Like the chocolate going out the window, we did with wires and we took the wires out. But most of it, like throwing [Steiger] over the fence, we did that in a studio.”
16 Brutally hot filming conditions
Conditions can often be tough when filming a movie, but when children are involved, it’s most important to ensure that the experience is as painless as it can possibly be. One thing that definitely can’t be controlled is the weather, and according to Uproxx’s oral history of the film, the summer Matilda was being filmed was brutally hot.
The movie was being shot in Pasadena, and according to Kira Spencer Cook (credited as Kira Spencer Hesser), who played Hortensia, things got pretty dire in the heat: "There are kid extras passing out from the heat everyday, all day.” Pam Ferris who played Miss Thrunchbull had a particularly tough time. DeVito recalls: “Pam went through so much. We had her in the big suit, [...] and when we shot the stuff in front of Crunchem Hall I remember it was one of the hottest days of the summer.”
15 Pam Ferris Avoided The Children On Set
One of the challenging aspects of working with children is making sure that their reactions to things are genuine. Since many child actors aren’t the seasoned professionals that their adult co-workers are, it’s important to get them to believe they’re really living the events of the film.
Because of this, Pam Ferris, who played Miss Trunchbull, purposely tried to avoid any contact with the children between scenes, according to MamaMia.
Ferris wanted to remain aloof as much as she could in order to ensure that the fear the children felt when faced with her was real.
This was easier said than done however, as the actress revealed: “It broke down very quickly because they were daring little ones there that just came straight up to me and put their hand in mine between takes. I fell in love with them completely.”
14 Mara Wilson Designed Matilda’s Doll, Wanda
When looking at many of the accounts of what it was like working with the cast and crew of Matilda, one of the things that several people mentioned was the fact that they felt creatively involved in the making of the film. Mara Wilson, for one, felt very included when it came to giving personal touches to the movie.
According to Uproxx, Danny DeVito specifically asked the child actress to design the doll that Matilda would carry around. On her own personal blog, Mara shares the story of how DeVito asked her to contribute creatively: “I drew a picture of a doll Matilda could have made using basic household materials, and ended up with a real life red-pipe-cleaner-haired doll we called 'Wanda.' It’s one thing I feel comfortable using for bragging rights: ‘I got my first Design credit at age seven!’”
13 Matilda’s Powers Had a Special Name On Set
In Matilda, Roald Dahl wrote: “There began to creep over Matilda a most extraordinary and peculiar feeling. The feeling was mostly in the eyes. A kind of electricity seemed to be gathering inside them. A sense of power was brewing in those eyes of hers, a feeling of great strength was settling itself deep inside.” Director Danny DeVito gave Mara Wilson a special name for her character's powers while they were on set.
According to Wilson’s own account of events, these powers became known as “the whammy."
She would squint her eyes and pretend to exert her supernatural gift. As she told Uproxx: “[DeVito] would just say, ‘Whammy that chair,’ ‘Whammy that over there,’ and I would know exactly what he meant.”
12 Pam Ferris’ Transformation into Miss Trunchbull Took A Long Time
Just as Pam Ferris' personality was nothing like her character Miss Thrunchbull, the actress’ looks were nothing like the frightening headmistress’ either. In the 2005 DVD documentary about the film, Ve Neill, the movie’s key makeup artist, spoke about how she went about transforming Ferris into the Trunchbull and how it was her biggest challenge.
Neill explains how they took a face cast of Ferris, and then created extra features, like a nose tip and eye-bags out of gelatin. Neill also used reddish makeup to create facial imperfections such as broken blood vessels all over her cheeks. Coloring was also used on Ferris’ teeth to make them more yellow, and the hair on her face was darkened in order to make it look like she had a mustache. A lot of work was put into the transformation, and from the audience’s point-of-view, it was certainly most effective.
11 Roald Dahl Makes An Appearance
Roald Dahl had already passed away six years before Matilda was released, but if you look closely, you’ll notice that the famous author does make a sneaky cameo in the film.
There’s a scene in the film where Miss Honey and Matilda are in Miss Trunchbull’s house and they find a portrait of Magnus, Miss Honey’s father.
Well, upon closer inspection, you’ll find that the painting they disover is actually a portrait of a young-looking Roald Dahl from the time he was a fighter pilot in World War II. This little Easter egg is a sweet nod to the creator of the story being told, and a loving tribute to one of the greatest children’s authors ever known. Next time you watch the movie, see if you can spot Dahl’s picture.
10 The Chokey Was Genuinely Scary
Aside from being truly terrified of Miss Trunchbull, young viewers of Matilda are likely to have been horrified by the scary closet naughty children were thrown into, known as the chokey. Filled with broken glass and nails, this awful cupboard certainly isn’t fit to hold children, but it’s the headmistress’ go-to punishment for children she thinks have misbehaved.
Speaking to Entertainment Weekly about her experiences of being inside the chokey, actress Mara Wilson said: “Oh, God. That was, like, the only time on set I was actually afraid. [...] When I get pulled out of The Chokey, I’m holding my hands over my face; that’s because it smelled really bad. And I remember once they put me in there and closed the door, and then Danny said, ‘Okay guys, we’re going to lunch!’ And I started banging on the door like, ‘Guys, let me out!’”
9 No Stunt Double Was Used For The Child-Spinning Scene
One of the most famous scenes in Matilda is the one where Miss Trunchbull spins Amanda Thripp around by the pigtails. Not only did this moment in the film solidify the Trunchbull as a truly terrible person, it also proved that bad guys don’t always get away with bad deeds, as Amanda skids to safety through a patch of wildflowers after her spinning ordeal.
Surprisingly, no stunt double was used for this iconic scene. The young actress who played Amanda, Jacqueline Steiger, was more than willing to do it herself.
According to the behind-the-scenes DVD documentary, Steiger was placed in a harness that was held up by wires.
Pam Ferris than took hold of fake pigtails that were attached to Steiger’s head, and spun her around on the ropes. According to director Danny Devito, Steiger loved every moment of it.
8 The chocolate Cake Scene Was Almost Scrapped
If there’s one thing everyone will remember from Matilda, it is without question the infamous chocolate cake scene where Bruce Bogtrotter is faced with the biggest eating challenge of his young life. While this scene in the movie has gone down in history as one of the most famous cinematic moments ever, not everyone was willing to keep it in the film.
According to writer Robin Swicord who spoke to Thrillist: “There were times when, in the budgeting process particularly, [producers] were going, ‘Do we really need the Bruce Bogtrotter scene with the chocolate cake?’ Because it doesn't move the story forward. But I really loved that scene because his superpower was that he could eat a lot of chocolate cake.” We’re so happy they chose to keep it as Matilda just wouldn’t be the same without it.
7 Miss Trunchbull Was Based on a Real Person
It’s hard to imagine that a character so loathsome as Miss Trunchbull could actually be a real person, but according to Mara Wilson’s book, the Trunchbull’s evil nature was based on fact.
Wilson writes about her experiences speaking with Roald Dahl’s daughter Lucy, and how she explained that the Trunchbull was inspired by real events.
Wilson notes: “Our conversations led me to suspect that Miss Trunchbull was based partly on Lucy’s boarding school headmistress. Lucy and a friend had once tried to hide ice cream from the kitchens in their pajamas and sneak it back into their dorm late at night, but the headmistress caught them. She marched them back into her office and made them stand still until dawn, while the melted ice cream ran down their arms and legs.”
6 Mara Wilson Was Shy About Dancing
Another amazing scene in Matilda is when Matilda discovers she has the power to move objects, and we see her dancing around her house to the tune of “Little Bitty Pretty One” and all the furniture starts to move around her. So iconic is this scene, that it has now become a viral online challenge where people try to recreate the magic of this movie moment. As confident as Mara Wilson looks in the movie performing this routine, the DVD documentary to the film reveals that Wilson was actually incredibly shy about having to get up and dance by herself.
In order to make her more comfortable, Danny DeVito got all the cast and crew to dance along too out of shot.
Now that’s great directing.
5 The Actor who played Bruce Bogtrotter hated chocolate cake
Getting to eat loads of cake would make most kids happy, but for actor Jimmy Karz who played Bruce Bogtrotter, having to do endless takes of eating that big chocolate cake was pure torture. According to Stefan Czapsky, who spoke to Newsweek, Karz didn’t even like chocolate: “What was ironic about it was, the actor who played Bruce? He didn't like chocolate cake. They had a spit bucket for him. It worked for the scene because it was kind of like a child torture scene—to force him to eat chocolate cake.”
Almost as bad as having to stuff his face full of cake that he didn’t like, Karz also had to deal with the nightmare of film continuity.
“The hardest thing was coming to set every day and getting the chocolate painted onto my face the way it was painted the day before,” he reveals, “And wearing that crusty shirt every day.”
4 There’s a Nod to Roald Dahl’s Wife
The Roald Dahl estate is very protective of any project based on the famous author’s books, and the family holds his works very close to their hearts. Danny DeVito was crystal clear about wanting to respect Dahl’s legacy in his film, and strove to do everything he could to make Matilda a movie the Dahl family would be proud of.
One of the extra touches DeVito made to make the film special for the Dahls was to pay a small tribute to the author’s wife. According to Mara Wilson’s book Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame, the decision was made to call Miss Honey’s doll “Liccy,, after his wife Felicity. It's a small but touching detail that makes the film that extra bit special.
3 Mara Wilson Was Going Through Family Struggles During Filming
Being a child actor is tough as it is, but for Mara Wilson, there was double the amount of stress and pressure as she was facing some pretty terrible news at home during the filming of the movie.
The young actress found out that her mother had a terminal illness while she was filming Matilda.
Though the Wormwoods were awful to Matilda in the film, Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman and the whole cast and crew were pillars of strength while Wilson faced the terrible trauma of losing her mother to cancer just six months after the film wrapped, according to The Mirror.
In an interview on Lorraine, Wilson revealed: “I was worried she wouldn't get to see the film. I didn't know this until later, but Danny DeVito took it unfinished to the hospital and showed it to her.”
2 Danny DeVito Was Inspired by His Daughters
Often directors decide to make a movie because they think it’ll bring in a lot of cash, and other times, directors will embark on a project because it’s close to their heart. For Danny DeVito, the decision to make Matilda definitely fell into the latter case.
According to The Telegraph, the actor-director was inspired to make an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved book thanks to his two daughters. He told the paper: “One day in 1993 my two daughters walked into the house with Matilda by Roald Dahl. [...] It felt as if I had been given a wonderful gift and was being invited to enter a different world, an underground world for children.” He instantly knew he wanted to make it a film: “ I responded to the book immediately, [...] I passionately wanted to make it into a movie.”
1 The Movie Was Inspired By Tim Burton
Steven Czapsky was hired as the director of photography for Matilda, but as Czapsky revealed to Thrillist, this wasn’t the first time he had worked with Danny DeVito. Apparently, Czapsky had been the one photographing the actor as The Penguin in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, and DeVito was such a fan of the wide-angled photography used in Burton’s films, that he brought Czapsy on as the D.O.P. for Matilda in order to use the same technique.
Czapsky notes: “He purposefully created sets in which you could see the ceiling and the background. [Danny] loved being photographed by the [wide-angle] lens. He had a face that actually could take the 10 millimeter. We used it both for Mr. Wormwood and the Trunchbull.”
Do you have any trivia to share about Matilda? Let us know in the comments!