Ten years ago, we found ourselves singing the songs of Abba once again, joyfully skipping along to Dancing Queen and Super Trouper. Judy Craymer is the original dynamo who brought us a summer of fun with the movie adaptation of Mamma Mia! starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Julie Walters, Amanda Seyfried and Colin Firth. The film would go on to gross over $615 million at the box office and almost every household in the UK owned a DVD of the movie. In the past decade, the producer extraordinaire has produced over 50 versions of the stage show around the world and now here we are in 2018 with Craymer delivering the long-awaited sequel, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again.
I caught up with Craymer to talk about this little phenomenon of hers just before the film received its world premiere in London. From the original to the follow up, Craymer talks about revisiting the characters and telling young Donna’s story. Read our chat below and grab your sparkles when the film opens this Friday.
It’s the day before the premiere, ten years later, how does it feel?
[laughs] Quite nerve-wracking but kind of exciting as well. We only delivered the film a few weeks ago and it’s fun hearing the positive reactions really to something that’s been so immersive and I loved doing. It’s just been great to be back with the cast and the new cast. It’s like a big family.
It was going back to the island. I laughed and cried. It was great seeing the legacy cast and new cast. This is your baby. What made it perfect to revisit it again now?
I’ve always toyed with the idea of doing another film, but more than that really. I had to talk to Phyllida Lloyd and Catherine Johnson who wrote and directed the original stage show. I think I felt they really want to revisit it.
It was bringing the band back together really. I had always liked the idea of a prequel, but how then do we have our wonderful original cast involved? That’s how I met up with Ol and Richard Curtis and that was the beginning there. What’s really exciting about Ol’s script is that he really connected the relationships and friendships and brought out the mother-daughter and the true motherhood story. I knew he and Richard could handle it well and to have more of an emotional stake in it. The songs would work because there were always very strong emotional Abba songs like Knowing Me, Knowing You that help tell the story. They’re part of the tapestry and it fell to Ol, who was completely immersed in the world of Abba and Mamma Mia! to work with these songs.
I think the original characters are known and loved. If you are someone who knows the show and the last film, I think, it was very much for Ol, creating the Lily James role of Young Donna, a story we all want to know. I think Ol would probably say before he was directing, he wrote the screenplay and he wrote Dancing Queen as this epic Dunkirk moment out to see and had no idea that he would eventually be directing that. We also had Anthony Van Laast who is Mamma Mia’s original choreography, to bring all those scenes together, but also the sense of Bollywood, that sense of joy and fun. So, we had a lot to play with to an extent. The storytelling was important, but it’s a kind of homage to the first film and the stage show. I think it’s something I’ve always wanted to know. I’ve always wanted to know that odyssey that Donna went on. All those Greek themes, The Tempest, The Odyssey, they’re all there.
I love the musical narrative. I particularly liked the opening where we get our first glimpse of young Donna with I Kissed The Teacher, but you also pay homage to the stage show with the extras.
These actors, the people that are the dancers and singers are so integral to rehearsal and working through the songs. I always like to bring in the Mamma Mia! family when I can. So in When I Kissed The Teacher, rather than just having the crowd, we had some of the alumni from the show. We had some of the original dads and dynamos who are all up there as professors on stage. We also had Bjorn.
Again, a lot of the dancers have Mamma Mia! in their DNA, so working with Anthony Van Laast would work with a chorus of dancers and actors to rehearse. We’d get to the day of shooting and we’d get a huge number of people, and the whole point of those songs explode at you off the screen. I think this time around we had boats and bicycles and as many people as possible so there are as many nods and winks as possible.
In Ol’s first draft, he and I went to Sweden and his first song in there was Super Trooper because he wanted an exuberant song to show that young Donna (Lily) was a bit of a minx and a bit anarchic, and was going to cause outrage at her graduation ceremony. It was Benny and Bjorn who said that it had to be When I Kissed The Teacher and it wrote itself in that sense and it was so much fun. It’s not the most well known, but it will be.
It will be. How do you maintain creative control when this is your baby and keep everything true to what you want?
I’m incredibly hands on and I am the gatekeeper of Mamma Mia! I’m very protective of Abba’s songs. That’s always been the way to keep control. It was great the first time around. There was a great sense of trust and belief this time around. It was great working with Donna Langley and she’s passionate for this. I would never have not been incredibly hands-on with the film. Benny would say the same for the music and Bjorn would say the same of the lyrics that not one lyric could change without Bjorn making that happen. Benny produced the soundtrack and the cast recording for the movie. Everything had to be run by him. He’s wonderful with the movie.
The location and the cinematography are stunning. The production design and everything is bigger and better. Talk about working with Alan MacDonald on this and working in Croatia.
Working with Alan MacDonald was an honor and privilege. He’s sadly no longer with us and he passed away. He really got Mamma Mia! and the spirit of it. It was a massive build and we weren’t going back to Greece to shoot and we had to find the perfect place in Croatia which we did. He understood that the island is a character and all the gloriousness that we wanted and the story is about the Bella Donna as much as anything else. How the colors and textures developed and what Sophie would have done with it is incredibly important. He was a genius of bringing all of that together. He built that jetty which is, of course, a symbol of Mamma Mia! and that was a big task.
Working with him and Michele Clapton who was our costume designer was glorious. She was able to bring it back to the 70s. It wasn’t kitsch and it was beautiful. It’s so en trend now, vintage pieces. I think we’d all dress like young Donna Sheridan now.
I was looking at the poster and thinking only Michele could make it look so perfect.
It’s the perfect leather jacket and the perfect boots. Those palazzo pants that Lily was wearing were originally vintage. Michele was always coming back saying she’d found something perfect.
Again, recreating Christine Baranski in her Tanya way. And then, Cher.
I was going to say, you have these great new additions of Cher and Andy Garcia. Ruby and Fernando.
Yes, Ruby and Fernando, that’s Mamma Mia 3. It’s like a chat show. It was always an ambition and dream to have Cher. The moment that the mother character was thought about and going to be created and we’re doing a musical, we’ve got our wonderful cast and we’re going to add as many assets to it as possible and if that character is going to come to life, she should be larger than life. Ol wrote her as the ultimate rock chick supremo. She’s more than that and there’s a difficult relationship with her daughter and both women are feisty and independent. I think you can see how the Meryl Streep and Lily characters and their attitude to life. Ruby probably hung out a lot at Studio 54. That’s very much the design. I was talking to Michele and there’s very much the Bianca Jagger moment of her arrival with the cane and the dark glasses. That was fun.
Cher got to choose Andy. We discussed Andy, but yeah.
There are so many gorgeous men in this movie, eh?
Yes. You added so many.
Three gorgeous boys. Pierce and Colin had to up their game.
You’ve created a phenomenon, from the stage show to the movie. I was looking around the internet. You’ve spawned fan fiction. I don’t know how old these kids are, but they’re writing chapters about Donna and Sam, Pierce and Meryl, Amanda and Dominic…
…Peryl and Cheryl
Have you seen it? Peryl. Are you aware of it and what do you think?
I think the last film really opened up to a younger audience that is very much our audience now. Which I cherish and love. I’ve seen it with the stage show, there are new generations who were brought up on the DVD and it became a household thing across the world. I think it’s great for this film that there’s excitement from the 7-year-olds to the 90-year-olds.
There’s something about Mamma Mia! A lot of the crew would say how their kids would say how their dad was working with Sophie. I think kids love Amanda and they’re going to love Lily.
Meryl would say the last film opened up a whole young audience for her. I think she said to me she went to a premiere or screening and suddenly she was being chased down the street by all these young kids.
Pierce would say the same and they’re all chuffed by it all. I think to have crossed the audiences, I think it’s great.
And then the soundtrack. It’s incredible. I’ve been listening to it non-stop. Angel Eyes. The Day Before You Came. Talk about having that on the soundtrack.
It’s a song that I’ve always loved. We managed to get Fernando in, but we didn’t get that in. There are many considerations of it. It was never written in. It’s a woman looking back on her life. It could have been any of their songs. It could have been Meryl or Julie. There’s something that resonates. I know Benny wanted to hear Meryl sing it and her interpretation and her voice which is of course, very rich, delicious and smoky, I think. So, we wanted to nod to it. There’s a moment of it where it’s being played when Ruby is in the bar talking to her granddaughter. It’s there as a bonus track really.
Then the movie opens this Friday.
I can’t quite believe it. Oh, we have I Wonder on it too. Again, in the world of delivering soundtracks, you have to deliver them ahead of the movie. It was the process of cutting and it will certainly be on the DVD extras and it’s beautifully sung by Lily and Jessica and Alexa.
The DVD extras.
We’re working on the DVD extras and the deluxe album already.
And Mamma Mia 3
Ruby and Fernando and the Day Before You Came.
You know, you’ve got a whole franchise now with the end credits and that scene. I stayed for that.
What did you think?
I loved it. Universal went Marvel.
I love the end credits. Tears well up in my eyes and I’m not sure if it’s because we finally got them done or if there are so many people to credit. Bring glitter and sparkle and I’m happy. The finale was a fun time to be shooting.
You did it all in a short timeframe from script to delivery.
We went at it, that’s for sure. We moved a lot of people around and ending up with the glorious time of having them all on the set together. It was almost the first time that the younger ones hung out with the older ones and that Meryl and Cher were there. Everyone gets secretly excited about getting into spandex.
I love the spandex moments.
Cher and her version and her spandex. And of course, the dads. They had made to measure everything. In the first movie, we did the end credits quite fast and on quite a low budget. They were in quite tight lycra. I think their boots were women’s boots and were brought from the local market. They were in such agony in the first movie. This time, they had platform boots made for them. The most they had to do in this was get on a bar stool.
There has to be some great outtakes.
Yes. Definitely. Stellan in a fat suit.
That was sheer brilliance. How far from the original script to the final draft was it all?
It was all going in the same direction. There were cuts and changes but we were always looking into the origins and bringing things back. We changed the beginning, the opening scene, we changed it during shooting.
We felt we needed to start with the Sophie and the invitations that take you into that Mamma Mia world. To actually really see the hotel Bella Donna, that was thrilling.
It was wonderful to revisit the island and I hope you take us back many more times.
That’s the fun of it, you feel like you’re actually there. It’s a hotel I’d go and stay at.