Screenwriter Ol Parker did not anticipate he would be directing Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again when he wrote the script for the sequel to the 2008 hit movie, but as it turned out, he was tapped to do double duty.
I caught up with Parker to talk about creating this summer’s most irresistible sequel/prequel starring Meryl Streep, Lily James and Cher.
Mamma Mia! is a phenomenon and who more perfect to write this sequel than you?
I’m probably the 18th choice. It’s been ten years since the last one.
How did you get involved?
It’s been really fast to get here. Almost two years to the day, I got the email from Richard Curtis with a random question saying, “Do you like ABBA?” I think I thought he was going to invite me to dinner with them or something because we’re friends and that’s how he rolls. He knows everybody. I wrote back saying, “Who doesn’t?” and he wrote back saying, “Fancy writing a sequel?” and that’s how it came about.
They had asked him and he said no but he said, “I know someone cheaper.” That’s how I came in. He introduced me to Judy Craymer and here we are talking to you and those two years passed just like that.
Not only did you write it, but you directed it. Was there pressure to come in?
If I knew I was going to direct it, I would never have written the sequence on fourteen boats. I just assumed it was going to be Rob Marshall’s problem or someone more impressive than I am. “Here, take that and make it great.” Then, they offered it to me. I was left to make what I’d written make sense.
When you’re writing, how did you work with the musical narrative?
Musically, I went to Stockholm to meet Benny and Bjorn and I thought they were going to give me a list of the songs they liked. I thought I’d have to create the plot around the songs, but it was the complete opposite. They were just like, take the back catalog and write what you want, they wanted the songs to tell a story, rather than we don’t want the action to stop. With a musical, the songs are written organically with the plot so they tend to advance it much more. In a real musical, it’s normally the songs that advance the plot and the bit in between is just interfacial with the dialogue. With a jukebox musical, it’s the opposite. Their request was we make this more of a storytelling thing and short of that, I could write what I wanted and use what I wanted. It was a combination of a lot of things.
Andy Garcia’s character was invented so Cher could sing Fernando to him, it’s complete reverse engineering.
I was going to ask about it.
When we finished writing it I pitched it to Richard. We actually did the story together, but I wrote it. when we got to the end, we had five songs left on the wall that we couldn’t fit into the structure.
I thought, there’s a guy, he works in the hotel, he’s older and he’s Latin American. We have to put in that his heart is broken and he’s sad. I was working it all out and he looks up, shouts “Ruby!” Ruby looks at him and shouts “Fernando!” Richard was like, “That’s great.”
That was reverse engineering in its extreme form, 105 minutes of set up for that one joke.
Other times, I was writing the scene where Lily’s character has her heart broken by Jeremy Irvine’s character and it’s time for a song and I look at the songs on my wall, the first line of Mamma Mia! is “I’ve been cheated by you since I don’t know.” I thought it was perfect. So, sometimes you write towards to the song, sometimes you write backward from the song and sometimes the right song just appears. It’s a happy mix of all of them.
Talk about working through the catalog and picking out songs like Angel Eyes because that was a brilliant moment for Christine and Julie.
Christine and Julie are amazing. It’s a slight diversion. You could probably cut it and the film would be lesser for it, but they’re trying to cheer up Amanda. I really wanted them both to sing. They’re both so amazing and such brilliant people. I really wanted them both to have the first verse and I was looking at the song in agony because which one am I going to disrespect. In my panic, I hit on this joke where it’s Julie’s story, but Christine knows it so well and it was a sign of their friendship that she could interrupt and tell the story for her. That’s how that came about.
What about the location and swapping that to Croatia and finding the perfect place to rebuild Hotel Bella Donna?.
It was an economic decision not to go to Greece. It became about trying to find somewhere gorgeous. It wasn’t just about the location and countryside. It was also about an island. One of the beautiful things about this is that it’s a very small island and we took it over. There aren’t that many restaurants in the town we were staying at. We’d all have dinner every night. you don’t call them the older cast, you call them the legacy cast and the younger cast, we’d pile into these restaurants together. If shooting in London you’d go home to their families for the night and you come back the next night, but here it was so bonding. There’s nothing more bonding than dancing like a prat to Dancing Queen or any ABBA song. A combination of hanging out and feeling like the island was ours to have a party on, it was magical. I know it’s a cliche and I know everyone says what an extraordinary experience it was and most times they’re lying but in this case, it was extraordinary.
There’s nothing more off-putting than people having more fun onscreen than you’re having watching them, but conversely, it’s lovely when you’re watching genuine bonds. They’re brilliant actors and can fake a bond, but in this case, it’s real.
I followed it on Instagram and saw that during the shooting.
You hope that’s coming across. When they’re dancing in Super Trouper, that’s all real. We played the song loudly and sent them off to different corners. I said, “We’d come around and cherry-pick bits of it.” They just had an absolute hoot. The only problem was the men stuffing things down their spandex trousers, that was the only competition through the whole movie, who could get the most down their pants.
It’s always going to be the best part.
There’s a whole series of characters we love and know, I could take it on a bit more and go a bit deeper. It was always going to be an emotional film because I think trying to recreate the first film’s sense of giddiness and joy would be a problem so it was always going to be more emotional.
My Love, My Life made me weep.
I’m glad we achieved that. You cried a lot? That’s marvelous.
The legacy cast is back. How did you find the perfect mix for the younger cast?
One of the criteria was they had to be really nice people because I had to recreate that atmosphere and double it. What’s really lovely is that all six of them are best friends, they all hang out and that’s a brilliant thing to be part of.
I told Benny and Bjorn that we were going to raise the bar in terms of singing and dancing. I thought it was a wonderful and hilariously democratic decision to cast people for the first movie that couldn’t necessarily sing and dance that well, but I thought the joke might not work well this time.
Lily has the most extraordinary voice.
She has the perfect voice, but it’s very much full of life and passion. It’s very much hers and very individual. This is so Lily and the essence of her. She was doing the publicity tour for Baby Driver which was exceeding everyone’s plans for it. The tour kept getting extended and we had to cast someone. She came in and she was amazing, she’s a rock star.
What was the most fun number to write and direct?
I would guess Dancing Queen. Again, I thought it was going to be someone else’s problem. It was the biggest thrill. The helicopter flying towards them with Colin and Stellan doing the Titanic pose. The only other dispute on set was which one would be Kate and which one would be Leo.
Cher coming down the staircase singing Fernando was another moment. There are just so many indelible moments.
The Day Before You Came is on the soundtrack and was left out of the movie. What was the original concept for that song in the movie?
There wasn’t one. It was never in. Benny loved it and Richard Curtis loved it, it was his favorite ABBA song and it was on the wall. We were trying to put it in but we just couldn’t do it. Meryl loved it and wanted to sing it. I remember Benny giving it to me for the end credit. It became a bonus track and for it to be a bonus track, we use it when Ruby is talking to Sophie in the bar the band is playing it in the background. We had to have 45 seconds of the song in order for it to be on the album. It never had a place in the film.
It’s so specific and I couldn’t find a way to make it work.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is released on July 20