Ol Parker on Directing and Writing Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
*This interview contains spoilers about the film. Read at your own risk.*
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again was a film that I was very excited to see. I had a chance to see the highly anticipated sequel about a week and a half ago in preparation for an interview with the film’s writer/director Ol Parker. Being a big fan of Imagine Me and You, I was already excited to talk with Ol Parker and after seeing Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, I was even more excited to talk to the man responsible for creating a sequel that in almost every way is superior to the original.
Scott Menzel: Good Morning Ol, I wanted to tell you, and I don’t know if you get this a lot, but I remember seeing your first film, “Imagine Me and You,” in theaters, and I absolutely adored it. I love that movie.
Ol Parker: Oh, you were the one that saw it in theaters? That’s great. I finally know.
Scott Menzel: (laughs) Yep, that was me.
Ol Parker: Thank you very much. I do still get letters from young lesbians wanting to come out and wanting advice, which is incredibly flattering.
Scott Menzel: I thought Piper Perabo in that movie is just terrific.
Ol Parker: She’s great isn’t she? And Lena’s great. Yeah, no, I’m very happy… It’s incredibly cheap and small film. We did it very fast, and we had a lovely time. So that’s brilliant, I’ll tell them both that someone congratulated me on it.
Scott Menzel: No problem. I even own it on DVD too. I enjoyed it that much.
Ol Parker: Thank you for that.
Scott Menzel: So how’s the press for the film going?
Ol Parker: Insane! It’s brilliant for me. It’s my first ever thing… first ever of this size but pretty much my first ever. I think hopefully people are being nice, other that or they’re really good liars.
Scott Menzel: Well, I’m sure you’ll learn that more and more as the entertainment industry…
Ol Parker: Yeah. My wife’s an actress, so I’ve spent a long time leaning on walls watching her do these things so it’s funny to be the one sitting in the chair.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. So I have to… I’m going to be 100% transparent with you. Hearing about Mamma Mia 2, I’m a Broadway guy. I grew up in New Jersey; I used to go to Broadway musicals all the time. I’ve probably seen the first Mamma Mia on Broadway at least three times. I remember seeing the original movie a couple of times. Even when the movie was out, and it was still playing on Broadway and going back, comparing the two to see which one I liked better…
Ol Parker: Which one did you like better?
Scott Menzel: You know what? It’s really hard because I feel like there are certain elements of the Broadway show that are better than the first movie, but then there’s just having the movie and being able to make it a little bit more elaborate as opposed to having such limited sets, because I feel like the show had such limited sets. The movie just…
Ol Parker: Well done, there are three songs in a row in Sophie’s bedroom. We went to see it just before we did the film and I was surprised by that. Yeah, you can’t beat Greece. You can’t beat the beaches; you can’t beat the sunshine.
Scott Menzel: No, and that’s what it is. When you have those epic pullbacks, and you see the beautiful Greece background and all that stuff, you’re like, ah well this is nothing compared to the Broadway show.
Ol Parker: A different sea, how can they possibly represent that on Broadway?
Scott Menzel: But with that being said-
Ol Parker: You were cynical, you’re telling yourself.
Scott Menzel: Yes. Pretty much and I’m going to tell you right off the bat that I found this movie to be even better than the first movie, and even better than the Broadway show, so I don’t know how you-
Ol Parker: That’s incredibly kind. Thank you very much.
Scott Menzel: I don’t know how the hell you did that.
Ol Parker: With an enormous amount of luck, obviously. I got to inherit and extraordinary… one of the great gifts. It could be viewed as a pressure obviously, to come onboard this massive thing that was so obviously commercially successful but also so loved by so many people, but I sort of viewed it… I tried not to think about the pressure, otherwise, I’d never get out of bed, and I tried to just think of it as a gift that Catherine, the writer, had left me with all these characters that were already known and loved and so I could just start from there rather than trying to introduce people and make you love them. I could start from there and hopefully go deeper, and investigate them a bit more and hopefully move you as well and make you cry. That’s how… Everything good we’ve done is because we’re standing on their shoulders.
Scott Menzel: So with that being said, how closely did you… I was looking on IMDB, and I didn’t get press notes for this, so my curiosity was writing this, I saw Richard Curtis’ name is attached to this, as well as yours, and there was one other person’s name attached to this. So what was the writing process like?
Ol Parker: Catherine, who wrote the original film, so the story’s by… because we use the same story that is told in the movie in the diary of the first movie, and obviously of the Broadway show, Catherine gets story credit quick rightly. So Richard was originally approached by Judy Craymer and Gary Goetzman, the producers, to write the draft or to write the movie and he suggested me.
I sort of came up with it, and we went together… We sat in his caravan for three very happy days, and we pinned up all our favorite songs up on the wall and tried to work out a way to try and zigzag from one to the other. Then I went up and wrote it, and to my enormous surprise directed it as well.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I mean, seriously you did a phenomenal job with this. Phenomenal.
Ol Parker: Thank you so much. Thank you very much indeed, that’s incredibly nice to be appreciated.
Because I just started writing it, if I’d known that I was going to be directing it I would never have written a dance sequence on 14 boats. I genuinely thought that was going to be Rod Marshall’s problem or Jason Moor’s problem… somebody else brilliant and so it was terrifying to be handed the keys to the kingdom, but thrilling.
Scott Menzel: I’m glad you brought that up. That was going to be one of my questions. Another thing about the movie that really stood out to me was that the music numbers in this one felt a lot more epic and larger in scale. I feel like they were, in the original movie, they were bigger than the Broadway production because obviously it’s a film but this one just had this awesome musical set pieces. The boat scene like you mentioned was just amazing.
Ol Parker: That is the direct mirror of… You know in the first movie they sing “Dancing Queen” dancing down to the jetty, and so when I’d realized I’d sort of written exactly the same thing effectively, I realized that we had to kind of… There’s an American sports thing where if you’re not playing offense, you’re playing defense. If you try and come back the same, you’re going to come back lesser. I mean so you have to come back strong. You have to come back as big as you can. It’s not just about size as in budget. It’s about scope and spectacle and how much you’re thinking about it. Of course, it involves getting Cher as well for example. You’ve gotta just up the game because people don’t want to see the same thing again. They want to see that you’ve reinvented it in some way, so that’s how. Hence the bigger numbers, and the bigger set pieces, and the bigger stars, Cher, the biggest star there is.
Scott Menzel: Is there a secret to creating an epic music number?
Ol Parker: Tea and panic, in my sense, and a wonderful choreographer, Anthony. Also, just ambition. You just keep going for it. You keep thinking, okay… I think originally Lily wasn’t going to run and “Kiss the Teacher,” she was just going to dance in the great hall. It’s like, you know what? Let’s move on. Let’s have her leave. Let’s have her ride bikes, let’s have her go somewhere. You know, you just try and just keep on going, what can we do? How can we top this? How can we move this on? How can we surprise you? How can we make you laugh?
And so, don’t rest and don’t settle, and then beg the studio for their generosity, which they incredible were. It’s definitely a help with a studio behind you, and you have the glory of a hit movie before you so they have a certain degree of confidence in this one then life gets easier as well.
Scott Menzel: I do have to ask though, you had to have some sort of reservation coming into this. I mean you’re building off of something that was so well known and beloved by millions of people, not just in America but all over the fricking world. What was your biggest reservation about this?
Ol Parker: Well I tried not to. I mean they’re so huge, the pressure is so huge that if I thought about it, I’d just never get out of bed. I’d just lie there having a panic attack and not write a word. I tried, honestly, just to view it as a gift and a privilege that I got to play in this incredible playground and be welcomed into this incredibly warm family, and work with those extraordinary people. So I tried to just…
I think now that it’s coming out… We only recently delivered the movie two weeks ago, and so now I’m kind of more… It’s like I put myself inside a little bubble and now that it’s coming out, obviously people have expectations of it, both commercially but also artistically like yourself. They’re going to have an opinion, and they should have an opinion, that’s why we do these things. Then it becomes scary, but I managed, while we were doing it, to reasonably successfully inoculate myself against that pressure because it’s the enemy of creativity I think.
Scott Menzel: You know when the first trailer dropped for this movie I feel that the internet went crazy, right? It was kind of like, where is Donna? Where is Meryl Streep? The funny thing is that everyone said she was dead and was that a worry to you considering… I know this is a little bit spoilery and all, I’ll make sure I put spoiler in the thing.
Ol Parker: I think we’re at that point now. I think this is where we are now and obviously, the internet will tell people the things that they want to know. No, I mean I think the reason it took ten years… I think Scott, that everyone… they were all incredibly keen. The actors were incredibly keen to make another one because they’d had such an amazing time, the studio was incredibly keen to make another one because it had gone so well. But all the actors and Benny and Bjorn, they all have enough integrity and enough money not to need to make another one, and they’re all intensely proud of how the first one succeeded and what it meant to people that none of them wanted to come back unless it was a story that had impact and emotion and meaning.
I think part of the reason it took so long was the search for that story. This was one that we settled on, and it was obviously done with much discussion with the studio and with all the actors. This is where we landed. I think the studio’s done a nice job of not hiding thing but not making things overt. You know what I mean? Not making it too explicit but not… I don’t think it’s the biggest spoiler in the world; I don’t think it’s the biggest shock. I don’t think there’s been lie in the trailers, which would be very important to me not to do that.
This is where we are; this is the best story we wanted to tell. Meryl was a huge part of that decision, and it’s very true to the thing that she does.
Scott Menzel: I saw another thing that works so well about this movie, you mentioned a little bit earlier, is the level of heart in this. One of the things that… I mean the first movie is very cheesy and just fun. This movie does have some elements of cheese in it, but there is a level of heart that I feel was not in the first one at all. There, of course, is the mother and daughter love story in the first one. This one is almost like a celebration of motherhood through three different generations. How did you go about creating such an emotion in this because I’m telling you people when we left the screening, everyone was standing around talking about it. Everyone was in tears.
Ol Parker: Well that’s partly the sensational quality of the songs and of the actors performing them is part of it. Part of it again is that I think the gift that I was left by Catherine. These are characters that are already known and already loved so if you’re writing a movie normally you’re trying to go from naught to 60 and introduce characters, and hopefully make you know and like them. In this case, I could just start from that place where the relationships are already established and already understood and already wanted by an audience who feel tremendous affection for these characters, so you can just then start to dig deeper and go further.
Obviously, just tonally with the movie, we went for something… The glorious giddiness of the first one is fantastic and obviously part of its triumphant success, but it didn’t feel like that was something we could or should try and recreate. It was always going to be, not darker, but just slightly more emotional. I’m glad you said that. Slightly more meaningful maybe while hopefully, in the end, getting into the joy that we all need in these dark times.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. You know, hands down. As the movie goes along, halfway through the movie my wife leaned over to me, and she said, “this better than the first one.” And like I said, near the end of the film… there are two spots in particular that happen within the last 20 minutes that you just… The first one, you kind of start, feeling the emotion. You’re like, “I’m not going to cry just yet and then you kind of have that moment-
Ol Parker: Which one was the one that you nearly cried?
Scott Menzel: It’s the one where everything starts coming together, and Amanda starts figuring everything out, and you realize that Meryl’s no longer there.
Ol Parker: Right.
Scott Menzel: Then you have that big moment at the end where she’s walking down to get married, and you see the baby and all that… It’s just all that kind of coming together and just seeing Meryl Streep show up. That threw everyone over the edge, but the scene right before when she performs with the Dynamos, that’s where you start getting teary-eyed, and you start feeling that emotion.
It’s kind of interesting because then you have that musical number with Cher and it’s kind of in a weird way; people are just recovering from all the emotion.
Ol Parker: Here’s the thing, it’s quite a hard right turn. Obviously one of the… Another great thing that the first movie established is the idea of the end credits as being its own kind of party. Do you know what I mean? I would have never written the end of the movie to be that without knowing the studio certainly wouldn’t have wanted to make it if that was the literal ending of the movie. So it was always going to segue into something else. Actually, Bennie wrote a really lovely intro to “Super Trooper” to kind of make that happens more slowly because if you just have “Super Trooper” kicking in three seconds after you’ve seen Amanda with the baby, then you’re just not ready for it.
It was just about trying to find ways to… You’ve clearly got to get there. It’s just how quickly you get there. Hopefully, there’s something uplifting to the last thing with Meryl and Amanda. It doesn’t seem like it’s been a problem for people. It seems like they were surprised to find themselves that joyous that quickly, but then I think there’s something of that joviality in ABBA’s lyrics anyway. I mean “Mamma Mia,” as we proved by slowing it down at the beginning, is a song about absolute heartbreak set to the most banging rhythm. “Name of the Game,” which Lily cartwheels through the orange groves singing is a song about jealousy and mistrust. They manage to blend the two extraordinary well, and so maybe that’s what we’re trying to do with the last two songs.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. I did think it worked very well. It was just very sharp because you literally went from one emotion to the other one and I feel like you did such a great job with that.
Ol Parker: That’s how we roll. We like to take you through the gamut. Thank you so much, Scott, I really appreciate it. That’s really kind of you to say so.
Scott Menzel: And then I have two more that I wanted to ask you. I haven’t asked you anything about casting. Obviously the original actors, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep… These are big shoes to fill, but I feel like Lily James and everyone else you cast to play the younger versions was just spot on. What was the whole casting process like?
Ol Parker: The first criteria was that I really liked them because again it was so important to me that we all had as good a time as they had the first time. I thought if I liked everybody there was a good chance they might like each other. They also had to be brilliant and gorgeous and sing and dance well because I thought maybe gloriously demographic as it was to make it… hire people for the first movie that maybe didn’t sing and dance that great and were just throwing themselves into it, I thought that joke wouldn’t necessarily play so well 10 years on. Again, I’m not trying to recreate the same thing but do something new.
Then they also had to be really smart. I asked them all to study their legacy counterparts and then… We call them the legacy cast, not the old cast. And then just kind of throw it away. I didn’t want them to do an impression or an impersonation, but if there was something they could bring. So there’s the moment where Lily, she tries dungarees on for the first time. As she comes out, she goes, “What do I do?” I go, “Just come out and model the dungarees.” She’s like, “What do you mean model them?” “I don’t know, just do something.” And so she does the dance of dungarees which is what Meryl does on the jetty when she meets Christine and Julie in the first movie.
Things like that when there are moments where you can suggest the physicality or vocal mannerisms of the legacy cast then brilliant, but otherwise play the character. Trust me in my writing hopefully and play the character, and don’t play too much of the… Don’t try and do an impression because you can never do justice to these amazing actors.
Scott Menzel: Where did you come up with the cake obsession?
Ol Parker: I can’t remember. It’s just it seems funny. Who knows where you come up? I can’t remember where I came up with the mad customs officer either, the passport officer. You just, you know, in desperation in the middle of the night looking for a joke but it seemed entertaining to me, and obviously, Alexa is hilarious, so it seemed to work out.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. I love the Colin Firth jokes with the guy that’s the passport checker all the time. It was funny. He always had something to say and he then he goes down and to him, “you never age.”
Ol Parker: Look at Colin, it’s all true. Stellan’s aging fine but look at Colin, he’s preposterously handsome. He has me thrusting my own sexuality.
Scott Menzel: I’ll end this on some fun notes. What’s your favorite scene in the film? I’m sure no-one has asked you this question before, but what’s your favorite ABBA song?
Ol Parker: No one has asked me, and the answer to both is having seen Cher coming down the stairs singing “Fernando,” it’s hard to see past that one. But all of them now, I know it’s a glib answer but I mean all of those songs on the soundtrack now have such indelible memories for me. “I’ve Been Waiting for You,” watching Amanda sitting next to Lily while she did her extraordinary birth acting. “My Love, My Life” obviously with Meryl and Amanda being extraordinary in the chapel. I mean indelible moments for me. It’s the greatest privilege to get to do this.
Scott Menzel: Well, I wanted to say once again, thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed the film. I look forward to sharing it with more of my family members and seeing it again when it comes out.
Ol Parker: If you would that would great.
Scott Menzel: Thank you. I look forward to talking to you hopefully in the near future and once again congratulations, keep doing what you’re doing.