Meryl Streep & Mamma Mia! Stars Talk To 50connectPosted on: 10 July 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves
50connect go behind the scenes of the ABBA musical movie, with Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Benny, Bjorn and the rest of the cast and creative team.
Mamma Mia! the stage musical has been seen by more than 30 million people. Now the story about a bride, her mum and three possible dads, filled with songs by ABBA, hits the big screen.
We caught up with some of the stars and creative team on the day of the film's world premiere in London.
Meryl Streep plays Donna, who runs a hotel on the Greek island of Kalokairi and whose daughter Sophie is about to get married.
Julie Walters and Christine Baranski play her best friends, and apparently they bonded off-camera too.
"Julie Walters is so divine and warm," says Meryl. "She's very wicked about people so we had a lot of fun."
"Every time we hung out, on Friday night, we'd go out and have a little English Martini together," says Christine. "We just kept saying, it's research, darling."
Having fun off-camera helped the actors convey fun on film.
"There was a summer camp quality to this. We got to go on the Greek islands, the most beautiful places. We wanted to put on a show."
The cast also bonded in adversity, because the musical numbers required hours of rehearsal.
"People in plays have this experience," says Meryl. "For most movies people fly in, do their bit, then fly out. On this movie we were incarcerated in a barn trying to work on the dancing for weeks before shooting the song."
"I didn't have time to worry about anything else. Colin [Firth] was so worried about it, Stellan was beside himself and Pierce was drenched in sweat every day, but we all bonded. We were a company."
Stellan Skarsgård had his own special technique for dancing on film.
"It really hurts dancing sober, your entire body says, no, this is not right. But I realised pretty soon that if the shot is framed so they can see my feet then they can't see my face so they don't know it's me, and if they're close enough to see my face they don't see my feet!"
The cast agree with Meryl that Voulez Vous was the hardest number.
"Voulez Vous went quickly in the movie but it was so hard to get the dance right. We worked on it for three weeks before we began shooting. It was all the actors' bête noir. It's the only number where the whole cast is dancing at once, with all 150 people on set, and every dancer in London I think! It was very cramped and really scary, with disco lights on every day, then the migraine set in."
Meryl's involvement with Mamma Mia! began when she saw the stage musical on Broadway shortly after 9/11, and wrote a letter of appreciation to the cast.
"I took my 10 year old for her birthday. We were dancing in the aisles and down the street. I bought the cast album and sang the songs for two years. That's why I wrote the note to the cast, to say thank you for the music and the injection of joy which was so needed at that time."
It was a surprise when the Mamma Mia! team offered her the role of Donna in the movie. So why take on a full blown ABBA musical?
"Somebody asked me. I've done lots of musicals in my life. My first Broadway show was a musical, and I'd done a lot of musicals in high school. So it was like coming home to a thing that I always loved. I haven't done many musicals lately because I haven't done much stage work in a long time, even though I wanted to. People are afraid to make musicals into movies."
In fact the appeal of ABBA goes back a long way for Meryl.
"I've sung all these songs about 70,000 times, starting in my closet which was the only place my family would allow me to practice, at Holland Park where we were living, and I never ever got sick of singing the songs. In my drama school they used to use ABBA to rev everybody up for dance class because you just can't not be excited."
Pierce Brosnan agreed to be in the musical once Meryl Streep's name was mentioned, but he seems not to have realised what he was letting himself in for.
"My agent called me up and said, Meryl Streep, Greece, and I said, I'm in. It was as simple as that. I knew the great songs of ABBA but I didn't know the story of Mamma Mia! I went to see the stage musical with my family. I knew I was playing the dad, but I didn't know which one! I thought, what have I agreed to?"
"Yet apart from the terror of singing, once I had made peace with my voice, it was just wonderful to be in a young company."
Pierce would not rule out another musical.
"I'd have a crack at it, why not? In for a penny, in for a pound. I'd do it if I could have the same cast."
Meryl Streep was also key for producer Judy Craymer.
"We said our ideal casting was Meryl Streep and the studio were like, you'll never get her. The rest is history."
The producer, director and writer team behind the stage musical managed the film as well.
Fans of the stage musical will notice a few omissions and additions in the movie.
"Time works in such a different way on film," says director Phyllida Lloyd. "We wanted every song to earn its place in the story we needed to tell. We had to really look at it and some just didn't seem to move the story forward."
Stellan enjoyed working under Phyllida, Judy and Catherine Johnson.
"Except Benny and Bjorn, everybody in power was a woman, so nobody had to show he had a bigger dick."
All the actors' voices were vetted by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Uvaeus.
"Anyone who wanted to be in this film needed to be able to sing, period," says Benny. "So we saw everybody. We were sent DVDs, Pierce we saw in this Irish thing singing in the pub, and I auditioned Stellan over the cellphone."
"I just handed the phone over to a friend," jokes Stellan.
Despite her musical background and knowing the songs, Meryl still had to practice.
"This music is much trickier and more precise than I realised when I first thought I knew every word and sang along to the radio. Working on it made me appreciate so much more how sharp it is."
The ABBA masterminds were very involved in the musical and movie.
"Benny and Bjorn were there all the time, whenever we were recording," says Meryl. "They were very generous with letting us own the songs, how we expressed it, as long as we were exact on the words, timing and beat. I didn't want to disappoint them, and I didn't want to let down all the 500 Donnas who are going to be watching."
Colin Firth admits to being extremely apprehensive before meeting the pair.
"I showed up on the first day of pre-record terrified of meeting Benny and Bjorn. I'd heard they were hard taskmasters. They'd booked three days to record a three minute song and my mind boggled as to how they would fill those days."
"I turned round to be introduced to Pierce and I was staring into a vortex of fear, and it was the same with Stellan. I realised we weren't alone and within half an hour we were like the Andrews sisters round the microphone. Blind terror is a very bonding commodity."
Pierce recalls Bjorn's comment, "He said we looked like three frightened schoolboys coming into the studio that morning to see them."
The stage musical Mamma Mia! which opened in 1999 followed renewed interest in ABBA, that began with the ABBA Gold greatest hits album and the film Muriel's Wedding.
"This revival took me completely by surprise," says Bjorn. "At the end of the 1980s I thought we were finished."
Because they have written so many great tunes, the ABBA songwriters don't have a favourite.
"They all have a place," says Benny. "Winner Takes It All maybe. Dancing Queen and Knowing Me Knowing You are great songs and great recordings, while Thank You For The Music is a great song but a bad recording."
From young love to divorce, the group kept on developing their sound over time. Bjorn explains why.
"We tried to emulate what the Beatles had done and move forward from album to album, so we have favourites from each period."
Other songwriters who inspired them include Brian Wilson, Ray Davis and Irving Berlin, according to Benny.
By Cherry Butler
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