Mamma Mia! Interview with producer Judy Craymer

To celebrate the UK DVD release of the hit movie musical Mamma Mia! which is available to buy from Monday 24th November, DVDTimes presents you with an interview with Judy Craymer, producer of the stage musical and the movie adaptation. This interview was not conducted by any of the team here at DVDTimes, but we think fans of the production will find it an interesting read.

We also have an exclusive clip from the film for you - Donna (Meryl Streep) sings The Winner Takes It All – that you can view in Quicktime, Windows Media or Real Player formats.

The interview text follows…

The creative team behind the phenomenal success of Mamma Mia! have become life long friends. That bond has driven the musical forward even when the odds were stacked against them, says producer Judy Craymer.

Craymer first came up with the idea for using ABBA songs as the basis for a musical and then recruited writer Catherine Johnson and director Phyllida Lloyd. Together, the three women have turned Mamma Mia! into a worldwide hit on stage and now, screen.

“We’re great friends and this has changed our lives,” says Craymer. “It’s been a huge collaboration and the journey that we have been on has made us a very tight, creative team and great friends.

“I know that doesn’t always happen but maybe because we were three women – but very different women – of roughly the same age, the bond of Mamma Mia! pulled us together.”

After Mamma Mia! became a stage hit, first in London’s West End, and then all over the world, including Broadway, Craymer was deluged with offers to turn the musical into a film.

She insisted on retaining creative control and ensuring that Johnson would write the screenplay and Lloyd would direct the movie.

“There was no doubt in my mind that if this was going to be a film it was important that I should control it, creatively,” she says. “We have 10 (stage) productions of the musical out there at the moment and the release of the film was part of a plan, so there was no way I was going to sell the rights to anyone else.

“And Catherine and Phyllida were absolutely the right people for the film – there was never any doubt in my mind about that at all.”

In the beginning, Craymer admits that there were cynics who doubted that her idea would take off. “It’s easy to look back and say, ‘well, it was bound to be successful because so many people around the world connect with ABBA.’ But there were no guarantees that it would be a success and some people weren’t so sure.”

The key was to convince ABBA songwriters Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson that the musical would work, says Craymer.

“Oh I had to convince them time and time again and I had to convince them right up to the opening night of the first show and there was always the sword of Damocles hanging over my head,” she recalls.

“And my driving force for going forward was the fact that they could have pulled out at any time. We became a partnership but I had the financial responsibility and if they had suddenly decided it wasn’t going so well they could have said ‘well, sorry we’re not going to let you have our songs..’

“And with Bjorn and Benny their ‘no’ eventually meant ‘yes.’ It was like ‘OK, you can do London but you can’t go to Broadway..’ and then eventually we did Broadway, but then it was ‘no, you can’t do a film..’ and here we are now!

“And, of course, I didn’t want to let them down. I wanted to prove that it would work and they gave me the freedom I needed. They’ve been great to work with.”

Craymer, 50, studied stage management at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama and after college worked on stage productions all over the UK before arriving in London’s West End.

She has teamed up with some of the greats of the London stage – touring with Cameron Mackintosh (Cats) and producing Chess with Tim Rice, which is where she first met Abba’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus back in 1982.

Judy worked for many years on the idea of creating a musical based on the songs of ABBA and formed Littlestar in 1996 to produce Mamma Mia! She was also Executive Producer of the official ABBA documentary The Winner Takes It All and Executive Producer of the recent documentary Super Troupers: A Celebratory Film From Waterloo to Mamma Mia!

In 2002, she was presented with a Woman of the Year Award in recognition of her international success with Mamma Mia! In the Queen’s Honours List of 2007, she was honored with an MBE for her contribution to the music industry.

Mamma Mia! The Movie stars Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, Amanda Seyfried and Julie Walters.

Q: Have you been surprised at how Mamma Mia! has translated so successfully from the stage to the movie theatre?

Although it’s a huge brand and a successful show now, I think the movie has done so well because there’s a huge audience – a film audience – that isn’t so familiar with it. It’s been part of the landscape but they maybe haven’t seen it or thought it wasn’t for them or thought it was a tribute show. Obviously having Meryl Streep in the lead made a huge difference.

Q: Were there skeptics who didn’t think that the musical would work when you first launched?

Oh there was back in 1999. There was a lot of support but people were not sure what it was going to be. I think they didn’t realize it was going to be such a great story. Although it seems easy to say now, the whole challenge wasn’t just to find an excuse to put the ABBA songs on the stage - it was really to create a musical out of the songs, to create a story. The people around me were very supportive. Maybe there were other people who had their doubts, possibly because they didn’t understand where we were coming from.

Q: So why did you believe that it would work?

The Winner Takes it All was the main inspiration for me. I felt that in inspired storytelling, it’s a big rollercoaster, an emotional song. I was always breaking up with boyfriends and wanting to sing that song basically! “I was in your arms thinking I belong there!” So you know, it’s a triumph to see the movie with Meryl Streep up on a cliff-top giving Pierce Brosnan what for as she sings that song. That’s a huge moment for me (laughs). At the beginning, I didn’t have any idea of the huge journey that we were about to go on. I really started with a much smaller idea to do a much smaller show and that’s how I lured Bjorn and Benny to the table.

Q: But you had to convince Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (ABBA songwriters), didn’t you? How difficult was that?

They were great and I had such creative freedom. I choose Catherine Johnson (writer) and Phyllida Lloyd (director) and they didn’t say ‘what do you mean, you haven’t got Tom Stoppard and Trevor Nunn doing it?’ (laughs). Maybe it was the other way and they thought ‘well, she’ll never get it together and it doesn’t really matter.’ But I don’t think so. I would never have got close to them if I hadn’t worked with them. Especially knowing them now, it was my persistence that kept it going. Now for them to have been so involved in the soundtrack and Benny to produce it, was the perfect circle of life really.

Q: With the musical, the audience becomes part of the show. Were you worried that film would be more of a barrier and that the audience wouldn’t get so involved?

I think that was something we wanted to do. Phyllida had made a choice that the film would be shot in a different way. The element of fun in the show is the surprise of where the song comes and it seems to be hitting the film audience in the same, fun way. Julie Walters, for instance, bursting into song, singing Take A Chance On Me to Stellan Skarsgard is hilarious. I think the fun of it is having these amazing movie stars – and they have all had a lot of stage experience but they are movie stars – singing these fantastic songs. They are not known for singing although they all have great voices. What is fascinating is that the cinema audience is chuckling and clapping along and having a great time, just like they do at the stage shows.

Q: Do you think the will have a big DVD life? Have you got things that you will include on a DVD as extras?

Oh yes, I’m sure. Name of the Game is on the soundtrack and not in the film and that’s not for any reason other than we were rigorous in editing and you know, Amanda (Seyfried who plays Sophie) sings it deliciously hence it’s on the soundtrack, but we were very tough on things that didn’t work. In the show, Name of the Game is a very theatrical moment - it’s absolutely perfect, it’s the song Sophie sings to the character Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) who she thinks might be her father. But you can be so much more economic on the screen if you want to and we didn’t want to fall into the trap of having a song for the sake of having a song – we wanted to move forward all the time. So that could come back and I think there are all sorts of things we could have on the DVD.

Q: Were the studio happy to keep you Catherine and Phyllida together as a team?

Yes, they were. I think the fact that Meryl (Streep) said ‘yes’ immediately helped enormously. It was ‘oh my God, the biggest, Academy award winning actresses in the world has just said “yes”’ and that was a big thing. All the elements were coming together. I watched other things, like Evita and the journey that had made and I just didn’t want to lose control. Also, we are great mates and of course we spend a lot of time together. In the last 18 months we have been in each other’s pockets and I do think that’s important because it set a tone on the set. People had a really happy experience and I know that’s not always the case. You have to enjoy being behind the scenes of Mamma Mia! to make it work.

Q: Was it important to make the new actors feel welcome and part of the Mamma Mia! team? Because you had the core creative team in place and lots of others on the crew who had been involved in the various productions around the world.

Oh yes. I think it gave them confidence because I think they felt that the core group was in place and we knew what we were doing. I know that Meryl said not long ago, many films are made by the seat of your pants and although we didn’t have huge technical experience, we knew we were surrounded by that and we knew what we wanted to do. We knew how to give the confidence to the actors with the music. Their challenge was to take on singing and dancing.

Q: All the actors say they were terrified about the singing and dancing. Were you worried about their performance in that regard?

No, I wasn’t because I know the process. I knew we had a wonderful musical director and a fantastic choreographer. I just knew that it would work. We knew the musical side and we were all completely confident. We brought that expertise to the film. We needed the actors present so much of the time – unlike on other things where they are there for a week and then maybe go off and do other things – we had to keep them together almost like an ensemble because you had to do the big numbers. So, even when we were on the (Greek) island we were all together and everyone became part of the team. There were no divas and of course, Meryl set the bar as she had the most to do. Bjorn and Benny, stars in their own right, also were so hands on. I mean, everyone just wanted to help and make sure that it worked. I never had any fear about it. I knew we had cast exactly the right people.

Q: Meryl has this incredible reputation – Oscar winner, the best actress of her generation. Was she how you expected her to be?

She wrote to the cast of the Broadway production after she had seen the show, telling them how much she enjoyed it. Catherine, Phyllida and I were sent copies of the letter. We were like schoolgirls and kept them. When we got down to serious casting she was always top of our list.

Q: Because you knew she had sung before?

Well, no. As an actress she has that quality we wanted for Donna. As well as being maternal, you felt she could make you laugh and make you cry and that she could go through that canon of emotions that that role is. It isn’t just about singing a song. The appeal of the women in Mamma Mia! is very real – they are not supermodels and we needed someone who is a girl’s girl, really. I went to see her in (the play) Mother Courage in New York three years ago just before we started casting (for Mamma Mia!) I remember saying to the people I was with ‘my God she is Donna!’ In the role she was so energetic and raw and played this kind of character bursting with different forces. We knew she could sing and we knew she was a great actress.

Q: What were your expectations when you first launched the stage show in London?

Well, it was definitely to get it on and of course for it to work. By that time I had raised the money to put the show on and I had the record company support. There was one kind of dodgy moment where I asked the record company to give me an advance on their investment – and they did. It was great that they believed in me and I can’t imagine anyone going to a record company these days and doing that. There was still this thing that if Benny and Bjorn didn’t like the end product I would have been right out on a limb, there was like £300,000 to pay back by that time. But it all worked out in the end.

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