Mamma Mia! Interview with writer Catherine Johnson

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 Catherine Johnson, writer 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…

Catherine Johnson wasn’t always an ABBA fan. As a teenager growing up in Bristol, England, in the 1970s, she worked in a record store and listened passionately to bands like The Clash and The Specials.

ABBA wasn’t really on her radar and when they did register, they were a little too commercial to claim a place on Johnson’s personal musical hit list.

“I wasn’t into ABBA back then,” she says. “I was young and into New Wave and I worked in a record shop and it was all about being cool. While ABBA was number 1, I was probably rooting through the ‘New Wave’ section because that’s what I was into at the time.

“But I was always intrigued by them. I watched them on Top of the Pops (BBC pop show) and even back then I thought they were interesting. I loved the sound of the music but it wasn’t until later that I started getting into the lyrics and I realised just how talented they are.”

It all changed in 1997 when she was approached by producer Judy Craymer who had an idea to turn ABBA’s songs into a stage musical and thought that Johnson might be the perfect writer to do it.

“My career up until that date had been in theatre and some television I’d written,” she recalls. “I certainly wasn’t known as a musical theatre writer. I hesitate to put a name to what I was known for, because I actually don’t know. It was kind of contemporary drama and issues drama. And I think the joy of Mamma Mia! was that it was so left field, it made me laugh out loud when I got the approach.

“We’d never met and when she called me up she had one of those sort of voices which is very low pitched and husky. I thought she was probably in her 90s and one of those grand Dames of the theatre with lots of earrings and stuff and probably a bit bonkers.

“But my agent said that he knew her and he said ‘she is definitely worth meeting.’ The first time I did meet her I walked into the hotel and she was stood on the stairs on the phone. It was kind of like the perfect snapshot of Judy because that’s kind of how she’s always been.

“She was my age and very funny and very enthusiastic and somewhere in that meeting we really clicked and I felt ‘well, we can be friends even if it turns out that we aren’t collaborators.’”

They were, in fact, perfect collaborators. Johnson went on to write Mamma Mia! the hit musical which since it opened in London’s West End in 1999 has grossed more than $2 billion around the world. Johnson – along with Craymer and director Phyllida Lloyd - went on to adapt the story for the big screen. The film has been a worldwide box office hit.

“It’s been a fantastic journey,” she says. “We’ve all become incredibly close friends which is just lovely. I adore Judy and Phyllida. They are such lovely women and great collaborators. It’s been wonderful to be involved with Mamma Mia! It’s changed my life.”

The basis for the story is of a young girl, Sophie (played by Amanda Seyfried in the film) who has been raised by her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep). She invites the three men who could be her father – played by Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard and Pierce Brosnan – to her wedding on a Greek island.

Both Catherine and Judy agreed that they should set the story on an idyllic island although the writer had never visited Greece or any of the islands.

“That was the funny thing about it,” she recalls. “I’d never been to Greece so when I first started writing the script I had in mind that the place it was all going to take place had to be somewhere magical and remote and couldn’t be urban but I didn’t know where.

“So I just wrote ‘the island’ and it was always referred to as ‘the island’ in the early drafts of the script. Then Phyllida (Lloyd, director) came up with the idea; she said ‘it has to be Greece.’

“She had been here when she was 18 and she said that it was very much the kind of place where it makes sense that people would want to come back to it. If we had set it too remote this idea that three men get an invitation out of the blue, would they turn up? So it was a practical reason.”

Johnson has since visited Greece – mostly recently when the film was on its European publicity tour when this interview was conducted – and loves it there.

“When you come to a place like this you really understand why Donna went to a Greek island and never went home again,” she laughs. “I could so easily stay here and never go home.”

Q: So when did you first visit Greece?

Only after the show had opened. I realised then that it wasn’t just practicalities and that it wasn’t just a place that you could design beautifully, there is something about Greece that gives you that sense of peace and belonging that is quite hard to find anywhere else.

Q: The three of you – Judy Craymer, Phyllida Lloyd and yourself - really are the heart and soul of Mamma Mia!

Obviously you can’t and I never would say that it’s all about us, but we do have a very close bond and a great working relationship. The other people on the team have been selected because of that same quality, that friendship. Last year on Phyllida’s 50th birthday a lot of us all went off to celebrate at a castle in Scotland. That is so rare, especially in this business, because usually you do a job and then move on. You sort of think ‘don’t get attached’ because whenever you say at the end of a project that you had a really nice time with those people and you will stay in touch, life tends to take over and there just isn’t time to keep it up. This has been like an office job where we see each other over and over again! (laughs) It’s lovely.

Q: And you’ve all been on this remarkable journey together.

Yes, we really have. It’s been amazing.

Q: One of the great things about the musical was the way you broke down the barriers between the stage and the audience and the audience became very much a part of the whole show. When you approached the film was that very much in your mind?

Yes, totally because we are very aware that Mamma Mia! comes alive when you put an audience in front of it and you do feel that the audience is such an essential ingredient of what makes the show work. So I was worried that it was all going to fall a bit flat on film. But I think what has happened is that because you are allowed the emotional space on film, you are actually allowed much more time with the characters, so it was able to bring the sub text to life on screen. I think that’s resulted in people caring about who these people are and what is going to happen to them.

Q: And of course you have more room to do some spectacular dance sequences. That must have been in your minds, too?

Absolutely. And we had such a laugh at the beginning of it all, Phyllida and I sitting down with all kinds of mad, crazy ideas like ‘OK, if we had a limited on budget what would we like to see?’ We had things like dolphins coming out of the ocean and we had synchronised wallpaper and kung-fu fight sequences and sadly none of these things remain (laughs), but the energy and enthusiasm that informed those choices has. I think that maybe that level of exuberance helped. The actors also helped enormously – really good actors are just instinctive and go ‘wouldn’t it be great if I just did this?’ There were some scenes that were very detailed and other scenes where we were like ‘let’s see what happens on the day.’

Q: It’s the kind of film that will have a long life on DVD, don’t you think?

Well, I hope so. When Phyllida said to me right at the beginning, ‘in the best possible world, which movie musical would you most like Mamma Mia! to be like” and immediately I thought ‘Grease..’ To have that sort of wide audience appeal and also for it to be something that if it’s coming on the TV, you go ‘oh Grease is on, I might just watch my favourite bit..’ and then you end up watching the whole thing. With the DVD there will be some extras so that will help too.

Q: What was it like the first time you saw the finished film?

I’m probably the most self critical person there can be, but I knew Phyllida would do a great job with it. And when I watched it I didn’t even think about my own involvement, I just got lost in the movie. I’m so, so proud of it.

Q: The creative team who made the musical have stayed together to make the film. Was there ever any hint that there might have been a different director or a different writer?

Well, there could have been but Judy (Craymer) didn’t ever sell the rights. Originally when the show first hit LA there was a lot of interest but Judy made the decision that she wouldn’t sell the rights. I really wanted the opportunity to show that I could write a screenplay. I’d done it for TV but I’d never done a really big movie and you know it was great working with a director who knows the material so well. We have so many short cuts, we know what we are talking about. We have these really fun script sessions together and we can argue the toss together and we don’t intimidate each other. It’s a very creative partnership. Now I can’t imagine it being done any other way and I’m really glad that Judy held out and that the Studio trusted her enough when she said ‘I want them to do It.’ Obviously we could have been replaced and if I hadn’t written a decent screenplay I would have wanted to have been replaced. And even without the dolphins and the kung fu I think it worked out OK (laughs)

Q: Where did the idea for the story first come from?

Well, the original idea came out of that first meeting with Judy because we were talking about the fact that the songs are very upbeat, young songs and then you have ones about the break down of relationships. It didn’t seem to make sense to do a linear show about a couple who fall in love and then several years later get divorced, so we started thinking we could structure it with two generations in the story. Because I have a daughter I suppose, I said ‘mother/ daughter.’ That was the point when the meeting was coming to a close and she said to me ‘if you have any other ideas, call me immediately.’ And I just had that kind of sheer panic that if I left the room now I would have been thinking about the next project and I wouldn’t have done anything and that’s where suddenly, whatever it is that hits us when we’re trying to phrase something, I had the idea about the three dads. I used to watch a lot of daytime television and I’ve always been fascinated about this idea about what’s it like if you don’t know who is your baby’s father? That idea about a search for identity. But at the time it was just an idea that popped into my head. But the rest of the story came completely out of the lyrics – it literally came from being shut away with Bjorn’s lyrics. Sometimes reading a news article can inspire you and you think ‘that’s an interesting idea, what if?’ and that was the same kind of relationship I had with the lyrics. I thought ‘who are the characters who would say these lyrics if it was dialogue and where do they fit into the story?’ I’d love to go through the whole process again, it was so rewarding.

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