Catherine Johnson reflects on the Mamma Mia! movie experience

Catherine Johnson

Catherine Johnson

Photo: Mark Rupp. Article By: Nils van der Linden.

A lot of it is down to the songs — everybody’s been guilty of humming an ABBA song, whether they admit it or not. But at least some of ‘Mamma Mia!’ the musical’s success — seen by 30 million people in 170 cities and eight different languages since 1999 — is due to writer Catherine Johnson, who crafted a tale of weddings, Greek islands, long lost fathers, yachts, and a rundown guesthouse from songs written over 20 years ago in Sweden by two guys with beards.

So when the stage musical was transformed into the film starring Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, Johnson was again called on to do the writing. We recently spoke to the shy writer about working with Hollywood royalty, overdosing on ‘Dancing Queen’, and relaxing on ABBA star Benny Andersson’s yacht.

Were you an ABBA fan when you started writing the musical?

I knew the big hits, I sang along to them but I didn’t really know the words. I’d sing like "Dancing Queen, la la la, 17". That was about all I knew. So when [producer Judy Craymer] asked me to write the script I had to take all the lyrics home and read through them. It was only then I realised how talented they were. I’d always thought of them as a pop group before but then I realised they’d written songs that really have a lot of meaning to them.

Still, you must have got tired of those songs?

When I was initially working on it, I’d have to play the songs over and over and over. And I couldn’t get away from it — if I went out and did the shopping and I heard an ABBA song I’d just have this terrible feeling descend on me like ‘Oh no, it’s work, it’s work!’ But now if I go out and I hear an ABBA song I feel quite different — a relief at it all being over, I think.

Initially, I believe, you weren’t sure the stage show was going to be a success?

It was only booked into the theatre for two months and we were supposed to leave after then so that another show could go in. And it wasn’t until it opened that it was obvious we weren’t going to leave because we’d sold so many tickets. We sold two months, then six months, then a year. But before the show had opened I was already thinking about what I should do next. Little did I know! [laughs]

Benny hadn’t been too involved in that original production, but when he finally saw it, he said he was your biggest fan. How did that feel?

I love him to bits that he would say that about me. It was great because before he saw the show he wasn’t convinced. ABBA’s music obviously is very important to him, it’s iconic, and I think he was very concerned about the idea that some little woman from Bristol could come along and maybe make it a laughing stock. But he trusted me and I think he’s glad he trusted me and he’s been the most fantastic supporter of me ever since.

Almost ten years passed between the stage production opening and the film. Was it difficult getting back into ‘Mamma Mia!’ mode?

I was trying to remember ‘Now what was it that really fired me up when I wrote this?’, ‘Why did I want to write it?’, ‘Why was it so important to write it?’. I got to be back in that frame of mind again. But at the same time there was this sense of 10 years’ writing experience under my belt, maybe I can really address some of the things I’d always been slightly concerned about.

How did it feel seeing stars speak your words?

Isn’t it obvious? [giggle]

There was always a part of me that thought I might get replaced, that they might say: ‘Hasn’t Catherine done a good job? Well done Catherine, off you go and we’ll get a proper screenwriter in.’ For me my biggest achievement was being the only name up on the screen at the end credited as the writer. Obviously, having seen lots and lots of movies the writers keep getting replaced. I just thought ‘Well, I’ve made it to the end’.

And when the actors worked through scenes with me in rehearsal, nobody came in, slammed the script down and said: ‘I’m not saying this’.

Actually, judging from the film it seemed like the actors were having a really good time.

It was hard work and long days but at the same time I think it was a lot of fun. The actors are more or less the same age and they’ve had good careers. They didn’t need to jostle for position or anything like that. They were very relaxed, they enjoyed hanging out with each other, so it was good, especially when they all went over to Greece.

Did you get to spend any time on Greece?

I managed to wangle a week out. It was wonderful although the weather wasn’t great. they decided to film in September so it wouldn’t be too hot. But for some inexplicable reason that was the time of year when there were absolute thunderstorms. That’s why they were having to work such long hours because they were working around the weather. You can kind of tell when you watch the movie and you look at the waves and you think ‘Mmm, that’s not a lovely still Greek sea is it?’ There’s a gale blowing out there.

And what was it like working with the actors?

I had rehearsal time with them which is quite rare in movies. So I spent about two weeks working with them on that and there were lots of meals arranged and things like that so we kind of hung out with them a bit and that was something to text home about.

In Greece, Benny, bless him, had hired a yacht because it was his first movie so he took his whole family over there, and he really wanted to enjoy it. So he hired this really fantastic yacht that looks like it was something from the 1930s and we all went over and spent the day on there. Meryl came on board and said: ‘This is where we film ‘Money Money Money’ so the next day they filmed the ‘Money Money Money’ fantasy sequence on Benny’s yacht. That day really stands out for me.

With your background in theatre was the film set intimidating?

It’s a different world. But people like Julie Walters and Dominic Cooper also have British theatre backgrounds so I felt very comfortable with them. And yes I did feel very shy with people like Meryl and Pierce but they wouldn’t let you be shy. There was no sense of ‘You can’t speak to us.’ Meryl was extraordinarily friendly and very generous and Pierce was just lovely to me and my family. And you just think ‘You’re great’, basically.

And speaking of great, what is your favourite moment from the film?

The ‘Winner Takes It All’ sequence completely exceeded what I’d imagined. Because that had never really gone into the script. [Director Phyllida Lloyd] was very much, ‘let’s not put anything on paper, let’s just see as we get closer to it’. So I’d just written: ‘Donna sings ‘Winner’, it’s elemental, she’s out on the rocks and she’s singing her heart out’. And then the day came and Phyllida took them off to shoot it and came back looking very pleased with herself.

So it wasn’t until I actually saw it put together that I thought ‘my God’. My first response was: ‘If that was released as a single with the DVD attached it would stay at number one forever’. I loved that, they all did a phenomenal job with that. Meryl has with her singing, Pierce with his responses and Phyllida up there filming from the helicopter. It’s fantastic.

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