Nobody ever believes P.J. Hogan when he talks about ABBA.
The writer and director of Muriel’s Wedding scored major music points when he won the rights to use the Swedish band’s catalog for his 1994 dramedy, one of the films featured in EW’s annual reunions issue. Twenty-one years later, one of Muriel’s most memorable scenes remains the whimsically digressive talent show dance sequence, wherein new gal pals and ABBA superfans Muriel (Toni Collette) and Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) flip the finger to the mean girls who tormented them and perform a delightful choreographed rendition of the group’s “Waterloo.”
The scene is an essential part of the duo’s budding friendship, Hogan says, and it’s why he felt so strongly that the film could only work with ABBA’s music. But, as Hogan tells EW, the band’s songs were thisclose to not being in the film… and if Hogan hadn’t gone to extreme lengths to win the rights, there might never have been a Muriel’s Wedding at all.
“If I didn’t get ABBA, I was not going to make the movie,” maintains the director, who had specifically written five songs (including “Waterloo”) into his original screenplay. “Now, at that point ABBA were not the ABBA we know today. They were considered an embarrassing band. The Australian word is ‘naff’—no one ever admitted to being an ABBA fan. It was like admitting you were into David Cassidy in the ‘70s, or what it might have been like to admit you’re a Justin Bieber fan.”
Indeed, the band had achieved huge commercial success from the late ‘70s to the dawn of the ‘80s, but by the end of 1982 ABBA had essentially dissolved, along with their mainstream cool. Ten years later, Hogan approached songwriting duo Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus to ask for film rights, thinking it’d be an easy pitch. They said no—and not just because Hogan, armed with absolutely zero budget for music rights, had asked to use the songs for free.
“They said no because they’d had a bad experience with another filmmaker who had promised not to make fun of them or their music,” Hogan recalls, citing a Swedish filmmaker who had been granted permission to use “Dancing Queen” with the proviso that he would treat the song—their biggest hit—with respect. “And then they saw the movie and they’d been lied to,” Hogan continues. “The scene unfolded with a little old man sitting in a wheelchair masturbating as a big fat hooker dances to ‘Dancing Queen.’ So you can imagine what they thought.”
In the fallout, the duo issued a blanket “no” to filmmakers. Hogan was persistent, adamant that Muriel’s Wedding could not be made without their music. His final plan: To fly to Stockholm and smoke them out. “I had their address, so I was going to camp outside their offices until they saw me and make my case in person that I’m not that filmmaker and they would be proud of the movie. It’s a hymn to ABBA! Muriel loves ABBA, and I love ABBA. So my producer, being very smart, bought the ticket but sent a photocopy of it to Benny and Bjorn. And the day before I was going to get on the flight, they said, ‘Stop him, you’ve got the rights.’ …They did not want this crazy person hanging outside their office!”
Hogan laughs about his audacious plan in hindsight, but it worked. “They gave me the rights for nothing. ‘Dancing Queen,’ ‘Fernando,’ ‘Mamma Mia!,’ ‘Waterloo’—the entire songs, for nothing! And they gave us original mix tapes, with vocals split off from the instrumentals,” Hogan says. “All they asked for were points in the movie, and because none of us thought we were going to make any money, we were happy to give them. And that ended up being a very smart move.”
The happy ending: ABBA’s 1992 compilation album Gold: Greatest Hits was gaining traction during Hogan’s pitch, and it would eventually become the band’s highest-selling album. In 1994, the bump from Muriel’s Wedding—along with another Aussie ode to ABBA, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, that same year—would revive interest in the group, particularly in the U.S. where Muriel became a cult hit. Hogan beams about the effect. “I think it helped ABBA, and the film would not be Muriel’s Wedding without them. They now had the respect they deserve, and they’d always had trouble in the U.S. market,” he maintains. “Of course, Mamma Mia! ended all of that.”
In a pre-Mamma Mia! world, Muriel’s Wedding offered one of the best uses of ABBA songs with the “Waterloo” dance. Muriel and Rhonda’s sequence—choreographed by Aussie legend John “Cha Cha” O’Connell—is a GIF-able burst of fun and fashion, the kind of narrative indulgence that some might say would never make the final cut today. It remains one of Hogan’s, Collette’s and Griffiths’ favorite scenes. “I remember that white jumpsuit!” laughs Collette. “I looked like a little dumpling. It was like all jazz hands and Mardi Gras. It was musical theatre in a dramedy, and it was the most elated Muriel had ever been in her life. It was such a jubilant moment.”
Collette and Griffiths rehearsed the “Waterloo” dance sequence for weeks and shot it in ten hours, but they still managed to find moments of improvisation. One in particular stands out to both Griffiths and Hogan. “My greatest work in Muriel’s Wedding is when I stand in front of Toni and she moves my hair to find the camera,” jokes Griffiths. Hogan explains, “We hadn’t rehearsed with wigs on, and Toni realized that Rachel’s big curly Frida wig was completely blocking her face, so Toni reaches over, moves the hair, and stares straight into the camera. That just made me laugh out loud on set, and that’s in the film. That happened in the moment, and I’m just thankful Rachel didn’t break up when it was happening.”