By Maureen Lee Lenker
July 18, 2018 at 10:00 AM EDT
Universal

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New College, Oxford University, 1979 — this is where we first meet a young Donna (Lily James), the character originally played by Meryl Streep in 2008’s Mamma Mia! In the new film Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Donna strides down the aisle of her graduation ceremony in gold platform boots, strips off her graduation robe, and launches into a riotously fun rendition of “When I Kissed the Teacher” that spills out into the streets of Oxford.

The number is a colorful, energetic way to kick off a sequel that was 10 years in the making (an idea producer Judy Craymer says was “always in the hemisphere”). Here We Go Again flits back and forth between the past, where we follow a young Donna (and the Dynamos, Tanya and Rosie) as she meets (and hooks up with) all three of Sophie’s potential fathers, and the present day, where Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) tries to honor her mother’s legacy by opening a hotel while facing her own pregnancy.

Not only does “When I Kissed the Teacher” open the film, it also marked the start of shooting for the sequel. “I thought if we just went for it and if we nailed it, it would set the tone for what we were going to do from then on,” director Ol Parker tells EW.

“We were like, ‘How exciting, we get to develop these relationships as Dynamos and form this bond of sisterhood through our rehearsal process,’” adds Jessica Keenan Wynn, who plays young Tanya in the film. “Then on day one when we arrived, it was just the most massive undertaking. There were hundreds of extras and ensemble dance members, three different cameras coming in at you, and then we had to re-block it.… It was a huge endeavor, but being thrown into the deep end is the best way to start the whole process, because it was quite an easy ride after that.”

Below, the film’s cast and crew members spill the details on the careful planning, ingenuity, and disco magic it takes to bring this ABBA song to life on the big screen.

We meet young Donna at Oxford in 1979, as she turns her graduation into a concert.

OL PARKER (director): I wanted to show young Donna as iconoclastic, prepared to shatter conventions and be a rock chick. The funniest thing would be to put her in the stuffiest possible surrounding and then have her shake that up.… [The song] was originally “Super Trouper,” so when they sing it in the first movie, it’s like a callback to their youth.

JUDY CRAYMER (producer): I went to Sweden to meet with [songwriters] Benny [Andersson] and Björn [Ulvaeus]. It was the same setup at Oxford, and Bjorn went, “What about ‘When I Kissed the Teacher’?” There’s a sense of irony and wit in the lyrics, and it’s such a high-energy number, that was it. That’s how it found its space as the first song.

PARKER: I [wanted] the first track to be something new. There are so many other brilliant songs in the ABBA canon, I wanted to establish from the start we weren’t just going to replay all the greatest hits. [“Super Trouper”] didn’t seem to announce the sequel as a sequel; it seemed like a retread rather than a sequel.

CRAYMER: That moment had to set up so many elements — she was leaving university, her friendship with Tanya and Rosie, the fact she was slightly anarchic and a bit of a minx — and this song did it. We changed the lyrics slightly. Because in the song written by ABBA in the ’70s, it was obviously a male teacher, and the vice chancellor is a woman, played by Celia Imre, which we thought was part of Mamma Mia, the whole blend of empowerment and fun.

PARKER: Sometimes you listen to the lyrics and that will dictate where you put it, to a degree, and you’re trying to write towards it, as it were. And some songs you write yourself into a place and you go, “Now what song would fit there?” In this case, that was “When I Kissed the Teacher.” You can have her kissing Celia Imre, which is always a pleasure, but also it’s a banging track.

ANTHONY VAN LAAST (choreographer): I didn’t want to make it cute, because Donna is a strong woman. I wanted to give it a real strength of movement and show something a little bit anarchic with the three girls [as] a unit.

ROBERT D. YEOMAN (cinematographer): It was shot at Oxford at [New College]. It had very dark wood and an old English feeling to it. We wanted to give it some life, so we put big lights outside the stained glass windows and shined them through to give the feel of the direction of sunlight coming through.

PARKER: That was the most fabulously pompous place we could find. In a good way. Fabulously learned and impressive. It was all the funnier for Lily to rip off her costume and go for it.

JESSICA KEENAN WYNN (young Tanya): I felt like English royalty. I felt like I was a guest in someone’s castle. To be in a place of so much wisdom and history was exceptional and an honor.

YEOMAN: We wanted to give it a certain amount of energy.… It wasn’t a proscenium kind of thing where you just lock the camera down and let them do their thing. We wanted to be very active with the camera and move very quickly, because they’re moving around very quickly. Trying to follow the action and keep the energy going as much as possible.

CRAYMER: [It] was setting the tone for those women and where they were going to go. Oxford could allow Ol to bring all that into that song.

Donna, Tanya, and Rosie (Alexa Davies) strip off their graduation robes to reveal their Donna and the Dynamos getups, including platform boots and bell-bottoms.

WYNN: You feel tall, regal, and secure because the boots were custom-made for us. Once we got them in rehearsal, we felt like we finally understood what the Dynamos were.

CRAYMER: Those costumes are, in theory, cut out of the curtains of their rooms. That’s how they would’ve made their fun clothes. They would have cut stuff out of the sofa and stuck them on their jeans. The feather boa is meant to be a bit of a shaggy rug they’ve torn up and put around their necks.

WYNN: The little elements of having star patches on the boots and throughout our costumes, I thought that was a nice nod to almost a David Bowie element we took into it. In the dorm room, Tanya has a massive poster of David Bowie. If you look close enough, you can see our curtains, in the corner — they’ve all been cut up, which is a cute little addition.

As the number gets going, the professors behind Donna get kissed and join the dance.

CRAYMER: That’s ABBA’s Bjorn [Ulvaeus] as one of the professors. The row behind in the red robes are all former Mamma Mia stage actors. There’s some of the original cast, and cast over the last 20 years.

VAN LAAST: It was like a huge reunion. The great thing about Mamma Mia is we’re like a family. They came with great spirit and [were] unbelievably supportive. It was the first thing we filmed.

CRAYMER: They sat there very patiently for three days. It also gave Ol something extra-special. Because it wasn’t a just crowd scene. They are already accomplished actors that were really happy to do this because they were in Mamma Mia and part of the alumni.

PARKER: Bjorn was baffled by how long it all took and how boring it was.… There was something worrying to me about having a celebrity cameo within the first three minutes of the film. But it just seemed the right place for him, and he was very funny. We shot outtakes of him dancing on stage with the feather boa.

WYNN: There was so much electricity in the room — to start off having these former castmates there to lead us into the sequel. It was almost like a baton pass. It was a treasure to be in their presence and to perform for people that have been involved with this musical from its incarnation. 

Universal

Donna and the Dynamos leap into the audience and crowd-surf in an overhead shot. 

PARKER: The video for “Drive,” by R.E.M., has a top shot of Michael Stipe rolling around on the arms of the crowd. He’s held aloft above them. It’s black-and-white and much more arty. I sent that to [Anthony] going, “Anything here?” and he was like, “The three of them could do it.”

VAN LAAST: It was highly, highly choreographed for safety. Unlike real crowd-surfing, where the people are moved around by the crowd, the catchers underneath did the move and all the people on the outside stayed still. Underneath each person, we had about 5 people who were the pivots to move them. If you’re looking at the film, you’d never know that.

WYNN: In the rehearsal process, they really catered to my essence of Tanya and gave me the cutest boys to fall into.

YEOMAN: That [overhead shot] was off a crane we brought in and put up as high as we could go. Then they surrounded [the stunt people] with dancers to fill the frame and make it an homage to Busby Berkeley.

PARKER: That was take one. We expected it to be very difficult — they’re trying to turn them exactly in rhythm, and that’s not easy. We hadn’t got it right once until the first take of the movie.

VAN LAAST: I looked down and the three girls moved in perfect sync, and it was like, “Oh, God, that’s really, really good.”

WYNN: On the day of, those ensemble members were key to the success of that shot. We didn’t have to do it too many times; I think after three or four times they had the perfect shot from up above of us twirling around. How can you not feel like the ultimate superstar?

Jonathan Prime/Universal

They burst from the hall and cycle into the Oxfordshire countryside.

PARKER: You want to get from one place to another and I thought about driving in cars, but that seemed a bit fanciful. My main memory of university was riding down country lanes with a bottle of something in my hand.

VAN LAAST: That wasn’t in the original script. All the students in Oxford ride around on bicycles, so we should salute that in the number.

CRAYMER: There was a stage at Shepperton where they were rehearsing with bicycles and the stage and everything. It was pretty amazing when we actually got to the location.

YEOMAN: We had a camera car with a small Technocrane and a lever head on it. It’s a little uncontrollable, but it gave it a sense of spontaneity. We just found a little lane out in the countryside there that was very beautiful. I couldn’t really light them, so we backlit them and just had them riding.

VAN LAAST: They were trained by stunt people, and then we picked the best cyclists and mixed [them] in amongst our cast. That was how we kept it together.

WYNN: We were rehearsing it and I stuck my legs out, like a wide second position, and [Parker] was like, “You need to do that now, every time.” That’s called when Jessica Keenan Wynn is having too much fun and the director ends up putting it in.

PARKER: The bit you can’t see is a really steep hill, so when they come around the corner they’re all absolutely exhausted, but they have to pretend that they’re not and have plenty of lungs left to sing a song. 

Jonathan Prime/Universal

The number concludes with the Dynamos dancing on top of a barge before ending with a freeze-frame jump into the Cherwell River. 

PARKER: The girls were just going to dance by the lake. We were going to create a pub garden and the girls would get on a table, and the others would be dancing around them. [While scouting], we were standing by the lake, and 100 yards down the river there was a barge. There was no one there, so I jumped on, stood on the roof and was like, “This would be cool to dance on.”

VAN LAAST: The first time we got on the boat, it was really rocky. The boat had to be completely reconfigured. Because when you’re wearing platforms, you can’t actually feel where your feet are. We had divers go down and wedge the boat properly.

WYNN: We’d been practicing on a very high wooden platform for a while. Once you get on a boat, you see all the elements around you: That’s hard grass, those are flowerpots, that’s water. We had to make sure we were very in tune with each other and with our surroundings.

PARKER: They had a crash pad. Realistically they would’ve jumped in [the water], but if they do jump in we can’t shoot again for another hour [because] Lily’s hair is a production, the clothes [have to dry].

WYNN: There’s things you don’t think about when you’re jumping off a barge on to a platform, like keep your head up and smile, don’t look like you’re in pain, don’t look like you’re going to die.

PARKER: [In the first film], they went in the water in “Dancing Queen.” They all did that jump, so I had this idea to do a freeze-frame. Lily is doing the bomb, which is a tribute to what Meryl does in “Dancing Queen” in Mamma Mia. It just seemed lovely that the two girls on either side would do a star jump and Lily would do the Meryl bomb. It’s a callback.

WYNN: It’s one of my favorite moments of the movie, that freeze-frame of the three of us jumping into what’s next in our lives.

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