This story originally ran in February. We are republishing it in honor of Vulture’s Sequels Week.
There are drugs, and then there is the ending of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Written and directed by Ol Parker with help from rom-com legend Richard Curtis, the much-maligned and much-beloved 2018 sequel feels like a dream you might have after falling off a ladder and being knocked unconscious. It’s difficult to capture its psychedelic, heartwarming essence with mere human words. It is about coming back from the dead; it is about getting accidentally pregnant; it is an ode to DIY renovation and shagging across 1970s Europe.
Mamma Mia 2 flashes back and forth between young hippie Donna Sheridan’s (Lily James) early dating misadventures, which eventually lead her to a faraway Greek island where she conceives her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who, in the present day, is involved in a manic attempt to realize her now-dead mother’s (Meryl Streep) dream of opening a remote Grecian inn. The whole thing is simultaneously campy and straight-facedly earnest, coming together with the goofy, heartfelt energy of a slapdash community theater production, albeit one put on by some of the most famous actors in the world.
But its epic conclusion is even more charmingly arbitrary, a space-time-melting, death-defying, and even sob-inducing 30-plus-minute sequence that includes but is not limited to: Cher helicoptering out of nowhere onto said Greek island; Cher making out with Andy Garcia after singing ABBA’s “Fernando”; Lily James giving strenuous birth atop a mountain; an improvised dance routine wherein Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, and Pierce Brosnan shimmy in spandex alongside their younger counterparts, defying time and space; and the ghost of Streep.
We spoke to Parker, Curtis, producer Judy Craymer, and many of our favorite Mamma Mia 2 scene-stealers about what went into concluding a sequel that probably should never have happened in the first place. The story involves death, birth, directorial breakdowns, digitized mouths, a jaw-dropping amount of partying, and a collective abandon that’s rare to see onscreen.
Killing Meryl Streep
Before any time- and space-defying ending could be realized, the biggest hurdle in bringing Mamma Mia 2 to the screen was figuring out what the hell to do about Streep, who, as Craymer put it, “doesn’t love doing sequels.” Craymer, Parker, and Curtis knew they couldn’t make a second film without her. The key was figuring out how to bring her back both quickly and believably. This took roughly 10 years. “It was a long, agonizing process,” Curtis said.
It was actually Curtis’s daughter, Scarlett, then in her early 20s, who surfaced a solution during a car ride with her dad. “I said to her, ‘Any ideas for Mamma Mia 2?’ And Scarlett said, ‘Yeah, it’s obvious.’ I said, ‘It can’t be that obvious because it’s taken them ten years to figure it out.’ Scarlett said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s Godfather 2. You’ve got to have what happens in the present, but you’ve got to go back and see where it all started.’ I think Scarlett got paid a dollar because Universal said she had to be paid something.” The team knew, then, what they’d have to do with Streep. “We thought, Kill her.”
Ol Parker, director and screenwriter: I inherited this movie without Meryl in it, so it was my idea to kill her off. I was like, “You got to kill her and just give her a song as a ghost.” The producers were obviously skeptical about that because that’s not quite the mood of the piece.
Judy Craymer, producer: Oh God, it was terrible. But we had to be brave.
Lily James, Young Donna: I think I’d actively forgotten that she’d actually died. Oh, horrible. How could they do that? They’re idiots.
Parker: There were various versions of the script where she was stranded in the Philippines and unable to make it back for Colin’s gay wedding. But if she’s not going to be in it, then you’ve gotta own that.
Richard Curtis, story co-writer: We thought death was better than a long trip to Hawaii.
Craymer: It wasn’t like a soap-opera death. The songs led us to that decision. I mean, it’s a story of an odyssey. It’s got an element of Greek tragedy about it.
‘I’m Cher, Bitch’
With Streep’s fate sealed, Parker and Curtis went off to spend a week together in a “little shepherd’s hut” in Curtis’s garden with no internet, ordering the film’s songs and sequences on a pack of Post-it notes that Parker used to write the actual script. “He really wrote everything that’s good in the script, and then I just helped him with a bit of rewriting and moving things about after that,” Curtis said. They sent the finished script to Meryl, knowing that if she said, “No, I do not want to be a ghost,” the whole thing was a nonstarter. But she was all-in. As was everybody else from the original. Parker and Curtis just needed to cement their final-act surprise.
Parker: Without Meryl, we needed something in the last act to turn up and give it a real jolt. We made lists and lists.
Curtis: We did have four Post-it notes of the actresses that immediately leapt into our mind for Ruby, and Cher was No. 1.
Parker: There was your brilliant rock star list: Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde were on it, and Stevie Nicks. Then there was a Broadway list, which was Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand and Patti LuPone. But there was really no one that was both of them. When we decided on “Fernando,” Richard was like, “Who should sing it?” I was like, “Well … it should be Cher.” I’d written in the script, “This is Cher.”
Craymer: Going back to the first movie, I had met with Cher to ask her if she’d play Tanya. The role went to Christine Baranski. But she’d always been in my mind.
Curtis: I definitely had a very weird conversation with Cher. I only say “very weird” because it was Cher. I’d actually spent a week with her at some point. Whether or not she remembered, I don’t know, but she was told she should remember. So when she was trying to think about doing the film, me and her and Ol had a triple conversation about how the part would work out.
It’s a funny thing with big Hollywood stars: The moment they say they’ll talk to you tends to be four-fifths of the way through the process of saying “yeah.” I remember flying out to have lunch with Julia Roberts to talk about Notting Hill, and it would have been very cruel if the point of the lunch was to say no. So I think Cher was probably pretty on board at that point.
Parker: Cher turned it down about four times. The first three rejections were gutting. I kept sending the script back, going, “I don’t think you quite realize that you’re doing this.” And she kept saying no without reading it, I think. I was like, “Sorry, I’m not sure you’ve read it, but you are doing this.” And I’d get another polite turndown. I remember telling the young cast — just announcing that it was going to be Cher, with absolutely no evidence whatsoever. I was just trying to manifest it. Then Ron Meyer, who was from Universal, rang her up and said, “You’re doing Mamma Mia,” and hung up.
Of course she was impossible. Lovely to talk to but a blizzard of nerves in negotiations. When she finally arrives, like two days before we shot, she comes in with a phalanx of managers and people, and she has huge dark glasses on, like Bono’s Fly goggles. She just puts out her hand like this, so you can only kiss it. You can’t shake her hand. It’s an extraordinary thing. She’s obviously gracious and lovely and very humble as an actor. But part of being an icon is knowing that you’re an icon. We’re still really good friends. I saw her two birthdays ago. I went to Vegas to watch her play as a surprise, and her birthday cake had a picture of her, and underneath it said, “I’m Cher, bitch.”
ABBA’s One Request
There is no Mamma Mia 2 — or Mamma Mia 2 finale — without ABBA, the band made up of Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. But what do you do when you’ve used up most of their catalogue of music in your first climactic last scene? You ask ABBA to rewrite some lyrics, and you abide by ABBA’s requests when they agree.
Parker: With most musicals, if you take, say, The Sound of Music, the real shit happens during the song — that’s when Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer fall in love. The songs are the actual narrative, and the bits in between are kind of interstitial and hopefully witty and funny. But the nature of a jukebox musical is that it’s generally the opposite. Certainly in the first movie, you build up, you stop, sing a song, and then the song ends, and then you carry on with the drama. And that’s fine and glorious, and it clearly worked for the first movie. But Benny and Bjorn’s request — and clearly it’s not a diss on the first movie, which they love and were very proud of — was that the songs be integrated slightly more. So I said, “Would you be up for rewriting some lyrics, in that case, to help me out?”
Curtis: The tone of the film is beautifully reflective of what happens when you listen to ABBA. Because ABBA has two things: total innocence and nostalgia. And I think that the movie reflects that innocence, joy, simplicity — it’s both profoundly shallow and joyful but actually rather deep and rather wise.
Parker: Astonishing decision in the first movie to hire people that couldn’t sing. I remember when Dom Cooper turned up and couldn’t sing. There’s a whole bunch of young guys as handsome as Dom — lovely as he is, a really good guy, really good actor. But I’m sure they could have found someone that could sing.
Christine Baranski, Tanya: I think people understood that it was something very tongue-in-cheek about the whole thing. None of us were seasoned musical-comedy performers. I’ve done musicals, but I wouldn’t characterize my career as mainly musical comedy.
Stellan Skarsgård, Bill: When they cast me and Colin for the first film, we knew we weren’t cast because we would sing and dance. We were cast just as, like, the bimbos that should be cute and funny. It really was like a community theater project. Some things that you’ve come up with are accepted and some are not, and you feel absolutely safe and free.
Parker: It was brilliantly democratic. It’s an extraordinary thing Phyllida did. But we always thought, because we were coming back and you want to come back bigger, that we would slightly raise the bar. And frankly — singing, it was important to me. They didn’t have to be astonishing, but a degree of competence was looked for in the auditions.
The Gathering of the Legends
The cast from the first Mamma Mia — Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Pierce Brosnan, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Amanda Seyfried, and Dominic Cooper — had bonded intensely on the film. But the new cast members — Lily James, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Hugh Skinner, Alexa Davies, Josh Dylan, and Jeremy Irvine — had no idea what they were in for. They were thrown into rehearsals straight away (some of them were even pulled off other projects), where they promptly fell in love with each other. ‘It’s hard to be a dick on that kind of thing,” says Parker. “I refuse to allow anybody to be in a bad mood. You give a shit, and there are some harder days because you care about what you’re doing and we can disagree about how best to achieve what we want. But it’s Mamma Mia 2. If you’re not enjoying this, you’ve got to get out of show business.”
Jessica Keenan Wynn, Young Tanya: We get to this island, and it’s like adult summer camp.
Alexa Davies, Young Rosie: We were all a tight unit, the six of us, because we were all just very panicked and in shock at what was happening.
James: We were on this island for seven weeks, and everyone’s being silly and throwing themselves out of their comfort zone and singing ABBA in the sunshine by the sea. There was something extremely magical about it. Then the older cast came, and you could see that they have the exact same bonds.
Parker: You don’t call them the older cast. You call them the legacy cast.
Keenan Wynn: We call them the legend cast.
Baranski: Phyllida and Ol brought together wonderful performers in the legacy cast. Everybody’s so interesting and so experienced and yet so game to do it. And we loved hanging out together. So when you weren’t filming, we were happily dining together and probably drinking a little too much.
Craymer: It was like everyone had arrived for a big family wedding. It was quite interesting for the original cast to meet their younger selves.
Keenan Wynn: The first time I met Christine was when we were shooting in Croatia, which was about two months into the process. We were in full costume, and I think Amanda Seyfried said, “Jessica, Christine’s right there.” I turned around. The sun was beaming on her. She turned around. We embraced. It was magical. Cinematic. She was just so warm, and she was like, “Look at you. Oh, you’re me.”
Baranski: I think she did a phenomenal job. I think she came very close to being young Tanya; it’s spot-on. There was a day on the set where it was almost like looking in the mirror. She had on that wonderful purple dress that I had on. And she had on her wig, because without wigs and all you wouldn’t necessarily say, “Oh, dead ringer.” But when she put on that wig, and particularly with that purple dress, it was crazy.
Josh Dylan, Young Bill: I met Stellan at the read-through, which was really fucking scary. That’s the first time I had to do a Swedish accent in front of him. But he was lovely, and we hung out a lot. I was mostly trying to pick up on his essence. He was telling me about his work with Lars von Trier and the whole Dogme 95 scene and his process, but in a really unpretentious way. I was like, “Fuck, this is so cool.” He was just having snuff. You know what snuff is? It’s Swedish tobacco. He’s dipping. He’s a dipper.
Skarsgård: I didn’t think he resembled me at all, but it didn’t matter. It’s all a fairy tale anyway. I mean, those things, it’s not even films. It’s just a party.
Davies: Julie Walters is my favorite person on the planet. So I went and sat next to her and just told her how much I loved her. I did my impression of her for ten solid minutes. And it was too much. There’s a picture that someone managed to take in that moment where Amanda is behind me, and she looks like she is so hyped in that moment, and Julie just looks like she’s terrified and wants to run away. The next day, I was really hungover, and Ol actually came to visit. And I said, “Was it bad? I remember it being really bad.” And he just went, “It was really bad, but I’m sure it will be fine.”
Parker: Once we had the legacy cast and the younger cast, and we’d all been in Croatia together on the island, they all had a riotously good time, with the legacy cast competing for who could behave even worse than the younger cast.
Keenan Wynn: Judy Craymer threw huge parties in Croatia, which I just feel will never happen again in my lifetime.
Dylan: Almost every weekend, Judy Craymer would just throw a massive party — and not like, “Oh, let’s go for drinks.” It was a lavish extravaganza in which she inevitably took over some disused fort on the island. It was decadent and amazing, and everyone just was really uninhibited and joyful.
Davies: The first one was insane. It was in this amazing old ruins of a castle at the very top of this mountain. It was ridiculous.
Craymer: It’s a distant memory in the world we’re living in now, but yeah, we had very good parties. It was constant.
Andy Garcia, Fernando: No. I don’t know about those parties.
Skarsgård: My playmate on the first show was definitely Colin Firth. I was out very much with Colin, and with Dominic Cooper, who’s good to party with.
Curtis: We were pretty much the only people on the island. So every night, there would be dining at two competing restaurants. I ended up in Pierce Brosnan’s restaurant, and then the glamorous youngsters would be next door.
Keenan Wynn: But there was one time we all convened at this one restaurant, and there was a blackout and a massive rain storm that had a lot of flooding. All we could do was sit outside on this terrace, altogether with candles and crackers, and just wait for this storm to pass so we could go back to our respective houses.
James: You’d just be walking by the restaurants and everyone’s sitting there having dinner and having a glass of wine. Then I would see Amanda paddleboarding across the front of the sea. Like, “Hey, Amanda.”
Garcia: I mean, I went to dinner sometimes.
Dylan: It was a really weirdly amazing experience and a slightly double-edged sword for me, because it was one of my first jobs, so I was thinking, “Well, this is how it is in the working world.”
Keenan Wynn: Something that Collin and Pierce said to the young cast over and over again, they were like, “This opportunity that you have with Mamma Mia does not happen all the time. This is a rare anomaly of camaraderie and talent and joy. That was a rare diamond that you might not experience again in your career.”
Okay, When Does the Movie Actually End?
That’s up for discussion.
Parker: Hitchcock said there are only two parts to a movie: the ending and everything else.
Curtis: I just made a film with Danny Boyle, and I remember him saying to me when we started it, “There are only two things in a film that matter. The beginning and the end, and the beginning not so much.”
Parker: I think our ending is at least 20 minutes long.
Keenan Wynn: When Cher shows up, she never goes away, so that’s the beginning of the end. When you see her shoe come off that helicopter.
James: It starts when Cher gets off the helicopter. “That’s the best kind of party, little girl.” “Grandma, you weren’t invited.”
Baranski: I think it’s when the fireworks go off at the end of “Fernando.” That’s pretty much the beginning of the end. Or “Fernando” is the prelude to the beginning of the end.
Davies: For me, it’s when they sing “I’ve Been Waiting for You.” When you see that blend of the two timelines, with Amanda and Julie and Christine singing. That’s when I start to weep.
Dylan: I would say the beginning of the end is actually the start of “Dancing Queen.” It’s a long-ass ending, but it’s epic.
Craymer: It’s all the final songs. They’re scooping up all the relationships and bringing closure to them.
Parker: I think “Dancing Queen” is the beginning of the last act. When they arrive on the island, the amazing five-song stretch — Amanda sings “I’ve Been Waiting for You” while Lily gives birth, and then Cher does “Fernando,” and then, shit, is it “My Love, My Life”? And then “Super Trouper.” So I guess the real ending is the last two songs. I figured whatever else went wrong in the rest of the movie, if we hit them with that bunch at the end, then we were good.
Curtis: I do love the last 15 minutes of the film. There’s just a magical thing going on there, isn’t there? Because we bring in the major character of the movie only 15 minutes before the end, and they’ve got two unbelievable songs to sing. I think it’s actually an unusual ending. It was a rich brew of ingredients to be playing with, to have Cher, to have Meryl, to have a baby, to have the husbands, and to have three more ABBA songs. Because normally at the end of a movie, you’re slightly running out of ingredients. Whereas in this one, we had a whole pile to shove in at the end.
The Ending, Part 1: ‘Dancing Queen’ & ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’
The ending begins when a ship full of Grecians arrives on the island after a horrible storm threatens Sophie’s hotel opening, all dancing and singing “Dancing Queen” as they approach. Shortly thereafter, Cher flies in and stomps onto the island: “Mes enfants, je suis arrivée!” Then a newly pregnant Sophie (Seyfried) steps onto the hotel’s stage for her very first performance with Donna and the Dynamos, and the film flashes back to Sophie’s own dramatic birth on the same island. Throughout the sequence, Sophie and Young Donna (James) simultaneously sing “I’ve Been Waiting For You.” Afterward, Cher offers some choice feedback to Sophie.
Parker: The sequel thing is tricky. It’s an impossible needle to thread, in some ways, because what people actually want is to watch the first film again. So you’re trying to give them the same, but not too much the same. It needs to build on it — but not just “Now we’ve got more money,” do you know what I mean? So with “Dancing Queen,” I guess it was a bit arrogant. I hope it doesn’t feel like that, but it’s actually the same structure as in the first movie, where they dance down to the jetty and meet people. But it was like, “Okay, if we’re going to do that again, then this time we’re going to do it with 14 boats coming in. We’re going to do it with Dunkirk and 4,000 extras on the dock.”
Craymer: I think Mamma Mia! has earned the right to repeat “Dancing Queen.” We had the permission, I felt, to do it in a big, epic way and not take ourselves too seriously.
Skarsgård: It was a pretty spectacular day — coming in with the whole fleet with fishing boats, and me and Colin were lovely, standing there and pretending to dance. There was music everywhere, and real dancers were surrounding us, and helicopters with cameras were flying above us. The weather was beautiful, and the Mediterranean was turquoise.
Parker: Pierce is the best. Pierce just loves to skip. He has absolutely no ego or vanity whatsoever. Every time we shot “Dancing Queen,” the journey from the hotel, he’d be off down the hill, and we’d be like, “Wait … action!” Whereas Colin and Stellan, it’s not quite so natural. I think they’ll agree. Pierce sang loudly and long, despite the crap that he got for “SOS” the first time. Entirely justified crap. Nothing would put him off. If you say, “Pierce, here’s a mic,” he’ll be there.
Curtis: Stellan was hilarious. I remember someone asked him in an interview, “What’s the difference between your character in the last film and your character in this film?” And Stellan said, “He’s wearing a different shirt.” So I thought that showed his depth of commitment to the characterization over the ten years.
Skarsgård: Because you don’t have normal dramatic material to relate to — and you don’t have to — you can’t come up with, “Well, what was the childhood for Bill Anderson? Was he abused by his parents or what happened?” You just don’t care. I couldn’t describe him as a character.
Parker: If you don’t wholeheartedly commit, you’ll look much more of a twat. It’s the abandonment of irony that actually makes it completely endearing and gorgeous. If you’re not in it, then people will rightly laugh at you, but if you’re laughing at yourself first, then you win. The joy of the first one, which we could only hope to replicate, is just the thrill of them casting off their pomposity.
James: During the “I’ve Been Waiting For You” birth montage, Ol was like, “Do you want me to talk you through the pregnancy?” I was like, “No, I’ve watched 17,000 YouTube videos. I know how to do this.” Then I got there, and I’m like, “I don’t know how to do this.” So he’s like, “Okay, I’m going to talk you through it.” He sat by me. He’s going, “Okay now, push, push. Now you’re really pushing now. Now the baby’s head is crowning. It’s crowning, Lily.” I really thought I was giving birth, and I went into this surreal musical birth land with Ol Parker as the midwife. I really got into character. At one point, I felt my fictional baby kick.
Parker: That’s not Cher’s leg, when the helicopter lands and a foot comes down. That’s not her. We needed to know what costume she was wearing so that we could shoot somebody’s leg. And of course, the costume took four years. I think we had to go back to Croatia later. Someone had to fly back to the jetty and just shoot the leg.
And Cher wanted to have a bit more of an apology to Amanda. She was like, “People are going to hate me. I haven’t seen my grandchild for 25 years. I need a big speech.” I was like, “I think the complete opposite. It’s not Mo’Nique from Precious. I think it’s funnier if we just make it a joke and the appallingness of what you’ve done is just parked.” So then, bless her, she said, “Being a grudge-holder makes you fat,” and Amanda does a glorious double take to that. That was all Cher. I was like, “Fuck me.” Richard Curtis then wrote, “Great-grandmother. I’ll be leaving that out of the bio,” which was a great line.
Amanda Seyfried, Sophie: I had forgotten that some of those lines just flew out of her. If I forgot a line, I’d freeze, but she makes it work.
The Ending, Part 2: ‘Fernando’
Andy Garcia is a mysterious, sensual, oddly forlorn island dweller known only as “Señor Cienfuegos.” He has no apparent reason to be in the film until Cher arrives, recognizes him as her long-lost lover, and the two serenade one another with “Fernando.”
Parker: “Fernando” is a complete left turn. Previously, there was no Señor Cienfuegos, and we didn’t have a song for Ruby. She just arrived. There was a glorious moment writing with Richard where we just finished, and we had like five songs left on the wall that we couldn’t do anything with. I said, “All right, hang on a second, let’s get ‘Fernando’ in there somewhere. There’s an old guy, he works at a hotel, he’s the manager.”
Curtis: I remember when I suddenly said — or he said, I can’t remember who — “You could have a character, you don’t know their name’s Fernando, and then it turns out that that’s the grandmother’s boyfriend’s name.”
Parker: Richard says, “We’ll give him a name. Cienfuegos. I’ve got a joke about his name.” Then I go, “And then Ruby arrives, and we put it in that she’s had her heart broken somewhere else, in Central America.” And he’s just listening with no idea where I’m going. “And then he just says, ‘Ruby?’ And she turns around and goes, ‘Fernando?’” And Richard just fell off his chair laughing. So, I was like, “Great. That’s that, then.” Obviously, it’s a 102-minute setup to one joke. But it works.
Curtis: Somewhere in the deep and distant past, someone will know the truth. I don’t know if Ol handed it to me perfectly or if Ol handed me a ghastly thing that I brilliantly fixed.
Parker: Cher and Andy had wanted to work together, and he was very easy. I was like “Come and sing with Cher,” and he was like, “Cool, I’ll be on the next plane.”
Garcia: I got the information through my agent that they were interested in me doing it. I didn’t get any personal call from the director or Richard or Cher or anybody. They said, “They want you to come in and play Fernando. It’s supposed to be a secret. So you can’t say anything.” I was on board right away. I think Ol mentioned to me that Cher picked me out of a short list of people that they had. I thanked her, “I understand you picked me.” And she said, “Of course,” and then she goes, “Modigliani.” I was tickled.
Parker: We showed Cher “Fernando” and demonstrated it with the choreographer. She was standing next to me. We’d really only just met, and I was watching it, just trying not to watch her. Halfway through, she just squeezed my arm, and I was like, “Oh, cool, we’re okay now. This will be good.” Filming it was the most fucking beautiful day.
Keenan Wynn: It was a moment that I’ll never forget because I really felt for the first time in my life I was in the presence of greatness. I’m like, “If I can be 70 and sound like I did when I was 22 … What are you drinking? What magic pills are you taking?”
Garcia: I’m not there to compare myself to Cher as a singer or anything. I’m there to play Fernando, and this is how Fernando sings, as an actor. This is not a singing competition. But yes, I sing and I dance and I have my own orchestra.
Parker: When it turned on Andy, he just slightly froze, which is really common.
Garcia: I wasn’t nervous. I was Fernando. She already picked me.
Parker: He suddenly got the fear, quite early on, and then realized that you had to fully commit, and we had a check-in. I was like, “Dude,” and he was like, “Right, right,” and then he just fucking went for it. He was weeping.
Garcia: We worked on that, getting a sense of how we met and all, so it’s loaded up when we see each other after so many years — true loves that we thought we had forgotten or had gotten lost in the world. That’s what we were trying to show: That there was no love like that again for each of these two people. It was a revolution going on and war, so it was all very romantic, you know?
Parker: They were just very sweet together.
Garcia: I love the part where Fernando sees her for the first time. It’s like an apparition because she’s up on the hill with her beautiful white hair, and she’s so elegant, she always is. It’s almost like he thinks it’s not even real. But he screams out to her, “Ruby!” And she goes, “Fernando?” Against the grain, it’s so funny. “Is that … Fernando? What the hell are you doing here?” And then it begins. It’s perfectly played by Cher, going against the grain like that. Beautiful.
Baranski: It may be the best part of the movie, honestly. When the song starts the audience almost just groans with delight because it’s like, “Oh my God, this is how they’re going to use one of the most famous ABBA songs. It’s going to be sung by Cher.”
Garcia: There was no rehearsal for the kiss. You don’t rehearse those things. It just happened. It happened the first time on-camera, that’s what happened. When you see it in the movie, it was probably the first take, that was it.
Parker: We used the entire first take.
When Cher speaks Spanish — that took a while. That didn’t stick in the memory. There’s a scene in the second Marigold movie where Judi Dench speaks Hindi, and it’s not something I’m going to do again to an actor over 70 — give them a language. That took a little while.
So, yeah, “Fernando” is just a complete … Cher turns up, sings the song that has nothing to do with anything. But it’s Cher.
The Ending, Part 3: ‘My Love, My Life’
The most heart-wrenching moment of the film happens, improbably, upon the unveiling of Meryl’s ghost. In a time-bending church sequence, we witness the baptism of Sophie as well as the baptism of Sophie’s child, attended by ghost Meryl, who sings beautifully to her daughter before disappearing into the ether. It is impossible not to cry while watching this part, even if you have seen it, for example, 600 times.
Parker: I always loved “My Love, My Life.” It was such a beautiful song. But lyrically, it didn’t work anywhere at all in the movie. So Bjorn very generously rewrote the opening verses. It’s a song about saying good-bye to a lover, basically, and he rewrote the opening verses for Lily to sing.
Curtis: The most difficult part was definitely trying to make Meryl work. It is an odd thing. Was she going to be ghostly? Who was going to be able to see her? How would you make sure that we knew that Amanda could see her and no one else could see her?
Parker: I’d written Amanda walking toward the door and Lily walking through the door. We hadn’t seen Lily for about 15 pages, so that was always going to be her ending. But I think the studio was a bit panicked because I didn’t know how Lily becomes Meryl. They were like, “How’s that going to happen?” I was like, “I don’t know. I haven’t seen the set.” They were like, “Well, it’s got to be a beautiful way to transform one to the other,” and I was like, “Yes, no, thank you.”
Curtis: I hate directing movies. I’m always sad and frightened. Ol probably remembers it as the worst nightmare of his life. And I do remember that there were lots of discussions about which bits Amanda should sing and which bit Meryl should sing and how you should transition to her being there. All I know is it was up to the wire as to exactly who did what when that day.
Parker: We had Meryl for those three days only. She came right at the end of the shoot and sang the song. I remember going in the day before, when we were going to rehearse it, and just walking round and thinking, “Oh, fuck.”
Then I remember looking at the fountain and thinking, “We could do that trick!” I called the special effects guys and was like, “Is that going to be possible?” And he was like, “Yeah, sure, no trouble.” Then I called the studio and I’m like, “I think I’ve got it. It’s going to be okay.” I remember taking Meryl to the video village and going, “This is what we’re doing,” and Meryl patting me on the shoulder, which, from Meryl, I’ll take that.
James: Yeah, Meryl looked into the well of water, then that became me. I don’t remember how they figured that out. I just remember holding this baby and Meryl Streep and this beautiful song. It’s so sad, isn’t it? Because she’s the ghost.
Craymer: Lily didn’t really meet Meryl until right near the end of the filming. I think it was a big thing for Lily. She was a bit nervous meeting Meryl.
James: I watched Meryl in the first movie a billion times, and then I recorded all her lines and just would listen to her all day. I just wanted to study Meryl and try to capture little moments that might ring true so you would believe that I would grow into her.
Parker: The song has a big high note at the end, and Meryl was always very happy hitting that. I remember the music supervisor going, “We don’t have to go that high,” and she’s going, “Yeah, we do,” which is very Meryl.
James: I sat outside while she sang, just crying. Then Gary Goetzman, the producer, was like, “Come and meet Meryl.” I was like, “Oh my God.” It’s hard to explain what that’s like to meet someone, an actor that you’ve admired and looked up to so much.
Parker: I remember Meryl, on the day, was like, “We’ve got to know that only Amanda sees me. How are we going to do that?” And I was like, “Yeah, no, I’ve got that,” and ran off and found the cameraman.
At the beginning, Dom is not holding the baby. I don’t know what he’s doing sitting down; it’s his baby’s christening and he’s sitting down at the back of the chapel. Why? I have no idea. But thankfully nobody asks that question. Because then we had him looking at Amanda and her walking toward an empty fountain. Then you cut back to Amanda walking toward Meryl at the fountain. I remember watching that when we were shooting it, going, “Oh, this is going to work. I’m crying myself.”
We had this insane thing for the earlier parts of the scene where you have the most glamorous and exceptional group of extras that you’ll ever see: Colin and Pierce and Christine and Dame Julie Walters just sit there, and all they get to do is stand up and walk past Meryl without even seeing her. Cher and Andy are in the front row just sitting there all day watching.
Craymer: We had Cher and Pierce and Colin and Judy and everyone, and they’re all playing ensemble!
Parker: Cher was sitting in her chair, and all the actors were queuing to have photos taken with her. There’s Meryl, and there’s Pierce and Colin — James Bond and Mr. Darcy. But they were very moved. I remember Cher crying.
Garcia: It was beautiful. The way Meryl always timed her exit through the doors? That was always very charming. Because in every take she had to time herself to get to that spot, and she never missed a beat. Meryl Streep, what can I say? It was sublime.
Curtis: One of the great mysteries of movies is how short a time the actors finally get to do what they do. You’re on the set, and you faff around, and it’s 4 p.m., and you realize the reason we’ve all been here has now got to be done in the next 47 minutes. And that’s when having someone like Meryl is extraordinary.
Dylan: I had some really nice chats with Meryl on set. And she slapped me on the bum, actually, at one point, at the premiere, which was the best moment of my life.
Curtis: The rest of the cast had not seen Meryl throughout the making of this whole film, and I’m guessing not very much in the ten years between them. So it was a genuine reunion. It was one of those moments where the thing you were filming was almost real. It was the first time she’d been within an inch of Amanda since ten years ago, before Amanda herself had a child. It had a real situational truth to it, which I think you can feel in the scene.
Baranski: It was incredibly dear. The two of them were so committed to it and so vulnerable. I think Meryl brought the weight of all of her love for her own daughters into that song. And Amanda’s a new mother, and so she brought all of her feelings about being a mother. It was very real, yeah.
Seyfried: I’m with my first kid and Meryl is meeting her for the first time — seeing me as a mother. So much had changed, but the essence of Mamma Mia was exactly the same.
James: I remember holding a very beautiful but very heavy baby. I had managed to get it to stop crying. I think it was sleeping. But I didn’t want to give it back to the mum and then take it back again because I was like, “I don’t want to disturb it.” So I held that baby for– my arm was broken by the end of it. I held the baby all day. I remember walking in at one point, and she opened her eyes as I was singing.
Parker: Within the absurdity of Meryl the ghost, and the fact that it’s an ABBA song — once you embrace those things, then you just tell the truth. I think if you try to fake joy, it’s ghastly. If you fake tears, then you’re horrible, it’s manipulative. People want to cry. So that was the task: to go there and hopefully feel it and experience it and turn it into a happy exorcism. The glorious ugly crying, where you feel good about the fact that you’re experiencing emotion next to someone in the cinema. And obviously it’s sad, but you can’t end the movie there. You’ve got to find a way, with a crowbar, to get them up and dancing again so that they leave and don’t tell their friends never to go anywhere near that film.
The first test screen — just watching a cinema, a sea of people sobbing — you can barely hear the song for the sound of tissues being torn up. And I’m thinking, Oh, fuck, can we pull it round that fast?
The Ending, Part 4: The Actual Ending: ‘Super Trouper’
Finally, in the film’s true ending, all of the legacy cast show up in glittery jumpsuits and platform heels to improvise choreography with their younger counterparts to wildly varying degrees of competence. “It was thrown together,” says Baranski. “And I must say, it was brilliantly thrown together.”
Baranski: We didn’t know what the hell the ending was gonna be.
Keenan Wynn: Until maybe two weeks before, we didn’t know if Universal had approved another big ending.
Parker: We didn’t know how we’d do it, but I always figured the ending would be all of them back in the studio dancing together. That was always the plan. In the first movie, they shot the dance ending separately, two days later, and it’s very underrehearsed. It’s not exactly choreographed, and it’s not the most beautiful piece of lighting or dancing you’ll ever see, with all respect. There’s something about it that works gloriously, but I don’t quite know what that is.
Baranski: The ending of both those movies was, I would say, slapdash.
Craymer: We hadn’t even worked out what that ending was before we flew back from Croatia and went into the studio.
Parker: We talked a lot about what song it would be, and there were lots of disagreements.
Baranski: There was a whole passionate debate about, “Oh no, they can’t use that one. And they used that before.”
Parker: Just in my head, I couldn’t get from “My Love, My Life” into “Super Trouper.” The female voices at the beginning, that’s just too weird. And the original, it’s obviously a classic, but it’s stompy. It doesn’t really pick you up. It just exists.
The two scariest moments, I think, of the film: One was suggesting to Benny that I’d start “Mamma Mia” a capella, with Lily singing it slowly. He was like, “I don’t think you will do that,” and I was like, “I think we will.” And the second one was going, “I don’t think ‘Super Trouper’ is quite working for the final song. Is there anything you can do?” And such is Benny’s niceness and generosity — and keenness to collaborate — that he sent it back with a new beginning and, bless him, sped it up quite dramatically. If you listen to our version next to the ABBA version, it’s a serious amount faster.
Craymer: Of course, we wanted Cher to be in the very end. So how do we do that? Because everyone was like, “She’s singing ‘Fernando,’ you’re never going to get her to sing another song.” And by the way, we hadn’t persuaded Meryl yet.
So the day came of who was going to ask Cher to sing “Super Trouper” and join in the ending, and that fell to Anthony Van Laast, the choreographer. She said, “Okay, so what is this ending? What do I have to do?” It meant she had to stay a few days longer filming and all kinds of things. She said, “What song is it?” He said, “It’s ‘Super Trouper.’” And she said, “I hate ‘Super Trouper.’” He said, “Well, let me show you how it’s going to be done.” Then he and his associate Nicola walk through the whole thing in the studio and up the stairs. She goes, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
Baranski: We were in Vis, on the island, and we had to go back to England to shoot that ending. And we hadn’t really rehearsed anything. We had maybe two days. People had cars waiting to get them to the airport to go get to their next movies.
Ol Parker: We’d got this amazing DOP, Bob Yeoman, who does Wes Anderson’s movies, which was a fantastic stroke of luck, nothing to do with me. He just wanted to do something different, bless him. He took pity on me. We wanted it to look nice, and we wanted it to be a banger.
Craymer: It was a massive day. We had them all on set. You’ve got all these nonprofessional singers and dancers just going for it. They all came in their slippers and robes and sat in their chairs on the set, whooping when Cher went off the staircase. Colin brought his parents. First time his parents had been on a set.
Parker: By then, everyone was really good friends, and we’d all had this brilliant fun. I said, “I think there are few things more boring than watching people have more fun onscreen than you’re having watching them.” The challenge is to instigate a party but make sure that people are invited to the party.
Keenan Wynn: The big surprise was like, “You’re going to be dancing with your younger and older self.”
Parker: I remember standing up and going, “Okay, so what we’re going to do is we’re going to play the song really loudly, and then if you each break off into your counterparts, we’ll give you a couple of song plays to rehearse, and then I’ll just walk round and just watch what you’re going, and then we’ll take a little bit from each of it.”
Baranski: We quickly put these things together, where it was the legacy and then the young cast member, your other self, which I thought was ingenious, really.
Parker: Obviously, Christine and Jess, who are very anal and music-theater people, had the perfect microphone thing.
Keenan Wynn: Of course, Christine and I were the first ones to come up with a choreographed moment. We were like, “Five, six, seven, eight …”
Dylan: Who’s the best dancer? I want to say Christine Baranski. Without question, Jeremy Irvine is the worst dancer.
James: I think I only had ten minutes with Meryl figuring out the dance.
Davies: Neither Julie or I are dancers at all. So we came up with this little dance where it felt very rosy and was a lot of silly, easy movements. It was literally like, sing to each other, turn back to back, shimmy, turn back, point at each other. And we’re like, “That’s perfect. Let’s sit down. Do you want a cup of tea? I want a cup of tea.”
Dylan: When Pierce Brosnan tosses his microphone and catches it the wrong way, that’s fantastic.
Parker: I remember walking around, and Lily and Meryl were just fucking around, and Pierce did the thing with the mic by accident. So, I was like, “Cool, if you can do that deliberately …”
Dylan: Everyone’s got that energy, which is like, “This could all go tits up, but it doesn’t matter if it does.”
Parker: The only tricky one was Colin, who’s not a natural mover. He was just totally freaked out not to be choreographed, not to be told what to do. Hugh, obviously, with all respect for Colin, was just doing what Colin wanted. Their bit was just to stand there and do nothing and to look really shy and awkward.
Hugh Skinner, Young Harry: Colin had the genius idea that we should just see each other and be so disturbed that we’ve seen ourselves at a different age — we just look at each other and look a bit sad about it. Almost like it was something existentialist, kind of Beckett, Silent Fear.
Parker: I remember them presenting it and me going, “Well, that doesn’t work.”
Colin’s like, “I’m not doing it. I’m not dancing.” Nicely, obviously, because he’s a sweetie. So, I was like, “Okay. Right.” It was one of the few times — I don’t raise my voice, ever, but I was like, “Sorry, could I just have a …” I walked around this hotel set, being like, I don’t fucking know. And then I walked back in and went, “Hugh, could you try and make him do something?”
Skinner: I’m in a pair of pale-blue skintight dungarees and billowing sleeves and platform shoes. I just remember Ol shouting, “Okay, Colin, you can not do anything, but Hugh, I want you to dance around him.” I just went, “Oh, God.” I genuinely felt awkward.
Dylan: Hugh’s dancing around Colin, sort of desperate and beautiful. It was so funny.
Keenan Wynn: Stellan and Josh took the longest because Stellan couldn’t remember anything. They’d figure something out, and then we would all showcase it to each other and be like, “Okay, and music and go.” And Stellan would just stand there.
Dylan: Me and Stellan were like two naughty schoolboys. We obviously didn’t know what the fuck to do, so we just pissed around. He came up with a really simple dance routine, and then he forgot it several times.
Parker: I thought it would be nice to see Andy, too, but I didn’t quite know where he would be. We put him in playing the guitar, with the three guys. And if you watch them, fuck me, you can see how arrhythmic they all are. Stellan, I think we digitized his mouth, because he went, “Oom-pah-pah,” at the wrong time. How hard is it to do that? It’s a disaster, every shot. But we just get away with it. Part of the fun is watching these guys make absolute twats of themselves with complete abandon. Watch it again, and you’ll see how much they all suck.
Skarsgård: The digitized mouth probably looks better.
Baranski: I don’t think the three actors would mind my saying — Colin and Stellan and Pierce — just to get them to sing the song and put one foot in front of another and raise a glass of beer together, it was like rocket science.
Parker: Michele, our wonderful costume designer, had enormous fun designing those ludicrous jumpsuits, and it was enormous fun to watch them get into it. Stellan in Spandex. It was a happy day for all of us.
Craymer: On the first film, it was such a big secret that we were going to put them in Lycra. Pierce and Colin kept hiding behind their robes. They didn’t want anyone to capture — I mean, Pierce was like, “I have been James Bond.”
Skarsgård: In one of the Avengers films, I was running around naked at Stonehenge. So I’ve done a lot of funny costumes and non-costumes. I remember walking together with Pierce and Colin in those spandex suits. Pierce had just finished doing Bond, and he said, “I hope I don’t run into Daniel Craig.” Me and Colin, of course, said, “Well, it’d be good for him because then he’ll know what his future will be like.”
Dylan: There were definitely things shoved down those pants, by the way. But I think I found myself when I slipped on those flares.
Craymer: And that was Cher’s own costume — I think she put some of her own stuff together. Because, of course, we hadn’t got a costume made for that because literally it was the last minute. I think those were her pants, and we stuck some stars and flowers on them.
Parker: Cher had a slight hip issue, but she’s going up some steps in the scene. I asked Andy if he could be there and help. It seemed to suit his dignified character. I said, “Why don’t you help her up? Just lift her up the steps and give her a kiss. That’d be nice.” Then, the first rehearsal, we do that and he goes, “Where do you want me now?” And I go, “We’ll see you again at the bar with the guitar.” And he was like, “I’d like to stay and dance,” and I was like, “Okay.”
Garcia: That was my job, taking her up to the stage, and then I realized that once she started singing, this whole troop was dancing around me. So I said, “Ol, you mind if I join in? Because I’m just not going to stand here and make sure Cher doesn’t fall off the stage. What am I doing here?” You might not notice, but if you look into the crowd behind where Cher is, you see Fernando in there with his island friends.
Parker: It was always building up to the moment you see Meryl up on the stage and the girls point. And I hadn’t told the girls, Christine and Julie, that I’d got this thing to lift them up onto the back of it.
Baranski: The day we were to shoot it, I remember being told, “You know, we’re rehearsing going up this elevator.” And I said, “What elevator?” And it turned out not only were we in these outfits with those thigh-high, high-heel boots, but we had to go up a lift and then step out onto a high platform, Meryl and Julie and I, and do our little bit. And I wouldn’t say I’m really afraid of heights, but let’s say I’m not fond of them. I also was like, “Shouldn’t somebody have told me about this?”
Parker: It was just so ludicrously joyous that we thought, “Is there any way to take this even further?” We had the bit where they’re all separate, and then it’s like, “Okay, how do we get to the very ending?” We did the thing with Cher, with Lily and the girls, then threw it up to Dom and Amanda. I threw down to the boys, threw up to Meryl. Then we have the men, who all come out of the bar terribly. So then we were just like, “Okay, what do we do? How do we get into the very last lines of the song?” That was the slightly wobbly bit.
And then it was just: “Let’s have Meryl and Pierce. Because everyone secretly thinks he’s the dad. This would be lovely.” Also because Pierce hadn’t really sung for the whole movie. He whispers, I suppose. So let’s give Pierce a proper line. I wanted him to really bellow his line, like a busker, the way that he does. But actually, he does it rather dignified. I think he quite enjoyed doing “SOS.” He’d been rather moved by his own performance, and so I thought he could really hit the last line much like he does in the first movie. He does it rather gently, and it’s great.
Baranski: Do certain people sing perfectly? No. Are we great dancers? No. Do we look the best anybody could look in costumes like that? Eh, you know the spandex factor. But, oh my God.
Davies: It’s so lovely because we’re all shit. It’s like a high-school play, where you rehearse it together and then get to do it like five times and make sure you do it right. All of it felt very egoless.
Parker: The only time I’ve shouted on set is, I think, probably the third-last shot of the movie, second-last shot of the movie? It’s them all dancing toward Cher through the fog. Then she comes out and sings, and then it cuts to them and they’re all marching. I was in the room just off to the side with like six cameras, and I was stroking my chin going, “Okay, should we be a bit closer?” And it’s not like anyone gives a shit what I think anyway or listens to me, and they’re all really good camerapeople, so they’re doing their jobs. Whatever crap note I would give would have no effect whatsoever, so I just went out and watched Cher play live, which was extremely fun. And I just went, “Fuck me,” because I just thought it was the most incredible thing.
Dylan: Not a word of exaggeration — it was spellbinding. Cher came out in some sort of white mist, and she was just there with the most unbelievable charisma I think I’ve ever seen.
James: It was like being at a private Cher gig. I brought my mum to come down for the day. We were all watching on the monitors.
Craymer: We had to add an extra day — Cher enjoyed doing it so much that she decided to do two verses and choruses.
Parker: Cher was like, “I’ll have the first verse and the chorus,” and you go, “Of course, that would be great, but no. It’s just the first verse.” And she was like, “I’ll have the chorus too.” I had to be like, “No, no. It’s a handoff.”
Craymer: Cher loved singing these songs so much that she went and did a whole big U.S. tour singing ABBA songs.
Parker: It felt like a high-wire act, and until that test screening, I thought I might have made a catastrophic error. I don’t really do “pride” in my career, or life, even, but I do relief. And I remember that moment at the screening, thinking, “That’s a relief.”
Davies: There was a moment at the world premiere in London when “Super Trooper” starts. And it was a really frightening moment because Jess and I were not sure — we knew we were going to love it, but it’s that thing of, Is everybody else going to like it? And suddenly, we looked down to the stalls and everybody was up and dancing and singing along and there’s confetti going off. And I turned to Jess and she started crying.
Parker: British critics were incredibly nice about the sequel, and American critics pissed all over it. I remember “crowd-pleasing” was used as an insult, “heartwarming” an insult. And it’s like, “You fucking try it. It’s not that easy to please a crowd, to warm a heart.” I felt there was a sort of grudging, like, “We should hate it, but it works,” and it’s like, just give into it. We overcame grudging resistance. “Oh, all right then. Fuck it, by the end, you got me.”
Mamma Mia 3?
Craymer: I don’t think it would be as difficult to get everyone back together. I know I said that there probably will be one. I know. But it’s become such an important brand, and you just gotta get it right. There’s ideas and there’s thoughts, and ABBA has written more songs. I just have to get a move when I’m ready. I’ve had letters of complaint from people that say it’s been taken off Netflix, because of course the license has run out. They’re actually outraged.
Keenan Wynn: The amount of messages I get that are like, “Judy Craymer said there’s a Mamma Mia 3 coming up …” I think she’s always wanted a trilogy, but I’m in the same group as everyone else. I’m like, “What story line are we going to go with?” I don’t know.
Garcia: Would I do a third? Yes, of course. I think that there has to be a choice to be made: Either Ruby stays on the island or Fernando goes on the road with her. Fernando can organize a huge concert for Ruby on the island.
Skarsgård: I will be there in an urn.
Baranski: I shouldn’t even say my idea in the press because then somebody’s going to steal my idea and claim that it was their idea. But I said, “Why don’t we all just go back to Vis and, over the course of two or three days, or maybe just a week, just bring everybody back together? We’ll sit around in some great restaurant or outdoor café, and we’ll reminisce about it, and we’ll play songs.” It could maybe go online, now that we’re just streaming everything. Mamma Mia, quote, unquote, The Reunion, and you bring the cast together, and we’ll all stand around, and Benny plays the piano, and we all just make fun, and we sing and be goofy. And it’s sort of a massive TikTok experience, you know? Now you can quote me, and let me just say, nobody else has had this idea. It’s my idea.
James: I really want there to be another one. There’s got to be another one with Sophie’s child. I’d petition them to let me be in it. Does everyone say that?
Seyfried: I hold out hope that there will be a third. I don’t even care what the story is. I just want the opportunity again. It changed my life.
Parker: I’m done. I’m so done. I mean, they talk about it because luckily it went good, fortunately. And Judy started to go, “I always saw it as a trilogy,” which is nine kinds of bollocks because it was never — this just can’t be true, otherwise there would have been a sequel nearer than nine years’ time. But yeah, I mean, no, not with me. It’s very nice and everything, but I’m done. I mean, there’s only so many times you can do “Dancing Queen,” do you know what I mean?
James: We’d force Ol to do it.
Interviews were edited and condensed for clarity.