Muriel Heslop, bulging out of her ill-fitting flare-suit, stands awkwardly back-to-back with her friend Rhonda Epinstall against a tinsel curtain, on stage at the Hibiscus Island Star Search competition. Their Mamma Mia-inspired, white-sequined outfits glisten under the stage lights as a crowd looks on in anticipation, before the erupting “MY MY!” of ABBA’s Waterloo plays overhead. It’s a subtle joke that triggers a dramatically loaded, three-minute dust up: Rhonda and Muriel perform an increasingly complex dance routine as a crowd cheers the two on, ignoring the brawl that breaks out between two of Muriel’s “friends,” Tania and Nicole. The same girls who painfully excluded Muriel from their Hibiscus Island getaway and from their group.
This scene, also known as the “Waterloo Scene,” is pivotal in the epochal Australian dramedy Muriel’s Wedding, a movie that is a paragon of “bogan” (read: trashy) Australian suburbia, much in the same way This is England encapsulates a certain British stereotype and Fubar is synonymous with Canadiana. Muriel’s Wedding was one of the first real Aussie representations on screen in the “THAT’s a knife” era of Crocodile Dundee, while simultaneously encouraging a generation of Australian middle-class mothers to sing ABBA, out of tune, drunk at Christmas. But although this karaoke spectacle is the first big ABBA moment in an already ABBA-heavy film, it’s also the first time we celebrate and empathise with Muriel (Toni Collette) – a character who, prior to this moment, was a talentless, unemployed nobody who stole $12,000 from her corrupt, abusive father.
It’s a sequence that writer/director PJ Hogan wanted to function as Muriel’s first triumph: a victory that had to be public, and had to involve the girls who bullied her. “The karaoke Waterloo scene was it,” he explains. But it’s a scene where we see Muriel subsequently flourish; the next act showcasing a new Muriel, or ‘Mariel’ rather – one living in Sydney as more confident and self-assured woman.
The challenges in making Muriel’s Wedding, such as writer/director PJ Hogan harassing ABBA to secure music rights, are well-established with this sequence being no different. Originally, the scene was to be set on The Fairstar, the P&O Cruises love boat that Hogan dubs “a vice-den on water” docked in Sydney. However, plans fell through after a representative from P&O read the script, which exaggerated its seedy reputation, and withdrew filming permissions, telling Hogan, “Muriel and Rhonda and her friends are not the sort of people we want to attract to our cruises”. The love boat idea was swapped for the fictional resort of Hibiscus Island.
On the film’s 25th anniversary, the cast and crew of Muriel’s Wedding dissect the experience of developing and creating the famous Waterloo scene.
Paddy Reardon, Production Designer: “Having lost The Fairstar, we were forced back to the real world. We created an imaginary resort called Hibiscus Island, which is sort of based on Hayman Island Resort in the Coral Sea.
“My vision for Hibiscus Island was fairly simple: make it tropical and keep plenty of lights twinkling in the background. I guess you can say sort of ‘fantasy tropical.’
“My experience with tropical resorts, in general, was limited to a few holidays in Bali, and a bit of experience as a set decorator in the Philippines, on Year of Living Dangerously. The scene began with the idea of a tropical backdrop on a small stage, like (the)many semi-professional stage sets that get built at these resorts.”
Jane Murphy, Set Decorator: “Once the location had been reimagined at the Hibiscus Island Resort, we set about creating that world by incorporating the Hibiscus brand imagery in the furnishings and greenery, combined with bamboo screens to conceal and enhance. We had a hilarious reference book of tropical cocktails which we diligently recreated.
“Glen W. Johnson (Jane’s fellow Set Decorator) and I had both been involved in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, and we hired one of the Mardi Gras workshop artists, Pip Playford, to create the lavish buffet table displays, inspired by (“The Brazilian Bombshell”) Carmen Miranda, and high-camp decorative references. The slashed Mylar curtain backdrops were a very inexpensive way to create the staging for the Star Search sequence.”
The most iconic part of this sequence is the dance, which Hogan, for his own amusement, wanted to emulate in the Mamma Mia film clip. After being wowed by the routines of Strictly Ballroom, he enlisted Ballroom’s choreographer John “Cha Cha” O’Connell.
“(The routine’s brief) was: ‘Cha Cha, you’ve got a vision of dance which I love, but also, it’s ABBA’,” Hogan says.
According to Hogan, Toni Collette wanted to shake her bum – something Hogan felt was out of character for Muriel; instead, Hogan settled with Toni shaking her chest.
John “Cha Cha” O’Connell, Choreographer: “I think it captured the flavour of an ABBA number but was a little more ‘sophisticated’ in the sense that Toni and Rachel were better dancers and could execute a routine with much more precision than the ABBA ladies!
“My favourite moment in the whole number is when Toni, who at one point is standing slightly behind Rachel and is overshadowed by her, calmly gets her hand to move her hair out of the way whilst continuing to sing the song.
“I’m not sure, but I think it initially happened by accident during a run, and I liked it so much, I asked Toni to keep it in.”
Rachel Griffiths, Rhonda Epinstall: “Muriel’s Wedding was my first film, so I (hadn’t) shot a dance routine before, but I did study dance at college, doing a Dance/Design/Drama triple major. But I wasn’t a great dancer. I focused more on choreography, which had continued to be helpful.
“Cha Cha is one of (Australia’s) greatest choreographers. He made it fun and allowed us to build in those adorable moments – where we do the ABBA turning-the-head thing. I loved how hammy we got. Like really emo, like ABBA when they were falling apart! At one point, I almost teared up.”
To match the ABBA and island resort vibe, Hogan enlisted Terry Ryan as the costume designer, following the departure of the original designer due to poor health – an opportunity Terry himself is thankful for as the original designs were “quite straight,” (or “bogan” in the Australian vernacular.)
But Hogan almost had to find another designer, with Ryan almost walking off set throughout the whole film from an ill-advised early-on decision: “Terry had done a lot of shopping for the film, and had a lot of clothes. So I said (to Toni and Rachel): ‘Why don’t you just go through and see what Terry’s got in mind?’,” muses Hogan, later adding that he often had Ryan yell at him: “Those terrible girls!” and “Those girls were in my department again. Telling what they will and won’t wear!”
“They couldn’t mess with the waterloo scene,” Hogan interjects, “because that was ABBA’s costumes from the original film clip of Mamma Mia from 1970-something.”
Terry Ryan, Costume Design: “(The) ABBA costume design is a total ripoff (of ABBA). And I’m so glad they did them in white. Virtually the same – just heightened the total disregard for taste only they could have.
“As for The Island: get every bright tropical print, stripe, and check. Board short, sarong, speedo, bikini. A group of good-looking Gold Coast (people) under 25’s – Hey Presto!”
The film’s low budget and tight shooting schedule translated to 10-hour days. And with this sequence arriving midway through the movie, Hogan and his crew had to work fast, having no more than one or two takes of every set-up.
This uphill challenge meant some mistakes and tweaks. Toni Collette had never acted in a film before; she would occasionally look at the camera while shooting. It also meant that, when it came to the fight sequence, Hogan only had 10 minutes to get the shot.
PJ Hogan, Writer/Director: I remember saying to Pippa Grandison (Nicole) and Sophie Lee (Tania): “I have one take, and then they’re going to pull the plug on me. Please don’t hold back. I’m not going to ask you to do anything more than one time.” I used the two cameras for the fight, and they just went for it. They just beat the shit out of each other.
Sophie said “I’d been in girl fights because I grew up in Newcastle. I’ve been attacked by girls like this. I know what I’m doing!”
Pippa Grandison, Nicole: Keeping a straight face was a challenge throughout the entire shoot, really. Although Nicole was such a nasty piece of work, I was scowling for the most part.
[The fight] was basically choreographed in terms of who would be on top of who and when; punches or slaps, but there was room for a little improvisation. PJ did want us to end up on the floor pulling each other’s hair, screaming for the final shot.
The pressure was on to get it right, but it was exciting.
Rachel Griffiths: (Filming this scene) was just joy. And although we were exhausted by the end, the whole day – with the girl’s fight and the chaos we caused – was so fun.
PJ Hogan: When that sequence played (at its Cannes premiere), the audience would follow those characters anywhere. It was cheering and foot-stomping throughout the sequence. The audience loved the girls, they loved the song – the moment the girls appeared dressed as ABBA, they went insane. It was a good lesson to me that no matter what you’re told by the powers that be, they’re probably wrong.