After the troubled production of Sister Act, there were concerns amongst the cast about returning for Sister Act 2: we look into the story.
Very few people saw the success of 1992’s Sister Act coming. The movie, starring Whoopi Goldberg hiding undercover in a covent whilst pretending to be a nun, was the definition of a sleeper hit. Quite simply, the kind of film that nobody expected to do blockbuster numbers, and yet that’s exactly what it did. It came in the midst of a couple of other comedies which too had performed well above expectations at the box office: 1991’s The Addams Family and 1992’s Wayne’s World. And in each of those cases, the respective studios wanted a sequel.
But the original Sister Act hadn’t been a happy ship. As I covered in a podcast episode here, for a long time it was a project intended for Bette Midler before she got cold feet (a decision she’d regret), and when it did finally get going, director Emile Ardolino was left to battle with an incomplete script and a production that was days ahead of where the writing was. Paul Rudnick, the sole credited screenwriter, would go under a pseudonym on the final credits.
Goldberg and Ardolino worked well together, but the star wasn’t happy at all with the chaos behind the scenes. When she hung up her habit at the end of the film’s production, in theory that would have been that. But then the modestly-budgeted picture wound up as the third biggest movie of the year at the US box office, in a top four that otherwise included higher budget sequels Batman Returns, Lethal Weapon 3 and Home Alone 2: Lost In New York.
As one of the most profitable films of the year – and that’s even before the hit soundtrack album was taken into account – parent studio Disney wanted a sequel. The problem was that Whoopi Goldberg simply didn’t want to make one.
“I didn’t want to do Sister Act 2 right away”, she confirmed to Film Review magazine in April 1994, an interview to, er, promote Sister Act 2. “It just wasn’t what I wanted to do”. What’s more, it wasn’t a killer script that persuaded her to change her mind. Her managers convinced her to do it. “15% they took for that”, she told the magazine.
15% of a hefty paypacket too. For a brief moment, Whoopi Goldberg became the highest paid actress in the world. In the early 90s, Disney was a notably stingy company when it came to star salaries, but it agreed to stump up $8m to Goldberg to get her to return (Julia Roberts would get paid slightly more a few weeks later). After all, they could hardly make the sequel without her.
Crucially, as part of the deal, she also got funding for a passion project of hers that she really wanted to make: Sarafina!
Disney wasn’t in a strong negotiating position though, because it wanted the film quickly. It wanted to capitalise on it and other 1992 hits it’d enjoyed, and indeed it would get into production sequels to The Mighty Ducks, 3 Ninjas and Father Of The Bride as well.
Yet Sister Act 2 was going to be the biggie, and most of the core cast – Whoopi, Dame Maggie Smith, Kathy Najimy, Wendy Makkena – were back.
But the film still came with sizeable challenges, not least a change of creative personnel behind the camera. Tragically, Ardolino would succumb to AIDS-related illnesses not long after the release of the first film. The chances of Paul Rudnick writing the sequel were not on the high side either, not least because Paramount had nabbed him to pen Addams Family Values at the same time.
In came James Orr, Jim Cruickshank and Judi Ann Mason to pen the new script, and they shifted the onus of the second film to focus on the children of the school where the nuns of the convent are now teachers. It wasn’t a change of direction that pleased all of the cast.
It’s remarkable reading the aforementioned Film Review feature back, given that it was ostensibly a promotional piece to push the release of the movie. But take this, from Wendy Makkena, who reprised the role of Sister Mary Robert. “I got the script and discovered that I had about ten lines, all one-liners. It was really sad”. She also admitted she enquired about getting out of the film, but “then my agent told me I had no choice. I had signed a three-picture deal. So I went in with a little bit of anger”.
In the first week of filming, work began to beef up Makkena’s role. “I was given some of Whoopi’s and [Dame] Maggie’s lines. Unfortunately, it always happened five minutes before we shot and I was mostly unprepared”.
Asked about her feelings on the movie as it headed to UK cinemas, she said “I feel really good now with my work on the television series NYPD Blue. I don’t want to ruin it by seeing this film”.
Kathy Najimy, also returning, did watch the final film, and told Film Review that she was “a bit disappointed” with the end product. She never fully wrapped her head around the storyline that sent the nuns into a school. “It was really difficult to push the nuns in when they really don’t belong to the storyline”, she argued.
This time though, the fractious behind the scenes battles that the first film had gone through were in the past. Goldberg admitted it was a much smoother shoot, adding “it was no battle with Disney on this movie because I stayed out of a lot of stuff … they made a lot of decisions that probably would not have been the decisions I would have made”.
There were positives. Bill Duke was the new director, and in his memoir he thanks Disney for giving him the job helming that and another film, Cemetery Club. He describes those two projects as those that “gave me a major break in directing”.
He gives a more even account of the shoot too. “Whoopi was a joy to work with. She worked hard. She did a lot of improvisation during filming. Sometimes it was better than what was scripted. The studio was not always happy about this, but they allowed her freedom to execute the character in the way she saw fit”, he wrote.
Goldberg, meanwhile, was sanguine. “It’s not what happens during the filming that matters, it’s what happens when people come out of it”, she argued. The problem was that the audience for the first film didn’t really come out for the second. Costing some $6m more to make, the $231m global gross of the original was down to half that.
In fact, Sister Act 2: Back In The Habit wasn’t alone there either. The sequels to The Addams Family and Wayne’s World also failed to recapture the box office gold they’d originally enjoyed. And unlike the Sister Act follow-up, those particular sequels were arguably better than the films that preceded them too.
Still, the legend of Sister Act lives on. A huge Broadway and West End stage musical followed, and work is now underway – at last – on that third film. This time, Whoopi – who insisted she was done with the character at one stage – is getting back in the habit. And when that new film lands on Disney+, don’t be surprised is the second gets something of a reappraisal at the same time…
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