How Mary Poppins Returns Challenged Director Rob Marshall
The director of musicals like Chicago and Into the Woods tells us why Mary Poppins Returns was his most personal project.
With Mary Poppins Returns debuting on Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD and DVD today (March 19) after bowing on digital platforms a week earlier, Den of Geek had the chance recently to sit down with director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods) and learn what drove him to create a sequel to one of the most beloved movie musicals — and most famous Disney films — of all time.
Before speaking with Marshall, we and other reporters piled into a screening room on the Disney lot to watch the “making of” mini-documentary included with the Blu-ray. After the screening, Marshall sat for a brief Q&A where he was joined by the still radiant (and sharp) Angela Lansbury, a living legend and dynamo at 93 whose appearance near the end of Mary Poppins Returns (as the Balloon Lady) lights up the screen.
One thing evident from Lansbury, Marshall and the bonus documentary itself is the genuine love that everyone involved with Mary Poppins Returns had for the project and the original film (not to mention the P.L. Travers books). Emily Blunt was a natural fit to take over the title role immortalized by Julie Andrews in 1964, while Hamilton star/creator Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack the lamplighter provided a charismatic successor to Dick Van Dyke’s Bert the chimney sweep — with Van Dyke himself reappearing in the new film in a different role to give it his stamp of approval and make the connection clearer.
Whether Mary Poppins Returns stands the test of time like its predecessor is a question yet to be answered, but the heart that Marshall, his cast and crew poured into it will go a long way toward helping that along. We spoke with Marshall about making what he calls his most personal film yet, the enduring magic of the original and where the movie musical genre goes from here.
Den of Geek: You mentioned seeing the original Mary Poppins when you were four. Do you remember seeing it?
Rob Marshall: I saw it in Pittsburgh at a theater downtown. It was just thrilling. We used to get dressed up to go to the theater, to the movie theater. We were dressed up, it was a big event, which I loved. Programs and all of that stuff. It was thrilling. It was life changing.
What stuck with you all these years, and what do you think has stuck with the world in general?
The live action animation sequence was one of the reasons it was so original and so new. I was determined to re-create the original hand drawn animation, that’s something that was really important to me. There were so many things that I thought were in the DNA of Mary Poppins that I really wanted to retain as I was working on it.
First of all, the character itself is such an incredible character. There’s so much dimension to it. Of course, she brings magic into people’s lives, but the best part of it is she denies ever being involved in it at all. On one hand she’s incredibly proper and stern, and strict, and on the other hand, she’s this free spirit. I think it’s very much like P. L. Travers herself, who gets lost in these adventures and enjoys them just as much as the children.
It’s finding magic in everyday, ordinary life, that for me, if I had to boil it down to one thing — how a walk to the park can become an adventure. How going on an errand can become an adventure. How cleaning up your room, or in our film, taking a bath can become an adventure. How can you bring an adventure and magic into your life? That’s what the books are, and that’s why the films are so successful.
Read More: How Mary Poppins Returns Was Brought to Life
Which is a very much like a child’s eye view of the world. Take a child outside for a walk and it can turn into all these kinds of things.
Exactly. And the hope is that adults can try and remember that. That’s what this film is about. Remembering that. There’s a great moment at the end of the film when Angela Lansbury’s character sees everybody floating up in balloons, and she says, “Of course, the adults will all forget by tomorrow.” And Mary Poppins says, “Well, they always do.” You just go, “Oh you don’t want them to. You want them to hold on, retain that. That sense of wonder and that sense of magic in life.”
When it was announced that Emily was playing the role, I think there was this collective “Of course.” Could it have happened without her? It seems like she was destined, in a way, to step into that role.
I feel the same way. There’s nobody else that I thought of. I had just worked with her in Into the Woods. The requirements were so vast to play this role, and she ticked every box. There was nothing, there was no one else. I thought of no one else. If she had said no, I don’t know if I would have done the project. Who would I have used? Thank God she said yes right away. I just knew that she was the one. No question.
And then you have somebody like Lin-Manuel, who hadn’t done a lot on the big screen before this.
This is his first big starring role in a feature film.
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You’ve done work on both the stage and screen, is it harder than people think to make that transition?
It is. It’s more complicated than you think. Although it’s just a different kind of discipline. I think the harder one is theater. You have to do it eight times a week. The difference is two-fold, I would say. You don’t a build performance through previews, and so forth, until you open. Because you rehearse, and then it’s like the Olympics. It’s, “Today’s the day.” And you have to be there. There’s a lot of work that has to be done individually, on your own to prepare for that. Even though we had a full rehearsal process on this film. That’s different. I think Lin could talk about that. He was like, “Wow.” Emily’s used to that, obviously, having done film for so many years. That’s a big thing.
Then, the performance itself. On stage, you have to send it out. You have to project it out to a house. Here, the camera’s doing that work for you. I always think of it like a hose of water. And theater has to be a wide hose, spraying water. On film, it’s the same exact pressure, but has to be a fine spray. Does that make sense? It’s all the same things are happening, but it’s a fine spray. Otherwise, it would be too broad for film. It’s fascinating. I love working with actors from the theater, because I think, like I said, their skills are honed in that way. I think it’s easier to transition from theater to film than it is to transition from film to theater.
Did you pull stuff, little bits or details, or even character things from the other seven books?
Yes. The answer is yes. We sat with all the seven other books, and worked through them all, looking specifically for material, characters, sayings. We culled through all of it. To find the crème de le crème, the best of the best. And a lot of it came from the second book, which is called Mary Poppins Comes Back. I would say a lot of it came mostly from that but also from Mary Poppins Opens the Door. Those are the next two.
The idea of where the lost things go, this idea there’s a place where lost things go, that came from a very late book. We actually worked from everything. And it was very helpful. We had this little sheet of Mary Poppins-isms we called them — little character things and sayings, and funny things. We worked from those a lot. And they’re from all seven books.
You’ve done musicals on screen, on the stage, on TV. What made this one particularly challenging for you?
I guess the biggest difference for me was this was the first original musical I had done for film. And that’s a whole other can of worms. My favorite musical films are the late Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain, or Meet Me in Saint Louis, or The Bandwagon — all original musicals that were created for film. I’d always wanted to do that, and I’d never done that before. That was the huge challenge. That’s why this took three years. And starting with the idea that we’re going to be working on this, and then creating it with this wonderful team of John DeLuca and David Magee writing the story.
All the books, there’s no narrative to them, so you’re working to create a narrative. That, plus working with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman on the score, and pulling that all together. Writing specifically for Emily Blunt, specifically for Lin-Manuel, specifically for Meryl Streep. That felt like we were literally in the MGM days of the Arthur Freed unit. That was thrilling. But the most challenging was the high wire act of following in the footsteps of the original film. We have to follow so much of what that film brings us, because we are the sequel to that film, and also stand on our own. That was the balancing act.
As somebody who has done a lot, I think, to keep the musical alive on screen —
Where do you think the genre stands in 2019?
I’m very optimistic about it. I see there are a lot of musicals coming out, and that’s really exciting. Just this year alone, Aladdin will be coming out. Lion King is coming out. That’s just from this studio alone. West Side Story. It’s exciting to see. When I did Chicago, they were dead. Musicals were dead. I was told every day that no one’s going to see this film, because it was a genre that had faded away. Not animated films. People could accept people singing in animation, but not in live action.
I never believed the genre was dead. Especially because it’s our genre. It’s an American genre. I thought, “Wait a minute. How could that possibly be? I don’t believe it.” When I did Chicago, I was hoping to do something in a way that was special, but also really worked hard to make the genre work. You have to be very careful. Having done so many different kinds of films, I would say the musicals are the most complicated. Because it can so easily go off the rails. You have to be careful about making sure that the songs feel integrated into the story. They have to feel seamless. You have to follow the rules of a musical. All of those things are so important. It’s the most fragile genre, but honestly my favorite.
Mary Poppins Returns is out on Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD and DVD today (March 19), and also available on digital.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye