Rob Marshall met with us in a Beverly Hills Hotel early in the day to discuss his new film Mary Poppins Returns.
Marshall who has given us such films as Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Into The Woods , for the first time, got to build a musical from the ground up with Mary Poppins Returns. He says, “It felt like I was doing three movies at once.”
Mary Poppins Returns is very much an original musical with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman composing delightful catchy numbers that will be sung for years to come. If anyone could deliver a sequel to Mary Poppins, it’s Marshall who has found the perfect balance of nostalgic to bring us to sentimental tears along with plenty of new material to have us smiling ear to ear. He explains how he used his own fondest wishes as a barometer for what audiences should expect. “What would I want to see if I came and saw a sequel to Mary Poppins?”
I’m going to jump right in. The Place Where Lost Things Go was such a beautiful number. The way it deals with grief and loss and I found it so healing. But of course, the film is just so happy and so wonderful. You leave so happy after all the happy/sad tears.
There’s no denying that Mary Poppins Returns is a happy and joyful film. It’s a healing film for people who are struggling with life, struggling with loss and keeping their homes, struggling with finding hope in the world today in this current climate. That’s my great hope that people take something that lifts them and takes that away from the film. It’s all I can ask for.
You do. It’s so magical and you made it such a delight to revisit the world of Mary Poppins.
That’s one of the reasons I actually really wanted to do it because I wanted to live in that world. The original film means so much to me and I have such great respect and love for it and I wanted to protect it in a way. I wanted to treat this movie with great care and love and thoughtfulness. I wanted to really guide it. A lot of people thought, “How could you take this on?” I thought if anybody is going to do it, I want to be the one to do it. I wanted to be that one because it means so much to me. I wanted to protect it.
I have always wanted to do an original musical for film which I’ve never done before.
I know Rob! What was that like for you to build something from the ground up? Everything you’ve done has been an adaptation.
It felt like I was doing three movies at once. We started writing it in Fall 2015 and we started constructing a story. The P.L Travers books are very episodic adventures and we were able to cherry pick some of those from the different books but we had no narrative and no story. We were looking for an emotional story and one that would justify bringing Mary Poppins back after 54 years. I was excited to set it in the Depression era in London in the 1930s. That was something that somehow felt very modern and very accessible to the people of today. Just with that story and this idea of Michael and Jane all grown up. What’s happened to them? With that sense of how you’re getting through life and how you’re struggling and how this family needs to heal, that was the core of it all. From that, we found our musical which took so much time. You have to create a story. You have to find a place for the songs. You have to make sure it feels seamless and that the songs are earned. By the time we had it on its feet, we went into a writers workshop for a while. Disney was amazing. They stayed away and let me have the process to really work the material. There were over two months of rehearsal with the cast. I actually had prep time even before that because there are so many layers of work on this. You have choreography, you have children and new music. We were trying new songs every day. There was animation, visual effects and there was so much involved in it that and it was just a massive project.
How did you balance the nostalgic moments bringing in Dick Van Dyke, the use of animation and then making it original?
I use myself as a barometer and asked myself, “What would I want to see if I came and saw a sequel to Mary Poppins?” I’d want to see an animated live sequence because it’s in the DNA of the Mary Poppins world. I would feel bad or sad if that wasn’t in.
I knew there needed to be a big, athletic production number with Mary Poppins and Jack and all kinds of wonderful male dancers. It’s such an easy thing to overuse the material from the first film. I didn’t want to do that. I found very specific places where to pay homage or where to bring up some nostalgia.
When they’re going through the attic and they find the snowglobe that was in Feed The Birds or the Kite which plays a big part in our film. There were threads of things we wanted to use, but we were careful to make sure we had our own story.
How did you cast your Mary Poppins? I know you’re so meticulous with your casting so how did you land at Emily Blunt?
That was the quickest, fastest, easiest decision. I had just worked with Emily on Into The Woods. I loved working with her. I love her personally, but I also love her work. I knew the requirements to play Mary Poppins were so vast and I knew that Emily had every one of them from being a great actress who could play a series of layers, from the facade of a stern brusque nanny to peeling back a layer and feeling underneath the warmth and heart of Mary, but also her humor and vulnerability. I knew Emily could sing. I learned that she could dance on this which was thrilling. In addition to that, she’s British. I felt it was time for Emily and I felt like it was her moment. I knew she’d be inventive and smart and clever and quick witted. It was very clear to me that there was one choice.
Rob, what’s your process with building your musical? Because I saw this and from the opening of Under The London Sky, I could see this as a big Broadway musical.
I come from theater as you know. It’s inherent in musicals on film, it will always be a hybrid of theater and film because the shape of it comes from theater. It just has a theatrical sensibility because you’re moving out of dialogue into song which is a more theatrical device. The goal is to make it seamless so it feels like one. It should seem effortless but it’s so hard to achieve. There’s so much involved in that kind of thing. For me, that’s why I think, ultimately, this is the hardest I’ve ever worked on film because it was all new.
At the same time, it was a dream for me to do an original musical for me, this was that chance for me to do that.
Let’s talk about Trip The Light Fantastic and putting that together because that’s a big one.
There were a lot of elements to it. We had over 50 dancers. We had stuntmen who are called Parkour bikers who do all the stunts. We had that whole element. Of course, I had the children involved, Mary Poppins and Jack. Then we had not only a song that’s taking us through the locations in London and you’re guiding them all the way home.
So, we’re on location and we end up in this abandoned park where the leeries gather. That section of it was the most complicated because of all the moving pieces. It was choreographed within an inch of its life. There was so much going on.
I put it together in a full run because I wanted it to feel alive. That’s what I’m always looking for, it should look organic and it’s happening in the moment. I shouldn’t look too stagey or too perfect. It should have life to it.
I started as a dancer so I loved working with dancers, I like treating them like they are actors and principals in the piece. I think you get so much back from that.
Then it transitions into Cherry Tree Lane and that whole sequence — it was massive. I’ve never done production number that’s over eight minutes long, but that’s what this is. It was something I was so excited to take on because it’s literally in my blood.
Meryl is in this, but her character is a man in the books.
I worked with Meryl on Into The Woods which was incredible. There is no one like Meryl Streep. She’s so passionate about her work and she approaches it like it’s the first thing she’s ever done in her life. She just gives everything.
With this character which is so out there, she just attacked it. The humor of it, the physicality of it, the wordiness of it, all of that. She surprises every time. Every time I work with her, she just surprises, all of it. There’s no end to her talent. When she’s swinging on the chandelier that’s her.
No way! I was wondering if that was a stunt double.
No. That is her. She has to do it for real, that’s why I love her. May I please work with her for the rest of my life? She sets the bar so high and we knew all of us, on this film, that the bar was so high. We all knew I knew personally, that I wanted to send this message of hope out into the world, but everybody felt that. Meryl wanted to be a part of that. Colin wanted to be a part of that. Emily. Lin. Ben. Emily Mortimer. This amazing cast and everyone wanted to be a part of that, including Dick Van Dyke.
That was the dream of all dreams. He grabbed me as we were walking on to set, he said, “I have to tell you something, Rob.” I thought, “Oh God! Here we go.” He said, “I feel the same spirit here as I did on the first film.” I thought, “OK. My job is done.” No matter what happens I’ve succeeded because that was the goal for me. To make the experience and the feeling of it come across on the screen.
I revisited Memoirs of a Geisha and it’s still so beautiful.
You know, I haven’t watched it since the premiere. I’m dying to go back. I think I will go back. I’m excited to see it again.
What’s on the cards next?
They came to me about The Little Mermaid. I’m just looking and exploring to see if it’s possible to make that work. I’m in the exploration phase.
Mary Poppins Returns is released on December 19.