David Magee has written the screenplays involving classic British literary figures for Finding Neverland and Miss Pettigrew, so it seems only natural the scribe would be called on to write Mary Poppins Returns. But how, with all the ideas from John DeLuca and Rob Marshall do they crack the story? Why would Mary Poppins Return to us after all this time?
Magee explains during the writing of the story he read the books and together the team picked their adventures that she should go on. It was only after much thinking did they realize Mary Poppins would return, not to George Banks, but to his son, Michael. And that’s how the practically perfect sequel was born.
David, you are no stranger to British classics, I have to say.
I never intended to write British films. I got the opportunity to write Finding Neverland because I had written a play. A producer did a very small production of it, and I was in her office asking what she was doing next and she said, “There’s someone in my workshop and he’s written this thing about James Barry and how his relationship with the kids became the basis for Peter Pan.” I thought it was wonderful and offered to write the film.
What happens when you write a film like Neverland and live in New Jeresy where no one knows you, they assume you’re British. So, very early on, the projects that came to me were British projects. They’d get on the phone with me and say how I didn’t sound British.
I love England. I love London. It was no an Anglophile’s “One day I’ll be able to write British films.” It was just that an opportunity came. I do think I have a writing style that is a little more lyrical that fits in nicely with that style of speech, but there was nothing intentional about it. When someone comes to you and asks if you want to write Mary Poppins Returns, you say yes.
Was it Rob who came to you?
Yes. It was through an agent who said that Rob wanted to talk about the possibility of doing this. I had no idea what we would do. I think he and John sent over some notes about image and ideas they had about how the film might open and I read those. I thought it sounded so good.
We sat in a hotel room and started talking about those notes, I made some suggestions and they liked what I said. Pretty soon we were finishing each other’s sentences and I signed up.
What was your entry to this? Did you go read the books? Revisit the film?
There were two things. One was working from the inside out and the other was working from the outside in. From the outside in, we read all the stories by PL Travers. We looked at the adventures that we thought would be fun to go on. We were trying to find those things that would excite us about the journey.
From the inside out, we were wondering why would she return? If she did a good job the first time, why would she have to come back? George Banks looks like he has it all under control. He learned how to appreciate life and his family. Initially, we didn’t leap to the conclusion that we would make it about Jane and Michael, we tried to make it work with that family. We tried different scenarios. We talked through a dozen different ideas but they never felt right.
Rob Marshall, from the very beginning, noticed the first book was written during the period of depression and the first page said that the Banks’ home was one of the shabbiest and smallest on Cherry Tree Lane. That wasn’t in the first film and so Rob wanted to explore that. He said, let’s ground it in some greater reality and we all agreed on that.
Disney, for the sake of making it a musical moved it back to the Edwardian era and George Banks was a successful banker and that was a beautiful home. We were talking about a period during the depression where it wasn’t necessarily that fancy. It was only when we said, if the kids grew up and we kept that timeline accurate, then they would be the ones going through things. There’s a line in the book where Travers says, “Grown-ups forget, they always do” and that’s in our film. That was when it all came together.
That was when we thought it’s not about George Banks. It’s about a generation that has moved on and those children who had Mary Poppins have gone through things and they think it was all a fantasy, to begin with. That was the real challenge of making the film happen and once we figured that out we were on our way.
You’re on your way, but you’re also writing for a musical.
Yes. First time.
How did you work with that process of writing the script?
I was fortunate to be working with Rob, John, Marc Shaiman, and Scott Wittman know musicals inside out, back to front, sideways. The four of them together know the history of musicals, can refer to films from the 1920s as if it was common knowledge. I did understand story and in those initial meetings, I would focus on what furthers the story and what happens? As I was doing that, Marc or Scott or sometimes the both of them would say, “Oh that can be a musical moment. That can be a song.” Occasionally, they’d say, “Where the lost things go?” That was something Scott heard early on and thought it would be a song. We would know what the songs were trying to explore or express. When we got to writing the script, I would write a scene right up to the point where I thought a song would begin, but then I’d keep going into the song.
With Trip a Little Light Fantastic. It starts with Jack talking to the kids about how to get through when things are hard and you’re lost in a fog. I wrote what he might say. I’d hand it over and they’d say, “We’re starting the song here.” They were taking bits from what I was doing and I was guiding them into it. In the case of that song, they wrote to a certain point and they’d say, “now we’re going to go back to talking and Jack is going to tell them what a Leery does.” So, I’d write that up and they’d play with that to make it fit better with the music. There was a natural give and take.
You mention the Leery and what’s so great is the new words that have come out. It’s in the true spirit of the original. We all know Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is not a word, but we all know it.
We love it.
How was it bringing those words together?
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious capture something about the original so strongly that we didn’t want o keep reminding the audience of it. We didn’t want it to be a borrowing of the original, but we did want to honor the original. Once we did earn the respect and we’re telling our own story here, we wanted to be able to be able to refer gently back to the original for those who know the film really well. We wanted to deepen what you were experiencing in our film by making those references. In creating leerys, Rob and John didn’t want to do a lamplighter, they researched into people who lit the streetlamps. They found a Robert Louis Stevenson poem that mentions the leerys that come out at night. It was such a beautiful lyrical word that we used it for our characters throughout. It was not a word we invented, but it wasn’t in common use.
That was the way we were trying not to replicate the original, but to pay homage to it and connect our story to his. From there, we decided that Jack would be an orphan who would be taken under Bert’s wing and originally learn to be a chimney sweep but got to be a lamplighter and that’s how he evolved.
Did you research the Great Depression?
I did a fair amount. I know a fair amount about the economic times in the USA but that’s different than what went on in London. I did a fair amount of reading. I looked at why it differed and how the government handled it and aggravated the situation in a different way than here in the US. I learned about mortgages and contracts and how foreclosure worked at that time. At a certain point when you do research, you have to decide, does this audience want to know about mortgage contracts or do they want to learn about the world these children live in? Do we have to spend extra time to go into how long it would actually take to set up a foreclosure notice? Or is it okay, knowing what we know that it’s OK for these bankers to come in and nail that notice to the door on Sunday?
I think research is done by screenwriters to learn what the truth is so they can make choices, rather than the other way around. That was the kind of thing we had to do.
Who’s to blame for Colin Firth being the baddie?
Blame Rob. He cast him. We did need our villain. we debated for a long time who it was going to be. Mr. Wilkins is from a Mary Poppins book and he’s mentioned in passing. We loved the name Willifred Wilkins and that’s where he was born and then it became a natural progression for him to be someone in charge of the bank playing games to gain his own advantage.