As Rob Marshall put the kite in motion to bring back Mary Poppins, he relied on his trusted collaborators to help make it happen. The key factor to anyone working on the film was to have the original Mary Poppins in their DNA. As I sat down with the cast and crew during the press day in Beverly Hills last month, their affection for the first film was palpable, and with that passion the magic of Mary Poppins Returns was created.
I sat down with production designer John Myhre and costume designer Sandy Powell to talk about their collaboration to create a “Londony” world during the Great Depression and how they blended that bleak era with the colorful fantasy and animated dazzle of magical imagination.
We all have one, so what’s your first memory of Mary Poppins.
John: It was the first film I ever saw.
Sandy: And mine
John: It’s interesting. That’s the way for a lot of us on the film.
Sandy: I think we’re all the same age, aren’t we?
John: I saw it at the shopping center movie theatre in Washington. When we drove in, they had the marquee with Mary Poppins on it, but they’d also taken a mannequin and dressed it as Mary Poppins with the carpet bag and the umbrella and I think I was born as a designer at that point. I thought that was fantastic.
Sandy: I don’t remember where I saw it. I think it was the first film I saw.
Where do you start when Rob Marshall says, “We’re going to make this film”?
John: I re-watched the first movie. For Rob, and all of us, we design for a story. Our story is so different than the first story. It’s twenty years later. It opens in a very grey period of the slump in 1934. Even some of the sets that we could revisit, we redesigned them to make them work better for the story.
The first time we see their house, the kitchen is a mess and falling apart.
John: It’s so different because twenty years before when Mr. Banks lived there and worked at the bank, it was not a house for children. It was this very formal house, there wasn’t even a sofa in the living room. It was not a house for living. Our story was that this was very much a family that we were coming into and this was a house that’s being run by the children. It has color, it’s a bit more bohemian and there’s more life to it. There are signs of the children everywhere and there is a sofa.
Mary Poppins enters in her blue coat. That’s the homage to the original.
Sandy: Apart from the kids who are now grown up, she is the only character from the original aside from the admiral. Same character and a different decade. The most important thing is her silhouette when we see her arrive out of the sky, holding the kite. We had to know that was Mary Poppins and her feet were turned out, so that had to be similar.
I think there was a minute of discussion where she could be wearing the same clothes, but that was too boring. It was 1934 and the end of the ’30s lends itself very well to having a very similar silhouette but it’s a longer hem length. I did a very elegant 1930’s coat with the addition of the cape. I needed it to be different. It would also create a ripple of movement.
We go upstairs to the bathroom and it’s bathtime where we disappear into this underwater world.
John: I tried to pull a lot of color out. We go into the water and it’s this explosion of color. We built the set so that Mary Poppins and the children can do a lot of things that you see. It’s on a raised platform that helped Mary be able to pull these wonderful things out of her carpet bag and that beautiful umbrella that came out of the sink. She was able to do it all live because we had given her space underneath. In fact, the children and Mary all slide into the real bathtub.
There’s that beautiful scene where she slides in backward. A slide was built in so she could slide in. I’ve actually gone down that slide into her bathtub and you go into all that beautiful foam.
Sandy: With the costuming for that number, we see Mary Poppins without her coat on. All her clothes and colors are mostly blue and red. Any pattern is geometric. There’s a lot of zigzag and polka dot and some stripes and that’s it.
With the underwater sequence, all of the characters that we see have swimwear versions of their daywear. Going back to the swimwear, I asked what was everyone going to be wearing when they go underwater and Rob said, “They’re going to be wearing swimwear.”
I thought 1930’s swimwear for women was right up the thighs and you can’t have Mary Poppins legs. She’s just arrived. She can’t get into a swimsuit. Emily has a great figure, but it felt really inappropriate seeing Mary Poppins’ legs. I thought we should do Edwardian/Georgian swimwear which makes it more fun.
The kids are too in that Edwardian/Georgian swimwear.
Her hat has that little fish instead of the robin, if you noticed that.
We get to the animation sequence and the beautiful hand-painted outfits in the animated world of the bowl.
John: Rob Marshall wanted to find something very British. We kept using the term, “Londony” because we all love London. What is a Londony thing that the children can fall into?
The British Royal Doulton bowl was perfect. It was the idea that this bowl had been sitting on their shelf for years with a scene of the park and they fall into it. We started looking at the Royal Doulton bowls. We knew we wanted to do the ’60s style animation. We loved that broken line and the watercolor. We were curious about how to incorporate the live-action characters and Sandy came in one glorious morning.
Sandy: Those were the first costumes I started thinking about when I took the job. I started thinking about the animation and how to do it and make it as exciting as the first one, but make it different.
I wanted to make the live-action characters more integrated with the animated idea to paint the costumes and make them look like they were painted and 2D. I pitched that and went ahead. I painted in color and contacted the animators to discuss the style of drawing they were going to use and incorporated that into the costumes.
What material did you use?
Sandy: It’s canvas and calico. Base fabrics.
We go to Topsy Turvy’s world. Bohemian and upside down.
John: We love Topsy. When we read that and the upside down world, we knew we had to create that set. There was never a moment where we thought that we wouldn’t build an upside down world. She’s such a wonderful character. She’s bohemian, she’s Eastern-European and she’s an artist. She fixes anything that’s ever been special to you and has been broken. Whether it’s a painting, a vase, a clock. She also has to be in a world that is upside down where the ceiling is the floor and a world where we can have a dance number.
We needed to have a chandelier for her to spin on. We needed the slanted windows that she could slide down.
Sandy: How did you get your head around that when you were designing it? Actually getting your head around it is really difficult.
John: It was so difficult for everyone coming on board. For two weeks, the conversations were so complicated and funny. Your brain doesn’t allow you to think that up is down and down is up.
We were wondering what to have on the ceiling that you can dance with when the ceiling is on the ground and it was such a learning curve.
The first day on the set was hysterical.
How long did it take to conceive because as you say, our brains don’t think upside down?
John: The very first moment that we talked about it, there was this idea that the room had just shifted and everything had fallen to the ground and there was gravity. But, when we drew that, it didn’t look interesting. It looked like a mess.
We drew what the room looked like right side up and we turned it around and we decided that was the room. But, that’s when the challenges started, how do you get Mary and the children down to the ceiling when you are 12 foot in the air? We did it for real.
The children walked down a shelf, held on to a mantlepiece, stepped on a sword and on its shield, and on to a fan to work their way down.
What about the costumes in that set?
John: There was a teacup that I’d found from a designer that had taken two different teacups and a teapot, broke them apart and glued them together. They were completely different.
Sandy: John’s set came first. We shot Meryl’s shoot late so I left her. I went through different ideas. I knew she was going to be a mixture of different kind of things. I thought it was going to work in the set because that was what was going on in the set.
It would be great to do that elsewhere. It would make sense for her to have a costume like that, but it would be a huge mess on that set. She’s colorful and artistic, so I looked at women from the early 20th Century. The turban and jewelry worked well. I found Art Deco PJ sets, you know, that Bohemian feeling of people hanging around in their PJs. It was based around that. The one requirement that Rob had was that she had fringing. He knew what he was doing, so I did the kimono style with the long fringing.
Let’s talk about the bank that set up.
John: That had to be very formal. I looked at locations and I found one which was very formal with wood moldings. I saw a place where they had embellished the trim in gold. It made it feel rich, inspirational and money.
The fun part of that was we got to be there the day Dick Van Dyke came to set and shot his scene. He was 91-years-old. Rob had this idea that he wanted Dick to be dancing on the desk.
Sandy: On the desk. On the table. It said, “And he jumps up on the desk.”
John: We made it strong enough to dance on and sticky enough so he could do the tap dance. We took the classic banker’s chair in the green leather and we put a little stool in front of it. We crafted those so you could take a step on the step, on to the chair, and on to the desk.
Sandy: I’m so impressed he did that. But, even more, dancing on the dancing. That worried me more than him actually getting on to it. IT’s a very small area.
John: He came in and actually showed the number to Dick. He has dancers stand in. We were there. The dancer did the dance and tap dance. Great.
It came time to do the number and Rob likes me to walk the actors through the set. I said, “Also I made an invisible staircase for you” He looked me in the eye and said, “John, take that away.” Five minutes later, Dick leaps on to the chair, on to the desk and does his dance.
He also wore his own shoes.
Sandy: He did. I had to let him. We had period looking shoes, but he was more comfortable in his own shoes.
Trip the Light Fantastic is spectacular. How many were in that?
Sandy: Rob didn’t want a chorus line. He wanted a group of individuals, each with their own character and it was great fun to do. Different versions of the same thing.
Michael Banks transforms from when we first see him.
Sandy: He has this job he does for money. Rob wanted him to have an air of dishevelment. He’s a little bit not in control. He’s artistic. I wanted him to have a warmth, hence the sweater and cardigan and in friendly colors.
When he goes to work in the bank, he has to put a suit on, but I don’t think he likes that, but it’s his work.
I enjoyed when we see him at the end and everything is made better. His look is dapper. He looks gorgeous.
John: The two different worlds come together. There’s the real world and the fantasy world. The film was sculpted so that the two become one. It is the live world with the fantasy element. We brought a lot of color into it with the cherry blossoms, the lights and it all became vibrant.
Sandy: I felt so sorry for Colin. I know he’s the baddie.
John: I don’t.
Sandy: I find it funny that he’s not forgiven.
John: I love it.
Sandy: We’re not going to forgive the villain.
John: We let him go to the spring fair, so it’s not all bad.