When Rob Marshall took on the follow-up to Disney’s beloved behemoth Mary Poppins, it seemed a natural fit for the Oscar-winning Chicago director who’s long upheld the value of musical film. But with over 50 years between the Robert Stevenson-directed original and Mary Poppins Returns, Marshall had his work cut out in crafting an elegant homage to an iconic national treasure of cinema. Having always envisaged Emily Blunt in the lead role, and falling hard for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, Marshall harnessed their talents to create a fresh, standalone feel that would appeal to all ages–including all those who’d adored the original.
Here he explains how he pulled it off, from the first step of finding a new story that would seamlessly bring the magical nanny back to the Banks family.
What was your experience of watching Mary Poppins as a child? Did everyone’s fond memories create a weight on your shoulders?
Very much so! I feel the first film is so deep inside of me. I revisit it over and over again in my life. I will say, when they came to me with this film, it was daunting because of that, because it means so much to me. But I honestly felt, at the same time, If anybody’s going to do this film, I want to be that person. If anybody’s gonna wreck this film, I want to be that person who protects the spirit of the first film, in a way, and ushers it into this new story and this new original musical, which I’d never done before for film. But I also knew that I wanted that challenge. And I wanted it because I knew it would come right from my heart. For everybody that worked on the film, that was my guideline, that everybody had to have that first film so deep inside them. It had to mean a lot to them. And it was true of Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, David Magee. Of course, John DeLuca. We knew the bar was so high.
So there’s the nostalgic memory that we have for Mary Poppins, but you have to build something new that’s true to the character. Did you go back to the book for that?
That’s exactly where I went. The first thing I did is I went to the books. The first book was written in ’34, the second in ’35, and I felt the Depression era in between the lines, in some ways. There’d be a reference to the bank being broken, or that 17 Cherry Tree Lane was the shabbiest house on the street, and I thought, “Well, that’s where we need to set this film. In that era. Not 1910, when Walt Disney set it, which was a much more innocent time.” I thought, “This feels more contemporary to me. It feels much more of a parallel to our times now, where people are struggling to keep their homes and making ends meet.”
Then I realized, “Well, most of us know the film more than the books, so if the film’s 1910, now we’re in 1935. That means Michael and Jane would be older.” So then I thought, “Well, now we can tell the story of the next generation. What happened to Michael and Jane?” Then what occurred to me was, this could be a film about loss, on many levels. The first part of that is the loss of childhood and the childlike wonder that leaves you as you become an adult. We see that with Michael and Jane. They don’t believe the things that happened with Mary Poppins actually happened.
Then, I thought that could be compounded by a loss in the family, the loss of the mother and the wife. Because I was looking for a very big reason for Mary Poppins to come back after 54 years. I felt she needed to come back to help heal this family, and especially heal Michael who needed that injection of wonder in his life again. To believe in imagination and believe that there were possibilities.
Those live-action animation sequences seem so essential to the Poppins story now, did you always know you wanted to do those this time around?
I thought, what elements from the first film to do I need to carry over? What would I want to see? I’d want to see a live-action animation sequences. I feel it’s in the DNA of Mary Poppins. I would feel cheated if it wasn’t there and I would want it to be hand-drawn. I would want a big, athletic production number that’s eight minutes long. Something exciting.
And so, I came up with this idea of the character of Jack and Jack being a lamplighter and Jack having leery friends and so forth. Trying to use elements of the first film but at the same time, doing a completely original musical.
And of course, as a Dick Van Dyke nod, Jack had to be an American, with that accent.
Well, that actually just happened organically. It wasn’t even fully intentional. It was actually John DeLuca’s idea. He said, “What about Lin-Manuel?” I thought, “Oh, what a great idea!” I mean, it was the height of the Hamilton craze. I sat with him in between shows. As soon as you sit with Lin, there’s such an infectiousness about his enthusiasm and his very pure childlike spirit. It’s very authentic, and I thought, “Well, there’s Jack.” It’s like he’s that cohort of Mary’s who sees light in the darkness, and lights up London, figuratively and literally.
How about casting Emily. Did you always have her in mind?
Emily, I had already thought of immediately because there was no one else for me. She’s so brilliant, she’s so funny, she’s so warm, she’s so vulnerable and accessible. She’s so real. I think everybody loves her because she’s accessible. She’s not unreachable. She’s one of the real people, and that’s the true of her in real life. She’s just a person, just like everybody else. And this character needed so many layers. You need to have the façade of the stern, proper nanny, but underneath, there needs to be that humor and that eccentricity and the warmth. She has all that, plus she sings! And she dances. It was pretty much everything.
You’ve spent so much of your career ensuring the movie musical stays alive. I think Chicago was a landmark moment in making sure that that didn’t change.
I’m thrilled now that we live in a world in which the movie musical is at least–I mean it’s not as prevalent as it was at one time…
But it still exists.
But I wonder, how much of a struggle has it been to mount these?
When I was making Chicago, I was told every day, “No. Musicals aren’t in fashion anymore. You’re gonna have to move faster and do it quicker.” I understood that, but I never believed, honestly, that the genre was dead.
This film was almost, for me, like making two films at once because it was an original musical. You have to treat it with a great deal of care. It’s the opposite of what a lot of people think. “Well, it’s just a musical.” It’s not. You have to do it so carefully and so strategically because if you go off course for a moment, they don’t work. They can fall off the wagon so quick. What you need to do is you need to plot it very carefully and make sure that the songs grow out of the story in a very organic way so as not to pull you out or make you feel embarrassed by the fact that someone’s singing, but it feels completely natural. It looks effortless, but it’s not. It takes so much time and effort to find a way into a song. You shouldn’t even be aware they’re singing. And then they should be back into dialogue and to story and it shouldn’t feel like we’ve stopped the story for a number. That kind of storytelling takes a lot of skill. I’m just saying it takes care.
We’re seeing now, finally, again, the breadth of the form.
Yes. I will say that tonally, for me, this was a challenge because it’s very easy to send up material like this. It’s also very easy to wink, like, “We know what we’re doing.” But I wanted to make sure that the work we did with the fine actors that I was able to assemble was truthful. I wanted you to really believe in this family. And there’s not a wasted moment in the character. She’s always planning the next moment.
It’s this patchwork of all these different disciplines. You go big, you go small…
Yes. Variety’s so key in a musical, too. You can’t repeat yourself. In a way, you’re competing with the scene before. You know that’s come before, it’s reached that high energy, and you need to find the proper flow. Like the ballad that she sings to the kids, “Where the Lost Things Go.” I always feel it’s so key in a musical when you have a ballad that you’ve earned it. You can’t just come out of nowhere. You have to feel like by the time you’ve reached there you’ve earned that moment. You’ve had the big whatever. That whole animation sequence has three sections to it, then the big chase sequences. So, just rhythmically, you’ve now earned the moment. A quiet moment.
Given that you worked with Lin, I’m sure you’ve seen Hamilton?
I saw it off-Broadway before it moved to Broadway.
And I loved that I’ve seen it there at the creation of it. I saw it right at the beginning.
When I saw Lin in it, I just thought … You know, everyone else was talking about him as the creator of it, but I also saw him as an actor. I thought, “Oh, he’s so special.” I think one of the reasons he wanted to do this film was because he thought, “Well, I can work just as an actor.”
Do you think Hamilton would work in cinema? Would you be interested?
Well, I’d love to work with Lin anytime, anywhere. I think Hamilton would make a spectacular film. But it’s very important when you approach something like that that has a high concept that you actually embrace in a very special way. You can’t just launch in and say, “Here we are!”
With Chicago, it’s a perfect example of a concept musical on stage. A musical that was created as a musical vaudeville, so it was very theatrical. So, you can’t just do it. It took a while to create this idea and try and integrate it. I always can tell when someone says, “Well, it’s just a musical, so there are no rules,” that they don’t get it. It’s the opposite.