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Rob Marshall Interview: Mary Poppins Returns

Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda in Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns stars award winning actress Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins and brings back the magic of the classic 1964 film. Rob Marshall directs an all-star cast including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Emily Mortimer, and Ben Wishaw. He previously directed the film Chicago, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Screen Rant: Congratulations on the film. Great job.

Rob Marshall: Thank you so much.

Screen Rant: You know what's so interesting about it? It's crazy because it's like, I know that this is the year 2018, but I was transported back to my childhood. And I just felt like, “Oh, this is just a continuation.” And I almost got like Emily Blunt… I got lost. I said, “Oh, that's Mary Poppins.” It's insane.

Rob Marshall: That’s so nice. Thank you for saying it. That was the intention.

Screen Rant: Well, you hit it. Now I got to ask you, so after Into the Woods, did you want to do Mary Poppins? Or did Disney approach you for it?

Rob Marshall: They knew of my interest in it, but I never thought it was really possible. Because I knew how famously difficult it was to get the rights to the P.L. Travers material. The estate's been obviously very protective of it over the years. So, as we all know from Saving Mr. Banks, etc. But the door opened.

So, when that door opened, they knew that I would want to do this, and they came to me. Then I thought, “Well, careful what you wish for.” Because I thought, “Here we go now.” Now I have to take on this incredible material, and sort of find… Do this very difficult balancing act. Which was pay homage to the first film and play great big respect to it. And treat it with a great deal of care and thought and love. But also, at the same time, forge new ground for ourselves for a completely original musical. So, it was a huge task. But I will say, I wanted the challenge. Because I felt so connected to the first film. I really wanted to be able to do all those things and create an original musical for myself, which I'd never done for a film.

Screen Rant: Crazy.

Rob Marshall: Yeah, isn’t that crazy.

Screen Rant: That's insane. So, what were your concerns before accepting the job? And what was the hook that got you in, to know that you were the right director for this job?

Rob Marshall: For me, it was knowing that the first film was in my blood and that I would take great care with it.  It's sort of like, if you're doing a Star Wars sequel or something like that. You have to love the first Star Wars. And I love the first Mary Poppins. It was the first film I saw as a child. The first one and it stayed with me my whole life. Of course, I revisited it many times over the years. And I just thought this is in my wheelhouse. But I knew I also wanted to create something new. And I also felt it was very timely, for me. Because we're in a rather dark time in the world. I felt we need our injection of hope. And I felt that this film could do that. Could bring us sort of like an injection of wonder and joy and hope into the world. That was sort of my guiding light throughout the whole thing.

Lin Manuel Miranda and Joel Dawson in Mary Poppins Returns

Screen Rant: It stays true. Unlike other recent Disney live-action films, this is a sequel, not a remake. So, how did you approach the story?

Rob Marshall: Well, we had to create a story. Because there was nothing on the page.  Because all of P.L. Travers books are episodic. There are adventures. So, we cherry picked from the eight books that she wrote, some wonderful adventures to work from, but there was no story. So, that's what John DeLuca and myself and David Magee worked on, to create an original story.

And we came up with this idea. It all started with wanting to set it-- I really want to set it into the Depression Era, if I was more accessible, and that's when the first books were written. The first book was written in [1934], right in the height of the Depression. And I thought, “Well, we should set it then.” And I thought, “Well, wait a minute. Walt Disney, he set the film in 1910. That's twenty-five years later. Wait. That would make Michael and Jane twenty-five years older. Maybe we should explore what happened to Michael and Jane.

So, that started this whole idea of what happened to them as adults. And it also became this question of, “Why is Mary Poppins coming back?” So, we really-- My feeling was to find a real big reason. And it was this idea of loss, of loss of wonder, of loss of a family member. How do you recover, how do you heal from something like that?

Screen Rant: So, it would seem that the biggest challenges in preproduction after breaking the story was the casting of Mary Poppins.

Rob Marshall: Yes.

Screen Rant: Tell me about casting process. And what was it that Emily Blunt brought to the table that stood above the rest?

Rob Marshall: Well, I will say the easiest casting was her. I knew within seconds. Because I just worked with her on Into the Woods. I knew that Mary Poppins needed-- had to have so many qualities. And she has all of them.  I needed a great actress who could play the many layers of Mary Poppins. From the brusque exterior to the beating heart underneath the humor. The warmth that she has. Emily has all those things, plus she sings, and she dances. She's British. She knows all those things. She had so many-- It's a very sophisticated performance.  Because you can't just play one thing to make it three dimensional. You have to find the humanity. And she has humanity in her. Because otherwise, Mary Poppins turned out to be this kind of like, I don't know, this kind of tough woman that you don't care about. But she has that great humanity.

Screen Rant: I got to talk about, one of my favorite scenes was merging the 2D animation. Because it's so iconic in the first film. Now I know that Disney, more recently with Pixar and Wreck-it Ralph, they have a new animation style. Did you always want to go towards that 2D animation look? It's almost like a lost art now. Or did you even think about, “Maybe I want to update it a little bit to give it more of a Pixar feel?” Because I love what you did with the 2D animation stuff.

Rob Marshall: I really felt it's in the DNA of Mary Poppins to use the hand drawn work. I just thought-- That to me, I used myself as a barometer the entire time. I thought, “What would I want to see?” I would feel disappointed if we went into the animated world-- First of all, I want an animation live-action sequence just because I thought that's what I'd want to see. And I felt like if we went into another kind of CGI animated world, it just wouldn't feel the same way, have the same artistry. And I thought in a weird way it feels fresh because it's been awhile.

Screen Rant: It absolutely does. That's one thing I took away is like, “Oh, wow. I haven't seen this style of animation in such a long time.” That it did feel completely fresh.

Rob Marshall: Yeah, all of a sudden, we have like a whole new way of looking at it. Because it's-- And I will say we had to get a lot of guys out of retirement, a lot of artists out of retirement to do it. And then on top of that, there were a lot of young animators in their twenties who want to learn the classic old-school style. So, they were working alongside these wonderful guys who came out of retirement, teaching them how to do it.

Screen Rant: Wait, that was actually hand drawn animation then?

Rob Marshall: All of it. All hand drawn. That's why are our post-production almost doubled because of that. Because we had so much work to do. And that's why this first thing we shot, was that. We shot it first, so we could get it to the animators right away.

Mary Poppins Returns Animated Sequence

Screen Rant: That is incredible. Mary Poppins is one of Disney's most iconic feature films. It's a film that a younger generation may not be familiar with. Clearly filmmaking has changed since the sixties, in terms of cinematography, storytelling, and pacing. How did you approach the project so that fans from the original will feel nostalgic but also still making it entertaining for a modern audience?

Rob Marshall: I knew we were making it from our place. I mean, I will say, what I tried to do is bring a sort of more of a reality to the world of London that they lived in. And so, this is like a real family on a real street in London. That's why we shot on location, shot on location at St. Paul's, at Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace. We shot in real locations. So, you would feel like it's a real place. But I love that in juxtaposition with these fantasies. With these, and so that you'd have these two different worlds. Hopefully by the end, those two worlds collide and meet. So, because, metaphorically, you're trying to bring that kind of fantasy into your real life. And that's what I think they hopefully is achieved. But, you're absolutely right. I look to find those homage moments but not over do it, abused that, throughout.  Looking through the-- they're up in the attic and they're looking through and they pick up this snow globe from Feed the Birds. What are we keeping this for? That kind of thing.  And I wanted to find moments that felt organic, but it all comes down to one thing and that’s story.  What's our story and how does it feed into it? And then we'd say, “Well, we could use a little of this or we can have a little of that.” But you have to be careful. It's a fine line, the whole time. The biggest challenge of the film.

Screen Rant: This must have been a dream come true for you, because one of the Sherman brothers were one of the musical advisors, which is amazing.

Rob Marshall: He was incredible. You know, Marc [Shaiman] and Scott [Wittman] have this music in their blood. And I really wanted to stay in that style. I didn't want to have Mary Poppins sing Let It Go, or some crazy thing like that. I mean, I really wanted to keep it in the style. And Marc and Scott understood that. And it’s as if the baton was passed from Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman to Marc and Scott because they were able to stay in that sound but create their own gorgeous music.

Screen Rant: It’s so brilliant and the music is out of this world. I mean it just brings me right back.

Rob Marshall: I’m so glad that you feel that way. Because I think my hope is that for kids who have never seen it before, they can just enjoy this on their own. It’s their own story. But people who were older, who know the original film, there's a warmth, there's a sense of like, “Oh, that world. Oh, I want to be in that world again.” And you are.

Screen Rant: Yeah. It's almost like how you explained the film. It's almost like me reverting back to my childhood and being a kid again and just watching that.

Rob Marshall: Well, that's the goal of the film. We want you to walk out feeling young.

Screen Rant: Yeah. It's interesting because I know that Mary Poppins was one of your first films. But one of my first films, for Disney at least, is The Little Mermaid, which you're obviously doing. So, I'm really excited about that. Where's the process on where we at with that?

Rob Marshall: For me, I'm just starting to explore it.  Because it's very complicated to take that into a live action film. So, we are just, John DeLuca and I, have been asked to do this. We're very excited about it. There [is] also a producing partner, Marc Platt. We're just starting to literally, one step at a time, explore how that would work, and how we would do it, and make it work as a live action film.

Screen Rant: Amazing. Now you had also had amazing supporting cast in this. Because Emily Blunt was great, but you had Lin-Manuel Miranda, you had such a great supporting cast. How did all that come together? And did you also, because I know that he brought Dick Van Dyke back, but did you also talk to Julie Andrews, not about a cameo, but just getting her advice on anything?

Rob Marshall: Well, I know Julie very well. She's a good friend of mine. And she was incredibly supportive. She said, “It's about time. Of course, there's all this material, why would they not?” And she loves Emily. I told her, John and I actually both told, her that Emily was doing it and she threw her arms up in the air. She was so excited. She said, “Oh! Great.”  She just loves her. We spoke to her about doing a cameo early on and she was very clear about it. She said, “Listen,” -- You know what? She would love to work with us, of course. She said, “This is Emily's film. Let her run with it.” And I thought that was so generous and gracious of her to say that. And that's what we did. The cast came about in a very organic way. I mean, we met with Lin-Manuel Miranda. I never thought he would pick to choose to do this off of Hamilton. But I will say our first choices, our first casting choices, all said yes immediately. Meryl Streep-- Calling for all these incredible actors. Dick Van Dyke. That was the greatest joy of my life. But I think everybody wanted to be part of sending the message of this film out into the world now. That's honest to god why people said, yes.

Screen Rant: Well, it hit me. So, great job.

Rob Marshall: I’m so glad. That's really great to hear.

Screen Rant: Thank you so much.

Rob Marshall: Thank you. I'm thrilled you loved it.

More: Read Screen Rant's Mary Poppins Returns Review

Key Release Dates
  • Mary Poppins Returns (2018) release date: Dec 19, 2018
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