Disney invited me to attend the #MaryPoppinsReturnsEvent, this interview with Rob Marshall is a result of the trip. The opinions expressed here are my own. Some interview questions and responses have been edited to improve readability.
Director, Rob Mashall, sat down with us to discuss making Mary Poppins Returns and what it was like to take on a sequel to such an iconic film. I’m sharing some of our conversation below.
How do you convince actors that everything is possible when they are afraid of heights or have never sung or danced in a film before?
You know it’s sort of interesting when I work with actors I really find they need to feel positive reinforcement and it’s such a simple thing to do. It’s like being a really good parent. And I try and achieve that when we’re working. For instance, as an example Ben Whishaw, who plays Michael Banks, he’s never sung before. He was sort of nervous about how do you do that and I always feel that people can do so much. It’s just feeling that they can and knowing that they can.
I like to protect them in rehearsals when– you know we had over 2 months of rehearsal. So it was during that time that you can fail and be bad you know and then learn to get better and, and not feel judged. That’s a really important thing. I like to protect actors to make them feel they can do things and try things.
And everybody was so nervous on this film because you know we were following that extraordinary film (original Mary Poppins) that means so much to me and so much to so many people. I’m sure everybody in this room. And so we knew we were you know doing the impossible, but I honestly felt like if we did it together from the right place with a great respect for the first film and found our own way at the same time then we would at least have done it in the right way you know and then you hope that it works.
What props from the original Mary Poppins did you use in Mary Poppins Returns?
Here’s the thing, I visited the Disney archives. They didn’t really have the archives in the 60’s, not much, there’s some. What there is, I saw so you remember the blocks from Mary Poppins? We replicated the blocks. They didn’t want to give us the blocks, but we replicated the blocks. They’re in the attic if you look. Also the snow globe, we replicated that as well.
So the only real thing is that table in the front hall, which I saw at Club 33 at Disneyland and I said, “That’s in the movie if the let us have it” and they did. That was really moving to me, and the kite, of course, we replicated that and created our own version of the kite.
But those very specific things from the first film that I really wanted to hold onto if I could you know and that’s for the people who love the first film who know it. It’s those first little Easter eggs. You know I use myself as honestly as a barometer the whole time. What would I wanna’ see? I wouldn’t wanna’ abuse it too much because it’s very easy to sort of overdo it, but I wanted to specifically and strategically place things that meant something to people.
What it was like working with Dick Van Dyke
I mean there’s no one like him. I was so excited and nervous to even call him to ask him to do this because he’s a hero for me. I mean and that’s the Dick Van Dyke Show for me honestly. Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang you know all of it. Bye Bye Birdie, all of it.
So talking to him he just disarms you immediately. He’s so joyous and it’s just sort of who he is and he said yes so quickly. He wanted to be part– he was excited to be part of it. And when he came onto the set he honest to God grabbed my arm as we were walking on. He said, “I feel the same spirit here on this set that I did you know in the first film.” And I thought okay well that’s everything. That’s all I need to hear. That was everything for me to hear that from him.
Did Dick Van Dyke really dance in the film?
Oh yes, oh yes, all of it. In fact, I said to Lin and Emily I said, “If he falls off that desk you’re dead.” I said you’re spotting him. I mean who else? There’s no one there. I said, “You are spotting him. So if he starts to wobble I want you to jump in.” Of course, he was perfectly fine. In fact, he doesn’t even use Lin’s hand. When you see it the next time, when you see Lin is literally standing there like okay (hand out) and he doesn’t use him, he just goes right up.
Developing the Bath Tub Adventure
Well, it’s her first adventure you know. She arrives and so you have to look for something. You know the great thing about the PL Travers books is that even though there’s no narrative to any them they’re all just episodic. It’s all about taking an ordinary everyday event and turning it into something magical. An adventure that’s fun and even you know cleaning up your room turns into an adventure in the first film right? So I was looking for something that kids hate and it’s taking a bath.
Right. So I thought how can she turn– because they’re so cynical, the kids, you know except for the little one who loves her and believes her right away. But they’re all sort of judgmental and wary. You know the great thing about Mary Poppins, she does these adventures, but denies them ever happening and kinda’ just does them without you know announcing them.
And all of a sudden that Dolphin comes up, she goes not yet, and things like that. You know what’s going on you know? But I thought that could open up to a beautiful world and there is an underwater adventure. It’s not from a bathtub, but there is an underwater adventure in one of the Poppins books. There are 8 of them.
And so I thought well we could use sort of the feeling of the PL Travers underwater and then I came up with this idea of her seeing all the people from the neighborhood below the water you know as they’re moving through and trying to open the eyes of these kids that have grown up too fast, been forced to become adults too quickly. ‘Cause they’ve taken on the adult responsibilities because the mother is gone. So it sort of found our way with that you know and then you work backward. You’re like and then they have to become a complete mess for them to have to take a bath in the middle of the day so then that’s the muddy park. You know it’s all– sort of feeds together.
Why the animated sequences were so challenging
Thank you for asking about that really because that (animated scenes) was the most challenging part of the whole filmmaking and it’s the first thing we shot, right away, because the animators– you know it’s all-hand-drawn animation, every frame. So we needed to get that material to the animators right away.And the reason our post production was I think close to 14, 15 months was because of the hand drawn animation. They needed that time.
So I mean it’s that thing. Can you imagine flip, flip-draw, draw? That crazy– it’s so hard. I went and visited them, I would say the majority of them came out of retirement to do this. It’s kind of a lost art, although I have just to say I was somewhat hopeful because a lot of the artists there really were also in their 20’s who were more interested in working on the hand drawn animation than the computer generated work. So that was really good. In a funny way, though it will seem fresh because we haven’t seen it for so long you know. You haven’t seen that beautiful artistry of that work you know.
Is a 3rd Mary Poppins film possible?
Well, I’ll tell you that’s such a good question. You know of course I’m just sort of holding my breath to see how this movie’s embraced and how it does. And if you know people accept it and are excited by it. And if it does I think there will be talk about it ‘cause there is a lot of material. You know we walked through it and cherry picked what we thought were the best adventures that we could musicalize and create like a set piece to. But I will say there was a lot left on the table as we were working through that.
The question would be, “What’s the narrative, what’s the story” because that’s what’s not in those books. So do we go backwards? Someone said do you wanna’ find out you know what Mary Poppins– You know how she became Mary Poppins and then I thought, you know, I don’t wanna’ know about her too much. The best thing about her is that we don’t know. It’s mysterious, so that’s not such a great idea.
So she definitely can visit other families and other you know there’s other stories there for sure you know. There’s a lot of Star Wars stories. There can be a lot of Mary Poppins stories.