Director's Chair: Rob Marshall — <I>Mary Poppins Returns</I>
Issue: December 1, 2018

Director's Chair: Rob Marshall — Mary Poppins Returns

Rob Marshall was probably destined to direct the new Mary Poppins film, a sequel to the 1964 Disney classic.

After all, the former dancer and choreographer’s name has virtually become synonymous with the movie musical, and over the last two decades he’s single-handedly done more than anyone else to revive the long moribund genre, which was once the crown jewel of Hollywood’s Golden Days.

He made his feature directorial debut in 2002 with Chicago, which won the Best Picture Oscar and a Best Director nomination, and since then has brought two other hit Broadway musicals to the big screen, each with large ensembles of high profile stars — Nine and Into the Woods.

For Mary Poppins Returns, he took on an even bigger challenge — creating an all-original musical from scratch that combines live action and animation, big production numbers, dancing and singing, practical and stage locations and a ton of VFX. 

The film stars Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins, supported by a huge cast that includes Lin-Manuel Miranda and Meryl Streep (who both know a thing or two about musicals), Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Colin Firth, the legendary Dick Van Dyke who starred in the original film, and Angela Lansbury (who also knows a thing or two about musicals). Marshall also assembled a stellar team behind the cameras that included his longtime Academy Award-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe, editor Wyatt Smith, and co-writers John DeLuca and David Magee.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Marshall, whose credits include Memoirs of a Geisha and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, talked about making the film, and everyone’s need of a little Mary Poppins in their lives. 

How nervous were you taking on this iconic, much-beloved project?

“Incredibly nervous, to be honest. But I was also so excited as I loved the original film so much and it was so deep inside me. It was the first film I ever remember seeing and I felt a great deal of responsibility about it. But I knew they’d do this film eventually, and I felt, if that’s the case, I’d like to be the one doing it, as I’d approach it with great care and great passion and great attention to detail — all of that.”

This has been called ‘a remake,’ but that must be very irritating as it’s definitely not.

(Laughs) “You’re right, it is irritating. It’s a sequel, not a remake. People forget that P.L. Travers actually wrote eight books, so there’s a wealth of material there, though it’s mostly adventures, and none of the books have any real narrative at all. But I felt there was a lot to work from, and I just felt it was time to do it.”

What sort of film did you set out to make? 

“I wanted to create a completely new, original Mary Poppins story, but one that really honors and respects the original. And because of the times we live in, I wanted to create something uplifting and inspiring, to send out a message of hope, joy, wonder and magic — something life-affirming, I guess. And that was deeply personal to me and why I was so excited about the idea of returning to this wonderful world again, and making this companion piece to the original.”

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?

“I’ve done some big, complex films and shows, but this was easily the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, because it’s this big mix of live action and animation, with big production numbers full of singing and dancing, along with practical and stage locations and a lot of VFX. And it’s an original musical. Musicals are huge-scale anyway, but because this is a brand new original one, it had added demands, and I’d never done an original before. I’ve taken musicals and made films of them, which has its own challenges, but with a new one, you don’t have an out-of-town run or previews to iron out any problems and make adjustments. So we had a 15-minute animation sequence, which was very demanding, and then we had children, dancers, a huge cast, a new screenplay — and all of that was massive, which was why this took me three years to make. We began writing in 2015, and then the songwriters came on board and we began creating the new songs and a whole new musical, and then we did a writers’ workshop in New York with some of the cast, to develop all the material. Then we had two months of rehearsal in London where we prepped and shot, and all of that helped us get prepared for the actual shoot.”

How early on did you start integrating post and all the animation and VFX?

“Right away. John DeLuca and I went to L.A. along with our writers and composers, and met with about 20 Disney animators, and started to plot it all out. We had a sense of what we wanted to do, but they’re so brilliant and creative, and dealing with all the animation then was one of my favorite parts of the whole thing. With this sort of film, yes, it ultimately all comes through me and my vision for it, but it’s all about collaboration, and we also had another week of a writers’ workshop with the animators where we all spit-balled ideas and talked. And the animators came in with water colors and brushes and started painting ideas and it was just incredible. And all the animation was completely hand drawn. That was very intentional as I wanted the look of the great classic Disney animated movies, and to pay homage to that. And it was very time-consuming. It took a year, and we started shooting that first. And we worked with the composers and with the songs and the animators, just building it all bit by bit, and planning out all the VFX and the post pipeline. It’s the only way to do it.”
Your go-to DP, the great Dion Beebe, shot it. Talk about how you collaborated on the look.

“It all starts with story, and we wanted to honor this story and original musical, and he has such a great eye for composition and color and overall look of it. We talked a lot about the juxtaposition between the real and fantasy worlds, as we wanted them to live hand in hand yet be completely different. And then by the end, it’s almost as if they merge. So it’s a story about a family dealing with loss, and then trying to find joy and wonder and magic in their real lives. That’s the journey. And in the original Mary Poppins, it was all very much fantasy and all shot on a soundstage with painted backdrops and beautiful paintings, but I wanted to find a London that was more real and grittier, set in the ‘30s Depression. And so when Mary Poppins arrives and starts taking them into these fantasies and adventures, you feel the push and pull between fantasy and reality, and that was our approach.”

How tough was the shoot?

“It was a lot of moving parts but a lot of fun, too. We shot on location all over London and then at Shepperton for all the interior work. It’s really a British film in many ways, with many of the cast being British and we had a British crew who were fantastic. The craftsmanship and work ethic is amazing, and even the day players are all these great actors, so I love shooting there.” 

Where did you post?

“At Sixteen19 in New York, where we did all the editing. They also handled all the dailies, and Framestore and Luma did most of the VFX, and we had over 100 animators working in Pasadena simultaneously. And then we mixed all the sound at Warners in New York, with a great team of supervising sound editors and sound designers — Renée Tondelli who did Into the Woods, and Eugene Gearty who won the Oscar for Hugo. They were so meticulous and detailed in their work.”

Talk about editing with Wyatt Smith who cut Into the Woods with you. What were the big editing challenges?

“For me, the editing is everything in a musical. You have to find a way to move in and out of songs seamlessly so you don’t have that jerky moment where you go, ‘Oh my God — they’re singing!’ It can’t feel awkward, and if it’s not seamless it can be embarrassing and totally fail. Luckily, Wyatt, who’s cut so many films for me, really understands music and rhythm, and we’d be in the editing room together all day, every day. You have to do it hand in hand as it’s your final rewrite. That was the goal — to make it one seamless story, flowing from dialogue to music and back again, and it took 14 months to cut and post it. We showed a very rough cut back in January, to see how it was working, and then we started to refine it and adjust things. And Disney gave us carte blanche.” 

All the VFX play a big role, like in the extended bath/underwater fantasy sequence.

“Yes, that was the first big adventure for the family, and it was incredibly complicated to do as we also had children in it. We rehearsed so much and shot it twice as fast so we could slow it down for the underwater effect, and it was all done on wires with green screen, and we did a lot of previs and postvis for the big VFX sequences. The Big Ben sequence was also very complicated, and then the end number with balloons had everyone on wires, and all that had to be choreographed, and we did that in pieces and then stitched the whole mosaic together in post.”

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?

“At Technicolor, and it’s so important. Myself, the DP, Wyatt and our great colorist Mike Hatzer worked through it all together — every frame of it, looking for the right balance and where to bump up the color for the fantasy sequences, until you get to the end and all the magic and color has come back into the family’s lives.”

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?

“There’s always a bit of a surprise as films take on their own lives in post. Actors bring the characters to life, and this cast was extraordinary — even the children. And then music and sound and VFX add all these layers you’d just dreamed of. The thing about a musical is, it’s very easy to send it up, and to be winking at the audience. But I wanted this to be grounded in reality as well as have all the fantasy and magic, and hopefully we achieved that.”