By PETERSON GONZAGA
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Since the 1964 release of “Mary Poppins,” the movie musical based on P.L. Travers’ series of children’s books, has resonated with young and old alike. That is definitely true for director Rob Marshall, producer Marc Platt and music producers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The below-the-line crew is now part of that musical legacy as the sequel “Mary Poppins Returns” hits the big screen this holiday season.
For the cast and crew in attendance at a press conference to promote “Mary Poppins Returns,” being a part of a sequel to an iconic film that starred Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke was a delight as many agreed that it was a part of their childhood. Oscar nominated filmmaker Marshall (“Chicago”) says creating an all-new “Mary Poppins” musical is a dream come true and he strived to ensure that there were odes to the original film sprinkled throughout, including some fun cameos. He and the other filmmakers also wanted to make a musical film that resembled the original but with an entirely new look and feel of its own.
In “Mary Poppins Returns,” Emily Blunt plays the iconic no-nonsense British nanny Mary Poppins who realizes it’s time to return to the Banks household as the now-adult Michael Banks (played by “Padding Bear” star Ben Whishaw), a widower with three young children, is facing the possibility of losing the family home to foreclosure by the bank and its ruthless chairman (Colin Firth). Michael’s supportive sister, Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer), along with lantern-lighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) join in the journey with Mary Poppins and the kids as they figure out a way to save the home.
Marshall, alongside his stars Blunt, Whishaw, Mortimer, film producer Platt, screenwriters John Deluca and David Magee and music producers Shaiman and Scott Wittman, spoke about being part of “Mary Poppins Returns.”
Q: Why “Mary Poppins Returns?”
Marshall: I thought to myself when this came my way, “If anybody is going to do it, I would like to do it,” because it was incredibly daunting at first, of course, but at the same time I really felt like I have that film as many of us on this panel do in our blood. And I wanted to be able to—in an odd way—protect the first film and treat this film with great care and love.
Musicals are very difficult to do, an original musical. There are so many layers to it, but creating an original musical from scratch was actually a dream of mine. I’ve never done it before—to be able to create it with this beautiful company was exactly what I was hoping for. I have to say the guiding message of this film is about finding light in the darkness. (That) is honestly what drew me to it and kept guiding me throughout the whole process, including until this very moment, when people are actually now seeing the film, because it feels so current to me.
I feel people need this film now. I certainly knew that I wanted to live in that world and be part of that and sending that message out into the world now of looking for hope and light in a dark time. That’s why we set our film in the Depression-era in London; the time of the books. It was really so it could feel accessible and feel like it’s a story that needs to be told now.
Q: Emily Blunt, how did this come about for you?
Blunt: (Rob Marshall) called my agent and said, “Something big is coming down the pike for Emily,” and I got a voicemail from Rob, who is my dear friend. We have known each other a long time. The voicemail certainly had a sort of charged-energy to it. I was like, “What is this project?” When he called me, because he is so beautifully ceremonious and wants every moment of the process to feel special and transporting and memorable for you, that even the phone call had such a sense of ceremony to it.
He said, “We’ve been digging through the Disney archives and (we have) their most prized possession. I was like “What is that?” I couldn’t think of what it was. When (Marshall) said “Mary Poppins,” I thought the air changed in the room. It was such an extraordinary, rather unparalleled moment for me because I was filled with an instantaneous “Yes!” but also with some trepidation all happening simultaneously in that moment, because she is so iconic.
She had such a big imprint on my life and on everyone’s lives. People hold this character so close to their hearts. (I thought), “How do I create my version of her? No one wants to see me do a sort of cheap impersonation of Julie Andrews because no one is Julie Andrews.” She should be preserved and treasured in her own way of what she did. I knew this was going to be something that I wanted to take a big swing with and I knew I could do it with (Marshall), who is the most emboldening, meticulous, brilliant director in the world and I was in safe hands with him. (But I also) knew I had my work cut out for me.
Q: Lin-Manuel, this is your first major film after your award-winning work on “Hamilton” on Broadway. How did this come to you and what was the experience like?
Miranda: I remember going to the midnight premiere screening of (Marshall’s) “Chicago” … and seeing the greatest modern movie musical I’d ever seen in my life. So, when I got a call from Rob Marshall and John DeLuca saying, “We’d like to talk to you about something,” that became an immediate priority. I was still in “Hamilton” at the time and I had a two-show day. So, I finished the matinee, rolled across the street to the Paramount Hotel and I met them for a drink and they said, “We’re making a sequel to ‘Mary Poppins,’’ and I said, ‘Who’s playing Mary Poppins?” and they said, “Emily Blunt,” and I said, “Oh, that’s good.”
Honestly, I can’t give them enough credit for seeing this role in me because there is no childlike wonder in Alexander Hamilton. He has a very traumatic early life. He goes on that stage and wants to devour the world, whereas Jack, in this movie as they pitched him to me, has this childlike sense of wonder. He’s in touch with that imagination you all see in your kids. Jack never lost that and so I feel so humbled that he saw that in me. From that moment, from that drink, I was in. It came along at the perfect time for my family too. So, I chopped my hair off and left the country and jumped into Mary Poppins’ universe. It was beautiful.
Q: What was your favorite part of making this film?
Miranda: There are so many. There are a lot of highs on a movie like when we shut down Buckingham Palace for scene where 500 bicyclists are riding around, and then dancing with the (animated) penguins. Those kinds of moments are really sort of unforgettable, but for me I brought my son to set every time we filmed a musical number. To watch his eyes like saucers while daddy danced 500 dancers and bikers, I’ll never forget the look on his face as long as I live.
Q: Emily Mortimer, you play a grown-up Jane Banks. How was it stepping into the shoes of a character that was a child the world knows and now grown up and the experience of being in a musical film?
Mortimer: From the minute I met Rob, I wanted to be part of this film. “Mary Poppins” is a huge part of my childhood as it is everybody’s. It was really and it was exciting to think that they were going to make another movie of it and daunting too obviously, but it was meeting Rob and hearing him talk like he has just now about why he was so determined to make this film that just really inspired me. That doesn’t often happen and I’m quite old now and I’ve done a lot of movies and I know enough about life to know or life as an actor or performer or whatever to know that when somebody inspires you and makes you excited about the idea of a movie or a project or whatever, it’s a rare thing and you just have to go with it.
You just have to try to jump on that train if you can and so I emerged from meeting Rob and John and rung up my agents immediately and said, “I just have to be part of this movie no matter what. I just want to help Rob tell this story,” and then they managed to make it work. It was a complicated logistical thing for me because I live in New York and my kids and husband were there and the filming was in London so I think I flew like 16 times across the Atlantic.
Q: There’s a cameo by Karen Dotrice, the actress who played Jane as a child in “Mary Poppins.” What was it like meeting her?
Mortimer: It was extraordinary. She’s such a great, cool lady, so funny, (with a) wicked sense of humor, really down to earth. She came to do the cameo as a little moment where Ben is emerging from the house with his briefcase late and he bumps into her. We all walked on to the set for the first time with her and she walked on to Cherry Tree Lane for the first time in 54 years or however long it has been since the first movie was made and she just melted. I mean she just sort of crumbled and that was so moving being there with her while that happened and seeing that.
Q: Ben, you’re playing Michael Banks, now grown up. Did the original film have an impact on you?
Whishaw: I was obsessed with the film when I was a child. It was the first film I ever saw and my dad taped it off the telly on VHS tape. I watched it obsessively through my whole childhood and I used to dress up as Mary Poppins and parade up and down the street in our village. It has a huge, mythical part of my childhood. I was moved every day because of course it’s moving and you don’t expect as an adult to sort of be revisiting something that is such a part of your childhood. I was moved every day to be involved in that world that I still recall so well. The film was so brilliantly written. It was all there (in the screenplay). David wrote this beautiful role, so delicate and so perceptive and sort of clever to get that in there whilst also making the whole thing fantastical and magical and thrilling. Then you have a great song or two. That helps. It was very instinctive. I didn’t have to think too much about it.
Q: Marc Shaiman, you had some big shoes to fill. Why this movie for you and how did you accomplish writing these memorable songs?
Shaiman: Like everyone else, “Mary Poppins” was an extremely large part of my childhood. My entire childhood was “Mary Poppins.” I really have no other memory of my childhood except listening to that record and reading the synopsis of the story. Even as a child, I had the ability to write music and lyrics and was even fascinated by the orchestrations on it.
I didn’t know what the songs meant but loved them. I learned everything I could from that album. Then I grew up and the dream came true where I got to incorporate every single thing that I ever learned from that album into real life and got to write songs with Scott and then got to score the movie, which is a whole other thing outside of songwriting. To get the chance to spend the months and years of scoring this movie and getting to work with these people and these faces and these eyes and the body language, it was just a fantasy.
Q: Scott, you write the lyrics with Marc and the range of the wordplay and the lyrics are great. How did that come about?
Wittman: We went back to the P.L. Travers books, and had a lovely experience. My favorite part of the whole experience was the months that Rob, John, David, Marc and I spent together in the books and carving out what the musical numbers were going to be. That’s probably one of the most creative times I’ve had in my very long time in show business.
Q: Lin-Manuel, can you talk about how you see your characters as very sort of 21st century, with a more contemporary sound?
Miranda: First of all, I would urge you to re-watch the first film because everyone’s been saying, “There’s rapping in ‘Mary Poppins Returns,’” forgets that Burt (Van Dyke) has a 30-second rap about all the women he dated before Mary Poppins. You’ve al forgotten it, but Jolly Holiday is one big flirt between Mary and Burt. (To Emily Blunt) Do you want to handle the white-hot sensuality of “Mary Poppins Returns?”
Blunt: I never felt that it was sort of romantic between them necessary, but she doesn’t mind flirting with a laborer. She loves the laborer. That’s like her dream to dance with 30 lamplighters. It’s like here we go. The sort of enigmatic master plan is to set him with Jane Banks, but I enjoyed playing the sort of flirtation of it and they are really such kindred spirits. Even though he’s not necessarily magical, he gets it and believes it and they’re sort of in cahoots with each other so I love playing that chemistry with Lin and I was so lucky to get to play it with him because he’s such a wonderful bounce back and forth, you know, and such buoyancy to him and how he plays his character.
Q: I imagine there is an incredible inherent pressure playing the role of Mary Poppins. How do you balance Julie Andrews’ extraordinary performance with the P.L. Travers’ books while adding your own personal signature as well?
Blunt: What I decided to do was, even though I’d seen it as a child was not watch the original again so close to shooting our version because (Julie Andrews) is so beautiful and so extraordinary. I just decided if I’m going to do this, I’m going to go on my gut instinct from the book because she is rather different in all of the books. If I’m going to carve out new space for myself it was going to have to be without watching the details of what Julie did. have this searing memory of “Mary Poppins,” but not of all of the tiny details of how she played the character. As soon as we wrapped, I watched the original. I was just floored by it and was probably relieved that I hadn’t watched it (before shooting) because she’s amazing. I showed it to my daughter.