Rob Marshall is one of those people that makes you a better person. Emily Blunt, Lin Manuel Miranda and everyone we spoke to during the Mary Poppins Returns Event all said it, and when he walked into the room he made us feel that way. He’s best known for Chicago, Nine, and Into The Woods. Now he has another film that he will be known for with the release of Mary Poppins Returns this week.
Rob Marshall Mary Poppins Returns Interview
Mary Poppins Returns is a beautiful film.
Thank you. Thank you so much. You know I’ve said this to Leslie, my Publicist, it’s always my favorite moment to be with you guys. (We all laugh) No, it is. It’s a whole different experience so thank you.
You have cast actors admittedly scared of heights, or some have said they didn’t consider themselves as singers or dancers. So how do you do it? How do you convince them that everything is possible?
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, I’ll use Ben Whishaw as an example, who plays Michael Banks. He’s never sung before. He was sort of nervous about how do you do that. 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. We had over 2 months of rehearsal. So it was during that time that you know you can fail and be bad. Then you learn to get better and, and not feel judged. That’s a really important thing.
I like to protect the actors to make them feel they can do things and try things. Everybody was so nervous about this film because we were following that extraordinary film that means so much to me and so much to so many people, I’m sure is everybody in this room.
And so we knew we were doing the impossible. However, I honestly felt like if we did it together from the right place with 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 direction. Then you hope that it works you know.
You’ve mentioned at D23 that you had found the original table from the first movie?
Oh my gosh, I love that you know that.
Did you use any other props from the first film?
Well, here’s the thing, I visited the Disney archives. They didn’t really have the archives in the ’60s, not much, there’s some. So you remember the blocks from Mary Poppins? We replicated the blocks. They didn’t 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. I said, “I’d like that to be in the movie if the let us have it” and they did. So 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, 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, yeah.
Can we talk about Dick Van Dyke?
He’s something else. I mean there’s no one like him and 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, the Dick Van Dyke Show for me honestly (was it). 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 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 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.
Was that really him dancing?
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.” Well, 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 if you see it the next time…when you look at Lin is literally standing there like okay, and he doesn’t use him, he just goes right up.
So when you were talking about the props, you said you were specific and strategic about using them. How did that play out with the music from the original movie? It’s there, but not.
Very much so.
So how much creative control did you give your songwriters with that?
Well, we did it together. I mean I think I will say about an original musical is that you have to kind of actually kind of do it together. There’s no version of sort of people going off. It’s all into one sort of musical piece. It’s a real puzzle and but I knew that obviously you know when you hear like the strains of Feed The Birds or Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, or you hear A Spoonful of Sugar, those mean so much to us. So you can’t abuse that.
And so I strategically placed that exactly like the items, like the props and things. In fact, the majority of it happens literally in the last like 15 minutes. So because I feel like we’ve earned it by that time. I feel like she looks in the balloon and you hear a Spoon Full of Sugar, or they’re up in the air, and you hear A Little Let’s Go Fly A Kite. Because I think we’re coming full circle.
I will say when Dick Van Dyke does that monologue to the kids where he tells the story about Michael as a little boy and all of that, and you hear Feed The Birds. I will tell you now that when I shot that scene, I like to work with music (in my ears).
So I had Feed The birds, the music, in my ear and I’m watching Dick Van Dyke, and I have him in my ear too, and he’s delivering this monologue, and I honestly broke down. I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t say cut. I couldn’t say it. Nothing came out. I was so moved. Emily said cut or something. [LAUGHS] I think that’s it, that’s it because I just couldn’t believe my life had come full circle. From a 4-year-old boy having seen the film with Dick Van Dyke there, hearing Feed The Birds, watching him say that. He’s in our film 54 years later as a 91-year-old man. I mean that’s just magic to me. It was total magic. I’m still not over it.
It’s magic watching it.
Oh, that’s so nice to hear.
Let’s talk about that magical dolphin scene.
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 of 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 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 that around because they’re so cynical, the kids. Except for the little one who loves her and believes right away. But they’re all sort of judgmental and wary. And I thought 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. 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 stories. Then I came up with this idea of her seeing all the people from the neighborhood below the water 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 their mother is gone. So sort of found our way with that 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.
I almost felt like you were channeling Mark Breaux and this film.
I love that you know who Mark Breaux is.
There’s got a lot of different aspects, but it really felt like Mark Breaux choreography, and you really hadn’t seen it since then on these films. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Well you know it’s so funny I feel like for myself because I grew up in the era, I worked with Michael Bennett and Fosse and Jerome Robbins, that’s my time.
But Mark Breaux is a huge influence on me too because of his work in Mary Poppins, his work in Sound Of Music, his work in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Dee Dee Wood. You know I feel like those Choreographers live inside me that work.
That’s the style of dance I did as a Dancer when I started, and John DeLuca too. John DeLuca worked with Bob Fosse and was in Bob Fosse’s Dancin’. So all of that is just becomes part of you. And so it was never an intentional sort of let’s do that or this or that, it just comes out of us.
And I don’t sort of judge and say, “Well that’s Bob, or that’s Michael Bennett, or that’s this, you know.” It’s just something that comes naturally out of what we feel when we’re expressing ourselves through dance. But that’s a huge compliment to me because I love his work.
He was so inventive with TV. It was so athletic. I mean I will say this is an 8-minute number, that number, Triple Little Light Fantastic. I was so excited to do a big, athletic, musical production number with men. And Mary and of course and Jack leading it and the kids, that was like a total dream for me. I was right in my wheelhouse, exactly what I love.
The animation sequences were amazing and beautiful and so clean. And I just wanna’ know about the process ‘cause I can imagine it was ridiculously challenging.
Thank you for asking about that really because that was the most challenging part of the whole filmmaking and it’s the first thing we shot, right away, because 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 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. I thought it will seem fresh because we haven’t seen it for so long.
You haven’t seen that beautiful artistry of that work. And so you know putting that together we started with the musical number Covers Not The Book, and we had to shoot it like literally 3 different times.
You’ve said that there was lots of material in the books and there are 8 books?
Is there enough material for another movie?
Well, I’ll tell you that’s such a good question. Of course, I’m just sort of holding my breath to see how this movie is embraced. Let’s see how it does. And if people accept it and are excited by it. I think there will be talk about it ‘cause there is a lot of material. We walked through it, and cherry picked what we thought were the best adventures that we could musicalize.
But I will say there was a lot left on the table as we were working through that. So do we go backward? Someone said do you wanna’ find out how she became Mary Poppins? And then I thought, it’s like [eww] I don’t wanna’ know about her too much. The best thing about her is what we don’t know. It’s a mystery.
So she definitely can visit other families and other you know there are other stories there for sure you know. There’s a lot of Star Wars stories. There can be a lot of Mary Poppins stories. That’s my fill.
Mary Poppins Returns in theatres December 19th!
I was invited by Disney to attend the #MaryPoppinsReturnsEvent. All opinions are my own.