Over 55 years after the iconic classic, the magical nanny Mary Poppins returns to the silver screen with the highly anticipated sequel Mary Poppins Returns. Master of the modern musical Rob Marshall helms the sequel which is practically perfect in every way, and Emily Blunt takes over the eponymous role made famous by the great Julie Andrews. At a recent press conference in Los Angeles, Marshall and Blunt were joined on stage by members of the cast and crew to discuss Mary Poppins Returns.
As for why anyone would take on such a daunting task of creating a sequel to a legendary work of cinema, Rob Marshall had an interesting motivating: “You know what I thought to myself when this came our way – 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,” the Oscar nominated director said.
The director also wanted to bring the film’s themes to the screen, as it’s about trying to find hope when surrounded by despair. “I have to say the guiding message of this film about finding light in the darkness is honestly what drew me to it and kept guiding me throughout the whole process including until this very moment, you know, when people are actually now seeing the film because it feels so current to me,” Marshall explained. “And I’m just speaking for myself, but I feel people need this film now. And 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.”
If taking on directing duties for a Mary Poppins sequel was daunting, it may only be the second most daunting task about taking on Mary Poppins Returns as Emily Blunt recalled about being cast in the iconic role. “When [Rob Marshall] called me, because he is so beautifully ceremonious and want 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. And he said, ‘You know, we’ve been digging through the Disney archives and, you know, we’ve been and by far their most prized possession.’ And I was like what, what is that? And I couldn’t think, like what it was, you know, and when you said Mary Poppins I thought like the air changed in the room. It was so extraordinary, such an extraordinary rather unparalleled moment for me because I was filled with an instantaneous yes, but also with some trepidation, you know, all happening simultaneously in that moment because she is so iconic,” Blunt recalled of her early conversations about the film.
Blunt continued, “She had such a big imprint on my life and on everyone’s lives, you know. People hold this character so close to their hearts. And so, how do I create my version of her? What will my version of her be because there’s no point? 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 this man who is the most emboldening, meticulous, brilliant director in the world and I was in safe hands with him. However much I knew I had my work cut out for me.”
Hamilton star and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda joined the cast as Jack, a lamplighter with a child-like sense of wonder. For the rising musical star, he was eager to work Rob Marshall. “I remember going to the midnight premiere screening of Chicago at the Ziegfeld Theater – RIP Ziegfeld Theater – and seeing Chicago with everyone else who had the premiere date sort of written in blood on their calendars and seeing the greatest modern movie musical I’d ever seen in my life,” Miranda enthusiastically recalled.
“So when I got a call from Rob Marshall and (producer, co-writer, and choreographer) John DeLuca we’d like to talk to you about something. That became an immediate priority. They came to buy me a drink between shows. 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 sequel to Mary Poppins and I said who’s playing Mary Poppins? And they said Emily Blunt and I said, ‘Oh, that’s good,’” he further recalled. “[Jack]’s in touch with that imagination you all see in your kids when they can sort of play in their own imagination for hours. Jack sort of never lost that and that was I feel so humbled that he saw that in me and that from that moment, from that drink I was in and then it came along at the perfect time for my family too. We had finished a year of performing Hamilton and then I chopped my hair off and left the country and jumped into Mary Poppins’ universe. It was like beautiful.”
Emily Mortimer joined the cast taking over the role of Jane Banks, although the film’s London production might’ve made her wish she had a magical nanny with the ability to fly with an umbrella. “It’s a rare thing and you just have to go with it,” the actress said of joining the film. “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 be in it. I just want to help Rob tell this story. 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.”
British actor Ben Whishaw takes over the role of Michael Banks, and like just about everyone else involved in Mary Poppins Returns he has fond memories of the original film. “It’s a mythic part of my childhood. I was sort of 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,” said Whishaw. “I was moved every day to be involved in that world again that I still recall so well. I mean I can’t watch the first film without crying and it’s just a very tender kind of place in myself.”
The immense weight of the legacy of Mary Poppins loomed over the cast and crew, but perhaps nobody had a more difficult task than Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the composers of the film’s original songs. “Like everyone else it was an extremely large part of my childhood. I think my entire childhood was Mary Poppins,” Shaiman recalled. “I really have no other memory of my childhood except listening to that record and reading the synopsis of the story and the fact that I would grow up and even as a child had the ability to write music and lyrics and was even fascinated by the orchestrations on it.”
Shaiman continued, “So 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.”
For Scott Wittman, crafting the music of Mary Poppins Returns was a creative highlight of his illustrious career. “We went back to the books, but we had a lovely experience,” Wittman recalled. “I think my favorite part of the whole experience was the months that Rob, John, [screenwriter] David [Magee], Marc and I spent together in the books and carving out what the musical numbers were gonna be and I think that’s probably one of the most creative times I’ve had in my very long time in show business.”
Screenwriter David Magee wasn’t immune to the pressure of reviving a classic character, but the writer says his director and collaborators helped make it a fruitful creative experience. “That was the most magical kind of collaboration time I’ve ever had and it would be very easy to enter into a project like this feeling like you were walking on sacred ground or you could fall at any moment and the fact that Rob was doing it was the primary reason I was willing even to talk about doing it because he’s a master at musicals and from the first day we started collaborating together I felt like we all had each other’s back, we all were protecting each other’s work and we were all telling the same story so that’s really where this all began for me,” Magee said of the creative process. “Just listening to everyone talk has been kind of moving for me, to hear the passion that everyone has for this project; I think that’s what made this turn into the film that it was. I think we all understood what we wanted to create and it’s really magical to hear that passion and everyone down the line because that’s what I felt the whole time I was working on it.”
For producer, co-writer, and choreographer John DeLuca, he saw that the project was in good hands with Rob Marshall at the helm. “He’s the greatest parent I’ve ever seen,” DeLuca said of the director. “He’s so unselfish in his care of people and the art of making movies that no matter how huge the pressures are. We walk on to the set, we walk into any area with the actors or the crew or any people working for him are and he just has this way of turning on this positive energy that’s all about them and it’s all about you. It’s all about taking care and nurturing and so I feel that this was not only the right time, but it’s the right time because the right man was here to share his vision with the world. I think it’s just the perfect time because Rob was here to make it.”
There are a couple of cameos from some of the original actors. One cameo is by Karen Dotrice, who played the original Jane Banks in the 1964 classic. Emily Mortimer recalls the day they filmed that cameo and the swirl of emotions that hit the set that day. “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 and we’re out together,” the actress said. “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.”
The big cameo in Mary Poppins Return is Dick Van Dyke, and his involvement was special for everyone involved. “Every one of us was there and it was beyond,” director Rob Marshall said of working with the legendary Dick Van Dyke. “I don’t think any of us could even breathe that day because we couldn’t believe that we were touching that. He was basically playing the same old banker that he played. He grabbed my hand as we walked on to the set and he turned to me and he said something I will never forget. He said, ‘I feel the same spirit here on this set that I did on the first film.’ And that was, you know, that was the dream come true right there.”
“My favorite moment on the set of the whole filming was when after Dick did his monologue to the kids in the bank, Rob, we were all waiting for Rob to call cut because he was with him reading a long time and then he couldn’t because of all the emotion. He was crying and he couldn’t literally say the word. And just realizing that was so touching,” said John DeLuca of that magical day on the set.
Now that the daunting task is complete and people are returning to the wondrous world of Mary Poppins, Rob Marshall can take sigh of relief. “It was incredibly hard work, probably the hardest work I’ve ever had to do on a film, but at the same exact time incredibly joyous for that very reason,” he said exuding a sense of calm confidence that he might’ve just pulled off a little miracle.