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For director Rob Marshall, Mary Poppins Returns is a very personal project

Contributed by
Dec 5, 2018

Mary Poppins Returns will hit theaters this December, with Emily Blunt starring in the titular role made famous by Julie Andrews, while Lin-Manuel Miranda takes on the role of Jack, a role similar to the one Dick Van Dyke played in the original film.

SYFY FANGRRLS had a chance to chat with director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods) about the film, casting the role of Mary Poppins, the music and what might be coming in the live-action version of The Little Mermaid.

You've obviously taken on projects before that have a history. What were some of your concerns and things you were excited about going into this?

I guess the biggest concern is you're following the most beloved film ever. Certainly one of my favorite films of all time. First film I ever saw. It meant the world to me, but one of the reasons I took it on was because I really wanted, in a way, to protect that first film and make sure that every frame that we created of this film dealt with ... had a lot of care and thought and feeling. I wanted to make sure that we really paid great homage to that first film, but at the same time created a completely original film on our own. That was this balancing act that I sort of walked the whole time. Excited to do an original musical. I'd never done an original musical film. I'd always taken a Broadway show like Chicago or Into The Woods to screen, but I'd never done original film, a musical. That was exciting. Also to create a new story. When you write a new story, you have to have a reason to and for me because of the message of the film which is really about, I don't know, for me, it's very personal. Finding light in the darkness. Sort of metaphorically and literally with Jack the lamplighter bringing light to London. Of Mary Poppins coming and finding the light in peoples lives where it's become a darker place for people because of the loss they're experiencing. Also setting it in the Depression Era helped that accessibility to feel people were struggling. 

That was the exciting part for me being able to send this message of hope in this current climate out to the world now. 

Sometimes British literature has a very different aesthetic in terms of how adults deal with children and it's often a lot harsher. Was there ever any sort of discussion about changing it for an American audience?

Well, I kind of love that about Mary Poppins. I love the character, especially in the book. She's so kind of strict and stern and brisk and I love that underneath that there's a real warmth and a sense of a child underneath. I think one of the things that drew me, and I know Emily Blunt, to this character as well is that duality. It's a very strange duality and it's enigmatic. What is the mystery to it all? What I love is that she doesn't come out and sort of serve up the lesson in a very sort of blunt way. She actually ... she lets them discover it. It sort of comes to them and they find their way and then she's gone. This wonderful thing. That part of it is so special because characters like that, sort of classic British character, they're much more interesting that sort of ... there's no sentimentality to it. People think that Mary Poppins is sugary. She's not sugary at all. I like that toughness.

What was the casting process like with Emily Blunt?

Well, it was interesting with Emily and the character for Mary Poppins, it was the quickest, fastest decision I've ever made in my life. I knew there was no one else on this planet that could play that part because of all the demands of the role. She had to be a great actress who can play all those layers. There has to be a warmth there and a humor. She's so funny. A quick-witted and sharp and smart, but also have great depth and Emily has all of that plus she sings and dances and also is British. She has all these qualities. It was so obvious to me that this was the person. I worked with her too and I love her personally. I have this great rapport with her. We really get each other. There was no question with that. 

With Lin-Manuel Miranda, John DeLuca, [the] producer, came up with the idea and I thought it was such a great idea. We sat down with Lin and immediately I knew he was Jack. He has an authentic spirit. Sort of a child-like spirit that just comes out of him sort of unfiltered and so honest and so pure. I thought, this is Jack. Here was Lin at the height of the Hamilton craze and he was so excited to be an actor in this, not a writer. I love his work as an actor and I knew he'd be good on film because he's so true and so real. That was thrilling to cast. Then everyone else, it was all our first choices. I mean, Meryl Streep, whom I'd worked with before, said yes. When I asked her to do it she said, "What took you so long?"

Colin Firth, who I'd always wanted to work with, said yes right away. I mean, it was just ... everybody wanted to be on board with this film. I think we all have a great connection to this film, but we also knew that we wanted to do something very special with this film at this time in the world. It was ... that was one of the joys was everybody just wanted to be part of it. 

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Can you tell us about Dick Van Dyke joining the film?

He was ... he took my hand as we walked onto the set and he grabbed me and he said, "I feel the same spirit on this set as I did on the first one." That was it for me. I mean, that's all I needed to hear. That was the greatest thing I'd ever heard in my life. He's just pure magic. He brings such enthusiasm. He is a child inside. He's just ... I mean, and to have touched that. That he was in our film and the first film, and to have him ... our mouths were hanging open. It was a sequence where he has that beautiful speech to the kids and we had "Feed the Birds," the song "Feed the Birds" playing under it. We were very meticulous and very careful about not overdoing that but just finding a few places in the film where we could use some of the strings of the first film's music. 

When I was directing that and he finished that speech, I could not speak. I was ... it was so moving to me. I find the film even now very moving to watch. I find myself very moved and touched by it because of the emotions inside for many reasons. Nostalgic emotions, but also the emotions of the story and the wonderful work of the actors. Don't forget. Try and remember. Try and keep that spirit in yourself alive. How else do you approach life except with a sense of wonder and joy. That's it. People consider ... I don't know. They dismissed it because it's just too sweet or something. I don't know what, but for me, that's what life is. It's a life choice how you approach your life.

Do you have a favorite song from the new film?

I guess if I had to pick one, I find the ballad "Where the Lost Things Go" very moving, very touching. I love that she's able to help the children understand about loss. It's a very difficult subject for children. It's scary and so I feel like it's just done, it's written so beautifully. I remember the first time I heard it I thought this is stunning. It's a gorgeous beautiful song and Emily did it so beautifully. 

Is there anything that you can tell us about The Little Mermaid?

Well, only that Disney approached myself and John DeLuca and Marc Platt, our producing partner, to come on board and start to look at it. John and I have begun our work trying to explore it and figure it out. I mean, it's a very complicated movie to take from animation to live-action. Live-action's a whole other world so you have to be very careful about how that's done, but so we're starting the exploration phase.

Do you have anybody in mind that you can talk about?

No, it's way too early. I always feel like what you have to do first is you have to kind of create the story and make it work. Then you go into the casting process. 

Are there any underwater films that you're looking at?

I haven't started looking at other films yet. I've actually just been thinking less about the making of it and more about the storytelling and how that can work as a live action film. It's just so different than animation.

Mary Poppins Returns will open in theaters on December 19.

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