Rob Marshall (‘Mary Poppins Returns’): This is ‘my most personal film’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Rob Marshall‘s new film “Mary Poppins Returns” is making a big splash at the box office and with awards so far, earning several Golden Globes nominations. Marshall is no stranger to awards, having directed Best Picture winner “Chicago” among others like “Into the Woods,” “Nine” and “Memoirs of a Geisha” that earned Oscar nominations.

Marshall sat down with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum to discuss why he wanted to direct “Mary Poppins Returns,” his desire to make the film an homage but also it’s own thing and whether Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke had seen the film yet. Watch the exclusive video chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Rob, tell us the first time “Mary Poppins,” those two words, crossed your mind. How long ago was that?

Rob Marshall: Well, it was the first film I saw as a child. I was four years old when I saw it and I think it introduced me to this world of film in an incredible way. It’s such an extraordinary film with music and magic and fantasy and performance and dance, everything, all at once. Of course, I revisited over the years and I never quite imagined that it would fall in my lap as a sequel 54 years later, which is an extraordinary thing. But I will say, even though I was completely daunted by the idea of it, because following in those great footsteps, how does that work, I did feel that if anybody was to do it, I wanted to be that person because I feel it’s in my blood. Musical filmmaking is in my blood but I also feel that the film “Mary Poppins” is so deep inside me, too. I wanted to be able to approach this film with a great deal of respect for that first film and care and love but I also wanted to do something I’d never done before which is create an original musical from the very beginning, which is what I did. I worked with this incredible team. We spent three years on this film. I started writing it in 2015 and it’s just finished up about a month ago. It’s been probably the hardest film I’ve ever done, but definitely my most personal film as well, because not only how I feel about the whole of the “Mary Poppins” of it all, it’s what the film says. It’s what the film hopefully expresses which is the sense of hope in a dark time and I feel that’s very current in our time today. It feels like we’re in a place where we need a little bit of an injection of hope, so that was a guiding light for me the entire time I was filming.

GD: We saw that screening with SAG. I’m not sure how they let four journalists in for the SAG screening but just spontaneous applause at several moments. The big production number in the middle, when certain people appear onscreen.

RM: I’ll say, Dick Van Dyke, I’m telling you now, that experience working with him on this film was a dream come true. He’s my hero. I grew up with “The Dick Van Dyke Show” but even more than that, “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Mary Poppins,” of course, he is extraordinary and when we shot the film he was 91. People have been asking me, “Is that all him dancing?” Of course it’s all him. Every bit of it. He jumps up on a desk and starts tap-dancing. He’s extraordinary. I will say that he said something to me that I will never forget. We were walking on the set together and he stopped me and he said, “Rob, I have to tell you. I feel the same spirit on this set that I did in the first film.” That was to me, honestly, the greatest moment. To feel that connection from that film to our film and have him there.

GD. Our audience applauded him twice. Once when he just appears onscreen, walks through the door and right when he starts to dance. When he started to dance there’s just this gasp like, “He’s gonna dance.”

RM: Because we’re all waiting for that. “Can he still do that?” And of course he can. What’s so funny is he’s playing an old banker, basically the same old banker that he played in the first film, but he was 37 then. Now he’s 91, but still having to act old because he’s not. He’s so spry and so youthful. He’s fantastic.

GD: Tell us about Emily Blunt. If she had said no, would you have abandoned it?

RM: I think I might have because I don’t see a movie without her. It was such a tall order, the requirements for this role because you need to be a great actress to play all the layers of Mary Poppins. There’s that facade of sternness and brusque nanny, and then under that, there has to be warmth. There has to be humor. There has to be a sense of childlike spirit there. All of that needs to be underneath all this and we need to see glimpses of that person under there. That humanity is so key. Otherwise, she becomes a cartoon, and Emily is so fully realized as an actor. It’s just extraordinary. Plus you need to be able to sing, to be able to dance, and in addition, she’s British. There was literally no one else. I had worked with her on “Into the Woods” and I just knew the moment this came to me that she was Mary Poppins. I was hoping she’d feel the same way, and she did feel the same way, luckily.

GD: There’s not a lot, to me, of movie stars, not actors and actresses but just people that whatever movie they’re in, think about “Quiet Place” this year, that just command the screen.

RM: That’s who she is. I said that to John Krasinski actually, because we were in post-production while he was starting getting ready to shoot “A Quiet Place” and I said to John, “Wait till you see. Wait till you see what she’s like on film.” He said, “Oh, I know.” I said, “No, no, no. Wait till you see what she brings.” There’s something so magical about her work. It’s just that thing that you said, she has something. She has that classic movie star aura. It’s there.

GD: I don’t remember who the actor was but they said something about Spencer Tracy, of when they were acting with him, physically opposite him, they thought, “He’s not really doing anything. This is not gonna translate.” Then they’d watch the dailies or watch the film and they’re like, “I didn’t see that opposite him!”

RM: I know Katharine Hepburn has talked about that in detail, too. He was so real. You never knew when he was saying the lines. That’s the goal, to find the truth. With great actors, I will say that this movie is filled with those, like Ben Whishaw, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters. It is filled with great actors, and I was so blessed to have over two months of rehearsal with this cast to create a company so we could all get on the same page and really find the truth of this movie. It’s very easy with a film like this to “wink wink” and send it up, and I didn’t wanna do that. I wanted to create a family and a story that you really feel is real and you connect with, so that when Mary Poppins comes to take them on these adventures, that’s the fantasia. That’s the thing that takes you away and then you’re back to this real story, but you’re hopefully emotionally connected to this story and this family.

GD: What brought you to Marc [Shaiman] and Scott [Wittman] working on the songs and Marc working on the score?

RM: I’ll tell you something. I’ve known Marc and Scott forever, ever since I came to New York City and started in theater and always wanted to work with them. I developed “Hairspray” with them for close to a year and then I actually had a decision to make to decide between doing “Hairspray” onstage or going off and doing the film “Chicago.” Hardest decision of my life, but I was very happy with how it worked out.

GD: That worked out okay.

RM: It worked out okay. We’ve talked about working together for a long time since and I just knew when this came around, John DeLuca and myself really sat down and thought, “Who is right for this? Who has this movie in their blood?” I really felt like that was a very important requirement, that you have to have the original first film in your blood somewhere because we are following that. I know it was why Marc became a composer. Literally that film. I knew that he would be able to write with Scott in the style of the first film, the Sherman Brothers’ extraordinary music but at the same time create something new. It was a really tricky balancing act, I must say, because you wanna pay homage to the first film but at the same time, you really wanna create a path of your own and create a whole new original musical. So this was our task, it was such a high bar but we were reaching to the very last breath we had.

GD: That’s what I liked about it the most is that it does walk that fine line of being a brand new original musical but then giving homage to the past.

RM: I used myself as a barometer the entire time. I thought, “What would I wanna see? If I came to see a sequel to ‘Mary Poppins,’ I would wanna see a live-action animated sequence and I would wanna see it in 2D with hand-drawn animation.” That was a huge challenge because so many of the artists who do hand-drawn animation are retired and have moved on. It’s sort of becoming a lost art, so a lot of our animators came out of retirement to this. In addition, we had a lot of 20-somethings that were really excited to learn the old school style, more interesting in that than the computer-generated work. So that’s an example of something that I knew I wanted to see. I knew I wanted to see a big production number with male dancers, athletic, exciting, and we have this eight-minute number that was exactly the kind of thing I loved so much. John and I choreographed it together. It was thrilling to do. There were so many things. I also knew when not to. You can’t overindulge in that. You have to make sure that you use it very sparingly but in very strategic places, so that was the goal.

GD: That big production number, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” that’s one of your two submissions for Oscar voters to consider. If that gets in, would you be involved in helping to put that particular sequence together for the Oscars?

RM: Knock knock if we were ever lucky enough to, I would absolutely be all over that. It’s so important how something is presented and starting off as a dancer myself and a choreographer, moving into direction, it’s really something that I wanna be part of, of course.

GD: Have you heard from Julie Andrews at all? Has she seen it?

RM: Julie’s a very good friend of mine. She has not seen the film yet. She’s very excited to see it. I know she’s working on her books. She has a deadline. She’s in the middle of her second book. She has been beyond supportive. We approached her early on and it was just a dialogue, “Should you be part of this? Should there be a cameo for you?” She just immediately said, “Here’s the thing. I love Emily Blunt.” She loves her work. She said, “She’s the perfect choice, and I know in your hands it’s gonna be treated beautifully.” She said, “I really honestly feel that Emily needs to run with this. This is her show and I shouldn’t be around it.” I thought that was so smart, but also very generous, which is who she is. She said to me and John, we had dinner with her not that long ago, “It’s so time for this. It’s so time. There are eight books, there’s all this material. She said it’s time for a sequel after 54 years. She’s very excited for it, so I’m excited for her to see the film.

GD: I told Emily earlier, they haven’t announced a DeMille winner yet for the Globes. Let’s do Julie Andrews and all of you might be there. That would be the perfect symmetry of an evening.

RM: She deserves every single thing. I hope they do give her that. There’s no one like her. Look what she did. She’s extraordinary and also just who she is as a person.

GD: Has Dick Van Dyke seen the final version?

RM: Dick Van Dyke has not seen the final version. He will see it tomorrow night at the premiere.

GD: Does that make you more anxious?

RM: No, because his section he saw was pretty much finished when he saw it. Since then we have our musical score all in place, all our animation is finalized, all the color work, all of that. I think he’ll be really excited, and to see it with an audience, he’s gonna feel that love when he walks through that door and he comes onscreen.

GD: And Richard Sherman, who I’ve met at a couple parties, Oscar voter parties over the years, I saw in the credits he’s a creative consultant.

RM: He’s a creative consultant. That was really helpful for us because I just wanted the blessing. I just wanted to make sure that he felt that he was part of it, but also to get his blessing on the material. We just wanted him to hear it and he was so relieved but also moved by the material. He’s a big fan of Marc and Scott’s and he was just so proud that we were staying within the vein and in the feeling of the beautiful work from the two of them. So it felt right to have him there for that.

GD: You made smart decisions at every turn. You involved all of these people.

RM: Thank you for saying that. It was all very much wanting to find a way to approach this in the right way, with a great deal of care and thoughtfulness and love. That was really important to us and I knew the bar was so high. I felt like I was literally doing three movies at once. The hardest film I’ve ever done, but it came from such a place of great passion.

GD: And nice touch putting Karen Dotrice in a little cameo.

RM: Thank you for seeing that. A lot of people don’t know that, and that was really special having her on the set. She’s the original Jane, as you know. She’s such a lovely woman. She was so supportive and excited to be there and so great to Emily Mortimer. It was very special having her there. There’s that little tiny easter egg when she says, “Many thanks, sincerely,” which is the last line of “The Perfect Nanny,” the song, “Many thanks, sincerely, Jane and Michael Banks.” It gives me chills.

GD: Well you’ve got a great one on your hands. I hope the audiences worldwide embrace it.

RM: That’s so nice for you to say. I feel like we’re just starting to set it out so it’s nice to hear that. Thank you very much.

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