For screenwriter David Magee, getting the chance to work on “Mary Poppins Returns” was an unexpected thrill. Rob Marshall’s musical sequel is only the fourth script from Magee. But his three screenplays have yielded two Oscar nominations, plus a Golden Globe nomination.
His debut, “Finding Neverland,” and 2012’s “Life of Pi,” were also nominated for Best Picture. His second script, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” wasn’t initially a critical darling, but has since gone on to find appreciation in the ten years since its release. Can his new film take his Oscar average to 75%?
I recently had the opportunity to speak with David Magee about the process of bringing “Mary Poppins Returns” from concept to screen. We discussed their early conversations, the joy of working on the set, and tiptoed around a certain cameo, carefully – and narrowly – avoiding spoilers.
Please enjoy this conversation with Oscar-nominated screenwriter David Magee.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: I am so happy to be talking to you right now. I saw the film last night. It was my first time getting to watch it and I just feel like I’ve been floating on a cloud ever since it ended.
DM: That’s wonderful. That’s how I feel too. It makes me feel the same way each time I watch it.
KP: It’s just such a wonderful movie. It all came together so beautifully. What is your history with “Mary Poppins?”
DM: I think like a lot of people it’s one of the first films I ever saw. I can’t for certain remember which film I watched first, but somewhere in amongst “Oliver!” and “Mary Poppins” and “Scrooge,” they all came together for me and I watched them in that period in my life when I don’t know if you fully separate or make the distinction between what’s in movies and what’s in real life and what’s in your fantasy life. They just spoke to me. They’re kind of in your DNA for better and not worse, I think, from the earliest age. So when we started working on this, I think we all understood that story almost…we understood what we were trying to do with the original almost instinctively. Which was a rare thing.
KP: It feels like such a natural sequel.
DM: That’s really great. Thanks!
KP: When I first heard about the project I, like a lot of people, was skeptical. But how did those early meetings go when you were deciding what the story would be and where to take this?
DM: I had the chance to meet with Rob [Marshall] and John DeLuca about the project and I jumped at it because, of course, if anyone can do a musical it’s Rob Marshall. I had no doubt that I was in good hands with him working on it.
They had come up with some initial ideas of what might happen, some images that they wanted to incorporate. They knew they wanted to do that bathtub sequence. And they shared those ideas with me and I started talking with them. Very quickly we were finishing each other’s sentences and adding to what the other person had said. It became obvious that we were talking about the same film. So at that point, the real challenge was to find out what brought Mary Poppins back. We had plenty of material in the eight PL Travers books for wonderful adventures they could go on. But what had changed in the Banks family that made Mary Poppins need to return to help them again? And we didn’t know what that was going to be initially.
We tried all sorts of things. Initially we were thinking it was the same family with George Banks as head of the household and Jane and Michael still children. But as we talked about that, it didn’t make sense that George Banks would have lost his enlightenment, so to speak. That he would have forgotten so easily and so quickly that his family mattered most and that there is magic in the world and you need to laugh. And so any version of the story we tried with that didn’t seem satisfying somehow. And it was only when Rob had noticed in the first book that PL Travers wrote, which she wrote in the era of the Depression or just afterward, that that was when the book was essentially set. It was not set back at the turn of the century as the film was – the first film. But Disney and his collaborators all decided that they wanted to move it to a somewhat brighter, sunnier time when they created the musical. Rob was aware that on the first page of the first book that PL Travers wrote, she describes the Banks household as the smallest, shabbiest house on Cherry Tree Lane. And while George Banks was a banker, there is a suggestion that he was not necessarily the most successful one. But the children understood that he went and made money, so he must be doing fine. Which is something that I played with where I had him making money by drawing pictures on paper.
So when we suddenly realized if we wanted to set it during the Depression, and then to have a house that was a little shabbier than in the first film, and was a little more grounded emotionally in these people’s lives, well then Jane and Michael would have grown up and maybe taken over that house. There’s a wonderful line in the PL Travers books, “Grown ups forget. They always do.” And so when we tied that line to the idea that we were setting it in the Depression and that Jane and Michael had grown up, we knew we had a story. That was really how it came together.
KP: Did you have any rules that you established to make sure that you would stay within that same type of world established in the first film?
DM: I think the rules were somewhat instinctive. I think definitely the grown ups who had not experienced Mary Poppins or who had forgotten Mary Poppins weren’t seeing the same things that the children were. Even if the audience was seeing Mary slide up the banister in the background, Jane and Michael were too preoccupied with the difficulties in their lives to remember that side of things.
And so we wanted to establish that in the course of nearly losing the home, Michael having lost his wife, all the cares and troubles of the world coming upon them, Jane and Michael had come to believe that all they did as children was just dim memories and fantasy, didn’t have any basis in reality.
From there, I think the only – not necessarily rule but guideline – was we were free to take our favorite adventures from any of the “Mary Poppins” books and turn them into whatever we liked. But they had to advance our characters’ understanding of the world or perspective or advance the story in such a way that it wasn’t just a side trip. It wasn’t “Now let’s go off for ten or fifteen minutes on an adventure that really has no bearing on what happens in these peoples’ lives.”
We really took care to make sure that we were taking an adventure and the children were learning something from it, experiencing something from it, getting a perspective on the world that would carry our story forward as we went through the film.
KP: Can you talk a little bit about the sequence that is mostly hand-drawn, when they go into the bowl? How did that all come about?
DM: One of the chapters in a PL Travers book, most of the chapters can stand alone. They go on an adventure, they go to an amazing place, and when they come home at the end Mary Poppins says it never happened, and you go on to the next chapter.
This particular chapter was Jane was having a bad day and threw something in her room because she was feeling very cross. She chips a plate, actually, I don’t think it was a bowl, I think it was a plate, and hears a tiny voice say, “Ouch!” The plate has cracked and there’s a character drawn on the plate and it’s cracked right through his leg and he’s angry. Suddenly Jane finds herself pulled into the world of that plate and it’s kind of a monochromatic, scary world from a different era and it sounds as though she’ll never get back. It’s really kind of a dark and one of the more frightening adventures from the original books. We knew almost instantly that that was a wonderful entry into the world of animation, which we absolutely wanted to do because of the original. So we thought we would do the plate but it eventually turned into a bowl because it was more fun to spin a bowl and see that on the mantle, and you could see more drawings and they could ride up and down the sides of it and all that sort of thing.
But we combined it in a sense with another adventure in which Mary Poppins goes, I believe, underwater. And while they’re down at this big dance underwater, they have her perform. That gave us a chance to say, “What if she did a musical number?” And so that’s how gradually we came to build all these different ideas into something unique. And of course we wanted to make sure that adventure, that during the course of that adventure our kids got some insight into – I don’t want to give away too much plot, you know it – what was going on with their father’s troubles, and that it would later inform the plot.
It takes a dark turn as well, in a very different way, and allowed us to have a chase sequence on a curved bowl and racing around and hitting a crack and all that sort of thing. It’s really a process of building up layers of ideas and throwing away some and adding others and you try to keep it connected to the theme and the story. As long as you do that, you’ve got all the room in the world for imagination. And the animators did a fantastic job. We had to meet with them very early on because it took so long to do 2D animation, which Rob insisted on from the very beginning. So we were giving them ideas as we were writing the outline and just starting to write the script and they would grab a piece of paper and sketch something and they would say, “Like this? Would the character look like this?” And we would say, “Yeah, that sounds wonderful! I’ll write it like that!” So it was very much a collaboration between the musicians, the composers, the animators, and me and Rob and John.
KP: I’ve heard stories about Rob Marshall, some of the actors, a few people getting overwhelmed emotionally as certain scenes were being filmed.
DM: (laughs) I got overwhelmed almost every time we rehearsed! Are you kidding me? Absolutely. We had an early reading with Lin-Manuel [Miranda] and Emily [Blunt] and some very talented New York actors who were gracious enough to come in and help us do a table reading of the script just so we could hear it and hear the music with it and get the sense of the rhythm of the whole thing. I must have cried three, four times just hearing it read! Not because of my writing, but because when those children sing in the film, it’s so honest and so tremendously moving. The song that plays, “Where the Lost Things Go,” when Emily would sing that. “The Conversation,” which is a song that Michael Banks sings. All of those things had emotional touch points. And when we got into actually rehearsing, there were frequently moments when you just found yourself remembering the original film, not because it was being referenced, but because you remember the emotions that surrounded it. So it happened to me throughout the process, and even when I saw the first screening. I still find myself moved by certain scenes even though I’ve seen it at this point plenty of times.
KP: When was the first time you got to watch the completed film?
DM: I watched it nearly completed with the composer, Marc Shaiman, and lyricist Scott Whitman, and three or four other people in a very small screening room. The credits had not been done. Some of the music had not completely been remastered and mixed. But I saw the film, and knew what we had and it was tremendously moving for all of us.
The next time I saw it, everything had been completed and it was with my wife and three kids there. So I was watching them as much as anything.
But, really, the first time I saw the film was while we were rehearsing. It’s an incredible luxury in a film to rehearse for six weeks and we rehearsed every single scene with nothing more than cardboard boxes for walls. By the time we were done with that rehearsal process, I knew what a special film we had. It’s an incredibly rare opportunity to work on something like this, but then to see it coming to life that way, there’s nothing like it.
KP: I know I mentioned earlier that I had been a little bit skeptical, but honestly, every fear I had went away as soon as I saw that first trailer.
DM: I love that!
KP: I just thought, “They’ve got it. They know what they’re doing.”
DM: That’s fantastic. Everyone did, I mean, you saw it in the costumes, you saw it in the sets, you saw it in the actors. Everyone knew what we were talking about, that we were talking about the same film and that’s incredibly rare.
KP: It is! I know a lot of the characters come from the books of PL Travers, but with the Banks children, you’ve got three new kids. How did you decide what their personalities were and who these children were going to be?
DM: It’s interesting. The PL Travers books do have more children than just Jane and Michael as the stories proceed. There’s a younger girl, Anabel, who became our Anabel. And there’s a baby. We gave ourselves that license to say, if you’re going to have more children, one would be called Georgie after George Banks, Michael’s father, and Anabel was a natural choice.
We started with the idea that we would have three children instead of two, just for the sake of giving ourselves some variety. There was an early image that I had of Ellen the housekeeper, or cook in our version, yelling up for Jane and Michael to come downstairs, and you would see two children come down who, for a moment you might mistake for Jane and Michael. But they’re actually the children. So the two older kids would actually be the more responsible ones who, because Michael’s life had fallen apart a bit, have taken up the mantle of responsibility. So in that first scene you see them calling the plumbers, turning off the water, taking care of everything when Michael has kind of become incapable.
And our younger boy became the kind of innocent one who hadn’t quite fully comprehended what was going on with his father and who still wanted to be a kid. So that was the starting point for the three children, and then as you go along you start to realize this boy is a little better about calculating time and it becomes a factor in the film. And our youngest has a stuffed animal that he carries with him for comfort that is actually going to play a role later in the film and you kind of build those character details from there.
KP: Okay, I have one question that I’m trying to figure out how to ask it because it’s a major spoiler. So I have to be careful in how I say this and how you answer.
DM: (laughs) Okay, I’ll be careful how I answer too!
KP: The scene with Dick Van Dyke.
KP: How did you decide how to tie not just his character, but everything that happens with his character, into the original film?
DM: Well, you know, that’s a hard one to answer without spoiling it!
KP: I know!
DM: I’m going to do my best here. We knew from the very beginning if we could we would love to have Dick Van Dyke join us. And, of course, he played two roles in the original. So if we could tie him to one of those roles somehow and make it a natural part of things, we would love to. And we didn’t really want to bring Bert back because we wanted Bert to be off on adventures and not draw on the original so heavily as to bring back such a major character.
It became natural for us to start thinking about bringing the other character back or a relative of his and we very quickly realized that Dawes Jr. plays a role in both films. Once we had that in mind, you know the spoilers involved, that he does comes back to help the situation immeasurably, and it was only natural then that we called on a few other things from the original that people might have forgotten to help us bring the whole story around… I think I did that without saying too much, but you can always cut me off.
KP: I think that was perfect! I know we’re about out of time, but just one final question. In one word, could you describe your experience working on “Mary Poppins Returns.”