The wonder and magic of Mary Poppins has returned after 50 years and it continues to wow and amaze with it’s animation and fantastical stories. When the news was announced of a new May Poppins story coming to life, many people wondered if it would live up to the classic story and many were unsure it would succeed. Director Rob Marshall put his heart into bringing this beloved story to new audiences while keeping the nostalgia of the original film intact.
A labor of love, this is how some of the people involved in the making of Mary Poppins Returns describe the process and when it came time to select the perfect man for the job of production design, Rob Marshall made sure to turn to one of the best in the industry, John Myrhe.
One of the most important aspects of a film is the backdrop, the setting, the locations that help create the scene and draw us in to the story. The little and not so little aspects that make the unbelievable, believable. Often times scenes can be shot on location but a lot of the times, locations need to be recreated to take us back to a specific time and feel of a city, such as London. This was one of the many items John Myrhe was tasked with when joining the production team of Mary Poppins Returns. I had the opportunity to speak with Oscar winner, John Myrhe and find out just a bit about the making of the film.
One of the major challenges in making a “new” Mary Poppins film was remaining true to the heart of the character while brining a fresh take to a new audience. John explains just how difficult it was threading that line. “It was a real tight rope walk we had to make because we as film makers are such fans of the original film. Mary Poppins was one of the first films I ever saw in a movie theater so it’s very dear to my heart and I’m a huge Disney fan and wanted to be respectful to it but also, the story that Rob Marshall wrote is a completely different story. Its not a remake by any means. He had this wonderful idea setting it 25 years later and letting those (original) beautiful little children grow up. Michael has three kids of his own and then Mary returns to his kids. The story is so different in that we’re coming into a very bleak time for the Banks family.”
This is pointed out from the beginning of the film as we see the family receive a repossession notice from their bank and learn that Michael is about to lose his childhood home, 17 Cherry Tree Lane. “The world we are creating was the bleak world of London and that had another design running with it which was the magical world of Mary Poppins. So colorful and such an escape from the world they’re living. We then tried to merge those two designs in the final scene at the Spring Fair where there is the explosion of color and magic.”
17 Cherry Tree Lane plays a large role in the story as we also see it transform from the home we saw in the original film to what it is now, John Myrhe explains how he went about making this change. “In the first film, the original Banks family, the kids had a very little imprint on the house. The father, at the beginning of the movie, was so strict and impersonal. He was this banker and the house has very little emotion in it. It’s very clean and very un-lived in. When we looked at it, there’s not even a sofa in the living room. Everything is so formal, like it’s run by a gentleman who runs a bank. The whole street is this white washed three story buildings, all matching. We felt that our family was completely different so even though it’s the same house 25-years later, we made it our house that had to tell our story.”
The transformation came from the outside in as the neighboring homes changed from three story houses to two story houses in order to make them look less formal. Exposed brick was added along with giving each house their own personalities by having different gardens. “Then, when you go in the house it’s all a little more compact, a little more real.” At the end of the original Mary Poppins we see Mr. bans become a better father but we don’t get to see what he does to the house. On the other hand, Michael is an artist so “we infused the house with love and when you come into the house, it’s a family’s house that’s run by a bohemian artist. We see his artwork and the kids artwork hung all over the house. Their clothes are hanging all over, their books and school work…it’s the complete opposite. The kids are literally running the house.”
Every little detail tells a story and in Mary Poppins Returns, every song and adventure teaches a lesson. Rob Marshall planned every aspect of the film just so and John Myrhe helped to tie these together with the fantastic sets such as Topsy’s home. The character name alone lets you in on the fact that not everything is in tip top shape, rather its a bit upside down. John Myrhe details the experience of creating this upside-down world to be not only believable but workable. “Every one of the musical numbers tells a positive message to the children. Topsy Turvy was amazing. It was one of the most complicated sets that I’ve ever worked on because we really built that upside down room. You would enter in walking on top of the ceiling and you would look up to the floor and all those objets: the piano, the statues, the paintings, the dish ware where all actually bolted and glued to the ceiling. It was something that Rob and I wanted to do from the very beginning because we liked the reality of a set for actors but particularly three of the actors of the set where children. For them to be able to walk in and see that space for real [was important].”
If you watch the film, you can see Mary Poppins and the children climb down into the room by walking on the bottom of a shelve, to the bottom of the fireplace, to the bottom of a statue to the sword and shield to the bottom of bird cages. These items were all created just for that purpose. “The way the kids faces lit up when they walked in was extraordinary and it was fun for everybody for the actors to be on a real life set like that, it made the magical scene even more magical.”
As we wrapped up the interview John shared with us a little bit about he upcoming live action remake of Lady and the Tramp. “I think it’s coming out in the fall. We shot in Savannah, Georgia and had a really fun time making the movie and it’ll be a great thing to open up Disney streaming service with.”
Be sure to grab your copy of Mary Poppins Returns now available on demand, DVD, blu-ray and 4k Ultra HD to see the magic come to life and spot some hidden Mickey’s!