How Rob Marshall Inspires His Cast in Mary Poppins Returns

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Rob Marshall is one of my favorite directors. He is the master of musical films. Chicago is my all time favorite musical so I knew that he would do an amazing job on Mary Poppins Returns. After talking to his wonderful cast, you can tell that Marshall has a way of inspiring them to be great in everything they do from dancing to singing or just changing the perspective of a moment. He was fantastic to interview so let’s jump right in.

Check out the full interview here.

*This article has been shortened

How do you convince your actors that everything is possible even when they’re scared of heights?  When they don’t consider themselves singers or dancers in other films that you have made?

Rob Marshall – “It’s sort of interesting when I work with Actors I really find they need to feel positive reinforcement you know and it’s such a simple thing to do.  It’s like being a really good parent you know.  And I try and achieve that when we’re working.

For instance, as an example Ben Whishaw, who plays Michael Banks, he’s never sung before.  He was sort of nervous about how do you do that, and I always feel that people can do so much. It’s just feeling that they can and knowing that they can.

Rob Marshall
Photo credit: Jana Seitzer /

I like to protect them in rehearsals when– you know we had over two months of rehearsal.  So it was during that time that you can fail and be bad and then learn to get better and, and not feel judged.  That’s a really important thing.  I like to protect actors to make them feel they can do things and try things. ”

See what Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, and Emily Mortimer thought about working with Rob Marshall.

Rob Marshall mentioned at D23 Expo that he found the original table from the first movie. Did you use any other props from the first film? 

RM – “I visited the Disney archives. They didn’t really have the archives in the ’60s, not much, there’s some. They didn’t want to give us the blocks, but we replicated the blocks. They’re in the attic if you look.  Also the snow globe. We replicated that as well.

So the only real thing is that table in the front hall, which I saw at Club 33 at Disneyland and I said, ‘That’s in the movie if the let us have it’ and they did.  So that was really moving to me. The kite, of course, we replicated that and created our own version of the kite, but those very specific things from the first film that I really wanted to hold onto if I could, and that’s for the people who love the first film who know it.  It’s those first little Easter eggs.

I use myself as honestly as a barometer the whole time.  ‘What would I wanna’ see?’  I wouldn’t want to abuse it too much because it’s very easy to sort of overdo it, but I wanted to specifically and strategically place things that meant something to people.”

Dick Van Dyke Mary Poppins Returns

Of course, we had to as what it was like working with Dick Van Dyke and if that was really him up there dancing. Not surprised that it is. 

RM – “I said to Lin and Emily I said, ‘If he falls off that desk you’re dead. You are spotting him. So if he starts to wobble, I want you to jump in.’  Of course he was perfectly fine.  In fact, he doesn’t even use Lin’s hand. When you see Lin is literally standing there like okay and he doesn’t use him, he just goes right up.

I was so excited and nervous to even call him to ask him to do this because he’s a hero for me.  I mean and that’s the Dick Van Dyke Show for me honestly. Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang, Bye Bye Birdie all of it. Talking to him, he just disarms you immediately.  He’s so joyous, and he said yes so quickly.  He wanted to be part– he was excited to be part of it.

And when he came onto the set, he honest to God grabbed my arm as we were walking on.  He said, ‘I feel the same spirit here on this set that I did you know in the first film.’ And I thought okay well that’s everything.  That’s all I need to hear. That was everything for me to hear that from him.”

Rob Marshall
Rob Marshall photo credit Disney

Just like having props strategically placed, Marshall also used music as little Easter eggs as well. 

Marshall tells us that he placed a lot of the original songs within the last 15 minutes of the film.

RM – “I feel like we’ve earned it by that time.  I feel like she looks in the balloon and you hear a Spoon Full of Sugar, or they’re up in the air, and you hear A Little Let’s Go Fly A Kite. Because I think we’re coming full circle. Michael’s now a child, and we tried to make it something that was emotional.

I will say when Dick Van Dyke does that monologue to the kids where he tells the story about Michael as a little boy and the tuppence and so all of that, and you hear Feed The Birds.  I will tell you now that when I shot that scene, I like to work with music. So I had Feed The birds, the music, in my ear and I’m watching Dick Van Dyke, and I have him in my ear too and he’s delivering this monologue, and I honestly broke down.  I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t say cut. I couldn’t say it. I was so moved.

I just couldn’t believe my life had come full circle.  From a 4-year-old boy having seen the film with Dick Van Dyke there, hearing Feed The Birds, watching him say that.  He’s in our film 54 years later as a 91-year-old man.  I mean that’s just magic to me. It was total magic; I’m still not over it.”

Let’s talk about those amazing animation scenes. What is the process like? 

RM – “That was the most challenging part of the whole filmmaking, and it’s the first thing we shot, right away, because of the animators– it’s all hand-drawn animation, every frame.  So we needed to get that material to the animators right away. And the reason our post-production was I think close to 14, 15 months was because of the hand-drawn animation.  They needed that time.

The majority of them came out of retirement to do this.  It’s kind of a lost art, although I have just to say I was somewhat hopeful because a lot of the artists there really were also in their 20s who were more interested in working on the hand-drawn animation than the computer-generated work.  So that was really good.”

Emily Blunt is Mary Poppins, and Lin-Manuel Miranda is Jack in Disney’s MARY POPPINS RETURNS, a sequel to the 1964 MARY POPPINS, which takes audiences on an entirely new adventure with the practically perfect nanny and the Banks family.

The animation sections have to be filmed multiple times to add points of references. So sometimes it’s just Mary Poppins and Jack, and then there are reference dancers used in place for the penguins. Then Marshall would take Emily and Lin-Manuel out of the shot and only shoot the reference dancers in so the animators would know the choreography. There is a scene with flamingos dancing, and those numbers were filmed with women in their place for the animators. Lots of green screen and points of reference for the kids to look at like tall giraffes as well.

There is a lot of material with eight books, is there enough material for another movie? 

RM – “I’m just sort of holding my breath to see how this movie’s embraced and how it does.  And if people accept it and are excited by it.  And if it does, I think there will be talk about it because there is a lot of material.  We walked through it, and cherry picked what we thought were the best adventures that we could musicalize and create like a set piece too. But I will say there was a lot left on the table as we were working through that.

She definitely can visit other families, and there are other stories there for sure.  There’s a lot of Star Wars stories.  There can be a lot of Mary Poppins stories.  That’s my fill.”

I’m with Marshall on this one. When the books provide you with tons of material, you can keep the storytelling going.

Mary Poppins Returns is in theaters December 19th.
Get the Mary Poppins Returns soundtrack!

Buy your tickets to see Mary Poppins Returns now on Fandango or Atom Tickets ($5 off with code SQUAD)

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