As the writer of Mary Poppins Returns, David Magee embraced the major opportunity he saw before him, putting his stamp on an iconic character that meant so much to him. A sequel to Disney’s 1964 musical classic—based on a series of children’s books by P.L. Travers—Mary Poppins Returns circles back to the titular, magical nanny, and the Banks children whose lives she forever changed. Now fully grown, with children of his own, Michael Banks has lost his wife, and stands to gain the most of anyone from Poppins’ reemergence, at a time when his imagination and joy in life have lapsed.
Certainly, there would be many challenges to face, bringing Poppins back to the screen after so many years. First and foremost, the writer had a responsibility to generations of fans, who had been touched by the original. Inevitably, the sequel would need to find harmony with that film’s idiosyncratic spirit, while embracing a series of adventures (and a plethora of songs) all its own. For Magee—who was learning the ropes of the movie musical form, in such a high-stakes scenario—feeling confident in taking the film on came naturally, as a result of the team he had around him. In a whirlwind collaboration over the course of three years, Magee traded ideas and suggestions with director Rob Marshall, producer John DeLuca, composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman, finding himself at the epicenter of Poppins passion. For each of these artists, the original Mary Poppins was “somehow in our blood, something that we had all grown up on,” the writer says. “It was part of who you were, and your understanding of what movies were. What storytelling was.” Amidst this group on the Golden Globe-nominated project—with talents like Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda before the camera—there was truly “Nowhere to Go But Up.”
What were your first impressions when Mary Poppins Returns came your way?
When I was told that Rob Marshall wanted to do a new continuation of the story of Mary Poppins, I thought it was fascinating. If it were any other director, I might not have been so certain I would take something like that on. But Rob’s obviously a genius when it comes to film musicals, so I thought, “Well, I’m certainly going to meet him and see what we find out.” They sent over some preliminary ideas, thoughts, images, just to suggest what they might be interested in doing. I read them, and I thought they were interesting, and I had some ideas.
I met Rob and John DeLuca in New York, and it became clear very quickly that we all had the same love for the original film. So, by the end of that first conversation, I knew I wanted to be involved—and by the time I got home, I got a call from my agent saying they wanted me to be involved. Shortly after that, we worked for a little while, talking about story, and then Marc Shaiman, the composer, and Scott Wittman, the lyricist, came on board.
That was our little gang, and each week we would meet for a few hours, throwing things back and forth. I would take notes, and from that, develop some story ideas, which I then sent out. Then they’d read them all, and we’d come back and sit down again. And for a period of about three or four months, we developed the story of Mary Poppins Returns.
Did you see through lines between Mary Poppins and films you’d written before? With Finding Neverland, for example, you took on another iconic writer known for conjuring up worlds of wonder—that being Sir J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan.
They are very different films, except in the sense that both of them are about people using stories and the imagination to come to terms with difficult passages in life, and in the end, learning from those flights of imagination. I think it’s the same with Life of Pi, actually. It’s about a boy who’s shipwrecked and loses everything, who finds a way to deal with that through the power of stories and imagination. I don’t consciously set out to retell the same story, but I think I believe so strongly in the powers of storytelling, and the powers of stories to transform our lives, that that theme keeps coming back. You don’t even realize you’re doing it again, and I don’t intend to come back to that theme again. But it probably will crop up.
What was the focus early on, in terms of the themes and ideas that would shape the sequel? Obviously, this film hinges on a familial loss, and a much-needed return to joy.
That’s exactly right. From the very beginning, Rob and John had come up with the idea of, instead of having a chimney sweep, having a lamplighter. At that point, we didn’t know what his name was, or what his relationship was to Mary Poppins, but very early in the development, we had all read the P.L. Travers books. There are eight of them, and they’re very episodic, these wonderful stories where at the beginning of the chapter, they go off on an adventure, and at the end of the chapter, Mary Poppins says, “It’s never happened”—and next chapter is a new adventure. They can almost be rearranged, but we had to find that story that connected ours from one adventure to the next.
Rob had noticed in the very first book, almost on the first page, that the Banks household was described as “the smallest and shabbiest on Cherry Tree Lane,” which is different than what you imagine it being in the original film. The original film was moved back in time to the turn of the 20th century, but the books were actually written during the Depression, and because of that line about the shabby home, and the fact that we wanted to have it grounded in a more believable reality, for our time and our storytelling, we went back to that era of the Depression. But we hadn’t yet decided that it was going to be Michael and Jane’s story as grown-ups. We were thinking, “Well, what made George Banks forget all that wonder and laughter that Mary Poppins brought to him the last time she came? What’s happened in this interim?” We tried different versions of that story, and it didn’t resonate, and it was only when we realized there was a time gap just long enough for Jane and Michael to have grown up that we had the beginnings of a story.
There’s a wonderful little line in one of the Travers books: “Grown-ups forget, they always do.” They forget that wonder, and magic, and possibility of childhood, so it made perfect sense that while George Banks may have held onto it in his lifetime, the children growing up would face adversity, setbacks, losses, economic troubles, the day-to-day cares in life. They would’ve lost that, and come to believe that it was all just the fantasies of children playing together—so Mary Poppins comes back not just for Michael’s children, but for Michael, who’s lost his wife. He’s had some enormous trouble in his life, and is about to lose the house—and at that point, we knew we had a story.
That was the beginning point, and then it was about, what adventures do we want to send them on? And if we send them on adventures, what ties those adventures together? What do the children take from each of their journeys that helps them to solve the problems that their father is going through?
How much historical research did writing this film demand?
I try to always do my research into the era, so I read up on banking practices, and how shares certificates for companies work, and what happened in foreclosure in London during that era. At a certain point, you absorb all you can, and then you think, “Well, what do we need for this story? And what do people want for this story?” I don’t think they want a lesson in banking; I don’t think they want to know how contracts worked back then. We learned all we could, and then we took the license that we wanted in order to tell the story that mattered most to us.
As a writer, what is the approach, tapping into a character like Mary Poppins who is so well known, and has such a specific voice?
I think the closest analogy I can come up with is, some people are good at hearing dialects. For me, as I learn a character—as I come to understand what they would or would not say—I start to hear a rhythm, how they would react in certain situations. In the case of Mary Poppins, I think I had that voice in my head from when I was a kid. In the process of reading the books, we took the best little quirky phrasing of things that Mary Poppins said, and wrote a list of them—we called them “Mary Poppisms”—and whenever I was searching for a nice little quirky turn of phrase, I would be reminded of that list, and go back and see if something quite applied. Little things, like when Ellen, the housekeeper, is peering out, watching a little romantic interlude outside, and Mary Poppins comes downstairs and says, “Ah, polishing the keyhole, are we?” Now, that’s not a line I would ever have thought of myself, but it was a wonderful, funny way of calling someone out. We got to that moment, and I flipped back through my list, and went, “That’s where that belongs.” And if you do that for a while, you start finding your own along the way.
Emily Blunt has said that her take on Mary Poppins goes back to the character from the books, who had a certain sharpness—a quality that was a bit removed from Julie Andrews’ take. Did that stem specifically from your script?
I think when we read the books, we all enjoyed her quirkiness, her vanity, her sharpness sometimes toward the children, and her ability to hide her warmth and caring behind a façade of a stern nanny. And it was fun to play with that. I don’t think we consciously said, “We’re going to do 40% from the books, and 30% from the movie,” or whatever, but as we were working on it, that was the character that most excited us. And then when Emily came aboard, she took everything that I did in the script to another level, because she justhadthat. So, it was a wonderful process, watching it unfold.
In this film, story and song are inextricable. Can you expand on the dynamic, in terms of honing these elements simultaneously over time? Did the film’s structure come together around a list of major set pieces?
We were talking about why Mary had to return, and what it was she was trying to give to the family, and that formed the thematic story we were telling. Then, we found the adventures in the Travers books that we most wanted to play with, and some of it was rearranging cards on the table and saying, “Wow, we could do a really big number right here, toward the latter half of the film,” which was “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.” And we could do something here, and something else here.
My job was first to make sure we were telling a narrative through those adventures. As I fleshed out the outline, and we had our conversations, I’d write up my thoughts, and then we’d all read them and say, “Well, I like this, but what’s happening with this character?” Or, “How do we solve that problem?” In the course of that, Marc, Scott, and often Rob or John would say, “That’s a song. That’s a big emotional moment. That can burst out. Something can come out of that, that’s bigger than just the conversation at hand. It can become something larger.” And I’d say, “Okay, that’s a song then. And what’s that song about?” We’d talk about the meaning of the song, or the intention of the song, and sometimes Marc Shaiman would say, “It’s like a music hall song, or a song from the 1920s,” and refer to some musician I’d never heard of. And I’d smile and nod, and say, “Okay, then it’s a song.” And I’d write down the content of it.
When we actually got to writing the scenes, I would do the scene work up until that moment. I would have gone off and researched that musician he talked about, so I had some sense of what he was doing, and I’d write up to where I thought the song began. Then, I’d write what I thought was happening in the song, or what I thought someone might be trying to say to someone else through it. I’d hand that over to them, with Rob reading it and commenting, and they would come back and say, “Here’s the song.” They would send me a demo of a song and say, “It starts here. We don’t need those extra lines. They were great for helping us think through the song, but now we want to start here.” I would adjust the lines leading up to it, so the transition was clean, and then it was really a passing back and forth of that storytelling job.
This seems like a pretty rare and interesting situation—to have so many great cooks in the kitchen, in the writing of a film, and engage in such a collaborative process.
It was an incredible luxury, and I don’t know how else I would do it because it was so organic. Having the director there saying, “I like that, but I don’t think this works, guys. Back up. Let’s do this a different way,” he was shaping it even as we were having the conversations. It wasn’t like we had built the whole thing, and then brought someone in to make it, who didn’t know why we did it the way we did it. We all were in the room together.
So much has changed in the world, since the original Mary Poppins was conceived and experienced by moviegoers. What do you make of the way in which each of the Poppins films aligns with its era?
Back when the first film was made, it was going to be an era of tumult coming up, but at the time, it was an optimistic era. It was a “Life is good” era, and in some ways, a more innocent time. In some ways, there were issues that were still being kept hidden away, but I think they wanted to make a much brighter, more optimistic world in their film, and that was much in keeping with the musicals of the time. Obviously, it takes years to make a film, and lots has changed even in the three years since we began this film. But I know that from the beginning, Rob and John and myself, we all wanted it to be a story about finding your way out of a darker time, finding your way out of the confusion and troubles of your life. I think it resonates with people because it’s a more complex time now, because there’s so much in the air, no matter where you come from in your viewpoints.
There’s so much more complexity and animosity in the world these days, than in our [film’s] world, which [returns] to that sense of, “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” There is light that will guide you through the fog, and there’s hope even in the darkest times of your lives. When you face adversity, when you face loss, when you go through bad times, it’s important to remember it will get better, that there is a way through it, and that was what we were writing about. I think it has resonated in a wonderful way with people who have seen the film, and I think it’s because we’re not being ironic. We’re not being tongue-in-cheek about it. We’re being very sincere, and sincerity is a commodity these days.
Looking back on your time with this film now, what did you take away from it?
I think the biggest thing I took from it was joy. When you write about people going through adversity and just barely surviving, or subjects which need to be written about that are cynical, or dark, or troubled, you find yourself going on the journey with those characters. This story is about coming from a place, and finding a new place, a place of such hope and joy that I’m moved every time I watch it. So, I think I’ll take that with me. I think I’ll have that ability to tap into the “There’s a light ahead” feeling, in ways that I don’t know that I would have, had I not worked on this project.
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