For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from Backstory’s interview with Mary Poppins Returns screenwriter David Magee from Backstory Issue 35 – out now exclusively for subscribers.
Disney’s original Mary Poppins is one of the seminal films from David Magee’s childhood, so when his agent called one afternoon and informed him that director Rob Marshall was interested in talking to the screenwriter about a possible sequel to the 1964 film, Magee was understandably thrilled—and nervous. But 15 minutes into a meeting with Marshall and his partner, producer John DeLuca, in a New York City hotel room, the two-time Oscar nominee knew he wanted to be involved. “Very quickly it became clear that we all talked the same language and we all understood the rules for what we wanted and didn’t want,” Magee says. “We all grew up on Mary Poppins and wanted to take care of it.”
The overall goal of the creative team—to craft a story that didn’t tread on the legacy of the original film—proved surprisingly difficult at first. “The biggest concern we had was trying to figure out how or why it was that Mary Poppins had to come back at all,” Magee says. In the 1964 film, Mary appears as the nanny to the Banks children—Michael and Jane—but she’s really there to help their father, George, understand that his family is more important than his all-consuming job. “In the first film, Mary has presumably done a pretty good job healing the wounds of the Banks family. She brings the family together and opens George’s eyes to all he’s been missing. So when we were first trying out ideas [for the update], nothing felt satisfying. We were trying to come up with reasons that George had forgotten what he’d learned from Mary and that he needed to be reminded.” Magee, Marshall and DeLuca searched for answers in the source material: the eight P.L. Travers Mary Poppins books released from 1934 to 1988. The books themselves are not so much novels as collections of stories about adventures on which Mary takes Michael and Jane. “The chapters in that sense are very interchangeable so basing it off one of those didn’t make much sense.”
Delving deeper, they saw the books actually did indirectly hold the key to unlocking their story problem. “Rob noticed very early on that the first book she wrote was during the Great Depression and it described the Banks home as the smallest and shabbiest on Cherry Tree Lane,” Magee says. “It implied that they were always trying to make do and make choices on how they spent their money. That’s very much in contrast to the first film. Disney moved that story back to the turn of the century and gave it an Edwardian feel, and the family felt very well off, indeed.” Marshall was insistent on moving their story to the 1930s and using the Depression as a backdrop. But if the filmmakers were going to set their film in the ’30s, they would either have to adjust the timeline of the first movie and have George Banks and a young Michael and Jane suddenly appear as the same ages 20 years after the first movie takes place…or they could find another solution. And that’s how Mary Poppins Returns became about Michael and Jane all grown up. “That was the breakthrough moment for us. We realized we could have a story that was never really described in the P.L. Travers books and tell a story about the kids who had grown up and forgotten something about what it was like to know the wonder of Mary Poppins and her world. When you become an adult and you’re confronting mortgages and all the trappings of trying to get by in the world, it’s very easy to forget the magic of childhood. In one of the books, P.L. Travers wrote, ‘Grownups forget. They always do.’ It’s a theme she returns to again and again so when we thought of that line in connection with Michael and Jane, we knew we had the basis for a film.”
The movie sees Mary (Emily Blunt) reenter the lives of Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) in the aftermath of Michael’s wife’s death, in which he is forced to quit his job as an artist and take a position at Fidelity Fiduciary Bank—the same bank that is foreclosing on the Banks’ Cherry Tree Lane house, where Michael currently lives with his children Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). Mary takes the children on a number of adventures alongside a lamplighter named Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) as they all try to find a solution to save the family house. Though Marshall and DeLuca made their careers on movie musicals ranging from Chicago to Into the Woods, Mary Poppins Returns is Magee’s first foray into the genre, and he admits he didn’t exactly know what to expect when he joined musicians Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. “I had no idea how I was going to collaborate with composers and lyricists because I’ve never written a musical before, let alone a new musical with a new story and all new songs,” he says. “So I was entering that room trusting that the other four guys knew all anyone needed to know about musicals to get through it—and in fact they did.”
The process began with twice-a-week meetings between the five-member creative team, where they would exchange ideas, talk through moments from the Travers’ books that might fit their story and hammer out the emotional through-lines of the film. Over a four-month period, Magee crafted a detailed 35-page treatment, and as he got to certain scenes, one of the others would note areas where a song might enter into the picture. “They would hear something in a moment where there could be something there,” Magee says. “Songs would generally step out of the more prosaic dialogue into something more emotional and more spirited, to step beyond what you can do in dialogue. Whenever those opportunities came up, they would say let’s put a pin in that because there’s something there. Occasionally they knew what the song was or had a song title or lyric stuck in their head, but basically as I wrote the treatment I would put song here in the text and describe what I understood was happening during the scene.”
Once Disney signed off on the treatment, Magee went off to write the actual script and Shaiman and Wittman went off to collaborate on the songs. As Magee penned scenes, he would write up to the moment in a scene where he thought a song would start, going so far as to describe the action or any other visual ideas he thought might accompany it. “I would send it to Rob and he would make comments, then we would send it to Marc and Scott and they would mark where they thought the song began and give us some other ideas,” he says. “They would send me a recorded demo of a song with Marc singing, and I would listen to the song and polish up the scene and rewrite the descriptions of what I thought would be taking place during the two to four minutes and where the characters would be.” The process would also work in reverse, where Shaiman and Wittman felt certain songs needed dialogue breaks in certain places and worked with Magee to get the dialogue right for those moments.
This collaboration proved most fruitful in Magee’s darkest time with the script. Marshall kept asking him to find places where Michael Banks could vocalize the complex emotions he was feeling about the death of his wife, raising his children on his own and the possibly being responsible for the loss of his childhood home. “We wanted our audience to have some insight into what was going on in Michael’s mind during the early stages of the film and what he was struggling with,” Magee says. “But I learned that Michael was a character that didn’t share what he was going through. That’s one of his flaws. He was trying to take care of everything himself, and as a result he was unable to do everything correctly and things were getting out of his control. So whenever we tried to get into the struggle he was facing in the script, I knew it didn’t feel right that he was discussing it. It felt mawkish. It felt too on-the-sleeve. Something in me knew it wasn’t right.”
Late in the process, Shaiman called Magee and wondered if Michael’s feelings would best be explained via a song. Magee had crafted a scene early on where Michael and Jane are looking for proof of their father’s bank shares in their cluttered attic and they stumble upon some items from their childhood. After Jane leaves, Michael is left alone to search. Shaiman thought this would be a good place for a song where Michael could sing about his problems and still maintain the truth of his character that he wouldn’t vocalize those things to another character via dialogue. The result is the heartbreaking “A Conversation,” one of the film’s standout moments. “Immediately, my problem was solved,” Magee laughs. “I no longer had to fit something in that I knew instinctively went against the essence of the character. In that case, I didn’t make the solution but the solution is a part of how musicals are written, and as soon as they wrote that song, it felt instantly right. There’s no way I could have taken an audience to that place, and it’s wonderful.”
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For more info about all the other articles in issue 35, view the Table of Contents.