Outside of London, sits Shepperton Studios, the home to the production of Mary Poppins Returns, the much-anticipated sequel to the beloved 1964 musical adaption of Mary Poppins based on the P.L. Travers’ children’s books series. Remezcla was given exclusive access on the set to witness firsthand the magic of moviemaking.
It’s been more than 50 years since we have seen the iconic Mary Poppins nanny character captivating the hearts of children and adults alike. The original film has one of the longest gaps in sequel history but viewers of all generations will soon agree that it was worth the wait.
Located in Central London, about eight miles away from Heathrow Airport, Shepperton studios provided the backdrop to the magical drama starring Golden Globe-winning British actress Emily Blunt (The Girl on the Train, Into the Woods) and Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Award winner Boricua Lin-Manuel Miranda.
At first glance, Blunt is a convincingly English nanny who again blows in on the East Wind and arrives at the Banks home at Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane. Born in Roehampton, South West London, England, Blunt is a modern-day glammed up version of the timeless Mary Poppins whose clothes have gotten a bit of a contemporary makeover. Kudos to the costume designer because the clothes definitely make the character. The “new” Mary Poppins is found still carrying her signature black parrot parasol (this time it blinks, moves, and talks) and her unforgettable now geometric magical carpenter bag (made from an original carpet found at a flea market and digitally printed on velvet fabric). She now dons several signature double-caped Edwardian-inspired long, nipped at the waist coats in both red and traditional navy hues as well as classic bow ties, plenty of polka dots (shirts, ties to the inside of her carpet bag), red leather gloves, and updated Victorian boots. To complete her look she wears a variety of hats with a signature pinned small robin with an orange swirl tail, a nod to the original.
As for her role, Blunt is very adamant about not looking to mimic the iconic Julie Andrews, who first reprised the role. “No one will ever outdo Julie Andrews. I just want to give it the best of [me],”she made a point to stress while discussing the movie inside the The Orangery (part of Shepperton Studios.) Blunt continues, “Mary Poppins is a character that is so iconic. The film, for me, and I think for most people is one of those films that is sort of seared into people’s memory. We wanted to continue that narrative.”
The experience of making the film is “very surreal” one for Blunt, who purposely has avoided re-watching the original she once saw as a child. She says her character is stricter and meaner than what we have been traditionally accustomed to seeing. Mary Poppins Returns is her third project with producer Marc Platt (they previously worked together on Into the Woods and The Girl on the Train) in the past two years. She admits that “Dancing is the most daunting part for me” of making the movie.
Directed and produced by Oscar nominee, Emmy and DGA Award winner Rob Marshall, the drama is packed with Hollywood heavyweights including living legend and original Mary Poppins cast member Dick Van Dyke (plays Mr. Dawes Jr., the chairman of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, which is now run by William Weatherall Wilkins) to five-time Tony award winner Angela Lansbury, who makes an appearance as a balloon lady; and Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep who joins the cast as Topsy, the eccentric cousin of Mary Poppins with a Boheniam chic vibe (dons a turban, velour patchwork-fringed kimono jacket with a green watch belt with its face turned upside down, and paired with a signature pencils and paintbrushes necklace, multiple rings and African bangles) who lives in a world that is always upside down. Joining the cast also includes Ben Whishaw (Spectre), Emily Mortimer (Hugo), Julie Walters (Harry Potter), and Colin Firth (The King’s Speech.)
Produced by Marshall and Emmy winner John DeLuca (Chicago), the screenplay is by Tony winner Marc Shaiman (Hairspray). Emmy nominee and Tony winner Scott Wittman (Hairspray) writes all new songs with Shaiman composing an original score so you can forget about singing old-familiar tunes like “Supercalafragalisticexpialodocious” and “A Spoon Full of Sugar.”
“We’re musical nuts and nerds,” confessed Platt during the exclusive all-day walk through of the set in late April, which also included a one-on-one with whimsical costume designer, hair and make-up designer, the production designer, lead actors, and brief introductions to director-producer Marshall and producer DeLuca.
“There are songs that you haven’t heard before but there is something about the music that sounds familiar,” Blunt pointed out. It’s what Miranda refers to as a “love letter to the Sherman Brothers [who wrote the original score].”
Inside the Studios, which date back to the late seventeenth century, visitors will find 15 stages, five of which are equipped with interior tanks for water and underwater filming. It is quite suited for a modern-day sequel movie that among the most interesting scenes includes a fantasy underwater scene in the Banks’ bathroom as well as a life-size replica of Big Ben.
Mary Poppins Returns’ storyline is drawn from a wealth of materials derived from a number of Travers remaining seven Mary Poppins children’s books. “There are new characters [in Mary Poppins Returns] and reasons for the story,” says producer Platt. “The idea was to draw upon how it was originally done and combine contemporary elements, which is really the story of the whole film.”
The Mary Poppins book was first published in 1934, which Disney adapted for the screen and released in August of 1964. The first film, which was directed by Robert Stevenson starred Julie Andres (The Sound of Music) and Van Dyke, was the top-grossing movie of that year and nominated for 13 Academy Awards, winning five. However, the subsequent adventures of Poppins remained in the pages of Travers’ books, which were published between 1935 and 1988.
The 1964 movie — which was located in turn-of-the-century London — had Poppins use music and adventure to help two of the Banks children (Jane and Michael) to become closer to their father. The new sequel is truly a “love letter to London” and it reintroduces the audience to Poppins 25 years after the original film and is set in Depression-era London of the 1930s. The audience will be reintroduced to the same Banks children now as adults. The never-aging British nanny revisits Cherry Tree Lane (900,00 to one million cheery blossoms used) after the Banks suffer a personal loss. Jane now is a women’s activist, while brother Michael is a conservatively dressed banker with three kids. Through her unique magical skills, the enigmatic Poppins along with an optimistic friend, a street gas lamplighter (leerie) named Jack (Miranda), an apprentice to Bert in the original movie, she helps the family rediscover all the joy and wonder that had all gone missing in their lives.
On set, we got a chance to look inside the Banks home, purposely designed smaller than what one might expect. “When we went through the script, we really felt like the kids really shouldn’t be living in a big white mansion,” said production designer John Myhre. “It felt like it needed to be a little more accessible, a little smaller. We kept the idea that there was park across the way.”
Inside Stage D, we gained access to several rooms found inside the Banks home — the nursery, Mary Poppins’ bedroom and the bathroom fully equipped with an old-fashioned porcelain tub and classic rubber duckies. Like a museum tour, there was plenty to see as no detail was left unturned — from the sketches of the Banks children found in the hallway to the pencil markings on the edge of nursey walls indicating the growth of the children. Poppins’ bedroom included her toddler-like sized brown wooden bed and dresser, side table and vanity featuring her favorite beauty items such as Muget de Bois dusting powder, Pond’s crème, pink lilac talcum powder, and hairpins to keep her hair up, of course.
On Stage H, we captured a glimpse of an unfinished Big Ben clock face and arches while Stage C gave us a walkthrough inside Topsy’s home. At Topsy’s (a character found in Travers second book) we were surrounded by antiques all upside down. Unique artifacts included a stuffed deer head with antlers, a black female with red nails as a lamp, a birdcage, a velvet loveseat, sewing machine, silverware, a knight, a British flag, chairs, hats, a piano, and a variety of broken instruments fused together as one. The room had a fresh sawdust smell and rock music lightly playing in the background.
We also got a chance to see unique pieces such as Admiral Boom’s (the Banks neighbor)’s military-inspired wheelchair. Quite elderly in the sequel, Boom’s wheelchair is everything but ordinary. It is equipped with black leather seating with marine-like wheels and a long sword attached on the right side. Other interesting prop highlights include a refurbished and rebuilt N.W. Richardson Co. piano on wheels featured in the “Nowhere to go but up” spring fair scene.
Live action interaction with animated sequences, like in the original, are sure to resonate with new and old audiences. In “A Cover is not the Book,” we find Miranda and Blunt (dressed in hand-painted tuxedo shoes, tails, and bowler hats in lavender and pink color scheme) dancing along penguins at the Royal Doulton Music Hall. In other scene, the Banks children break antique bowl to soon look inside to find a broken horse carriage and talking characters which bring the actors into the world of an animated park scene. “If you broke it, you fix it,” takes on new meaning as the Royal Doulton bowl sequence reaches back in time with old-school pencil animations fresh and updated in the sequel. The costume designer does an exquisite job blending the hand-painted costumes to have the look and feel of animation.
The best part of the tour was seeing the biggest musical number of the film inside Stage A. Choreographed by Marshall and DeLuca with Joey Pizzi (Chicago), it pays homage to the great Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Taking place in an abandoned park, Miranda, along with about 50 diverse dancers posing as gas lamplighters, perform an impressive energetic dance in a dark foggy scene utilizing the park’s lampposts, as well as bicycles and ladders. The dance movements – high kicks, jumping, swinging from lampposts, tap, along with acrobatics and hip hop movements – are apparent odes with a new twist to Astaire and Rogers. The new musical Mary Poppins Returns promises to entertain, be joyful, and make people cry.
Mary Poppins Returns hits theaters on December 19, 2018.