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Interview: Production Designer John Myhre on the Movie Magic Behind ‘Mary Poppins Returns’

March 19, 2019Ben MK

When something is practically perfect, it makes little sense to try and improve upon it. However, with Mary Poppins Returns, the teaming of Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda is as close as you can get to ideal in and of itself.

Directed by Rob Marshall, Mary Poppins Returns picks up a quarter-century after the original, and finds the now-grown-up Banks siblings, Michael and Jane (played by Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer), fighting to save their family home at 17 Cherry Tree Lane from foreclosure. Luckily, they get a little help from flying nanny Mary Poppins (Blunt) and a lamp leerie named Jack (Miranda), and along with Michael's three children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson), they embark on a musical adventure through the streets of London and beyond.

I caught up with production designer John Myhre, who graciously shared some of his insight about the filmmaking process, from his inspiration in designing the world of the movie to what to expect from Disney's upcoming live-action remakes of Lady and the Tramp and The Little Mermaid.

Aside from the original film, what did you draw inspiration from in designing the world of Mary Poppins Returns?

Myhre: London. Rob Marshall, the director, and I are both huge fans of London. And we really wanted to just make Mary Poppins Returns a love letter to London. So in every location we looked for, in every set design we did, every illustration, every prop we built — we made up a word called "Londoney" — I was constantly going to the location people, my set designers, and saying, "Is this Londoney enough?" Cuz we wanted everything to be infused with London and Britain, and really make that our real world of Mary Poppins Returns.

Did you do a lot of location scouting in London?

Myhre: We did a lot of location scouting. There are some locations that we did shoot. It's a real mixture of locations and set builds, cuz we did a massive amount of set-building, including a lot of the exterior streets, which is interesting.

For instance, the exterior of Cherry Tree Lane — I've been speaking to a lot of people who thought that was a real location. It in fact was a street inside of a sound stage at Shepperton Studios in London; we built that. But being a love letter to London, in that opening number, "Underneath the Lovely London Sky," we wanted Jack (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda) to show the audience the world of London while he's dousing lamps.

So we did shoot at the Tower of London; we did shoot at St. Paul's; we did shoot in a couple markets. But then we also coupled it with sets that we built. And our Director of Photography, Dion Beebe, did such an amazing job — you can't tell, even from the light, when you go from a real location to one of our set builds, which was exciting for us.

And do you have a favorite set piece in the film?

Myhre: I mean, it's hard. With Mary Poppins Returns, everything was so much fun. The abandoned park was particularly fun for us, because we wanted to find a place that was kind of hidden in plain sight that the leerie — the lamplighters — could go and hang out and end up doing the big dance number for Mary Poppins and the kids.

And one of the fun things about it for us was it was a very large set. There was very little visual effects set extension; it was a big set and Rob Marshall choreographed virtually every inch of it, so every surface that anyone danced on or rode a bicycle on had to be made ready for that. The dancers needed something called a sprung floor — the whole floor needs to move to protect their legs — so that whole stone floor was actually made out of a special kind of plastic that moved, and it was built with lots of air space underneath that moved for them.

The glass greenhouse sections were made so that people could ride bikes on. The rails were made so the bikes could slide down. And every different surface where a different kind of dance was being done had to be treated in a way that it was slippery enough or sticky enough for that particular dance. So it was a real marriage of working with the choreographers on that, and that was just really, really a fun set to do.

Aside from that, how else did the fact that many of these sets were used for such dance numbers impact the process of designing these sets?

Myhre: We go in when Rob [Marshall], John DeLuca and the dancers start designing the dance. We set up a giant dance hall for them, and then we would tape out on the floor the size of what we thought the set would be, and where we thought there would be ramps or platforms or steps. And they would start dancing it — it's almost like an artist starting with a blank canvas and putting paint strokes on — they start with this big blank floor that just has the basic outlines of the set, and then as they develop the dance, they constantly call me down and say, "You know what? We're gonna need more room here. So we need to move a wall out." Or they'll say, "Here, we need something to jump on."

And so we quickly build a little ramp or something for them. Or "We need steps, I think it's gonna be 10 steps," and we build 10 steps. And they dance on it for a day and they come back and say, "You know, we need 12 steps." So overnight we build 2 more steps. So during the whole rehearsal process — which was about 3 months to develop the dance and rehearse — the sets grow and shrink and change and morph, always keeping the same visual identity of what the set would be, but making it perfect for the dance.

How much does your approach change when working on a sequel compared to working on an original property?

Myhre: Well, this was nice because in the first meeting with Rob Marshall he said, "We're not remaking Mary Poppins." Nobody can, it's just a perfect movie. So we're making a whole new film. And it was his idea to set it 25 years later, and have the 2 children grow up. So while we all loved elements of the original movie, we redesigned things to tell our story. So, for instance, Cherry Tree Lane — we didn't want it to be as grand and as opulent as it was in the first film.

Cuz we wanted to make our family feel a little more like a real family that you could feel for going through this situation. And make the house a little more homey. So instead of it being 3-story, brilliant white houses, we made all our houses on that street half brick, and we dropped them down to 2 stories. And when you go into the house, while it still has a familiar floorplan, everything is different because we wanted to bring in a lot more color and a lot more humanity.

In the original film, in the beginning, the father was very detached from his kids and his family. At the end, of course, Mary Poppins changed that, and he becomes the best dad in the world. But in the first film, the house reflected that. It was all very sterile, very black and white, didn't look lived-in. In our movie, it was completely different. In our film, the kids are literally running the house at the opening of the movie, and Michael is an artist.

And so we wanted to give it kind of a Bohemian, lived-in feel; he put the kids' artwork up, his art is up, kids clothes are around, books are all over the place. It really was telling a different story, so visually we had to tell a different story. So it felt much less like doing a sequel than you would think the film would be.

You're also working on live-action remakes of Lady and the Tramp and The Little Mermaid. Can you tell me anything about them?

Myhre: We finished shooting Lady and the Tramp in Savannah, which was a completely magical, wonderful city, and the best city in the world for Lady and the Tramp. And it's a fun live-action retelling. It's gonna be opening Disney's streaming service. So it'll be coming out in the fall, and we're all very excited about that.

And The Little Mermaid, we're literally just starting. I'm sitting in the art department bothering all my set designers and illustrators by talking about Mary Poppins Returns. [laughs] But we just started, and it's a very exciting project to try to take from the animated world to the real-life world. So I'm literally looking at drawings of what Sebastian might be — of looking more like a real crab — and what Ariel might be like, and what their underwater world would be. So we're literally just starting that now and beginning to explore what that movie will be. But it's a pretty exciting project.

Mary Poppins Returns is now available on 4K, Blu-ray, DVD & Digital HD.

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