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LFF chats to production designer John Myhre about Mary Poppins Returns and the live-action Lady and the Tramp and Little Mermaid remakes

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We had a family trip to Mary Poppins Returns this Boxing Day and thoroughly enjoyed every single moment of it. The new film is a continuation of the 1964 classic, with Mary (now played by Emily Blunt) returning to London to help the now grown-up with kids of their own Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer), who are in danger of losing the family home to an evil banker (Colin Firth).

Emily Blunt is an absolutely amazing Mary Poppins, completely nailing the role and evoking all kinds of wonderful thoughts and memories tied to the original, as well as making you hope that they make a third film so you can see more of her as the superhero nanny with all the best songs and moves.

Mary Poppins Returns is currently on general release in the UK so if you haven’t seen it yet then get yourself, and everyone you love, to the cinema spit-spot. The film is full of imagination and unforgettable animated and even upside-down sequences and set pieces, so it was lovely to be able to talk to the production designer who masterminded how they all look and feel – John Myhre – recently.

As well as Mary Poppins Returns, John has worked on Wanted, Ali, X-Men and X-Men: Days of Future Past. He also previously worked with Mary Poppins Returns director Rob Marshall on Memoirs of a Geisha and Chicago, earning himself two Oscars. John is a huge Disney fan so sounded delighted to have been a part of Mary Poppins Returns, and was also very happy to touch on his recent work on the forthcoming live-action versions of The Lady and the Tramp and The Little Mermaid.

Hi John! I’m Alan from a UK film site called Live for Films. We loved Mary Poppins Returns so great to talk to you today.

Hello! Are you calling me from London?

 

Yes, I am.

My favourite city.

 

Great!

It’s Rob Marshall’s favourite city too – so we kind of wanted to make Mary Poppins a love letter to London.

 

I think you certainly did that! We saw the film on Boxing Day and loved it!

Oh, thank you!

To start off with, can you please explain the role of the production designer? I described it to somebody earlier as you being responsible for the overall visual design of the film, is that accurate?

Yes. I have the best job in the movie. I get to read the script and to help create what the world will look like: the architecture, the scale of the buildings, the rooms, the colours, the cars, the streets – really everything you see on film.

 

Cool. And Mary Poppins Returns sees you working with director Rob Marshall again…

He’s a really great collaborator. We’ve worked together… I don’t even know the number! We did Chicago, we did Memoirs of a Geisha, we did Nine, Pirates of the Carribean… I know I’m missing a couple! I think this is the seventh, I need to double check.

Chicago

And what’s the key to the way you work together?

When he was putting together his crew on Chicago he cast the creative crew positions as carefully as he cast the actors, and he met with many, many people until he met people who had the same aesthetic, the same taste. And he’s put together this creative team of people that… we all kind of think in the same way. So when we sit down and read through the script for the first time, Rob and I are bringing together the same visual information to share with each other. So it is a really nice creative relationship, where we’re both coming from the same place.

 

And who else is on your team? Who else do you work closely with?

The team that I’m specifically responsible for would be the construction and paint departments, set decoration – they do all the furniture and drapery, the prop people who do the hand props – the props the actors will handle – on Mary Poppins Returns the bicycles, the ladders, the parrot head umbrella, that kind of thing.

The green screen, so on Mary Poppins Returns, all of those beautiful cherry blossoms were imitation cherry blossoms that were put on, and picture vehicles – the cars and the double-decker buses, all that sort of thing, all fall under my umbrella, my Mary Poppins umbrella!

[both laugh]

I also collaborate closely with the cinematographer Dion Beebe and the costume designer – who on Mary was Sandy Powell. Communication is really important, and sharing is really important. So anything I came up with – colours I wanted to use in the house – I would immediately share them with Rob and with Sandy and Dion Beebe, so that we were all on the same page.

It’s interesting you mention the colours, because as I was watching Mary Poppins Returns it seemed like the Banks’ house was very warm in browns and golds and tobacco colours, and they are wearing a lot of green, then when Mary arrives she brings blues and red to the film’s palette…

Exactly right!

 

I was paying attention!

You did good! [laughs] Those are things we talk about in pre-production and what we feel makes sense to tell the story, and Mary Poppins had to be distinct when she arrived.

 

Totally. And what was the brief for Mary? Was it a case of trying to balance honouring the original while bringing something new to the table too?

It was complicated because we are all lovers of the film. A number of us, including Rob and myself, Mary Poppins was the very first film we saw as children so… And we’re big Disney fans, so it was important to honour that tradition but in one of the very first meetings I had with Rob, he said “We’re not recreating the movie. It’s a whole new movie. So don’t tie it into anything.” So that was just a great release because our storytelling was so different from the first movie, and we could tailor our sets to the storytelling in our movie.

In our movie, the father of the house is Michael – the little boy who grew up – but in the first film the father of the house at the beginning was not as connected to his family and had this incredibly formal almost black and white house that didn’t look comfortable to live in. I looked through the first film and there isn’t even a sofa in the living room! But in our film, the house is just the opposite. Michael has grown up and he’s a father and an artist and he loves the kids. The kids have put their fingerprints – literally – all over the house. So when you come into our house it’s more colourful, a bit messy, a bit bohemian, the kids have left their books and toys everywhere and that’s an example of how our story is different and then that makes our design different.

There are a couple of sequences that really visually stood out to me that I would love to focus on with you. The first one is when Mary, Jack and the kids go into the painted ceramic world of the Royal Doulton bowl.

Well, that was exciting from the very beginning. Rob wanted to do a little homage to the original movie and have the animated… When I think of Mary Poppins there are so many things I think of but visually that idea of her going into an animated world is so exciting and fun, and we wanted to do that in the old style of 2D animation. So the characters are all hand-drawn, as they would have been fifty years ago.

It was incredibly difficult finding the group of people to do it though! It’s a Disney movie, so we went over to Disney Animation to talk to them about it and they just kind of rolled their eyes and said: “We don’t do that anymore.” [laughs]

[gasps]

So they set us up with some people who had moved on from Disney when they started doing CG animation and we found a company that had some of the old Disney artists and then they ended up pulling twenty or thirty Disney artists out of retirement, along with new people doing it for the first time to create all those lovely characters.

 

And what kind of different things do you have to take into account when you’re working on a sequence that is partly made up of animated elements?

Well, for instance, the dance number – A Cover is Not the Book – we actually treated from the beginning like it was a real Broadway show. We basically built the stage of a theatre, and the surround, and the orchestra pit, and the first few rows of the theatre. We designed it as if it was all real. We knew it was called A Cover is Not the Book and that it had three specific pieces to it – three specific stories being told – we came up with a stage design of giant books that would kind of open up and in our research of Victorian books found the pop-up books and thought: “Oh my goodness, wouldn’t it be amazing if a book opened up and it was a pop-up book and it became like a little set within the set?”

So we designed the sequence as if it were real and built all the things – the books and the steps and everything that Lin (Manuel Miranda) and Emily dance on – but they were just the shapes and they were painted green, and then we worked closely with the animation team who then drew the beautiful animation that was laid over the green books.

 

Oh, clever. So even though it’s an animated sequence, they were actually interacting with physical things.

Yes, the actors were really dancing on a full-size set. And of the things that was the most interesting to me was it was lit like a Broadway show. On the set we lit them with spotlights and then in animation, they drew in the beams over the top so you had a real lighting effect but from a source that looked animated. It became quite complicated!

The other sequence I wanted to ask you about was all of the upside-down stuff in Cousin Topsy’s (Meryl Streep) shop. I loved that but I thought that it must be difficult to design a set that can work on two different planes with a floor and then with a ceiling that is going to become the floor.

[slow deadpan] It was the most complicated set that I have ever worked on in my entire life.

[laughs]

Because even just discussing it with people… It’s hard not to use the word “floor” when you’re thinking about what people are standing on! But you really need to be saying ceiling, and when you’re looking up you’re not looking at the ceiling, you’re looking at the floor. Just within ourselves, every time a new person joined the department it took two weeks for them to understand how to even discuss it because it’s so confusing when up is down!

Then trying to figure out exactly what things would like when you go upside-down… Because we really built that set – that was a real four-wall 360º set with the upside-down floor and the upside-down set with all of that furniture and statues and paintings… Everything was really there and bolted to the ceiling! And we were just trying to figure out how to imagine what it would be. What we ultimately did in the prop shop was mark out the real floor, set all the furniture out, then we built a twelve foot high piece of scaffolding that we could climb up so that we could lean over it and look at the set upside-down as if we were on the ceiling looking at the “floor”!

 

Hah! My brain hurts!

And it became extra complicated when we had to work in the elements for the dance because then we had to work with Rob and the choreographers and work out what would be on the ceiling that you could dance with. And that’s where the chandelier became a major piece that they danced with and the spiral staircase that we had going all the way up through the ceiling, and because Topsy is kind of a crazy artist – even though it’s London – we put her in this kind of French-Italian kind of space that had a sloping back window that could be used as a slide.

 

Phew! I saw that you have The Lady and Tramp and The Little Mermaid on your docket for the future. How far into those are you and what are the challenges in bringing an originally animated feature to life?

Well, Lady and the Tramp we’ve finished shooting. We just finished in December. I was in Savannah, Georgia for six months and it was a really lovely experience and it’s gonna be a live-action film with all the actors being living people – obviously! – and the dogs are going to be a combination of real dogs and CG dogs. So an interesting blend and I can’t wait to see how it all comes together.

And then Little Mermaid is still off in the future so hopefully, that’s something we’ll start on soon. Maybe even this Spring.

 

Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me today, it’s been lovely and extremely interesting.

Thank you! Very nice speaking to you!

Mary Poppins Returns is currently on general release in the UK – GO SEE IT, IT IS WONDERFUL.

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