Classic Conversations: Oscar Winners Sandy Powell and John Myhre on How the Classic Film Inspired Their Work on ‘Mary Poppins Returns’
Mary Poppins was one of the first films I saw in a movie theater as a child and I remember it as a life-changing experience. I was so obsessed with the film that my mother used to put us to bed with the LP playing on our old Sears record player in the corner of the room I shared with my brother and sister. To this day, I remember every lyric of every song, including the plea from Jane and Michael Banks that brought Mary Poppins down from the clouds:
When I heard a sequel to the film was coming more than half a century after the original, I was concerned. How could they possibly recapture the magic? Who could possibly fill the sensible shoes of “practically perfect in every way” Julie Andrews who won a Best Actress Oscar for her film debut? There was only one person I could think of, and director Rob Marshall was smart enough to hire her. As Mary Poppins, Emily Blunt conveys all of the no-nonsense sternness of Julie Andrews’ Mary, sprinkled with the same magical underpinnings that help troubled souls find their paths and regain their faith in humanity. In this film, it’s the grown-up Michael Banks (Ben Wishaw) who desperately needs Mary’s help as he struggles with his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) to find peace after a series of hard knocks. The new film also featured delightful performances by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Meryl Streep, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Angela Lansbury, and a cameo by the beloved Dick Van Dyke who starred in the original.
Two of the people most responsible for the success of the new film, which just debuted this week on Netflix, are production designer John Myhre and costume designer Sandy Powell. The extraordinarily talented pair have been nominated for countless Academy Awards and have won five Oscars between them: John for Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha and Sandy for The Young Victoria, Shakespeare in Love, and The Aviator. I was delighted to sit down with this pair recently for Classic Movie Hub and talk with them about the ways that the classic film from 1964 had an impact on their work in Mary Poppins Returns.
Danny Miller: I so enjoyed Mary Poppins Returns, and trust me, as a Mary Poppins fanatic, I was very worried when I heard that a sequel was coming. As far as I’m concerned, your costumes and production design are the stars of the movie every bit as much as wonderful Emily Blunt. I saw it twice the first week it came out.
John Myhre: Thank you! One of the nicest things I’m hearing is that so many people want to watch the movie again and again.
Sandy Powell: I know I did when it first came out. I think when we first see our films, we’re mostly looking at our own work and we tend to be very critical about it. But on subsequent viewings, I’m able to really enjoy the story and forget my part of it!
I was five years old when the original Mary Poppins came out and it was a pretty seminal moment in my childhood. I wanted Julie Andrews to be my nanny and Matthew Garber and Karen Dotrice to be my brother and sister!
Sandy Powell: Did you spot Karen Dotrice in the film?
Yes, I was thrilled to see her pop up in that scene with her grown-up counterpart! My daughter actually went to school with Karen Dotrice’s daughter here in L. A. and I would constantly ask Karen about working on Mary Poppins when I ran into her at school! I loved all the touches you both added to appease to the nostalgia crowd like me while still creating a totally new story.
Sandy Powell: We wanted to keep it fresh while also making subtle nods to the original film.
Going in, my one obsession is that I really wanted to see Mrs. Banks’ “Votes for Women” suffragette banner. To see it just sitting there in the garbage at first and then to have it become such an important part of the film with Michael’s old kite, well, that was the first of several times I cried while watching this movie!
Sandy Powell: Oh, that’s nice!
I assume your primary source material for your work was the 1964 film but did you also go back to the original books by P.L. Travers?
Sandy Powell: A little bit. To be honest, I mostly looked at the illustrations as I was preparing to work on the film, and those were very helpful. Did you read them, John?
John Myhre: I did! I read as many as I could get my hands on, and I thought they were just fantastic. I remember I was reading them on airplanes for a while and I kept wondering what people thought when they saw this old man sitting there reading children’s books!
Haha. “Honey, don’t sit next to that guy!”
John Myhre: Yes, people kept looking at me a bit strangely. But they’re so fun because the books are just a series of adventures, there’s not really a beginning, middle, or end. They’re just lovely and they inspired me a lot.
Sandy, was it a specific goal of yours to make a clear distinction between Julie Andrews and Emily Blunt in terms of Mary Poppins’ look? I mean, I realize several decades have passed since the events of the first film so that’s already going to change things.
Sandy Powell: Yes. I mean, I definitely wanted to make her recognizable as the same character but updated to 1934 so I obviously wasn’t going to put her back in Edwardian clothing. Luckily, 1930s fashion, or at least that particular bit of it in 1934 lent itself very well to that transition because they used a long line for women along with a mid-calf hem length that evoked the Mary Poppins we all knew and loved. I could do some elegant coats in the style of the Edwardian coat from the original but updated with new patterns and fabrics.
And, of course, Mary herself is somewhat otherworldly.
Sandy Powell: It’s true, Mary is otherworldly but someone like Mary is also going to be very up-do-date and chic — in a reserved kind of way. Rob and I discussed giving her little hints of eccentricities. So, for example, she’s all demure and done up, but then you suddenly see a flash of the bright red polka dot lining in her coat or the little robin with the curly tail on her hat. Just to provide little hints of her unusual nature!
John, since we’ve all seen the movie a hundred times, did you use that as the blueprint for your gorgeous set design? Did you recreate the 1964 version of the house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane and then imagine how it would have changed over the years?
John Myhre: We all grew up loving the film, it was the first film I saw as well, but Rob reassured me from the very beginning that he didn’t want me to slavishly recreate anything from the original movie. There were really only a handful of things that we recreated exactly but we had a bit more of a free hand because our story was so different.
Oh, that’s interesting. Of course, certain things just had to be there like the admiral’s house shaped like a ship next door.
John Myhre: Yes, it’s true. We had to have Admiral Boom’s house and there were certain elements that seemed necessary. For example, when the door opened at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, I needed to see the staircase in front of me and then the living room to the left. But it’s not like we were constantly making side-by-side comparisons.
Oh, really, so it’s not like the patterns on the floor or the wallpaper were necessarily the same.
John Myhre: No, not at all. First of all, remember that many years have passed. Second, the family living in the house in the first film was a very different family — the father was absolutely the head of the household and the children had very little imprint on the house. In our film, the children were practically running the house! Everything is much more colorful here than the original — there’s a bit of a Bohemian feel and it’s all very lived in. Do you remember that in the original there wasn’t even a sofa in the front room?
Sandy Powell: Is there not? How weird!
John Myhre: That house in the original was not built with comfort in mind.
Sandy Powell: Oh, it’s true, they’re often standing up, aren’t they, now that I think about it. Coming in and having conversations standing up.
John Myhre: Right, and our house is much more based on the family’s current reality, especially with Michael’s wife being gone. The kids are there, their mess is all around, children’s books everywhere, teacups on the side. It’s a real lived-in place.
But I did so appreciate all those subtle touches that reminded us of Jane and Michael Banks’ childhood. That scene when they’re looking through their old things in the attic was so poignant.
John Myhre: The bit with the children’s snow globe was lovely. Rob Marshall and I went to the Disney Archives early on and asked if there were things we could see from the 1964 film. They had one of the three carpetbags made for Mary but believe it not, they hadn’t saved any of them so they had to buy it back at an auction from someone who had won it in a magazine contest! But Disney did have the building blocks from the children’s nursery that you see in “Spoonful of Sugar” along with the Jack-in-the-box and the snow globe. When they pulled out the box with the snow globe, it had broken and so was empty, there was no longer any water. Rob and I just looked at each other and thought, oh my God, this tells everything we need to convey about how Michael feels about his childhood. So we used it.
Oh, wow. Sandy, I have to say how much I loved Emily Mortimer’s clothes as Jane Banks. How did you determine her grown-up look?
Sandy Powell: I put Jane in pants because I wanted to show that she was her mother’s daughter, still very progressive and fighting for change. I wanted to show her as a modern emancipated woman. That wasn’t in the script or anything, I just wanted to get her in pants!
Love it. How about Michael?
Sandy Powell: We knew that Michael wanted to be an artist but was forced to work in the bank for financial reasons. We decided he should always have an air of dishevelment.
So different from his dad!
Sandy Powell: Right. Even when he puts on his suit to go to work, he still looks disheveled because it’s just not his thing.
What’s the process like of working with the actors and Rob. Is there a lot of interplay with the designs? Not that I can imagine anyone questioning your instincts.
Sandy Powell: Oh sure, lots of little things, nothing really drastic. I think I’d be very bored if it was just me designing something with no one having any comments about it. Ultimately, I’m working for the director.
John Myhre: Yeah, the fun part is the collaboration.
Sandy Powell: Exactly. I love when someone questions something and it makes me think about it. It might force me down a different avenue where I can find something better.
And I assume that the collaboration between you two is very strong as well.
Sandy Powell: Yes. We work in very close proximity to each other. My room was very close to John’s and I would very often look at his plans and the colors and think about how the costumes would look in those sets. I need to know what the room is going to be, you don’t want characters blending into the background or clashing with the wallpaper!
John Myhre: I remember how exciting it was when we did our first camera tests. We just used the most simplistic backgrounds but in the right colors and then your beautiful work came in Sandy, and it was so exciting for me to see them come together for the first time.
Sandy Powell: It would be impossible to do something like this in isolation. You can’t have John doing his thing over there and have me doing my thing over here, and just hope it all comes together. That would never work.
Mary Poppins Returns is now available on DVD and Blu-ray and can be viewed on various digital platforms including Netflix.
— Danny Miller for Classic Movie Hub
Danny Miller is a freelance writer, book editor, and co-author of About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, Make-up Artist to the Stars. You can read more of Danny’s articles at Cinephiled, or you can follow him on Twitter at @dannymmiller.