INTERVIEW: David Magee Talks the Adventures of Mary Poppins Returns

Academy Award-nominated screenwriter David Magee takes Script behind the scenes of Mary Poppins Returns, a sequel to the classic with all new original music, starring Emily Blunt.
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Academy Award-nominated screenwriter David Magee takes Script behind the scenes of Mary Poppins Returns, a sequel to the classic with all new original music, starring Emily Blunt.

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Academy Award-nominated screenwriter David Magee takes Script behind the scenes of Mary Poppins Returns, a sequel to the classic with all new original music, starring Emily Blunt.

Emily Blunt is Mary Poppins in Disney’s MARY POPPINS RETURNS.

Nestled neatly among this season's holiday films is a delightful twist on a classic to be released on December 19th. An all new original musical and sequel, Mary Poppins Returns brings the practically-perfect nanny with unique magical skills to the help the next generation of the Banks family find the joy and wonder missing in their lives following a personal loss.

The iconic Mary Poppins was first introduced to the world in 1934 with author PL Traver's children's book series. The original film Mary Poppins was released in December 1964 and went on to win 5 Oscars, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA Award, a Grammy award to mention a few. The latest film stars multi-talented favorites Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack—both of which do a magnificent job honoring the original characters as well as putting their own special touches. The film will delight those who enjoyed the original classic as well as amaze and charm new audiences who may not be familiar.

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Currently living in New Jersey, the two-time Academy Award-nominated screenwriter David Magee was brought on board to help create the story. But what he learned is that this was no traditional story he was telling. "The interesting thing about the PL Travers books is that virtually every chapter is a stand-alone adventure," Magee described, "we wanted to build a story that incorporated those elements in an original narrative."

Magee wasn't alone in the creation of this massive creative vision. He shares his insights of what it was like to work and collaborate on such an incredible film.

Script: What has your experience as writer been prior to this film?

 David Magee in his home office in New Jersey. Photo by ©Jennifer S. Altman All Rights Reserved

David Magee in his home office in New Jersey. Photo by ©Jennifer S. Altman All Rights Reserved

David: I worked as an abridger for a long time. In my early days of screenwriting, I would go off alone for three to four months, and I would write the script on my own, and then I would come out and hand it to producers who would give me notes. And then I'd disappear again for months. By the time I started working on Life of Pi, I was comfortable enough showing myself exposed with the unfinished writing to work very closely with Ang [Lee]; showing him scenes as I worked, changing things as we went, having him give me ideas. This film has been a tremendous joy to work on and I'm happy that it's finally going out into the world.

Script: From watching the film, it feels like you kept the classic storytelling and characters, but you gave it a modern feel. Is that what you were looking for when you wrote the story?

David: That was the goal from the very start. We knew from the beginning we wanted to write a new story. Jane and Michael Banks do not grow up in the PL Travers books. So, we had to take it to a new place. At the same time, we knew we had an audience who loved the original Mary Poppins and wanted to feel that connection with the original without feeling as though we were constantly winking and nudging and saying, "Hey, here's another moment from the original. Remember this?" because that's not a fair way to approach things. We decided what we would do is try to write our story first. A story you could care about, a story that if you'd never seen the original, you would be able to follow what was going on and could get emotionally involved in the characters. It would be grounded in a reality that a contemporary audience could identify with. Once we had that, we gently threaded the original story back in so you felt as though it was not a copy of the original, but almost an echo of the original. It included things from the original like the kite and the snow globe, but they were care-worn, damaged and almost as if that era had been forgotten. By the end, we wanted to bring that era back to life.

 Rob Marshall and Emily Blunt on the set of Disney’s MARY POPPINS RETURNS.

Rob Marshall and Emily Blunt on the set of Disney’s MARY POPPINS RETURNS.

Script: What was the approach and development for the Mary Poppins character?

David: The original film was wonderful and introduced Mary Poppins to the world in a way that I don't think anyone could do any better with. But in order to take the story forward, we were trying to go back to the original sources and see what we could add to that. I think what makes Mary Poppins such a wonderful character is that lack of sentimentality and the order and the crazy quirks of hers that hide the fact that she has a deeply tremendous empathetic heart. And she's trying to help these people through but she's never going to show it.

The approach was the original PL Travers books. If you read them, Mary Poppins is vain. She can be difficult and shrewish. She never admits to any sentimentality. Each chapter in the Mary Poppins books begins with the children going into town or going to the park or going swimming, whatever they do; then going off on an adventure. At the end of which, Mary Poppins says it never happened. And she gets very upset if they claim it did. And that's essentially the structure of each chapter of the PL Travers books. There's something delightful and wonderful about that Mary Poppins because she lays no claim to having taken them on these adventures. She actually pretends she was not a part of it. Even when she is, they know they were there with her, she did everything. Then at the end she says that was something you did. Because she's allowing them to lay claim to those adventures and to that imagination. We loved that idea from the very beginning. When Emily came on, she embraced it and expanded on it in the most wonderful ways.

Script: I think that approach helped settle the story and moved it forward.

David: Absolutely. We strove for in the scenes in the house with her saying, "No, we have to have a bath. We have to clean up. We have to do these mundane things that you have to do to get through life. We're not going to pretend we don't have to do them." Because that's no escape from life either. But we're going to find a way to make those things incredibly adventurous. She can make a bath into the most wonderous of adventures just by the way she gets you to look at it. That was our goal to create that Mary Poppins so when you went on the adventures with her, it was yours.

Script: What was the process of including ideas from the original? For instance, including the penguins.

David: We had to debate with each one saying, "Is this too much?" We had lengthy debates. Do we want penguins or are people going to say, "Oh, they're just doing the penguins again."? Or do we want to honor that that was so special to everyone. Ultimately the penguins made their way into the film. But they're more defined penguins; rather than just a line of the same penguins, they each have their own personalities. Even as we took something that was in the original, we tried to bring a fresh angle to it.

Script: This was your first musical. What was the collaboration like for the writing this film verses your previous projects?

David: I was very comfortable with the idea of collaborating when we came into this film. I had never done a musical before, but I had Rob Marshall helming things and he's a master of movie musicals. I felt safe in trying it out with him, if anyone. I don't know who else I would've felt comfortable with in taking on something like this. When we started, it was Rob, me, and John DeLuca (the producer). Shortly after that, Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman came on. For about four months, we sat around on a couch and threw out ideas. Sometimes someone says I don't think that'll work. We read the PL Travers books, watched the movie. We had favorite adventures from the books that we wanted to play with and turn into something else and use in our story some way. Together we started shaping an idea for a film.

Originally, we were trying to do with the old Banks family version of things. But we couldn't figure out why Mary Poppins would have to come back if everyone was happy at the end of the film. It was only when we jumped forward and said, "What happens when Michael and Jane grow up and they forget some of that joy and wonder?" Then it made sense that we had a story. Once we had that, it felt fairly effortless in the sense that I had people I knew could write brilliant songs. I could absolutely trust that they would do so. I had a director who could direct brilliant musical. So I was concentrating on making sure the story was forwarded. Every time we went into the song that it was still about the story we needed to tell. I get to say I wrote a musical when I am otherwise the last person I would've thought of to say such a thing.

Inspiration from Pros on Writing Animation

Script: What was it like writing with the animation sequences?

David: In many ways, it was everyone throwing their ideas into the ring. The animation sequence was originally inspired by a scene in one of the PL Travers books where young Jane Banks is having a bad day and she throws something in her room and she chips a Royal Dolton Plate that sitting on the mantle. And she hears a little voice say 'ouch.' She goes over to it and looks into the plate and it's a very different image from another era. But there's a boy and the crack goes up to his knee and he says, "you hurt my knee." She apologizes and then a man comes out from this little house and pulls her into this world. It's a much darker story with just her being trapped in this world. When we were trying to think of how we could do an animation sequence, this was an obvious starting point.

Once we went into the plate, because it was a different era, Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman said, "let's do turn-of-the-century music hall. We can go back in time, change their outfits, and we can do this kind of song in this era." We can use that as the inspiration for the music. And then, Rob would come up with ideas like, "We should have a music hall." He started doing research on music halls. The research he did contributed to that.

 Emily Blunt is Mary Poppins, Lin-Manuel Miranda is Jack, Pixie Davies is Annabel, Nathanael Saleh is John and Joel Dawson is Georgie in Disney’s MARY POPPINS RETURNS.

Emily Blunt is Mary Poppins, Lin-Manuel Miranda is Jack, Pixie Davies is Annabel, Nathanael Saleh is John and Joel Dawson is Georgie in Disney’s MARY POPPINS RETURNS.

Then we went out with our treatment and very early script and showed it to animators out at Disney Studios who read it and said this is great. They began sketching characters on little pads of paper and shoving them across the table to us and saying we could do a character like this, we could a character like that. We were just amazed because all we knew is they were traveling into an animated world. But these animators are trained in thinking how to expand on that. Suddenly, we found ourselves with storyboards all along one wall showing all these characters and ideas. Rob started rearranging them. I was sitting in a corner typing a new version of this that incorporated those ideas. So you can hear how all these different departments, and people started coming up with the story and contributing to it. My job in the midst of all that is to continue to make sure that what we need to get out of that scene dramatically happens, keeping an eye on the characters and the dialog, while Marc and Scott are working on the music, and animators are working on the drawings, and Rob is making sure that all of it runs smoothly.

When we first wrote out our animation sequence, it was something like 20 minutes long in our idea stage. But then we very quickly realized we didn't need that much time in that animated world and it was incredibly expensive to do. Then it became pairing back to just those things we absolutely loved and needed in order to tell our story. That's the results you see in the film.

How to Write a Film Treatment

Script: What was it like incorporating songs into the script?

David: When we'd get to a moment where someone thought there was a song, they'd raise their hand and say, "I think that's a song." And I'd write in the treatment: song here. We would look at what was being expressed in that moment and what that song might be. Scott and Marc would describe to me what style of music they thought it might be and what some of the lines. I'd do my best to capture a notion of that in the treatment we were working on. And we showed that to Disney after our four months were up. A 35-page treatment. And Disney said, "Do it."

At that point, I started writing scenes while we were in constant communication. I would write scenes and send them to Rob. He'd make some comments, I'd make adjustments. I'd send it over to Marc and Scott; they would add the song. What I was doing generally was I would write up to where I thought a song began, and then I'd keep writing a little bit further describing what I thought happened in the song or what I thought they were trying to express in the song. But I'd say, I think the song ends somewhere in the middle of this page. But you tell me. Or occasionally I'd write up to a hard stop if I knew, for example, what the opening line of a song was. Scott and Marc would cut the parts they didn't need, put their song in, and send me a demo. I'd listen to the song. Now knowing what the song was, I'd go back to my dialogue and I'd make any adjustments I felt there needed to be. And it was circular process going from Rob and John, to Marc and Scott, to me as we shaped it.

Script: What have you learned from your previous collaborations that helped make this film easier?

David: Screenwriting is a collaboration in the end no matter what; it has to be. When I first started out as a writer, everything was precious and I would write a sentence nine times and then cut it and that was my work for the day. My experience as an abridger gave me the courage to cut my own writing because I was cutting other people's writing; which gave me a little more liberty to write freely and then cut back. But I didn't feel comfortable sharing something until it was finished because I didn't have the confidence that it ever would be. I needed to believe that I could get through a draft and then I could show it to someone and have them tell me everything needed to change and it wouldn’t destroy me. Having done this now for a couple of decades, I don't have that fear anymore.

Working with Ang was tremendous because Life of Pi was a challenge to adapt for various reasons. And I kind of took that one on faith too. I figured if I couldn't make this script happen with Ang Lee, then it wasn't meant to be. We worked together for weeks. We went to all the locations of the film. We worked with a survival expert going out on boats. This happened for months. I was continually trying to write notes about my experiences and I was still trying to get the film started. I didn't know how to start the film. We were traveling around for weeks and weeks. Ang would say, "I think this is an absurdist play." And I'd try and write an absurdist play. And then he'd say, "No, not like Beckett, like Pinter." I didn't know what he meant, but I tried to write like Pinter. And then that wasn't it. One day, he said something about this being a story told by a trickster where you can't rely on his narrative almost from the beginning. Something clicked in me; I understood what he meant. I wrote the opening scene where there are several absurdities in what he says that sound like jokes but it begins the story in a way that there's playfulness to it. It allows you to believe that anything can happen in this story. I showed it to him, and he said, "Yep. That's it!"

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I wrote the first draft, which was very rough, in about three weeks because I knew the story backwards and forwards. It was a collaborative process where I'd show him scenes and he'd say yeah, "That's good enough for now. Let's try this." Working together was a much freer process. By the time I was ready to take this on, I had no qualms about walking in the room knowing nothing except for the names of the characters and that we wanted to tell a new story. I was actually anxious to hear the ideas of the other people in the room. I wanted to collaborate, I wanted this to be a shared experience. To feel confident enough to walk into a room and say let's just all talk, listen, and take the best stuff without feeling as though your creative process is being interfered with because it's anything but. Instead, it's being enhanced. It's a tremendous experience.

The other thing that makes a huge difference is the more you work early on with a director on a script, the more it's a shared vision. What often happens with scripts is you'll write a wonderful version of your story. The studio will say this is wonderful. Then, they'll go out to look for a director and almost immediately the director will have read the book and will read your script and say, "Well, it's great but..." And you're going to have to start all over again essentially incorporating so many different ideas to go along a shared path. It's so much easier to start from the beginning on the same page; hearing each other's preferences, quirks, and interests in certain things. Sharing that from the beginning is a much more satisfying experience.

 ANAHEIM, CA - JULY 15: Actor Emily Blunt and director Rob Marshall of MARY POPPINS RETURNS took part in the Walt Disney Studios live action presentation at Disney's D23 EXPO 2017 in Anaheim, Calif.

ANAHEIM, CA - JULY 15: Actor Emily Blunt and director Rob Marshall of MARY POPPINS RETURNS took part in the Walt Disney Studios live action presentation at Disney's D23 EXPO 2017 in Anaheim, Calif.

Script: Something unique in your body of work is your love for British storytelling. Where did that come from?

David: It's funny. I love going to England. I love being in England. I never set out to be a writer of British films. The truth is I wrote a very small play that was done for a very small audience in a little theater on 42nd street in New York City. A friend saw it and loved it. She said let's do this at another theater. Then I was in her office and she said, "What are you doing next?" And I said, "I don't know, what are you doing?" She said another writer in the workshop was writing about James Barrie, the man who wrote Peter Pan. He wrote a beautiful play, but he doesn't know how to turn it into a film. And I said I'd do it. She said, "Do you know how to write a film?" To which I responded, "I can figure it out." And she let me. She paid me a dollar. By coincidence, Miramax read about a review of his play and were interested in finding out more. When he called up, he said I sold the rights. They reached out and said let us see the script when you're done. And that became Finding Neverland.

Now, that's a long story, but the point is I lived in New York. Most of the business is out in L.A.. I wrote a film that was with all British characters in London. The people who saw that script floating around Hollywood, they just assumed I was British. Dozens of projects were offered to me to write British films. At first I was reluctant to work on any of them because I wanted to prove I was an American. I always say in interviews, and when I'm in England, I'm a fraud, I'm not pretending to be British. I'm just grateful to be able to write these stories. There was no intention to pass myself off as anything but a guy from Flint, Michigan. But when good material comes your way, you shouldn't pass it up. So, I ended up writing Miss Pettigrew, which was set in London. Life of Pi was actually in India and Canada; but it is more international. I think it was just accepted that I write international characters. I got the chance to write Mary Poppins because they knew I would be faithful to the rhythms of the language; which I think I have a decent ear for. That was how it came about. There are still to this day I've had someone say to me I thought you were British when they've met me. I confess, no I'm not. But what do you got for me? I'm always happy to give anything a shot.

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Script: What is it about the story line of the adults finding their childhood again that intrigues you?

David: There are important things from childhood that you have to carry with you always: that sense of wonder; the ability for stories and imagination to take you out of your world and give you a new insight on what you're going through in life and return you to your world with a renewed sense of purpose.

The James Barrie character in Finding Neverland was a man, in many ways, was a man who never grew up and wanted to remain young at heart all those years. When I wrote that, I was in my first few years of my marriage, and we were about to have our first child. Around the same time, my father sadly was dying of cancer. For me, it wasn't wanting to stay young at that point, it was wanting to grow up. What does it mean to grow up? And can you hold on to that magic of childhood and still be a grown up and take responsibility for the people you love and the people around you. So that was very much what Finding Neverland was about. When I was making that, a lot of people said, "Oh it's so wonderful that you're writing a story about not having to grow up." And I said, "No, that's not what I'm writing." I don't want to say that it's great to never grow up. I don't believe that. I'm quite happy to have gotten to the age I am, knowing a little more about the world than I did, and I'm happy that I have hung on to that spirit of imagination.

Mary Poppins Returns is not about people becoming children again. It's about people who have grown up remembering that spirit of wonder and imagination and having that help them through hard times which they've lost along the way. These are kids who actually experienced magic when they were children. But then they grow up and hit walls, suffer setbacks, and lose loved ones. It's easy to forget what you were in it for and to lose track of what really matters. When Mary Poppins comes back in this story, she is coming back just to remind Michael of that. To give him insight into wonder and imagination—and the children, and Jane—to give them that spark again that lets them see the possibilities in the world. That's my distinction between not growing up and remembering what it's like.

Script: What's your biggest piece of advice you would give to screenwriters?

David: The hardest thing about that is what I often think young screenwriters want me to do is tell them how to get into the business, and I don't know because I got in through what sounds like incredible dumb luck. I tried to write a film, and it just so happened that that story I wrote, a studio was interested in hearing about. But I think that's the way most opportunity comes to you. You just have to keep writing and your name will get out there. I do believe if you're in the place where you're meant to be, they will find you. The world is desperate for good stories. There are plenty of scripts out there that someone tried their firsthand at writing a script, and it wasn't great; so they moved on. That's great. Everyone should try different things. You'll know if you're knocking on the wrong door or if this is something that someone is interested in reading. And you'll start to get more opportunities to do it, whether it's in a little theater that no one visits or getting that opportunity to write that first film.

It takes initiative more than anything. Then it takes discipline because you're on the road you're supposed to be. The other part of that advice is if it's an hour a day, fine. Write for an hour a day. Set aside that hour a day. And if once in a while, you have other commitments and you can't do it, you won't feel guilty. You did your hour. If it's eight hours a day, which it is for me now, I sit down at a certain time and I get up at a certain time. When I get up, I'm done. I hang out with my family, I watch TV, goof around, read books, whatever. I let my life go on because you can't live in writer-head all your life. That’s destructive. You won't sleep and you'll never have time off. I'm a strong believer in whatever schedule you set, set it for yourself and stick to it. And then, you won't feel guilty if you only wrote a paragraph in an eight-hour day. You did write a paragraph, and you sat there the whole time. On days like this where I'm doing interviews, I don't expect to get much writing done. But I don't beat myself up about it and as soon as I can tonight, when I'm done I'm done.

The Secret to Finding Time to Write

Script: I think that's a huge key: not to beat yourself up over writing.

David: Absolutely! When I first started writing, I read that Graham Greene wrote 2,000 words a day and stopped on the 2,000th word. He would sit down after breakfast, and he'd write for three and half hours. He'd stop in mid-sentence, he'd count his words and he'd go off, spending the day having fun. And I thought wow, that's a great way to do it. I tried that—that's a horrible way to do it! If you're Graham Greene, it's a great way to do it because the words just flow out of you and somehow you know what you're going to write that day. John Updike wrote three pages, single-spaced every day. That was his goal. You try it. I read all those things trying to figure out my way. For me, I need the permission to really be bad at this. Especially in the early going of a draft. I need to stare at the wall and say I don't know what I'm doing and write bad versions of it and throw them all away. And then, kind of find something that's okay. And then, have to do three phone calls. If I get to the end of the day and if I've written only a paragraph, I don't beat myself up. Whether it's 20 words or 200, I don't beat myself up. So that's my advice. If you're Graham Greene or like him, God bless you.

Script: What advice do you have for screenwriters who are seeking to do visual effects or animation heavy film?

David: I think there's a clue in what I just said in that you don't create all those effects. The visual effects people do. And the director does, and the animators do. What you tell is a story that takes someone into a world and open the opportunities for those things to happen. If you have the budget, they expand on it. And if you don't have the budget, they force you to cut it back and create what you can out of it. Either way, you are opening yourself up to other people who can find better ways to tell that story. That's not to saying that you're not imagining the glass door that someone falls through that drops them into wonderland. You can do that and you can describe the characters that you see in that world. But when it comes to creating that, the luxury is having others around you who can bring that to life. You bring it to life on the page, and they're the ones who bring it to life on the screen.

Mary Poppins Returns hits theaters nationwide on December 19, 2018. More information can be found on the film's website.

David Magee is currently represented and wishes to thank Brian Siberall at CAA and Susan Ciccone at 42 West Publicity as well as those who have supported him—especially his wife and kids.

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