PLAYBACK is a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. New episodes air every Thursday.
A film like “Mary Poppins Returns” is sure to connect this holiday season. Why? Because there are so few films this year that make you feel the way it does. And that’s not to say it’s simplistic pablum. No, it’s a meticulously crafted movie musical of the classic mold, brought to vibrant life by Broadway choreographer-turned-filmmaker Rob Marshall. The film received four Golden Globe nominations Thursday, including best picture, musical or comedy, so that’s perfect timing to dive into its making with the Oscar-nominated director.
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“This idea that there is a ray of light that can come and help you move through a darker time was something that was very personal to me,” Marshall says. “Our film is set in the Depression Era in London and it felt very connected, to me, to today. I feel a lot of people are struggling in life to make ends meet, to bring up a family. I also felt this idea of loss, of not only the wonder and joy you have as a child, but compounded with this idea that there is a loss of the mother [in the film]. It was about a family that needed to heal. So I wanted to send a message of hope. I really thought it’s kind of what we need right now.”
It also marked the first time Marshall served as a writer on a film project. Along with producing partner John DeLuca and screenwriter David Magee, he helped conjure the story almost from whole cloth, as the P.L. Travers books on which the famed property is based have very little narrative drive.
“When you do an original musical, the only way I feel it can be done is if a director is involved literally from the very beginning, because you’re shaping the whole piece,” Marshall says. “It’s not just something that people go away and do. It has to be a real collaboration. This is such a complicated film in many ways because it’s this grand balancing act, so to actually be part of the writing process was a big part. For me the most important thing was to forge new territory. That all came together when I chose to place it in the ’30s. It was so easy to send it up or wink, and I thought, ‘No. We have to be so, so careful to really play the truth of this, to really feel connected to this family, to understand this is a real dilemma for these people so you can be invested in these characters.’”
After his Broadway days, and with 15 years of producing movie musicals behind, from “Chicago” and “Nine” to “Into the Woods” and “Mary Poppins Returns,” Marshall is the person to ask about the genre’s future on the big screen. Will it evolve? Will it remain embedded in traditionalism? Where can it go?
“I feel it depends on the property,” Marshall says. “With ‘Chicago,’ for instance, I knew I needed a really strong concept to make that work. And it was sort of chancy, obviously, because here I was creating two realities. One was on a vaudeville stage and one was in the reality of the ’20s in Chicago and mixing those two back and forth throughout the film. But that piece called for that. I think the thing to do is make the piece that you’re working on come to life. And there are no rules. You just have to find what’s at the essence of it and always think story. What is the story? How are you telling the story? People will accept any way to tell a story as long as you’re consistent with it and you really set the rules up at the beginning.”
For more, including discussion of the many crafts elements on the film, from the costumes to the production design to the animation, and what’s happening with Marshall potentially taking on a live-action version of “The Little Mermaid,” listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link below.
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