Disney
Marc Snetiker
June 09, 2017 AT 12:00 PM EDT

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Director Rob Marshall had just wrapped his 2014 adaptation of Into the Woods when Disney proposed an idea for another collaboration: An original musical sequel to Mary Poppins.

Now, if you’re like Rob Marshall, the 1964 Mary Poppins was the first movie you ever saw as a child. If you’re like Marshall, you know well its legacy, worldwide adoration, and cherished story and songs. If you’re like Marshall, perhaps you’re less familiar with the actual breadth and depth of P.L. Travers’ original eight-book children’s series, the first two of which inspired that ’64 film. And, if you’re like Marshall, you thought the world of Mary Poppins was untouchable — until you realized how much more story there was to tell, and how much the world could use a return visit from its most beloved nanny.

“When Disney came to me, the first thing you immediately feel is daunted, because how can you ever even be in that same world as that brilliant original perfect movie?” says Marshall, the helmer of dreamy movie-musicals like the Oscar-winning Chicago. According to Marshall’s producers, Marc Platt and John DeLuca, the director had in fact contemplated a Poppins project for years, but never actually considered it within the realm of possibility. (“He always thought about it, but respectfully was reticent because he has such affection for the original, and to step into those shoes was a big undertaking,” says Platt.)

But on Disney’s recommendation, Marshall and his team took another look into the rest of Travers’ books — and liked what they saw. “We realized there was such a wealth of adventures that never materialized onscreen, and I thought, maybe there’s a reason to do this film.” The clincher was when Disney revealed that the estate of late author P.L. Travers, who notoriously disproved of Walt Disney’s choices with the 1964 film, was receptive to the idea of a sequel. “There was talk about doing one in the ’80s or ’90s that never materialized, but when Disney brought this up to me, they said the Travers estate was very open to this, as long as we treated it carefully,” Marshall says. “And I thought, well, that’s the one thing I know I can do — treat it as beautifully as it deserves to be treated.”

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And so, Marshall and his team tore into Travers’ eight books (seven, if you ignore the one that’s literarily just recipes) and developed the vision that would guide them through Mary Poppins Returns: A return to Poppins’ literary roots, featuring characters and adventures that hadn’t been realized onscreen and a restoration of the story’s timeline to Travers’ original period of the mid-1930s economic slump. “You feel that era of the depression in the novels, and the decision was made by [Walt] Disney to set that first movie in a more idealistic time in 1910, which was a brilliant idea to create this ideal of warmth, but I felt, what can we bring to this besides a new story? And I felt we could be truer to the actual books themselves, which then led to the idea of it being 25 years later, and then you think, well, that means Jane and Michael have grown up.”

Marshall values his own storytelling sensibility with his team of frequent collaborators, but he maintains the importance of staying conscious of what the 1964 film laid out. “You can’t just work from the books. You have to embrace the fact that most of us know this because of the film.” Still, the one thing the novels themselves didn’t have is a real emotional narrative — they’re a series of episodic adventures, and the 1964 filmmakers knew this and constructed a storyline for their cinematic purposes. Marshall is doing the same thing on Mary Poppins Returns, crafting a narrative throughline that would echo the mood of the slump era, give Mary a compelling reason to come back to the Banks family, and link the disparate adventures that abound in Travers’ books. (Head here for more on what the Banks family is up to these days.)

With veteran composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman on board early to craft a new score for the film, it was in casting that Marshall solidified his sequel concept. Emily Blunt was the first and essentially only actress he considered for the part of Mary Poppins — “I honestly can’t think of someone else who can play the role, not the way she’ll be able to,” Marshall notes — and it was the bright idea of DeLuca to seek out Lin-Manuel Miranda as her costar, lending his brand of Broadway glitz to the film (like Dick Van Dyke did) as the zeitgeist’s showman du jour. The film is, in many respects, built around the pair. “It’s a great credit to Rob and John that Disney handed one of their most precious properties over to them,” Blunt says. “It sort of shows you the making of Rob Marshall, really, that he’s going to approach it with such elegance and finesse and pay homage without it being derivative. Rob has this incredible celebratory way of making you feel like you can do anything.”

RELATED: Go Behind the Scenes in Exclusive Mary Poppins Returns Photos

These foundational tenets would all be enough to comfortably guide a director through production, which began rehearsals in late 2016. But then, something happened — something that seems to have had an effect on every project coming out of Hollywood in the months since Nov. 8. While Mary Poppins Returns was planned long before the election, the tumultuous climate during its shooting only further proved to Marshall why the movie he embarked upon years prior was all the more worthwhile. (The director exhibited a similar galvanization when he was making Into the Woods, citing an important moment when Obama seemed to echo one of the show’s lyrics in a speech on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. The sequel’s theme of rediscovering hope was something that rang truer for Marshall as the weeks passed. He explains, “It’s a theme that runs through the books — that as adults get older, they forget, and it’s very easy to become cynical and jaded and not believe in things. And one of the beautiful things about P.L. Travers’ work is that she takes an everyday chore and turns it into something magical, and I think that’s an important lesson for adults. In this particular climate, I was so anxious to live in a place of optimism and joy and this discovery of lost wonder. I wanted to live in that world.”

So did some of his cast members. “Meryl Streep immediately said she wanted to be a part of it for the same reasons I feel,” he beams. “She said, ‘I want to send this out into the world.’ She calls it a gift. And I feel that’s true, because I know what Mary Poppins brought me as a child, and Walt Disney always said, these movies are not for children. They’re for the children within all of us.”

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