By Maureen Lee Lenker
November 13, 2018 at 01:44 AM EST
Jay Maidment/Disney

Director Rob Marshall had one requirement for anyone he recruited to the Mary Poppins Return team — they had to love the original film.

While speaking at a special “In Conversation” event at AFI Fest on Monday night in Hollywood, Marshall explained, “Here was my barometer for anybody who was working on Mary Poppins: It has to be in your blood. You have to love the first film so much. Because I wanted to honor the first film and pay homage to it, but I wanted to carve our own space for our own story. So it was this fine balance. But you have to love it. As much as I did.”

Marshall explained the film had always meant a great deal to him because it was the first film he ever saw as a child and it instilled a lifelong love of musicals in him at an early age. Writers and producers David Magee, John DeLuca, and songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Witman already shared that deeply invested love of the property, but Marshall wanted everyone in his cast to share that as well.

He told the crowd that Emily Blunt was his first and only choice for Mary herself. “The funny thing is you would think the hardest part would be Mary Poppins and that was the easiest part…I couldn’t think of a single other person that could do what she could do with Mary Poppins….You have to be a great actress to be able to play that stern, reserved woman who underneath has a child under there. So you have to see those glimpses of that. That’s a layered performance, a very sophisticated performance. She also had to be warm and funny and still have that façade. And then you have to be able to sing and dance. And she’s British,” Marshall explained. “In this film, she does the impossible. She makes the role her own. And Julie Andrews is genius in the film, so that’s an impossible task but she does it. It’s a different Mary Poppins. It’s her Mary Poppins.”

For the character of Jack, Marshall said he wanted Lin-Manuel Miranda for a childlike nature in his essence and his theatrical roots. “He has something so authentic. He’s not jaded in any way, and that was the character,” Marshall noted. “I believe he wants to go on adventures with her. I don’t want this movie to have any kind of cynicism. I don’t want it to be sentimental, but I don’t want it to be cynical. I want it to be true.”

Marshall says he was thrilled Ben Whishaw wanted to be onboard as a grown-up Michael Banks, calling Whishaw, “one of the great actors of his generation.” He said Whishaw won him over from their first meeting. “[Ben] said these words; these were good words to say. He said, “Mary Poppins was why I wanted to become an actor.” I was like, “Ok, you’re done, you’re in. That’s it.”

Still, it was hard for Marshall to know if they’d got the balance right. But there was one moment that helped him know they were on the right track — Dick Van Dyke’s first day on set. The star of the original Mary Poppins said yes immediately to Marshall’s offer to return as Dawes Jr., one of the bankers from the first film, and flew to London to shoot a musical number where he dances on top of a desk.

“He walks onto the set and he said, ‘Rob I have to tell you, I feel the exact same spirit on this set that I felt on the original film.'”

No spoonful of sugar necessary to help that sentiment go down.

Mary Poppins Returns hits theaters Dec. 19.

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