Inside Big Ben, And An Upside-Down Room: ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ Production Designer On Sequel’s Spectacular Sets

The production designer of Mary Poppins Returns—Disney’s follow-up to a 1964 musical classic—John Myhre knew about the project for at least 10 years, sitting for a long time with the responsibility and opportunity in taking this film on. Discussing it with Marshall on the set of 2009 musical Nine, following collaborations on Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha, Myhre knew he would have to strike a balance between reality and fantasy, between faithful homage to one of the most beloved films of all time, and the breaking of new ground. Set 20 years after Robert Stevenson’s original, starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, Mary Poppins Returns picks back up with the Banks children of Cherry Tree Lane, who are now grown up. As Michael (Ben Whishaw) grapples with the loss of his wife and the troubles of the Great Slump, Mary Poppins returns just in time, introducing a new generation of Banks children to the wonders of the imagination.

In comparison to Mary Poppins, Marshall’s film would be “dipped in reality,” juxtaposing the “harsh world” of London during the Depression with the titular English nanny’s world of wonder. In so many ways, the project was a balancing act. But two ingredients that were always present throughout its creation were vision and imagination. Calling for an upside-down house, a spectacular song and dance in the park, and a sequence on top of Big Ben, Mary Poppins Returns was in safe hands with the production designer, who delighted in conjuring up so many spectacular flights of fancy. Recently taking on a live-action adaptation of another Disney classic, Lady and the Tramp—with The Little Mermaid on the horizon—Myhre finds this kind of work to be “as good as it gets.”

Can you explain the importance of London, as a central character in the film? How did you take the city on in your work?

We so loved London, and when I heard the opening number, “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky,” it became clear that this was really a love letter to London. When Jack takes us around his world of London, it was a mixture of real locations and set pieces, and it was quite complicated, blending things that had been built into things that had been built 200 years ago. But we looked at street textures and cobbles, and curbs and all those architectural details, and in the end it’s a really nice blending. We also had the magic of not just Mary Poppins, but Dion Beebe, our director of photography, who found a way of magically matching the light through everything. When we were looking at locations, we said, “What is the most ultimately London location?” and we came up with the word ‘Londony.’ “Is this street Londony enough? Is this building Londony enough?” Then, that was taken back into the art department so that every set that we built, every door, every window, every prop that was created, we laughed and used that term. “Is this Londony enough for Mary Poppins?”

What was it like shooting at a series of real London landmarks? What kinds of challenges were involved?

There were some incredible moments, in that I actually got to walk up Big Ben. We were allowed to climb the entire tower, stand behind the clock face, and actually go up even higher to the belfry, when the bells actually rang. How wonderful is that? That was a research trip because we recreated Big Ben—we recreated some areas exactly, and then we used it as inspiration to change or alter it in order for the action sequence to take place. There were some really challenging London locations. The bank was so important. I actually felt that the bank was the baddie in the movie, and wanted to find that classic English bank with the huge columns and the step up. We found a beautiful bank in a real working area called Bank junction, which is one of the busiest intersections in all of London, and we had had to switch all of the electric lights out to gaslights; we had to cover up all the modern street markings; we had to take down or cover almost 300 signs. It was a huge military operation that went in to taking on an area that, while most of the buildings were over 100 years old, was still being used. It was still 2017 London, and to take away all those modern elements and bring everything and sculpt it back to our world of Mary was a bit of an undertaking.

How did you approach building your sets for the sequence at Big Ben? 

We broke it down into about five different pieces, and the pieces were all connected really beautifully by Matt Johnson and Leslie Lerman, the visual effects team. We built the rooftop piece where everyone arrives and looks up at Big Ben, and then we built two or three sections that were used actually for climbing. Some of them had huge sections built out of rubber, and we had some set pieces that were angled to make the climbing work a little better. We put magnets behind the stone to hold some of the wood ladders that we created out of steel, to make them hold and be safe. There were a lot of stunt needs that we had to build into those pieces, but the most fun was that we got to build the clock face. We built the clock face full-size, really out of glass; the little hatch that he climbs through is actually a real thing. There’s a piece of glass that hinges open when you’re behind the clock face. I was behind the real clock face, and was able to look out the little window. We made ours twice as high so it was big enough to get a person actually through, and then we turned the area behind the clock face into something that made more sense for our movie, where you would be able to turn off the gas and it would go blank.

What went into recreating the iconic house on Cherry Tree Lane?

We were very much inspired by the original. We loved the idea that there was a bit of a serpentine to the road, that Admiral Boom had to be next to 17 Cherry Tree Lane, and it had to be on the park. But our family needed to feel a little more humble. The first one, the houses were taller and all covered with beautiful white plasterwork, and felt very formal and removed. We wanted it to feel like [a place where] real families lived, so we actually made our houses smaller. We had exposed brick, and the whole interior was also very different in feel, in that the children have actually taken over the house, and are running it.In the first one, it was all so formal that there were no signs of the children in the house. But in ours, every room is built for the children, and it’s much more colorful. Michael Banks is a bit of an artist, and we gave it a little bit of a bohemian feel, signs of the kids living there. Their clothes are around, their books are around. If Michael had had a cup of tea, he might have left it on a side table, not the way his father ran the house years and years ago.

The film features so many extravagant set pieces, but the upside-down house of Meryl Streep’s Topsy is particularly extraordinary.

That was the most challenging of all the sets because we all immediately said, “The only way we’re going to do this is to build an upside down room.” Rob wanted so much for the sets to be really alive, and great for the children that were in the movie, and the look on their faces when they walked for the first time into literally an upside down room was amazing. But even just talking about the room in meetings became so confusing because you would say that the ceiling is down, where the floor is, and the floor is up, where the ceiling is. Up is down, and down is up; the piano is up on the ceiling there, but what’s down, that we can dance on, that looks like ‘Up’?

It was very difficult to move anything that was on the ceiling because everything was bolted to a steel frame that was up high. So again, it’s even confusing saying it, but the floor, which was up, was very hard to move things on. It had to be very well planned ahead of time, as to where everything was, because the things that you could move easily would be on the ceiling, which was what was down on the ground. On the floor, which was up, everything was bolted and glued together. There were hundreds and hundreds of items on it.

Then, we had to create a way for Jack and Mary and the kids to get down from up high. That sequence where they’re walking through, they actually did that. They were up at that little upside room and stepped on the upside bottom of an upside-down shelf, onto the upside-down mantle of an upside-down fireplace, to an upside-down statue. It was like a Roman statue, and they stepped on the sword, they stepped on the shield, before they stepped on upside-down birdcages, to get to their upside-down ceiling, on the bottom of the floor. It was all there, and they really did it.

Can you give a sense of the sweeping sets constructed for “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”? How does Marshall tend to prepare his big musical numbers?

There’s a huge rehearsal process with these musical numbers because Rob Marshall isn’t just the director, he’s the choreographer, as well. The first thing we do is create a big dance studio for him. He comes in with John DeLuca and a dance team that he’s worked with for years, and it’s like a blank canvas. He would have talked at length with me beforehand about the basic idea of the set, so for the abandoned park, we had been exchanging visuals, and had talked about things that would be in the park, like glasshouses from Kew Gardens, or fountains from Regent’s Park.

We had the basic idea laid out before they came in. We marked it out full-size on the floor, and built wooden boxes that represented heights of fountains and simple ramps. Then, the actual build was probably close to 15 weeks. It was complicated because every one of the surfaces—the stone floor, the metal fountain, the glass greenhouse, the railings—all had to be built out of materials that were good for the dancers. A stone floor couldn’t really be stone; it had to be a giant sprung floor that moved as they danced on it to protect their knees and ankles. The glass greenhouse, it looks like it’s all glass that’s ready to fall out any minute, but it actually had to be built out of materials to allow bikes to ride across the top of it. They danced or rode on every inch of that set, so every surface had to be made with a level of slickness or stickiness that suited the particular action. Rob runs these numbers as full-on Broadway numbers, so that seven, eight-minute sequence, he could run it all the way through, and everything had to work at the same time.

In the 2D animated sequence, what was required on a practical, tangible level to sell the whole illusion?

We had to create everything [the actors] interacted with. We had to create the carriage, for instance, or even the sliding down the bowl at the very beginning, when they first arrive and Jack taps it, but the whole environment was painted green, and they were talking to these lovely animated figures that the animation team created. Whenever they would do a character design, I would blow it up full-size, the hand-drawn colored character, so when you walked onto the screen environment, there were 20 full-sized drawings of the beautiful animations, and they could really look at the gentleman who was riding the horse, and the horse. Or, you could look up at the 16-foot tall giraffe that passes by their carriage. We did that for the kids, and then when we went to action, you can’t have these real things, so we had built green cutouts. Once they got to understand how beautiful and fun the characters were, we could take the colored drawing off and they could still see the basic shape in silhouette, and be able to respond and act with them.

What other major challenges did Mary Poppins Returns present?

We had something really fun with Mary Poppins’ parrot-head umbrella. We wanted it to look like a real umbrella, so I went around to antique stores, museums, looking at beautifully carved animal heads on canes and umbrella ends, and it became very clear that in that period, it would have been carved out of wood, and maybe had some metal or ivory laid into it. So, we came up with a design that worked really beautifully. But the fun challenge was that Mary Poppins’ umbrella is a character that is alive and speaks. What you see in the movie is an animatronic parrot-head cane. It has a thousand little gyros and motors and spinning wheels inside, and it was wireless. All of the batteries and sensors were put inside the clock part of the umbrella, and there was a puppeteer that had the controls that would be nearby.

What was it like witnessing original Mary Poppins castmember Dick Van Dyke sing and dance on set? He’s in his 90s, and when he jumps up on the desk to do so, it’s a sight to behold.

I was one of the lucky ones because Rob always likes me there to show the set to the actors. On a Sunday, just a few of us came in with Rob to show him the set and the number, and Rob’s dream was to get him up on the banker’s desk, doing this beautiful dance. We were concerned because he was 91—how would that all work? We made sure that it was a real desk, and we reinforced it so someone could dance on it. We gave it a bit of sticky surface so there’d be no sliding off of it, and then to get up to it, we took the classic shape of an old green leather banker’s desk chair, and a stool going with it, and created them at equal heights. You had one step to the stool, one step to the chair, one step to the desk, like a staircase, so it was a natural progression up. Just in case, we also made a little invisible staircase out of wood—painted black, behind the desk—so, if for any reason Dick wasn’t able to do the jump up, we had a way he could get up easily.

Rob showed the number to him with a dancer, and he was very excited by it. I took him around and showed him the little staircase we’d put in back, and Dick Van Dyke looked me in the eyes and said, “John, you can take that away right now.” [Laughs] The set decorator and I picked up the staircase and walked it out, and two minutes later, Dick Van Dyke leaped on the stool, leaped on the chair, leaped on the desk, and did that fantastic dance for the first time in front of us. The hair on the back of my neck is coming up, even talking about it.

Where at you at with Disney’s live-action Lady and the Tramp? What can you tell us about it?

We just finished. We had a lovely time in beautiful Savannah, Georgia. It’s a live-action version that’s a combination of real dogs, and when the dogs need to act and speak, CG versions. But the dogs that they found were incredible. They cast the dogs the way you’d cast movie actors. They found a lovely dog named Rose who played Lady, and we had to laugh because we’d be looking at the monitor sometimes and she looked like Rita Hayworth. She was absolutely beautiful.

Is The Little Mermaid officially happening, as well?

That one looks like it would be the next project of Rob’s, and if Rob decides to do that, I’d be lucky enough to join him.

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