“I think so many of us remember watching Mary Poppins at an age where real life and fantasy blur together,” said Oscar-nominated screenwriter David Magee. “In the very best sense, she reminds us that those parts of your imagination that create the world around you are real.”
Magee grew up in Flint, Michigan, which shaped his writing career. When Magee turned sixteen, the town was described as the worst town to live in the nation. This childhood changed how he viewed the world. As a young movie fan, he would go and see art films on the weekends as a form of escapism.
Known for Life of Pi, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Finding Neverland, and now Mary Poppins Returns, Magee is an expert in bringing magical, fictional stories to the big screen. He got started as an actor and writer, responsible for abridging books. Through this unlikely career, he learned the art of storytelling.
Magee is a strong believer in imagination. Despite writing fantasy, he’s thinking of the real viewers and how they will feel watching his movies. “Imagination is the first thing that goes away when you’re facing loss or difficult times or doubt. That’s why I think grown-ups are so quick to forget the fantasy side of things.”
The original version of Mary Poppins, which starred Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, was meant to bring hope into Edwardian times through a musical. “When we read these stories, it was Director Rob Marshall who noticed they were written during the Depression era but set in Edwardian times to create a sense of hope and light.”
“On the very first page, it says that the Banks’ household was the smallest and the shabbiest on Cherry Tree Lane. It suggests that maybe George Banks was not necessarily the most successful banker in the world. When we first talking about this, we had to ask the question, ‘Why do you bring Mary Poppins back?’”
Essentially, Magee and company thought back on Mary Poppins and decided she should have been such an unstoppable force that she would have solved all of the problems for Mr. Banks. But, then they had the idea to put the story in the times of the Depression, which would invite Mary Poppins to return once more. “We instinctively wanted to explore a time when the magic was lost and forgotten. It is something that goes away when you get older.”
In the new film, Emily Blunt stars as Mary Poppins, alongside Emily Mortimer, Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Angela Lansbury, Ben Whishaw, and the return of Dick Van Dyke. This time, the story would focus on the adult lives of the Banks children, Jane and Michael.
“Children come for the adventure that Mary Poppins takes them on. Grown-ups come for their children, but they stay because Mary Poppins reminds them of what matters,” mused Magee.
Attraction to Stories
“When I take on projects, I don’t know why I want to do them. Usually, it all ends up being within the same need to tell a story. With Life of Pi and Finding Neverland and Mary Poppins Returns, the story is all about people who have had bad things happen in their lives and they’re trying to come to terms with these things through imagination and fantasy.”
Described as “films of escape,” Magee said these flights of imagination help his characters learn about their own lives to cope with their current predicament. Ironically, Magee only realized these stories had similar narratives in hindsight. It wasn’t until after Life of Pi and halfway through Mary Poppins Returns that he made the connection.
“Something within me resonates with stories about how imagination helps you understand the world and bring joy or meaning to it,” said Magee. For this new story, the writer and director said they never wanted to do a remake, but they were more interested in making a sequel to the original story.
“This was a desire for us to bring Mary Poppins back into our world—not necessarily into the 21st century world, but to bring her importance and her message to a new generation and to those grown-ups who had forgotten her. That became our guiding force in the story. So many of us grew up watching the 1964 version and longing for that character who could guide to help you through difficult times with imagination and wonder.”
The tightrope, of course, was to bring back the familiar without repeating the same story as the original. This involved five creators sitting in a room, coming up with ideas, which led to a 35-page outline over the course of four months. In addition to Magee, Marshall, and story writer John DeLuca joined musicians Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, who helped decide which moments in the screenplay could be turned into a song.
The collaborative process then consisted of Magee going off to write the script with the musicians went off to write the music, based on certain themes for the scenes. In between writing jobs, they would join together and take notes from the director, producers, and other creatives working on the film.
“You’re always pulling and tugging at the corners of things to see the best way to shape the story, but I don’t think there was ever any doubt that we were always going in the same direction. Maybe it was just a tremendous collaboration, but I don’t think there was ever a moment when we disagreed about the story essentials.”
The adventures in the book are not very concerned with a linear method of storytelling. In fact, author P. L. Travers even said the various adventures could be interchangeable between books. As such, the writers decided to choose aspects of the stories that had the most room for fun, adventure, and song.
“It was then our job to come up with a reason for that adventure to matter to these children and teach them something. Each adventure should take them further along in plot and understanding of their situation while leading them towards a bigger understanding of what’s going on in their lives.”
Essentially, the writers wrote down their favorite scenes from the books on notecards and ordered them by lessons or scope. For example, it wouldn’t be wise to be a massive musical number in the first act when it could be built towards. “We needed to find moments where the excitement warranted a song. Otherwise, it was up to me to write dialogue.”
Between all of these outrageous scenes, it was also vital to keep an eye on the original story and focus on a singular vision.
Stepping Inside the Character
While writing Mary Poppins Returns, Magee didn’t focus on trying to put himself or his personal stories into the film. “It wasn’t for the sake of self-discovery, so much as it is trying to find those connections to who you are to help you understand the characters better.”
When writing adult Michael, they were working to figure out if he was a banker, an artist, a failed artist who became a banker, or something else entirely. “Who was he and how has he found himself in this situation where things have gotten so bad in his life and career. Who is this guy? Why would he behave this way?”
Eventually, they decided that Michael would not have told Jane about his troubles because of pride. “I wouldn’t have told anyone,” reiterated Magee. “When things go wrong, I grew up with a father of a generation that never showed anything wrong, so I would try to take care of it myself. I would say everything’s fine when nothing is fine, even with my own wife.”
When Magee understood this moment, he better understood the character. “From that moment on, when Jane asked, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ He said, ‘I thought I could handle it…’ That’s not profoundly revelatory about me. I didn’t discover anything I didn’t already know, but it did help me understand Michael more deeply.”
Outside of individual characters, there was also outside research involved in the setting and time of the film. Since the new story was set a decade later, the writers had to research a new time period. “I was familiar with the Depression era United States, but not in London, so there was a fair amount of research on my end.”
“When we decided that Michael was in danger of losing his house, we did some research to see how that would have played out in that era. Then, we had to decide how adventures would play out in the loss of a house. Ultimately, we decided this was not a story about banking in London, but about shares certificates in running a company or portion of a bank.”
“I’m a strong believer in the fact that you do the research and know the truth, but you’re not forced to follow it. You have to know when you’re taking license and when you are doing so. We needed to know what we were talking about it and then simplify it [for the audience].”
“You don’t do the research so you can put it all in. You do it for the one person in the audience who knows how banking works will say, ‘Well they didn’t do it in full detail, but I can tell they knew what they were talking about…’”
“I’ve gotten much better at shaping where I want to go,” said the screenwriter. “When I first started, I had an instinct for writing scenes, but I could easily lose track of where I was headed. I’ve got a better outline sense now and once I start to know the characters and the world, I’m a very fast writer.”
“That period in between where you have to hear those voices and those rhythms of character and tone—that’s the scaffolding of the First Act. You might know the first scene, but you have to figure out how to get to the next scene or how to introduce a major character,” asserted Magee. “How do I introduce our audience to this world?”
The screenwriter joked that this was “erecting the scaffolding” because it’s usually something that will later be removed. Like scaffolding, it’s necessary to start construction, but it won’t make it into the final product. “You build it all in, but then you realize not everything has to be built into the first few pages because they either become apparent later or aren’t necessary.”
Generally speaking, Magee said his first act is often too long, too elaborate, and too detailed. That said, it’s necessary for his process. “Once I actually write out the story and find my way through the film, I go back and read the first act, and pick it apart. That’s when the rewrite starts.”
“Those first few days of writing can be absolutely miserable for me. I avoid them for a few days and write the easy scenes. The hard part is getting from A to B to C and putting in the work, which can be agonizing.” Ironically, this sometimes comes from the urgency arising from pre-planned procrastination.
Magee tries to keep a schedule during his writing times. For example, he starts at 10 am and works until 6 pm. But, if he’s merely answering emails or spending time in the office, he still feels okay at the end of the day whether or not he managed to get a lot of actual script work finished. The final product comes from this consistency.
“If, on a particular day, I didn’t get much writing done because of emails or phone calls, I’m fine. I can be guilt free. But, I have to be careful not to use that as an excuse to avoid writing. My office is in my house, which is wonderful, but I can get a lot of snacks and drink a lot of coffee. That’s the constant battle, but it’s at its worse in those beginning days.”
In the end, however, Magee is proud to be a screenwriter because once the work is put in and he’s found the right line, there’s no greater moment. “Seeing it come together on the page and knowing and those lines that come out of nowhere when it’s really working and you tap into something less-than-conscious, those moments are what it’s all about.”
“I don’t worry about staying relevant as a screenwriter. I worry about challenging myself. I worry about repeating myself and I don’t mean thematically. I worry about falling back on easy habits and being honest with myself about what’s working and what isn’t. I want to push myself to make it better.”