When Dick Van Dyke visited, or rather revisited Cherry Tree Lane for “Mary Poppins Returns,” the 93-year-old actor toured the set with a smile on his face. “It was wonderful,” says Oscar-winning production designer John Myhre who tagged along with Van Dyke and director Rob Marshall. “He stopped dead in his tracks and said, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ He noticed all the little details that brought back the original film.”
Inspired by P.L. Travers’ books about the magical nanny who brings joy to the lives of Jane and Michael Banks, Myhre wanted to convey the grown-up Michael’s loss of his wife and financial hardship by adding a dose of Depression-era London. “The film opens in the Slump. It’s a gray, cold, scary world for the kids,” Myhre says of the musical sequel to the 1964 film, which takes place 25 years later. “We wanted to have the feel of Cherry Tree Lane along with the reality of the ‘30s.”
How to balance bleak reality with the magic that is Mary Poppins? In this edited Q&A, Myhre shares how he pulled it off.
Can you remember the first time you saw “Mary Poppins”?
It’s such a vivid memory as it was the first movie I ever saw. I saw it at the Northgate Theatre in Seattle. When we pulled in to the parking lot, we saw that the theater manager had hung a mannequin on the marquee that was dressed like Mary Poppins. My 5-year-old head exploded. I wonder if that was the moment that I became a production designer?
How is the new 17 Cherry Tree Lane different from the original?
We wanted to make the house feel like their house. In the first movie, the house was so formal. The entryway almost looks like a mausoleum. There isn’t even a sofa in the front room. In our film, Michael Banks has grown up to be an incredibly loving father, and the fingerprints of the children are all over the house. We brought in softer colors, woodwork that hadn’t been painted white, and Michael’s artwork. On the exterior, we scaled the houses down a bit and added brick to make them feel less formal. We were inspired by P.L. Travers’ house, which was all brick.
So you consulted her books?
Yes. I’d be sitting in airports reading children’s books. There are seven books in the series, and each one is better than the next. It was good to read them all.
Where did you find the furnishings for the Banks’ house?
Set decorator Gordon Sim scoured England every two weeks. A lot of the better pieces we found at flea markets like the one in Kensington. We pulled a few pieces from prop houses there. Disney likes to keep things, so some of the pieces — a lamppost, a bicycle — from our movie are all over the world right now. Everything was reupholstered to control the color.
Production designers often mention how characters influence sets. True?
You have to become the character. The attic, for instance, is Michael Banks. That’s where his art is. It’s filled with memories of his wife that are too hard for him to face. Visually speaking, everything in the room tells you something about his life.
And the bank?
The bank was a villain. That’s why we needed to find that strong, powerful exterior, which ended up being the Royal Exchange in London. We used green as a symbol of money and power. We gilded some of the wood paneling so it had the strength of gold as well. Because Wilkins (Colin Firth) is represented as a wolf in the animated sequence, we decided to put wolves’ heads on the fireplace of his office.
Is it different to design sets for a musical?
It is the best thing as a designer. Dance leads everything when you work with Rob. Some sets, like the abandoned park, are built specifically for the dancers. For example, we might need a ramp or a tunnel. Some things may have to be slick or sticky. You have to consider the height of a fountain or the lampposts. Every surface allows the dancers to do their best work. I’m proud of the giant stone floor that was actually a sprung dance floor. We spent months trying to figure it out. We built the floor so that it moves with 45 dancers. The piece that grounded that set was a dilapidated greenhouse. After a month or two Rob said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we rode bicycles on top of that?” We had to go back and re-engineer it.
London feels like a character in the film.
It is. We came up with a term: “Londony.” Everything had to be Londony. It was used as our mantra in the art department. The opening of the movie is a love letter to London. It was a mix of real locations like St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London and sets. We had to cut from centuries-old locations to something that was built three weeks ago.
The costumes have received a lot of praise. Did you collaborate with costume designer Sandy Powell?
I was completely in touch with Sandy. Because we built so many of the sets, we wanted to control the color. Rob sat down with me and Sandy and the [director of photography] Dion Beebe and we discussed color. Sandy let me into her world. She made some amazing sweaters. She loves patterns.
The film has so many different moods. How did you juggle that as a designer?
The goal was to have two different design worlds. There was the real world that was dipped in reality and the magical world of Mary Poppins. The goal was to have them flow together and become one. When the park bursts into cherry blossoms and the family walks to the spring fair at the end of the film, you wonder if it is real or is it Mary Poppins? You realize that she brought magic back to the Banks family.