Interview: Academy Award Winning Production Designer John Myhre talks “Mary Poppins Returns”
John Myhre is a Production Designer and Art Director. He has won Academy Awards for his work on Chicago, and Memoirs of a Geisha. He was nominated for Academy Awards for his work on Elizabeth, Dreamgirls, Nine and most recently Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns. He recently took the time to talk with us about his background, his collaborative process with director Rob Marshall, and of course the amazing work that went into creating Mary Poppins Returns.
Nerds and Beyond: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us today!
John Myhre: Oh absolutely! We are all just so proud of Mary Poppins Returns. It was such a lovely film to work on, and it’s exciting that it’s finally now getting released on DVD so even more people will get to see it!
Nerds and Beyond: Let’s dive right in and start at the beginning! What was your path towards becoming a production designer?
John Myhre: Oh my goodness, that’s a great question. I was a kid, growing up in Seattle, Washington, and I was making Super 8 movies and I wanted to be a director. And when I went to high school, which was a progressive public high school, they had drafting classes for architects. And I started taking drafting classes and I thought “oh! I want to be an architect!” So I was a little confused because I was passionate about being a director and I was passionate about being an architect. And it wasn’t until I was in college and working at the Seattle Film Festival that I met some real working directors. When they saw this excited kid that didn’t know if he wanted to be an architect or a director, two or three major directors said to me within a week or two, “ well, why aren’t you a production designer?” And I said, “what’s that?” So they told me that a production designer designs the visual look of a movie. A production designer chooses the style of architecture, the color pallet, the textures. They decide if a room should be big or small to tell the story. Or if the furnishings should be old or new. And to be honest, my head exploded. I had no idea what that meant. When I saw movies, “production designer” looked the same to me as “gaffer,” it was just a word – I didn’t know what it meant. So the moment I found out that this existed I quit my job, I quit college, and I drove down to LA and knocked on doors for three months until I got a job as a PA. And it just never stopped from there.
Nerds and Beyond: What is your thought process when you read through a script for the first time?
John Myhre: When I read a script for the first time, if I’m responding to the script, I see it visually in my brain, I just see it. If it’s a script I’m not responding to, I don’t. But if it is, when I read a script for the first time, I will have a notepad next to me and I’ll make notes, I’ll do simple little drawings, and I really just… see it in front of me. I will still go on, and do research and expand upon that, but I do have a real, visceral, visual response to a script if I like it when I read it for the first time.
Nerds and Beyond: How did you become involved with Mary Poppins Returns?
John Myhre: I’ve been working with Rob Marshall for fifteen years now. It must have been nine years ago, we were working on a film in England, and we just started talking because we are both huge Disney fans. And we said “hey, we should do a new version of Mary Poppins!” So we designed the ride for Disneyland, and this was all just for fun, as we were driving around doing location scouting for another movie. But the idea was planted many many years ago. So when he called me up and said “John, we’re doing Mary Poppins,” it was a thrill but it wasn’t completely unexpected.
Nerds and Beyond: That is actually a great segue to my next question. So you’ve worked several times with Rob Marshall, and each time it’s resulted in an Oscar nomination and/or win. Is there something special about the way you two collaborate that leads to this success? What is it like working with him?
John Myhre: Well, Rob Marshall is absolutely wonderful to work for. He’s a very very visual director. And he does some things that are so interesting. When he did Chicago, which is the first film I did with him, he cast the creative team (the production designer, the director of photography, the costume designer) first. He spent as much time, and put as much effort, into casting the creative team as he did into casting the actors, which was incredible. And he was looking for a creative team that had his visual sense. So when I met with him, he didn’t want to tell me what he wanted to do with the movie, he kind of sat back and let me tell him what I wanted to do with the movie. And he was waiting for someone to come in with the same ideas he had. So thank goodness, luckily for me, how I responded to the script was exactly how he wanted to take it visually. So we are completely “sympatico.” I mean, whenever there’s a new idea on a project we can sit down and have a real shorthand about how talk about things visually. It’s a really wonderful long-standing relationship. Which frees us up to do our best work.
Nerds and Beyond: And what is it like working with him on the dance numbers?
John Myhre: Working on a musical, for me, is the most wonderful type of film you can work on. It’s purely creative. And when you work with Rob, he is also the choreographer. That’s a magical thing. And so before he starts the choreography, we come up with the base idea of what the set is going to be. A good example is the abandoned park set from Mary Poppins Returns. We knew that we wanted to have a place that the leeries could go and hang out where this number could take place, that would be “hidden in plain sight” in London. So we initially talked about what could it be? Could it be an abandoned tube stop? Or an old building? And then we came up with this idea – what if there was a part of Regent’s Park that had a big glass greenhouse and for some reason or another it’s been locked up. So we had that as a base, and we knew we wanted to have levels, and the idea of a fountain that had levels, and the greenhouse was something fun that you could dance on, and ride bikes on and have ramps. So we came up with a basic idea of what the set would be, and then we taped out (full size) on a dance floor what we thought that set would be, and then Rob comes in with the dancers and starts creating the dance. And as he does it, and this is what is so fun, the set has to be very fluid. So if he decides there needs to be more dancers and more space, we run down to the dance halls, the whole art department, and work with them on how far we can roll what out. And actually, I think the fountain might have come up after they started rehearsing. There was an idea of, “what else has layers that we can dance on?” So we quickly come up with these ideas, and the basic set idea, and then it sometimes gets bigger or sometimes gets smaller, but it’s all one hundred percent from and for the dance. And even all the things we build need to have the right amount of give and movement, like a dance floor, for the dancers. Or some dances require the floor to be sticky, so that there’s traction for the dancers’ feet. Other times if they’re gonna slide, it needs to be slippery. So all of that comes into play, and so you’re not only creating a set that visually tells a story, you’re working with Rob and John DeLuca and the dance team to create a space that works absolutely perfectly for them.
Nerds and Beyond: What was it like creating the world of Mary Poppins? Was there a lot of pressure to capture the look and feel of the original film? Or did you feel that there was room to play and make it your own?
John Myhre: There was actually room to play. The first meeting with Rob on it, he said “we aren’t recreating it, it’s not a remake of the first movie.” And in fact, our story is very different. The family is very different. The family in the first film, it was not like a really great family at the beginning. The father went to the bank everyday and was kind of distant. If you see the first one again, the house doesn’t have any signs of life, or that the children even lived there, other than their nursery. Our story is completely different. Little Michael has grown up (and if you remember in the first one, by the end of it, the dad becomes the best dad in the world) so our house is telling that story. It’s a wonderful family house and it’s filled with more color and the kids have their fingerprints literally all over every surface of the house. You go inside, and Michael has his omnibus, and it’s more colorful, and the kids clothes are everywhere, there’s just signs of life everywhere. We also decided we wanted to make the house feel a little more homey and even the fronts of it are different. We took down the heights of the houses on the street, made them partially brick, again to make it feel a little more accessible. So other than our love for the original movie, and us all having love in our hearts for the things that we wanted to keep, we really did create sets that told the story of our film. Which is a different story.
Nerds and Beyond: What is it like working with CGI and digital animators when creating the world of a film? And what was it like, for Mary Poppins Returns, to create a world that had live action and 2D animation co-existing side by side?
John Myhre: Well how exciting is that! When we first sat down, Rob and I both went “it needs to be the old school 2D animation.” So we were working at Disney, so we went over to the Disney Animation World and said “we’re doing old 2D animation like the sixties, let’s get started!” And they were like “we haven’t done that for decades. We’re not equipped.” So the Disney animation team gave us the names of some old Disney animators that went out and started their own companies. So we used Duncan Studios, which was made up of some of the old Disney animators. But they were used to doing smaller hand drawn projects, like commercials or a little piece of something. And when we walked in and said “we have a thirteen minute sequence that has fifty different characters and is a combination of 2D and live action” they were like “WOAH!” So it was really exciting because they had a very small team and they had to ramp up, so they pulled about twenty retired Disney animators out of retirement. And they brought in forty younger animators to train them. It was like this world of the twenty fantastic Disney animators helming this school of kids learning. And it was the happiest little animation factory I’ve ever been to. Because, the old animators pulled out of retirement, we pulled them in by saying “you are the only people in the world who can do this. We need your help so much.” And they just jumped right into it. Getting into the characters, getting into the background. And the younger team that was new to it, learned their skills by doing the in between drawings, and it was fantastic. Sorry that was just the technical aspect of it that was exciting, but the creative end was also wonderful because the funnest thing for me on a movie is when I learn something new. I had never, it’s been a long time – basically since Roger Rabbit – that they’ve put live action characters into the animated background. So we worked really closely with the animation team. The musical number was fun for me, because the musical number we designed and created as though it was live action number. So we had to build a full sized set that Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda could dance on. And you can’t just have them dance on a blank environment, there had to be a stage they could walk up to. There had to be the books they could dance on. The staircases they could dance on. And they were all built to size, and everything was painted green, and then their dancing on the green set was turned over to the animation team. And they added the beautiful textures to the books and the proscenium and made it their own. Very very exciting.
Nerds and Beyond: That’s amazing. Thank you so much for talking with us today!
John Myhre: Thank you! Have a great day.
Mary Poppins Returns is currently available for HD digital streaming and will be available on Blu-Ray on March 19!