Director’s optimism suffuses a film he calls his most personal work yet

By Bob Verini

Rob Marshall’s films have allowed him to explore the cynical side of show business in “Chicago” and “Nine.” He has dealt with issues of historical catastrophe, masks and identity in “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and anatomized the dark underbelly of fairy tales in “Into the Woods.”

But entering the world of P.L. Travers and her fictional creation Mary Poppins — a no-nonsense nanny with an uncanny ability to make the world right — seems to have tapped into a uniquely meaningful space for the director.

“How to look at things from the perspective of a child,” he muses. “For me, it’s everything.”

Marshall, producer John DeLuca and screenwriter David Magee constructed a narrative of a specific family, that of Michael Banks, which has lost its very anchor.

Marshall doesn’t elaborate, but he clearly makes personal associations with family and loss. He delights in the moments in which Mary Poppins transforms the quotidian into the extraordinary, adding, “That’s how I live my life. I try to find that positive way of looking at things. And move forward every day with joy.”

Broadway had always been a source of that joy, he says, first when he was a dance captain in important shows and then as a multiple Tony-nominated director-choreographer. But the freedom he discovered when he assumed that sweet-spot behind the camera was a thing apart. No longer did he need, for instance, “to create transitions. In the theater you have to get all that scenery off, and bring a whole ‘nother set in. Here, you can do it with a cut.”

A onetime Broadway dancer, Marshall thinks about scenes in terms of beats and rhythm.

Cinema also allowed him “to choose what the audience should see. So if you want to show a finger or a foot or an eyelash, those are the things you can control.” The stage director has limited means to direct audience focus, but as a filmmaker “you can create a close-up for emotion. You can create all of that. It was thrilling.”

So enamored is Marshall of the film that he is drawn to elements his Broadway colleagues eschew, notably what he calls “the mosaic nature of filmmaking,” in which the moviemaker is “perfecting a very small piece that’s part of this large mosaic. Perfect it until it feels right, and then you move to the next piece. Some people from the theater, I think, find that tedious. They think it’s very slow to spend an entire day on a minute and a half of film. I actually like that kind of detail work.”

Marshall isn’t especially eager to take a long view of his career to date, or tote up specific linkages between projects. Though in speaking of untested vocalists like actor Ben Whishaw, he does recall Renee Zellweger’s frustration during “Chicago” rehearsals.

“Why did you hire me?!” she asked. “I said, ‘Specifically because of that quality that you have.’ All of that makes you believe the character. It isn’t Renee Zellweger singing, it’s Roxie singing.” On “Poppins” he cast the best available talent, confident he could elicit heartfelt and pleasant vocals from the likes of Whishaw.

What past projects have granted him, he says, is the opportunity to “work hard to trust yourself. And I did feel on this one I trusted my gut.”

The sincerity, energy and positivity of “Mary Poppins Returns,” with its message of hope in a “very fragile and divided world right now,” is what lured such a string of legendary names — among them Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury “Everybody said yes, immediately,” says Marshall. “They wanted to be part of this film for that reason.”

They formed a cohesive team, Marshall says, “wanting to deliver something so important and powerful about the world.” This original narrative, he says, centers on “this dark time for the family dealing with loss — the loss of wonder,” not to mention the loss of mother, wife and even home itself.

Then “the clouds part and Mary Poppins comes through that ray of light,” evoking for Marshall a host of childhood memories like “The Sound of Music,” “Oliver!” and the first film he ever saw. (Yes, it was “Mary Poppins.”)

“These were my rays of light. And so to be able to do that with this amazing cast was … ”

He pauses.