Caroline Waxler: I’m Caroline Waxler, and you’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writer’s Guild of America East. In each episode, you’ll hear from writers in film, television, news, and new media about their work. From pitching to production, from process to favorite lines, and everything in between. Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with David Magee, screenwriter at Walt Disney’s highly anticipated film, Mary Poppins Returns, the ambitious magical sequel to the classic 1964 film. Thrilled to be here today with David Magee of Mary Poppins Returns.
David Magee: Thank you for having me.
Caroline Waxler: My pleasure. I saw the movie on Friday. It was incredible.
David Magee: Oh, thank you.
Caroline Waxler: So great. After the movie ended, the audience stood up and cheered. They clapped.
David Magee: I love that. I wish I had been there for that.
Caroline Waxler: It was great. It was such a magical moment.
David Magee: That’s fantastic.
Caroline Waxler: I ran into people afterwards at dinner, at a random restaurant across the street, and they were gushing about it.
David Magee: I love that, I love that.
Caroline Waxler: So, it was really a fun, feel-good movie, and it was nice to see it on a Friday night.
David Magee: It’s been really exciting to see the audiences’ reactions to it, and it was essentially my reaction, too, when I first saw it. Things just came together in a way that you can never plan.
Caroline Waxler: It was magical.
David Magee: Thanks, yes.
Caroline Waxler: It was really great. Would love to chat with you first about how you got started as a screenwriter.
David Magee: Well, I originally thought I wanted to be an actor, although I had always liked writing, and I did it in secret at home. Never showed it to anyone, because I was afraid it was not good enough, or I’d be judged too harshly. It would take me forever just to write a single sentence, and then I would cut it. I didn’t get actively involved in writing for a while. I did a lot of small regional theater, and Off-Off-Broadway kind of stuff, and showed up every once in a while in a soap or two in the background. Five lines or less kind of stuff. It was a lot of fun, and I didn’t make any money whatsoever. I barely had health insurance, but it kept me going.
Then, I met my now wife of 26 years, and we started talking about having a family, and I thought, “This is not working. I need to find another way to do things.” Well, in the meantime, I did a lot of voiceover. That was really how I was managing to pay the bills. As a part of the voiceover, I did books on tape. I went into the studio one day. They do the full-length version of a book, and then the abridged version of the book, so that you could listen to it in your car in about three hours, rather than 10 or 12 or 14 hours. I went into the studio one day to read a book, and the abridgment was horrible. It was just … Characters were in the middle of sentences and suddenly they were in different rooms.
It made no sense.
Caroline Waxler: It was over-abridged.
David Magee: It was over-abridged, and it was confusingly abridged. Someone would be talking and then they’d be in the backyard, and then they’d be upstairs in the bathroom. I said to the people who were recording it, “I’m sorry, we can’t record this. I could do better than this.”
Caroline Waxler: That took a lot of guts.
David Magee: Well, I had nothing to lose, really, on that. I was just there as an actor. I literally was saying, “You don’t want to record this.” But I said, “I could do better than this,” and they said, “We’re always looking for abridgers. Do you want to try?” And I said, “Sure. Why not? What does it pay?”
Caroline Waxler: Always a good question. Great.
David Magee: It was a couple thousand dollars. Wasn’t a lot, but it was for a guy who was trying to make a living as an actor, and not making much money, it was a fantastic opportunity, and I could take it with me wherever I was and do it on the road, so to speak. I said, “Yeah, let’s start doing it.” Over the next four or five years, I abridged over 80 books, novels, nonfiction, romances, potboilers, suspense, the whole range of genres, and I was doing one every couple of weeks.
I started to realize, not only was I pretty good at this, I was getting a lot of training in what was essential in a story that you needed to convey for the screen. Because, when you’re abridging, you’re focusing on, for audio, you’re focusing on the dialogue, obviously, and you’re focusing on the actions. You have to cut out all the descriptions of the pretty rooms and what’s going on in someone’s head, and you have to concentrate on the plot and the story and the actions.
So, I started it, and, “Well, I should start writing myself. I’m getting good at this.” I was a member of a workshop here in the city, the 42nd Street Workshop, which was a little collective of directors, writers, actors, who all would get together on a Monday night and read each other’s stuff, in a room that had maybe 30 seats in it. And, on the weekends, we’d put those productions up just try them out.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, nice.
David Magee: I was doing it as an actor. I was reading other people’s material. And I thought, well, I’ll just bring something in one day, and I brought in a monologue. And they said, “That’s great, keep working on it.” And I turned it into a play, and a woman in the group said, “Let’s do that at a theater for a weekend out in the Hamptons. I said, that sounds like fun. So, we went out. It became a three-person show. We performed it that weekend. We had a great time. Almost no one showed up, because they had no … They didn’t know where I was, what was going on.
Caroline Waxler: What was it called?
David Magee: It’s called Buying the Farm, and it was about a World War I fighter pilot getting shot down over the lines in France during World War I, and essentially being taken in by a French woman whose husband was German. And she’d have to retreat every time the Germans retreated, and advance whenever the Germans advanced, because she was considered on the wrong side of the line.
I had fun writing it, and we did it and. After that was done, the woman, Nellie Bellflower, was her name, said, “You know, I’m trying …” I said, “What are you doing next?” She said, “Well, I’d like to try and produce a movie, and I’ve got a script by another guy in the workshop that’s lovely. A guy named Alan [Nee 00:06:16] wrote this play about the man who wrote Peter Pan and his relationship with the boys, who became the inspiration for the Lost Boys.”
And I said, “That sounds really interesting.” She said, “The problem is, he’s written a great play, but he doesn’t know how to do a film.” And I said, “Well, I’ll do it.”
Caroline Waxler: Having had no experience writing [crosstalk 00:06:34]
David Magee: Absolutely not. No. She had never done a film before. She had gotten the rights to the play for a dollar from Allan. We’re in a 30-seat workshop. It’s just kind of, I wanted to and do it. So, I said, “I’ll do it.” She said, “Have you ever written a screenplay?” And I said, “No, but I can do it.” And she said, “Well, go write up some notes or something. Tell me what you do.” So, I did. I went off and I wrote, I think, nine or 10 pages of … I read the play, and it was a lovely play that did not work as a film, because it took place over years and years, the boys growing up. It covered a long span of life, and it was very theatrical, impressionistic, that sort of thing. And I said, “We’ve just got to focus this down to the making of Peter Pan,” and so on, and so forth. And she said, “All right, I’ll give you a dollar to …” I don’t know who gave who a dollar. I can’t even remember.
Caroline Waxler: Again with the dollar.
David Magee: Again, the idea was … But it was important later on, because Alan’s play had been performed at the West Bank Café, and a little blurb about ended up in … I think it was Backstage. Someone at Miramax at the time read that blurb and pitched the idea of the man who wrote Peter Pan and the boys who inspired it, in the offices, and they were interested in reading the script. They called up Alan. He said, “I’m sorry. I’ve sold the rights for a dollar.” They called up Melanie, and she said, “I’ve already got someone writing it.” They said, “Let’s see the script.”
When I finished the script and turned it in, they went, “Okay.” They bought the thing. That was how I became a screenwriter.
Caroline Waxler: For more than a dollar, I hope.
David Magee: It ended up being more than a dollar when it actually became a film. Yeah. We had that agreement that if it ever actually became something real, we’d figure out how much I’d get paid. It was fine for someone starting out. I didn’t make a killing, by any means, but it certainly gave me a new career, and it worked out quite well.
Caroline Waxler: That’s great. Congratulations.
David Magee: Thank you.
Caroline Waxler: How did you come to be attached to this project?
David Magee: Well, I got a call from my agent who also represents Rob Marshall, and he had been dropping hints for years about, “Maybe you should write a musical. Have you ever thought of writing a musical?” I didn’t know, and then he sent me a book of musicals for Christmas. I started to suspect something was up, and then one day, he called up and he said, “Rob Marshall is thinking of doing the next installment of Mary Poppins. Would you be interested?” I said, “Of course. My gosh, yes. Absolutely.”
Caroline Waxler: So iconic.
David Magee: Yeah. We set a meeting for Rob, John Deluca, and myself. John’s the producer on the film, or one of the producers on the film to meet here in New York. It was at a hotel. I can’t remember which one it was. In a suite, and we sat down, and I think they might’ve sent me a few notes about what they were thinking of, and I had read those in advance, and I really liked them. Then, I had a few thoughts about how to expand on that, and within maybe 15, 20 minutes of talking, it was obvious that we all understood each other’s language. We were finishing sentences with each other, and we got it. It was fantastic, and at that point, I was sold. I want to do this. By the time I got home back to New Jersey, my agent had called and said, “They want to do it with you.”
Caroline Waxler: Wow.
David Magee: It was that fortunate.
Caroline Waxler: Wow. Such chemistry right off the bat.
David Magee: Yeah, it worked out really well.
Caroline Waxler: The magical story.
David Magee: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah.
Caroline Waxler: How was the process of writing, of coming up with the story with Rob and John?
David Magee: Well, what I would do is, in the first few weeks, it was just the three of us, and then shortly after that, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the composer and the lyricist came on board, and it would be me going off and writing up notes based on what we had discussed, and then us setting a meeting for the next week or two meetings for the next week. We’d meet for maybe three hours at a time. We’d sit around a table, discuss ideas. I would quickly type notes about what we discussed, and then I’d go away for the rest of the week, and I would write up ideas based on that. Then, I’d send the notes back to them, and gradually, a story started to be shaped out of that.
We read all of the P.L. Travers books that … She wrote eight, I think. I hope I’m getting the number right.
Caroline Waxler: I think so.
David Magee: Yes. We read all those books, and they’re wonderfully self contained chapters, each chapter in Mary Poppins stories is an adventure unto itself. It’s essentially, they wake up that morning, something happens while they’re on their way to the park. They end up dancing under the sea with sea creatures, and at the end of the day, they come back, and Mary Poppins swears none of it ever happened. The people who wrote the first version, the original Mary Poppins did essentially what we did, and that is take the episodes in the books that most excited them, and then built a story around those. It worked out pretty darn well for them, so we went off and read the books, and took some notes, lines that inspired us, or scenes that inspired us. Then, it was our job to try and come up with a way to turn these adventures into events that forwarded the story and the characters and the action of the film.
That’s what the story development process was like. We all had favorite events, and for example, we knew that we wanted to have an animated sequence, some new animated sequence like they had in the original, and so we looked at the various stories that were written, and there was one where … Jane and Michael Banks were not the only children in the original books. There was Jane and Michael, and then there was … Annabelle was a younger girl, and there were some others. It was either Jane or Annabelle who, in one of the chapters, goes up to to a plate that’s above the mantelpiece, and there’s a drawing on it. She’s having a bad day. She throws something, it chips the plate, and then a little character on the plate starts talking to her.
Now, she ends up going into this drawing on the plate, and it’s a very different adventure than what we did, but we thought, “Well, that’s a perfect entry point into an animated sequence, is going into this plate. That became a scene we really knew we wanted to have in the film. We knew where we wanted to place it, and then it was up to us to figure out, “Well, what did the kids who go on this adventure learn? What did they experience? What did they take from this?” That was what we did with each of the various sequences as we moved forward through the story.
Caroline Waxler: Great. The animated part was amazing.
David Magee: Absolutely, it was. They had to start on that almost from the time we had finished the outline. Not almost, literally. From the time we finished the outline, they began thinking how they might do this. We were starting to write the script, and we had already started talking to the … We. Rob and John, mainly, were talking to some lead animators. By the time we had finished a first draft, we were already planning to go out, sit down with a team of animators, and discuss ways in which they could turn this into the magic that you end up seeing, which was a fascinating process because they all … We sat around a long table. We described what we were trying to do, and they had little sketch pads, and they would sketch characters, and they’d say-
Caroline Waxler: In real time?
David Magee: In real time, and they’d say, “We could have this happen. This would be funny. We could do this. This would be entertaining,” or, “Do you think he looks like this?” We had a series of meetings like that as the script was developed, because they had to have enough time to do the animation and to create these characters in this world, which is an intensely laborious process, so that by the time we were shooting, they were already well on their way toward mapping out the journey of the animated film. Of course, when we were shooting, we had to know exactly where the actors would be filmed, what they’d be looking at, everything, so that was already well under the way before the actual shooting took place.
Caroline Waxler: Your colleagues had already cast the film?
David Magee: Cast the film in terms of-
Caroline Waxler: The actors?
David Magee: Oh, the actors. Yeah. Well, Rob and John wanted to have Mary Poppins played by Emily Blunt from the very outset. It was as we developed the character of Jack that we started talking about, “Well, who is this? Who could this be?” That was also right at the time when Lin Manuel went from a wildly respected theater writer/actor/director to world renowned, you can’t get tickets to his stuff, actor/director/writer, and so he came into the conversation almost right away. Yeah, so that was happening even as we’re writing it. Then, I think it was when the script was first finished that Rob said, “Now, I’m going to go off and talk to Emily,” but it might’ve even been as we were finishing it, as we were polishing it up so that she … I know she had to wait a little while for the script to come over to her after she was asked if she wanted to do it, and she was thrilled, and we wanted to make sure the script was right, so she was still thrilled.
Caroline Waxler: After you wrote the script, Emily hadn’t officially signed on, or she …
David Magee: I don’t know the details of when she officially signed on. I know that when … She has said a dozen times that as soon as Rob asked her, she was floored, and she said yes. I don’t know anything about the … when the actual paperwork was done.
Caroline Waxler: Speaking of Emily, she brought so much to this character. I mean, following in the footsteps of Julie Andrews playing such an iconic way.
David Magee: Yes.
Caroline Waxler: How did you write it with Emily in mind, or to update the character?
David Magee: It’s funny. First of all, I couldn’t agree with you more. I think she knocks it out of the park. I can’t believe how totally she embodied that role and taught us all what that character was about, but when you’re actually writing, I can’t … I suppose I could picture someone’s face, but I’m really listening to how the dialogue sounds in my head. I can’t imitate someone else’s voice in my head. I’m really playing the characters myself in my own mind. That’s what’s going on. I make sure it sounds right the way I would be able to … not necessarily perform Mary Poppins, but as an actor, I could understand what was going on in that role. My job is not necessarily to try and picture how the actor plays it. It’s my job to get Mary Poppins on the page. Then, as they start working on it, they may find new things, new ways of doing it. Once she’s on board, anything can evolve.
When the script was done and we had Lin and Emily, we did a table reading in the city with some really wonderful New York actors just coming in and helping us out for the week. We rehearsed it, and just around the table, heard it. Heard it sung, heard it played, saw all the characters. It was the most luxurious way to approach checking out your first draft and seeing if it works.
Caroline Waxler: I’d say.
David Magee: In the midst of that, we were already seeing, “Oh, Emily’s perfect for this.” Not only was she what we thought, but she was already starting to inform it, so that by the time that rehearsal reading process, Rob and I already had a dozen other things we wanted to do to the script to respond to what we had heard in that room. It was really luxury.
Caroline Waxler: As you responded to, and as the script evolved, how did that process work? Were there a lot of drafts? Were you flying back and forth from New Jersey to California?
David Magee: A little bit. Rob is here on the east coast as well. He has an apartment here in the city, and a place out on Long Island, and I’m in New Jersey, so we met in the middle a couple of times a week.
Caroline Waxler: Where did you meet?
David Magee: He was getting his apartment renovated, so initially, it was in a hotel, and then once the apartment got fixed up, we met at his apartment. John was there, Marc and Scott, and once we were actually writing the script, it was mainly Rob and myself, and sometimes, at that point, it was just the two of us on the phone, because we didn’t have to … We were further along with the development in our relationship, so he could just call me and say, “I’m thinking about maybe doing this visually with this sequence,” or, “I think maybe we’ve got this too much in this scene,” then I could work on it with him on the phone. That was easy, but we were going back and forth a little bit to deal with the animating team.
Rob and John more than myself, just because they were doing the nuts and bolts of it. I was mainly there if we thought it would affect the script for the creative meetings, rather than the visual meetings. Then, we got to a point … It was really a fast moving train, considering how large this production was. Pretty much within a year of starting, we were going over to London to begin rehearsals. We had a six week rehearsal process, which is an incredible luxury again, but incredibly necessary for a musical, where we were in a studio, and cardboard boxes represented the walls. They taped out the floor like you would at a regular theater rehearsal, and we rehearsed every scene, essentially beginning to end. Rob choreographed … Rob and John choreographed dances. Marc and Scott were there working on the music, doing demos of various scenes and recording actors for initial use for the filming, and I was sitting in the corner changing lines as need be.
It was like doing a Broadway musical, essentially, in a film studio. Then, at the end of that process, it was coming up on Christmas of a couple years ago.
Caroline Waxler: Was it 2016?
David Magee: I think so. Yeah. I’m terrible at my math, but it was three and a half years with the whole beginning to end, so that would be right. That would be right, 2016. Coming up on Christmas 2016, our rehearsals came to an end. In January, they began the official orchestra records of the songs, and just after that, they began actually shooting. Shooting went on for six months, and at that point, I just would come in to see the cool scenes, to see the really big splashy numbers. I brought my son. I brought my daughters. I brought my wife, to just see some fun scenes that I thought they’d like to be a part of. Most of my work was done at that point. It usually … Hopefully, it is, until you get to editing, and you realize you need an extra line here, or you need a little solve there, and you’re brought back in. It went that smoothly.
Caroline Waxler: Are there any scenes that you thought translated really well from the page to the screen?
David Magee: Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, the animated sequence, obviously. Just as an aside, before … talking about specifics, and this is just genuine fandom, the design team on this was amazing. They created something that looked both very much like the original, and yet it felt modern.
Caroline Waxler: Absolutely.
David Magee: It does not for a moment feel dated, or of a different era. It feels incredibly contemporary, and yet you accept that this is Mary Poppins’ world. Beautiful costumes, set designs, everything. Just incredible. Everything came out better than I expected on one hand, although when we-
Caroline Waxler: How nice.
David Magee: Exactly. It’s an amazing gift when you get to be a part of the rehearsal process, and see the film before the film has been shot, and know, “Oh, this is going to be good.”
Caroline Waxler: That doesn’t happen very often [crosstalk 00:23:05]
David Magee: No, it doesn’t. We had designers’ renderings and models and everything in the room where we were rehearsing, so it was like seeing everything before it was just finally assembled, so that was one sequence. The Trip a Little Light Fantastic scene, absolutely amazing. I mean, that was breathtaking, the rehearsal, the dance number in the rehearsal room just knocked you backwards. It was so amazing. The same for the music hall performance in the animated sequence. There’s a more live than animated section of the animated sequence. It takes place in a music hall where Lin and Emily perform, which is absolutely amazing.
Caroline Waxler: Did Lin give any creative input?
David Magee: Oh, he did. He was wonderful in the sense that almost from the beginning, he said, “This is their musical, not mine. I mean, I want to be an actor in this. I’m not …” He brought everything to the table as an actor. [crosstalk 00:24:04] But, he came in saying, “I’m not trying to make this mine in that way.” There was some back and forth with possibly … He does something that is akin to a rap within things, and for a while, there was some discussion, did he want to write, did he not? But, no, Marc Shaiman actually, and Scott Wittman wrote-
Caroline Waxler: Wrote the rap.
David Magee: … the rap.
Caroline Waxler: It was Lin approved.
David Magee: It was essentially exactly what they wrote that Lin did, which I thought was tremendous.
Caroline Waxler: It was great. I was curious who wrote that.
David Magee: Yeah, no, that was them. That was them. I think there were a couple of changes to it, and Lin was the one who said, “No, no. Put them back. I like it the way it was.” That came out exactly as I think they originally intended it. It was fantastic.
Caroline Waxler: That’s great. Where did you actually write this? Was there a room in your house where you do your writing?
David Magee: Yes. When I first started writing, I would go to the local bookstore where they have the café.
Caroline Waxler: In New Jersey?
David Magee: In New Jersey. I would-
Caroline Waxler: Does it still exist?
David Magee: Nope. Long gone. There are a few bookstores left that have the cafes, but not many. There’s a Barnes and Noble here and there, but this was a Borders Books that I used to go to, and I would go and get my tea and scone or whatever, and I’d sit in the corner, and I’d type. They’d let me stay there all day, and whenever I got bored, I’d wander over and look at books for a while, and then come back and type some more. But now, I have a house with enough room. We turned a screened porch into my office. It’s off the side of my house, and behind the living room where we don’t spend a lot of time, so it’s a really private space. I have everything set up the way I like it, and I can have someone … My development writing associate assistant, Luke, can come in the back door and not bother anybody, and we can work there all day and no one notices. That’s worked out very well.
Caroline Waxler: Do your neighbors in New Jersey think it’s very glamorous that there’s a screenwriter living next door?
David Magee: I don’t know if they think it’s glamorous or not. I think it’s fun for anyone when they first-
Caroline Waxler: Yes.
David Magee: Not a lot of people in New Jersey have neighbors who do this, so it’s more interesting than the average job, and it’s a good conversation starter. At this point, I’ve lived out there for … How long? 16, 17 years. They’re over me. I mean, it’s fun, people meeting me for the first time. They can find it interesting, but for the most part, my friends have all known me so long that they think it’s fun, but they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it otherwise.
Caroline Waxler: It’s a nice juxtaposition for you to be able to have this exciting career, and then go home to New Jersey where you raise your family. I was reading how you go … When you are not on set, you are able to really partake in your kids’ lives and see concerts. Then, you can yet take them to premieres.
David Magee: Yes. Yes. It’s important for me to keep that balance. I feel very fortunate in being able to. While I am happy when I’m out in Los Angeles to ride around with sunglasses on and the top down, I’m not naturally a Californian by nature, and I have a lot of friends who [crosstalk 00:27:17] Yeah. I have a lot of friends who love LA, and that’s fantastic, but I also … It’s very weird. When I’m out there, I’m aware that people are talking about TV and film and entertainment all around me. You go into the Starbucks and you hear someone talking about it. I like leaving that at the end of the day, having nothing to do with it at the end of the day. No slight to the folks out there. I love working with them, but I just … I like to be able to, on my weekend, not think once about what it is I do.
Caroline Waxler: That is a luxury.
David Magee: Yeah.
Caroline Waxler: That’s great. But, you’ll be going back to LA this upcoming week for the premiere.
David Magee: Yes, I will. I’m very excited. This is going to be one of the biggest, I think, premieres I may ever be a part of in the sense that this is a huge movie. They’re putting a lot behind it. I think it’s going to be quite exciting.
Caroline Waxler: It’s, you said, your daughter’s first premiere?
David Magee: My two daughters, it’s their first premiere. My son went to Life of Pi when that came out.
Caroline Waxler: At the Lincoln Center Film Festival.
David Magee: At the Lincoln Center Film Festival where you were, which is fantastic. That was a lot of fun. That was his first premiere, and that was probably six or seven years ago, so he was around the same age my youngest daughter is now when she went to a premiere, and so they’re going to be experiencing this whole premiere thing for the first time next week. It’s going to be exciting.
Caroline Waxler: They’ll have a lot to tell their friends in school.
David Magee: I am sure they will.
Caroline Waxler: Any advice you have to screenwriters?
David Magee: Okay. I think one of the first things I always say to people about screenwriting, people who are screenwriters, to me, it’s very important to schedule time in and time out. If you’re working on two other jobs and you can only work for an hour a night, fine. Schedule the time in, and out. Then, if you only get six sentences done, well, you put in your hour. If you don’t have a schedule, if you don’t have a shape to when you’re working, then you judge yourself on how good it was, how many pages you got done, how … And, if there’s no time out, then you lie in bed that night feeling guilty. I didn’t get enough done. I didn’t get as far as I wanted to. My writing is not that good. Whereas if you can say, “Look. I have three hours. I have five hours, whatever,” and for me, it’s 10:00 to 5:00, or if I have phone calls with talking to people out in Los Angeles, I’ll go to 6:00, 6:30, but when I’m done for the day, I’m done.
I don’t want to look at my computer. I don’t want to respond to emails unless I have to. I want to be with my family and not think about, “Oh, why didn’t I get that scene right? Why didn’t I do it the way I wanted to?” I think there’s so much unpredictable about a career in the arts, and writing that anything you can do to schedule your life is not only helpful, it keeps you sane. For me, it’s exercise from a certain time to a certain time in the morning, get to work at a certain time, and finish at a certain time. There may be times where you have to say, “Well, I have a deadline on Monday. I’m going to be working all weekend,” but if you can carve out those times to just be not a screenwriter, you’re more likely to be a screenwriter when you are writing.
Caroline Waxler: That’s a great plan. It’s a great way to balance everything.
David Magee: Yeah. Yeah.
Caroline Waxler: Now, when you are doing publicity as you’re doing this week, and you’re working on projects for the future, how do you balance that? If you’re, say, in New York, do you duck into a coffee shop to do a rewrite?
David Magee: Yes, I do.
Caroline Waxler: Where do you do … Do you have any secret places in New York that you like?
David Magee: Yes, I do. I’m not going to give too many of them away right now, but I’m a member of Soho House, which is a safe place to get there, plug in your computer and be left alone all day, which is really helpful. I usually, because traffic is so crazy here, usually, if I have to come into the city [inaudible 00:31:18], I come in early. Then, I go to a coffee shop, or I go to Soho House, or one of the few places I know that’ll let me sit for more than 15 minutes without feeling guilty, and I’ll work while I’m there so that when I walk into the meeting, I’m not rushing from a parking lot or worried that I’m stuck in traffic. Then, I just try to get out before rush hour. If not, I stay for dinner. But, I do …
You have to get the work done. I’m working on something right now. I sat down at a coffee shop this morning down the street, and I typed three or four changes before I came in to meet with you today, and then after this, I drive back to New Jersey, and as soon as I’ve finished lunch, I’m going to be working on a rewrite that I’m trying to finish for tomorrow, because I want to have Thanksgiving with my family. A lot of it is trying to get that schedule, keep it sane, and keep things moving out the door in a sane manner.
Caroline Waxler: I think it’s very smart.
David Magee: Yeah. Well, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Caroline Waxler: What are the projects you are working on?
David Magee: Well, I have a number of projects that I’m not officially allowed to name yet.
Caroline Waxler: Then, you’ll definitely tell us.
David Magee: Yeah. That’s not going to happen, because it’s usually the studio likes to be the one to announce it, and the ways in which they announce things, and so I have to respect that. I have several projects that have been in development on and off over the years with Fox 2000, which is now becoming a part of Disney, and-
Caroline Waxler: How has the merger impacted you?
David Magee: I don’t know that it is. It’s strange. Elizabeth Gabler, who’s wonderful, and runs Fox 2000, and they did Life of Pi a few years back. I’ve worked with her for a while now, and when I last spoke to her, I said, “What exactly … I know you’re moving over to Disney, but what is your title? What is your capacity?” She said, “I don’t exactly know yet. We’re still working that out.” Now, they may have figured it out long since then, but I don’t know what it is.
Caroline Waxler: It’s not really relevant.
David Magee: No, it’s not really relevant. What I do know is we’re still continuing to work on my projects with them as though nothing has happened, and they’re very different. There’s a little bit fantasy/sci-fi thing. There is a period drama. There’s a … What else is there? Oh, there’s the musical I can talk about, because that was announce, the Hans Christian Andersen project [crosstalk 00:33:47] I’ve been working on with Stephen Schwartz, which has been wonderful fun, and I’m incredibly lucky to get a chance to work with Stephen. For anyone listening who doesn’t know who he is, he wrote Wicked. He wrote Godspell. He wrote Pippin. The music, I mean, you can go on and on with the projects he’s done. He’s an icon in the musical theater. He, several years back, did a project for a theater in Denmark who was celebrating the 150th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen’s birth, and he wrote some songs for this, and he wanted to see if we could develop into a full fledged musical, and I read it, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled to have the chance to work with him.
We launched in, and we’re at that stage now where we’ve had a reading of it. It’s more a fantasy in the sense that it’s Hans Christian Andersen’s falling into the world of his own imagination and finding his way through his own characters in his own world and trying to figure out how to get back out. It’s tremendous fun to work on, and we just did a reading of it, sort of like we did with Mary Poppins here in the city with some amazing actors, just to hear it.
Caroline Waxler: How did it sound?
David Magee: Fantastic. I mean, I’m not talking about my script. This was the first time I had heard the music sung by these insanely talented Broadway singers, and it was breathtaking. I mean, it’s one thing … Stephen sings just fine, but it’s one thing to be in someone’s living room and having him play something for you, and saying, “So, it’s like this, and then it’s like that.” You go, “This sounds really good.” Then, having a chorus of 18 people singing that same thing is … It blows your hair back. It’s absolutely astounding. It’s beautiful. I loved it.
Caroline Waxler: What a way to bring it to life.
David Magee: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Caroline Waxler: Where are you in the process of that project?
David Magee: Well, I mean, I think it’s up to … We’re going to get notes from Fox shortly, so I don’t know what their notes are going to be, where we’re going to go forward, but we want to move it forward, find a director, and bring it to life. I hope we do so as successfully as we did with Mary Poppins.
Caroline Waxler: Now, speaking of Mary Poppins and notes, I meant to ask you what was Disney’s involvement? This is a pretty iconic property for them, so were they constantly giving you notes, or how did you interact with them?
David Magee: No. It’s wonderful how much they trust Rob.
Caroline Waxler: Right.
David Magee: Rob has done … I think this is his fourth film with them.
Caroline Waxler: Yes.
David Magee: They know what Rob and John do.
Caroline Waxler: Yes.
David Magee: It was very hands off as we came up with our story. It was just five of us sitting in a room talking. At a certain point, I wrote … I had developed a 35 page or so outline, so pretty thorough of what’s happening in each scene, and their only caveat was we have to see what you’re going to do with it before we approve going forward from there, and we showed it to them. I don’t even remember specifically what notes, if any, they gave on that. They said, “No, this sounds good. Go ahead.” There may have been a few, “What if you did this or thats,” but for the most part, they trusted Rob and John to bring this to life, and so at that point, I went off and wrote it, and they were not looking over our shoulders at all until we finished the first draft. Then, we got notes the way you would get notes from any studio. But, very specific, very smart.
I’ve been doing this now, how long? 15, 20 years now. I’ve gotten some not so great notes from studios. This was the exact opposite. They were not trying to nitpick. They were listening and saying, “Something’s not working here,” or, “I miss that.” They were not trying to tell us how to write the film. They were trying to identify what was working for them and what wasn’t, and we took them very seriously, and it just made for a better film.
Caroline Waxler: Did you do a lot of research on the film aside from the source material?
David Magee: Trying to think.
Caroline Waxler: I mean, I know it was set in the 1930s.
David Magee: Right. [crosstalk 00:38:09] We did have to research … It’s funny. I don’t want to dive too deep into plot particular and things, but there is a question of how the slump, which is what they called the Depression, affected people during that period, and also, there were issues about how you would become a member of … owner in a bank. It was very important to do some research on that, and how that would … Would you have a … We call it the certificate of shares which proves that you have that. Then, eviction laws, because at the very beginning, it becomes apparent that Michael Banks has made some mistakes and is danger of losing his home. Now, there is a point at which you don’t want Mary Poppins Returns to become a story about banking policy. You have to take all of that in and say, “Well, this is all interesting, but I can’t devote a page and a half to explaining why all this would work or wouldn’t work, or where we’re cheating or not, so you spend a lot of time … I think you have to spend a lot of time learning the research in order to decide what matters to your story.
I don’t think anyone in our audience really cares about British laws regarding eviction notices and things. We did cheat a few things there. There would be more time would pass before an eviction notice was served, not a week, but nobody cares. I think you prove to your audience that you’ve given it some thought, and you’ve made decisions. If they trust the decisions you’ve made, you’re safe.
Caroline Waxler: It’s great. It was definitely … had us on the edge of our seat. I know our time is short and we need to wrap up soon, but was there an iconic line from this that really stood out for you, or something that was a particular favorite of yours that you wrote?
David Magee: Oh, I am very proud of a lot of my lines on this, because I thought I got it with her voice-
Caroline Waxler: 100%.
David Magee: … and I was proud of that, but one thing that we did too, was we went through all of the books, and we pulled out lines that we thought were clever, interesting, unusual, quirky, very Mary Poppins-ish, and we had those with us, and whenever I could, I’d dip in and steal one of those and put it into the script. I love those as much as anything. We called them Mary Poppisms, and when we could … A small example is when she catches the cook spying through the front door at something going on outside, and she just says, “Polishing the keyhole, are we?” I think that’s a wonderful, quirky line. There are plenty of those. One that’s essential to the story is, “Grownups forget. They always do.” Hard for me to bring it to mind, but that became central to our whole story.
It explains why all of this was possible, but it also explained why Jane and Michael Banks needed to be reminded of the past. I think that’s the most important of her lines that we literally … We took verbatim right out of one of her books and made it a centerpiece of this story. I think that’s probably the most important idea in the whole film.
Caroline Waxler: Grownups forget. They always do.
David Magee: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Caroline Waxler: Well, thank you so much.
David Magee: You are more than welcome. This was a pleasure.
Caroline Waxler: So fun talking to you, and when does the movie …
David Magee: It premieres next Thursday, November 29th. It comes out in theaters December 19th all across the United States.
Caroline Waxler: That will do it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writer’s Guild of America East. Tech production and original music by Stockboy Creative. You can learn more about the Writer’s Guild of America East online at wgaeast.org, and follow the guild on social media at @wgaeast. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. We appreciate your tuning in. Write on.