THE WEEK IN WOMEN news roundup: ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ begins production, while Jessica Chastain, Annette Bening and Nicole Kidman get new gigs

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Disney has started production on "Mary Poppins Returns." Disney poster image

Disney has started production on “Mary Poppins Returns.” Disney poster image

Production begins on new ‘Mary Poppins’ story

One of my favorite female characters — and number six on AWFJ’s list of Best Fictional Female Characters in cinema– is on her way back. Disney announced Friday that production on “Mary Poppins Returns,” the new sequel to Disney’s 1964 film “Mary Poppins,” has commenced at Shepperton Studios. The film, which stars Golden Globe winner Emily Blunt (“The Girl on the Train,” “Into the Woods”) and Emmy, Grammy and Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton,” “Moana”) and is directed and produced by Oscar nominee, Emmy and Directors Guild of America Award winner Rob Marshall (“Into the Woods,” “Chicago”), is scheduled for release Dec. 25, 2018.

The film also stars Ben Whishaw (“Spectre”), Emily Mortimer (“Hugo”) and Julie Walters (“Harry Potter” films) with Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”) and Meryl Streep (“Florence Foster Jenkins”). In addition, Dick Van Dyke plays Mr. Dawes Jr., the chairman of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, which is now run by William Weatherall Wilkins (Firth).

“Mary Poppins Returns” introduces three new Banks children, played by Pixie Davies (“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”), Nathanael Saleh (“Game of Thrones”) and newcomer Joel Dawson, according to a news release.

The film is produced by Marshall, Emmy winner and Golden Globe nominee John DeLuca (“Chicago”) and Oscar and Tony nominee and Emmy and Golden Globe winner Marc Platt (“La La Land”). The screenplay is by Oscar nominee David Magee (“Life of Pi”) based on The Mary Poppins Stories by PL Travers with Oscar nominee and Tony winner Marc Shaiman (“Hairspray”) and Emmy nominee and Tony winner Scott Wittman (“Hairspray”) writing all new songs with Shaiman composing an original score.

Amongst Marshall’s award-winning creative team are Oscar-winning director of photography Dion Beebe, ASC ACS (“Memoirs of a Geisha”); two-time Oscar-winning production designer John Myhre (“Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Chicago”); three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell (“The Young Victoria,” “The Aviator,” “Shakespeare in Love”); Oscar-winning hair and make-up designer Peter Swords King (“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”); Oscar-winning set decorator Gordon Sim (“Chicago”); Oscar-winning production sound mixer Simon Hayes (“Les Misérables”); and Emmy-nominated editor Wyatt Smith (“Doctor Strange,” “Into the Woods”). The film is choreographed by Marshall and DeLuca with Joey Pizzi (“Chicago”) serving as co-choreographer.

“Mary Poppins Returns” is set in 1930s depression-era London (the time period of the original novels) and is drawn from the wealth of material in PL Travers’ additional seven books. In the story, Michael (Whishaw) and Jane (Mortimer) are now grown up, with Michael, his three children and their housekeeper, Ellen (Walters), living on Cherry Tree Lane. After Michael suffers a personal loss, the enigmatic nanny Mary Poppins (Blunt) re-enters the lives of the Banks family, and, along with the optimistic street lamplighter Jack (Miranda), uses her unique magical skills to help the family rediscover the joy and wonder missing in their lives. Mary Poppins also introduces the children to a new assortment of colorful and whimsical characters, including her eccentric cousin, Topsy (Streep).

Travers first introduced the world to the no-nonsense nanny in her 1934 book “Mary Poppins,” which Disney adapted for the screen and released in August 1964. The film, which was directed by Robert Stevenson and starred Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, was the top-grossing film of that year and nominated for 13 Academy Awards, winning five. However, the subsequent adventures of Mary Poppins remained only on the pages of PL Travers’ seven additional books, which she published between 1935 and 1988.

Force is strong with women behind the scenes of ‘Star Wars’

Even with two straight “Star Wars” films boasting female leads, as previously reported, the most powerful cinematic saga in the galaxy still doesn’t have nearly enough women in front of the camera. But the force is strong with women behind the scenes at Industrial Light & Magic, the special-effects studio founded by George Lucas.

Nathalia Holt reports for the New York Times that women account for 60 percent of studio leadership, and have created memorable effects for many blockbuster franchises, including “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “The Avengers,” “Star Trek” and “Jurassic Park.” (While Industrial Light & Magic was started to generate special effects for “Star Wars,” the visual effects studio is now the largest in the motion picture industry, working not only with Lucasfilm but also with studios across the globe.)

Women also account for half of the company’s entry-level ranks.

These are shining statistics compared to the usual dark and gloomy ones for women: In 2016, women represented 19 percent of all of behind-the-scenes employment in American films, according to the Center for Women in Television and Film. It is a percentage that has remained unchanged for 20 years. Women made up just 5 percent of all visual effects supervisors on the 250 top-grossing films in 2014 (the last year for which figures are available), and many teams employed no women artists whatsoever.

“The first step is for people in leadership to say this is not acceptable,” Lynwen Brennan, the general manager of Lucasfilm, and the president and general manager of Industrial Light & Magic, told the NY Times.

The must-read feature chronicles Brennan’s self-described “crusade” to remedy the entrenched gender inequality of her industry. To accomplish this she and her team have carefully assessed how promotions are handled, asking why male candidates may be advanced over their female colleagues. To address what she called “false assumptions” that hinder female employees — for instance managers might believe motherhood makes a candidate less able to handle increased responsibility — the studio offers on-site child care and schedule flexibility. Additionally, Brennan is concerned about the pipeline of women entering the visual effects field; the industry relies heavily on computer science graduates, yet fewer women are majoring in the subject.

To read more, click here.

Jessica Chastain to produce TV series about women at NASA

Just one more reason to love “Hidden Figures” and its success, which I’ve previously written about here, Oscar-nominated actress Jessica Chastain is part of a creative team looking to shine a light on another group of little-known women behind the scenes of the space race.

According to Deadline, Chastain has teamed with “Sully” writer Todd Komarnicki and TV producer Christina Wayne (Showtime’s “I’m Dying Up Here”) for “Mercury 13” (working title), an event series project set at ITV Studios America, where Wayne’s Assembly Entertainment has a pod deal.

In her first foray into TV producing, Chastain executive produces via her production company Freckle Films.

Here’s the background for the project: In 1961, while the world was making heroes of the Mercury 7 astronauts, leading scientist William Randolph Lovelace II, who had helped develop the tests for NASA’s male astronauts, embarked on a secret experiment: to see if sending women to space was an equally viable option. He sought out 13 of the most daring and determined female pilots in the country, who were willing to risk it all to be part of the space race, and achieve their dream of becoming astronauts. They became known as the Mercury 13.

The women passed the same battery of tests as did the male Mercury 7 astronauts, some even outpacing them. But, without NASA’s cooperation, the tests had to be shut down and, despite the women’s pleas to President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and a Congress hearing on the issue, women were not allowed into the space program, and it would be more than 20 years before an American woman got to space in 1983. “Mercury 13” will tell the untold true story of how NASA, the U.S. Congress and the president himself conspired to crush these women’s dreams.

Nicole Kidman appears in "Big Little Lies." HBO photo

Nicole Kidman appears in “Big Little Lies.” HBO photo

Nicole Kidman eyes ‘The Expatriates’ as producing career blossoms

Nicole Kidman and her Blossom Films have optioned Janice Y.K Lee’s bestselling novel “The Expatriates” to be adapted as a television series, according to Deadline.

Screenwriter Alice Bell (“Suburban Mayhem”) is attached to pen the adaptation, with a potential role for Kidman to star. Kidman and Blossom partner Per Saari will executive produce alongside POW! Productions’ Theresa Park, with Lee serving as consulting producer.

The project will be shopped to premium networks and streaming-services.

“The Expatriates,” published by Penguin, explores with humor and drama the complicated relationships of three American women as they navigate life inside tight-knit expat Hong Kong.

Blossom Films’ limited series “Big Little Lies,” adapted from Liane Moriarty’s bestseller by David E. Kelley, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and starring Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley, premieres Feb. 19 on HBO.

With their “Big Little Lies” co-producers Pacific Standard, Blossom also is adapting Moriarty’s new novel “Truly Madly Guilty” for the big screen. Additionally, Blossom is developing a feature adaptation of the literary sleeper hit “The Silent Wife,” an adaptation of bestseller “Reconstructing Amelia,” and an adaptation of off-Broadway vampire hit “Cuddles.”

Kidman recently talked with Sarah Lyall at the New York Times about how producing has allowed her to provide herself and other women with interesting acting opportunities in Hollywood.

In 2010, Blossom Films, her production company, made its first film, “Rabbit Hole,” a low-budget movie in which she played a mother grieving over the death of her child. It was an unexpected success. “I thought, oh my gosh, I can actually do this,” Kidman told the NY Times.

“It’s allowed me to shape my career in terms of being able to find things that I may not get offered, that I wouldn’t get the opportunity for,” she added.

She said she has no real career plan, other than gravitating toward material that interests her, and seeking out writers and directors who are talented but unknown. Blossom commissions scripts out of pocket, to minimize what Kidman called in an email “the red tape.” She continues to act in projects she doesn’t produce, and vice versa.

“I’m only going for the things that I’m passionate about,” she told the NY Times. “Otherwise I can sit at home in Nashville and take care of my children” — referring to her two young daughters with her husband, the country singer Keith Urban — “and be very happy.”

Annette Bening cast in ‘Katrina: An American Crime Story’

Four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening has been announced as the first new cast member of FX’s Hurricane Katrina anthology series.

Bening, most recently seen in her Golden Globe-nominated role in the film “20th Century Women,” is joining Ryan Murphy’s upcoming “Katrina: American Crime Story,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. In her first TV role in more than a decade, she will star as former Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco.

She last graced the small screen in HBO telefilm “Mrs. Harris,” for which she was nominated for an Emmy.

Bening joins Murphy repertory players Courtney B. Vance, Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr., all of whom appeared in ” The People v. O.J. Simpson,” which earned nine Emmy wins and an FX-best 13.9 million viewers per episode.

The Fox 21 Television Studios and FX Productions series about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath won’t debut until 2018. It’s also not the only “American Crime Story” installment Murphy and fellow executive producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson are readying. The franchise will also tackle the 1997 murder of Gianni Versace and the Monica Lewinsky scandal during the third and fourth cycles, respectively.


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