Like “Mary Poppins,” “Saving Mr. Banks” seems deceptively simple on the surface. But dig deeper, and the story resonates as a brilliant memory piece for Emma Thompson’s P.L. Travers, slipping back and forth from her painful childhood in Australia in 1906 to cooperating and subverting the adaptation of her beloved novel with Walt Disney in 1961. And that was the creative hook for director John Lee Hancock and his fellow filmmakers, including production designer Michael Corenblith, cinematographer John Schwartzman and costume designer Daniel Orlandi.
“We had two individuals that had not only recreated themselves but had also created these characters [Mickey Mouse and Mary Poppins] that turned into empires in some ways, so there were so many beautiful parallels between their two stories,” explains Corenblith. “But it wasn’t clear to me that I was going to have to bring a new level in contemplating these two periods and these two worlds for Travers until I got to the part of [Kelly Marcel’s] script with the ‘Fidelity Fiduciary Bank’ song.
“There’s this remarkable moment when the Sherman brothers are composing and pitching to Travers in 1961 and then we cross this story back over and Colin Farrell [as Travers’ father] turns to the camera and begins singing those words. Although they are separate, in her mind, time becomes permeable and malleable. It was in this process that we began to develop the idea of instances and icons and visual representations from one to the other and crossing over.”
Indeed, this epiphany was like a jolt from Dennis Potter’s “Pennies from Heaven” or “The Singing Detective.” Palm trees and burnt grass, maypoles and carousels bring forth the past into the present in a rush of confusion, excitement, and melancholy for the conflicted Travers. And that’s where research and serendipity came into play for the filmmakers.
“We began in Maryborough, Australia, a Victorian coastal town that was vertical and had palm trees, and ended with palm trees in Beverly Hills,” recalls Corenblith. “And we came across a newspaper article about the agricultural show [depicted] in 1906 in Allora and we learned that among the carnival attractions was a maypole, which had the same conical roof form as King Arthur’s Carousel at Disneyland. It’s no coincidence that we open and close the film with a weather vane where the wind changes direction from west to east and the icon atop that is a horse. This allowed us to create a tapestry of threads running through different periods of time.”
For the sequence in which Tom Hanks’ Disney entices Travers onto his wife’s favorite carousel horse, Jingles, the production designer was given permission to remove the exact horse from the ride and restore the existing colors from 1961 at his art department workshop.
When it came to recreating Disney’s office, Corenblith lucked out with the Disney exhibit at the Reagan Library and used the unique archival experience to his advantage, allowing the viewer to glimpse the breadth of his imagination and curiosity.
However, the rehearsal room in the Animation building where the crucial pitching, writing, and composing occur is an amalgamation of activities that took place in smaller rooms. But the art department cunningly created a room with sufficient size and scope with windows on three sides and placing it strategically on the top floor, where a parapet wall was constructed to mask a pretend set of clear story windows.
“We created a threshold for her to cross over from the hard linoleum to the warm wooden floor for a dance while the Shermans play ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite,'” explains Corenblith. “We also painted the room in a similar tone to the color of burnt grass that we found in Australia in 1906. Again, a small psychological cue that took her back to childhood memories.”
For cinematographer Schwartzman, the older brother of Jason Schwartzman, who plays legendary Disney songwriter Richard Sherman, his task was to make Travers feel like a fish-out-of water. Whenever she was in LA, it was as though the sunlight was trying to trap her, whether it was hitting the window sills or skipping off the floor.
“I kept her out of the hard light but kept it around her as much as possible like a force field making her uncomfortable,” Schwartzman remarks. “And when we were in London, I kept the light very soft. When she was in the hotel room, the sheers on the window were just to the point of almost blowing out. I had sunlight ripping across Walt’s office. It’s his world. It’s nice seeing him go from a filmmaker to a mogul and having to go back to an artist again to have that meeting of minds with her. It’s a subtle, beautiful thing.”
Schwartzman took full advantage of Sherman’s expertise, inviting him to sit beside him while shooting scenes in the rehearsal room. “Some days he’d be really angry and other days he had tears streaming down his face. The verisimilitude of the moment brought him back. And in part, this movie is a love letter to Richard and deservedly so.
“My favorite scene to light was when Richard is upstairs at night and his brother Robert’s asleep and Walt comes in. We’ve only seen the room during the day and it’s high-key lighting and the light’s bouncing around. And it was nice to create this intimacy. It was also nice to work with my younger brother and watch him do a scene with Tom Hanks. I may have had a little extra sauce on that day.”
Schwartzman is a film guy and therefore shot on anamorphic film, and there were many cheats for budgetary and scheduling reasons (they shot Australia in Simi Valley). But he acknowledges that the film never would’ve been made were it not for Kelly Marcel’s exquisite script. He also has high praise for the effortless performances of Thompson and Hanks. “You don’t see the smoke and wheels turning. My only worry was putting the camera in the right place. Because that’s the punctuation that I do.”
For Orlandi, his responsibility was telling the truth with the costumes. They wanted 1906 Australia to seem dusty and faded like Travers’ memories, and they wanted the contrast in sunny LA with her British tweeds in comparison to the Disney secretaries with their pale colors and short sleeves.
“We went over various swatches with Emma but we had to be careful because she’s such an attractive woman,” Orlandi cautions. “We changed the evening gown slightly that she wore to the ‘Mary Poppins’ premiere by giving her a little sleeve because the spaghetti strap dress made her look hot.”
With Hanks, it was much simpler — Disney always wore gray suits to the office like a uniform and never took off his jacket, according to Sherman. “But we added little touches like a train tie clip because Disney was a train enthusiast.”
But dressing 800 extras for the Disneyland sequence for a two-day shoot was a marvel for Orlandi. “People dressed more formally back in 1961. Men wore ties and jackets and kids dressed up because they were going someplace special.”