John Lee Hancock‘s “Saving Mr. Banks” dramatizes the creative struggle to get “Mary Poppins” adapted for the big screen. And while much of film is devoted to the contentious relationship between Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) and ‘Poppins’ author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), there were people at the periphery who were just as important to the process. Chief amongst these people were the Sherman brothers, the crack songwriting duo behind the movie’s unforgettable songs. Jason Schwartzman plays Richard Sherman while B. J. Novak plays Robert Sherman.
And when we got the chance to talk to Schwartzman recently, we quizzed him as to his five favorite Disney memories. While we submitted this structure for the interview before we chatted, Schwartzman was caught off guard. Not that it mattered much. “Oh I can do that,” he said. He then explained his relationship with all things Disney: “I grew up in Los Angeles. I didn’t go to Disneyland all the time but I definitely went once every couple of years, which is definitely a lot. Being close to Disneyland, it’s a big part of my life. Disney in general … I don’t know what the word is … What do you call it when it’s beyond sentimental and beyond nostalgic?” We’re pretty sure that’s just called magic.
1. “Pete’s Dragon“
When we asked Schwartzman what his favorite Disney memories were he immediately said, “Watching ‘Pete’s Dragon‘ obsessively.” Honestly, we were kind of taken aback. For those of you who are unaware, “Pete’s Dragon” is a largely forgotten 1977 Disney film (that studio is remaking with “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” writer/director David Lowery penning the script) that combined live action with animation, focusing on the relationship between a young boy named Pete and his towering dragon pal Elliott (voiced by Mel Brooks confederate Charlie Callas). “I don’t know. It hit me. It just got me. I became obsessed with that movie,” Schwartzman explained.
Not that it was the only Disney classic that he would watch on repeat: “And ‘Robin Hood,’ which I think is a very underrated Disney movie.” The 1973 film, featuring anthropomorphic animals in all the roles, is now seen as something of a lost classic, and if you haven’t watched it, you should track it down.
2. Space Mountain“
When pressed for what his favorite Disney attraction was, Schwartzman easily came up with an answer. “I think that it would have to be Space Mountain,” he said. Space Mountain, a dark roller coaster that shoots you through the inky cosmos, was first opened in Walt Disney World in 1977 as the centerpiece of the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland. Two years later, a similar (but not identical) version of the attraction opened at California’s Disneyland (also in Tomorrowland). It remains a classic of both parks. “It really is,” Schwartzman agreed. “… if you’re not in the mood for it, it makes you in the mood for it. It’s just incredible.”
3. Seeing “Captain Eo”“
Schwartzman also singled out another Disneyland attraction: the 3D, space-theme Michael Jackson movie “Captain Eo” (directed by Schwartzman’s uncle, Francis Ford Coppola). The film premiered at both stateside parks in 1986, and closed when the criminal cases against Jackson were becoming too hard to simply ignore (it was replaced by a lamer attraction, “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience“). After Jackson’s death, though, a slightly revamped version of “Captain Eo” came back to both EPCOT and Disneyland, a nostalgia-tinged relic of a bygone decade. “That was a highlight. It’s incredible,” Schwartzman said. “I saw it in the park when it originally came out. It really affected me, because it was Michael Jackson right at the sweet spot. That was a period when Thriller and Bad was so powerful to me and I was such a huge fan. I loved Thriller so deeply, it was all I listened to as a little kid. So to see Michael Jackson in this movie where he’s fighting aliens with music. It was just beyond words for me.”
4. A Day In The Park With An Imagineer
As part of the research for “Saving Mr. Banks,” Disney offered Schwartzman the chance of a lifetime: tour Disneyland with an Imagineer. Even though it wasn’t truly essential to his character, Schwartzman couldn’t resist the opportunity. “They asked if we would have a tour of the parks, if that would help us in any way. I couldn’t see any direct way that it could help, since our characters weren’t there, but since I am such a freak for Disneyland and interested in it and have a lot of questions about it, I said yes. I needed that for my soul,” Schwartzman said.
The actor went on, the excitement levels in his voice rising: “So this day we walked around with an Imagineer. This is the guy who literally created Indiana Jones the ride, Thunder Mountain, and Splash Mountain. And the highlight would be going on the Indiana Jones ride with him, we went on it twice, and him showing me all the illusions and tricks of the ride. I remember thinking, This is one of the greatest days of my life.”
But that’s not all—on the same day Schwartzman got to emulate Walt himself, down to his signature drink. “We also went to Club 33, which was a dream for me, I had always wanted to go,” Schwartzman said. For those of you without a membership to the official Disney fanclub, Club 33 is an exclusive restaurant and bar located in the Port Orleans section of Disneyland. Yearly membership fees for the club are tens of thousands of dollars and the waiting list to get in is years long. Any hardcore Disney fan will tell you that it’s a lifelong dream to go to Club 33. And it’s one that Schwartzman got to experience. “I found out that Walt’s favorite drink was a Scotch Mist, which is scotch poured over crushed ice. So I went to Disneyland and got into Club 33 and had a Scotch Mist. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me.”
5. “Dorking Out” With Richard Sherman
The real Richard Sherman was a technical advisor on the film, and as he said to me, “the last guy standing amongst the people in that room.” So Sherman became an invaluable tool not just to Schwartzman but the entire cast and crew of “Saving Mr. Banks.” Still, the first meeting with Sherman is one of Schwartzman’s favorite Disney memories. “The first real meeting was: I went to his house, I sat with him for a couple of hours, he answered all my questions. And I went and sat at the piano and the highlight was really him saying, ‘Why don’t you play something for me?’ And I said, ‘I just play a little … I don’t play like you.’ He said, ‘Well I want to know what chords you’re interested in.’ And I played him ‘Your Mother Should Know’ by The Beatles. And then he played me a song, I forget who it was by, and we just started to play songs for each other. It was very little talking. It was just music. I couldn’t believe it.”
At some point Schwartzman started to feel guilty about pumping the musical genius, who has written songs for countless movies, TV shows and park attractions, for all of his wisdom and expertise. “I remember this exact line, I said, ‘I am so sorry to dork out like this.’ And he goes, ‘Are you kidding me? I could dork out with you all day long.’ And then as I was leaving the house he said two things that were amazing,” Schwartzman said. “I told him that I just wanted to do him proud and asked if there was anything else I should know. He said, ‘Just love music and you’ll be alright.’ And the other thing he said was, ‘Don’t feel any stress. I already did everything. You just be you doing the things I did.’ That was a really great way to put it and took away a lot of pressure.”
Not that the pressure was gone completely, of course. “My goal was to play the songs in the movie and I wanted them to be done as true to the time period as possible. If you get the ‘Mary Poppins’ songbook they’re like a novelization, like someone listened to the finished version and roughly transcribed it. So if I had played those versions they would have sounded a bit too modern. So Richard gave me access to his demos—just him at a piano in the late ’50s, and I transcribed all the original demos before they were all figured out for the movie, so where they would have been at the time period of the movie. And I learned those versions of the songs. No one would ever notice but I knew that Richard would be on the set and even though he’s so welcoming and so excited and would have had no problem if I played them slightly incorrectly, but my goal to show him that I learned the way to play them in 1961.” Schwartzman then added, somewhat sinisterly: “And also an excuse to get his demos. And now that I have them, I’m never letting them go. They are mine.”
The feeling, it turns out, is mutual. When we got to talk to Richard Sherman, he said that Schwartzman was an absolute delight. “He’s full of energy. He’s full of talent. He’s very musical,” Sherman said, laughing. “50 years ago so was I. And he’s very outgoing and affable and likable. I love him. I think he’s great. He did a great job doing me.”
“Saving Mr. Banks” hits theaters this Friday in limited release and goes wide into national expansion on December 20th.